Louise Abrahamson’s Legacy of Giving Finds A Perfect Fit at The Clothesline, the Thrift Store the Octogenarian Founded and Still Runs at Boys Town
Even though I know better, I sometimes find myself making assumptions about people based solely on their appearance. Pint-sized octogenarian Louise Abrahamson didn’t look like my idea of a dynamo not to be trifled with when I first laid eyes on her but as I soon discovered that’s exactly what she is. This sweet little old Jewish lady has been running, variously with an iron fist and a velvet glove, a thrift shop at the Catholic run Boys Town for decades now and she shows no signs of slowing down. This story of a Jew deeply embedded at Boys Town reminded me of the deep relationship that Boys Town founder Father Edward Flanagan enjoyed with Jewish attorney Henry Monsky – a story I wrote about and that you can find on this blog. While Monsky’s contributions were more advisory, legal, and monetary, Louise’s are more cultural, charitable, and practical. My story about Louise that follows originally appeared in the Jewish Press.
Louise Abrahamson’s Legacy of Giving Finds A Perfect Fit at The Clothesline, the Thrift Store the Ocotgenarian Founded and Still Runs at Boys Town
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Jewish Press
Eighty-nine years ago, Omaha Jewish leader Henry Monsky befriended an Irish Catholic priest with whom he shared a dream of creating a safe haven for troubled youths. The priest found a site, but lacked funds. Monsky, a successful attorney and inveterate do-gooder, lent Rev. Edward Flanagan $90 for the first month’s rent on the original Boys Town building in downtown Omaha. Besides serving, pro bono, as attorney for both the home and the late Fr. Flanagan, Monsky was a member of the Boys Town board of directors from its 1917 inception until his death in 1947. His support of Fr. Flanagan and the youth care program got other civic-business leaders to follow suit. The rest is history. As Boys Town’s approach to serving at-risk children caught on, donations poured in and the organization expanded. Now, it’s become a much replicated national model and the names Fr. Flanagan and Boys Town are synonymous with youth care worldwide.
The role Monsky played in the then-fledging institution’s founding is even portrayed in the 1938 Oscar-winning film Boys Town.
Twenty-six years ago, an Omaha Jewish woman named Louise Abrahamson, a former legal stenographer, small business owner, retailer, grant writer, fundraiser and political advisor, got the idea of starting a thrift shop to outfit children at the home with new clothes and things. At the time, she was a secretary and much more at Boys Town. Struck by how little new arrivals had in the way of clothes or other possessions, she took it upon herself to solicit donations from clothing and sundry manufacturers. Donated goods began arriving at her home and were stored in her garage. She distributed the gifts to Boys Town residents and to other organizations helping families and children. Before long, the operation outgrew her garage and moved to new quarters on campus.
Today, she operates out of a retail store-like setting called The Clothesline. The volume of goods that comes in year-round is enough to keep the store’s neatly dressed shelves, bins and racks filled and to take up floor-to-ceiling sections of a warehouse storage area. At any given time the inventory — a typical shipment contains hundreds or thousands of items — includes everything from apparel to accessories to toiletries to toys. Each box must be unpacked, sorted and labeled. In 2005 alone she collected merchandise worth a combined commercial value of $1.3 million, a record year. And that’s only counting donations of $1,000 or more.
There, she applies her well-practiced people skills and business acumen — “I’ve done a lot of things in my life” — to sweet talk corporations out of in-kind gifts and to ease the transition displaced kids face miles away from home. All her considerable time on the project is given as a volunteer.
More than just a place where children get a new set of duds, The Clothesline is where kids find a friend in Abrahamson they can always confide in.
“She is so wonderful to all these kids. When they come in they get a hug and kiss,” said Betty Rubin, a friend and fellow volunteer at the store. “This is what makes it tick — the warmth of it. I mean, it’s very personal to her.”
“Louise is one of those rare people who flourishes by helping others,” said Fr. Val Peter, recently stepped down as executive director of Girls and Boys Town. “Her joy is in giving to others. She is an expert at human relations. She can talk major manufacturing reps into helping us and she has a way with the kids, too. She is an enormously happy person, and to be that happy you have to work at it.”
“This is my life,” Louise said by way of explaining why, at age 86, she still works at the store four days a week. “I get a lot of pleasure out of this. It’s just kind of a challenge to see if people remember me and send me stuff I ask for for the kids.”
Besides, the need that inspired her to start the store in the first place, is still there. Then, like now, newcomers arrive with few possessions and little trust. If anything, she said, kids today present “a lot more problems than when I first came here. I have just taken it into my heart to care about the kids. Generally, when they come in, I don’t settle for a handshake. I have a hug. I want them to know I truly care what happens to them. That, to me, is what sets the pace for a youngster. Rather than have them feel like a stranger or a truant, I want them to feel welcome,” said the former Louise Miller, an Omaha native and Central High graduate. “That’s why I tell them, ‘We want you here. It’s a great place to be. Make the most of it. If you take advantage of what we offer, we’ll never let you down.’ I love that about Boys Town. I like what we do for children.”
“Louise is a great ambassador for those kids,” Girls and Boys Town Public Relations Director John Melingagio said. “She manages to take some of the fear and anxiety away for them.”
On a typical day at the store, the pint-sized Abrahamson, crisply-attired in a pants and sweater suit and her hair nicely coiffured, is seated at her command center at the front of the shop, her phone, computer and files within easy reach. An adult man saunters in with a teenage boy trying hard to suppress his unease. The man’s a campus family teacher and the youth a newbie in need of threads to replace the banned gang clothes he’s come with.
She greets the teen. “Good morning. How are you?” He says, “What’s up?” “And you are?” “Tavonne,” he tells her. “Where you from?” “Baltimore.” “Baltimore, well you know cold weather then. You just pick out what you want, bring it up here and we’ll check it out. That’s all there is to it,” she explains.
A few minutes later, after trying on some pants, shirts and shoes, Tavonne’s back. Louise asks him, “Did you find what you’re looking for?” “Yeah.” “So now you’re all fixed up with dress clothes, right?” “Yeah.” “That’s good. How long have you been here?” “This is my second day.” “Second day, you’re an old-timer.” He smiles shyly. “Probably by the end of next week you’ll be sworn in as a Boys Towner. We’re glad to have you here.” The boy, warming to her, replies, “Thank you.” She tells him, “We hope you do well. It’s a great place to be. Now, I have these…if you want a watch,” she says, pushing a basket filled with nice men’s watches near him. He fishes through the bunch and finds one he wants. “I like this one.” “It’s yours.” “Thank you, I appreciate it.” “You’re very welcome. I want to wish you a merry Christmas.” “Same to you.” “And I hope things work out for you, dear.” “Thanks.”
It’s this kind of human exchange that keeps Abrahamson coming back day after day. “Yeah, that tells a story,” she said. “We get a lot of new kids in this time of year. Family teachers will come in with new children, most of them with little or no clothes other than what they have on their back. All our clothes are new and appropriate to wear at church and school. The kids pick out what they want.”
She said her empathy for them extends back to her own childhood. “I knew my folks loved me, but they were busy making a living and really didn’t have much time for me. I was lonesome. I needed somebody I thought cared. And I think that’s why I feel a special need to help children,” she said.
It was while working as a secretary in Boys Town’s Youth Care program she saw first hand the want and conceived the idea of a free clothing center. She got it up and running out of her home in no time.
“I’d see these unhappy youngsters come in carrying a grocery sack and I’d say, ‘Where’s your luggage?’ They’d say, ‘This is it.’ My husband and I used to be in retail — we had a shoes and clothing store — and I wondered if I called on our old dealers, would they help and send me what they have. So, those were the first people I wrote to. They were very giving and began sending merchandise to me.”
With the chutzpah all doers possess, she just thought it up and went ahead. “I did this strictly on my own. I didn’t ask anybody’s permission. I just started doing it,” she said. “Once I’d get the merchandise in, I’d open up the boxes and I’d send out a memo and invite the family teachers and the kids to come over my house.”
By then, Louise and her late husband of 58 years, Norman Abrahamson, lived alone. Their two sons, Hugh and Steve, were grown. She credits Norman for her success. “He taught me everything I know. He taught me how to greet people. He taught me how to go for the product. He taught me that being kind is unusual. He was very supportive. He encouraged me. He said, ‘Go for it, honey. You can do it.’ He was there when I asked for advice and when I faltered.” A former Edison Brothers shoe salesman, he opened his own retail men’s apparel and shoe stores, Hugh’s. He later became a real estate builder-developer.
Soon, the amount of donations was too much for the couple’s garage. “My husband said, ‘Don’t you think Boys Town would give you a spot?’ So, I went to Fr. Hupp (the late former executive director of Boys Town), who knew I was inviting the teachers and kids over to my house to get clothes, and he said, ‘We’ve got space down in the boiler room (of the Youth Care building). Can you hack that?’ ’Any place would be good,’’ I said. So, we had our stuff delivered there, and this is pretty much the way it started.”
She wore a mask to protect against fumes in the cramped boiler room. It was under Fr. Peter’s watch the operation moved from that dank place to its pleasant environs today — in the building that houses the U.S. postal station on campus.
“When Fr. Peter came aboard, we just went on from there. He and I worked very closely, especially at Christmas-time. The store grew and grew, as did the demand.”
She’s done it almost entirely on her own, too, running things the way she sees fit. “There’s nobody that’s been put here to watch me.”
Generations removed from Henry Monsky helping make the dream of Boys Town a reality, fellow Jew Louise Abrahamson is helping Boys Town fulfill its nonsectarian mission of providing a caring environment to homeless and abused children of all faiths and creeds. She’s familiar with Monsky’s legacy, too, as she helped organize a touring Nebraska Jewish Historical Society exhibit on him in collaboration with Boys Town. Fr. Peter said that if Monsky is the grandfather of Boys Town, then Abrahamson is “the grandmother. She is loved and appreciated here.”
Playing the role of matriarch to kids with severed family relationships appeals to her. “While they’re here, I am like their grandmother,” she said. “A lot of the young people come in and tell me their problems, and I’ll listen very carefully. They’re welcome to come in anytime. They don’t have to make an appointment.”
Her contact with the children often extends well past their graduation and departure from the home. “Even two or three years later,” she said, “kids can have hard luck. I’ll get a call that says, ‘Louise, so and so is going out on a job interview and doesn’t have a thing to wear.’ And I’ll say, ‘Send ‘em over.’ Now, where else can you go and get that kind of a feeling that you’re needed and wanted?”
The ties go well beyond that. Her desk at the front of the store displays photos sent by former Boys Town students, many pictured with families they’ve begun. She exchanges cards and letters, just like any good grandma does. “I keep in touch with a lot of the children after they leave,” she said.
Just don’t assume her kindly ways and diminutive stature mark her as a pushover.
“Louise is a very pleasantly, disarmingly assertive little old lady,” said Dan Daly, Girls and Boys Town’s Vice President and Director of Youth Care. “You see this pleasant looking, smiling, tiny person and pretty soon she’s got her hand in your right back pocket. That’s how Boys Town was founded. Her and Fr. Peter, made a very, very potent tandem. He knew what kind of talent she has at doing this sort of thing and he was very supportive of her. It’s grown and proliferated because of her personality and her keen business sense.”
So savvy is this nice little old Jewish lady in sizing up people, Daly said, that he and other Boys Town officials would steer family teacher candidates by her desk, so she could observe them. Her assessment factored into new hires. Her counsel was also sought ought off-campus by candidates for mayor, governor and senator. She even wrote a booklet to help prospective candidates weigh bids for public office.
Using her political skills, she routinely contacts corporate giants like Target, Wal-Mart, Dillards, Lands-End, Johnson & Johnson and Colgate, and gets them to donate surplus items. Her personal appeals, scripted herself, are laced with tug-on-your-heart pathos and practical let’s-do-business talk. She tells them, “We have so many young boys and girls who…desperately need clothing…I am asking for your help. If you have any donation department of your discontinued styles, over-stocks, irregulars or out-of-season merchandise, could I ask that you place us on your recipient list? Any merchandise sent can be a tax write-off…Thank you. I hope you will share in Boys Town’s grand mission.”
She doesn’t stop there, either. She follows up with phone calls and letters, always gently reminding potential donors of the need. Her persistence often pays off. “I’m after them all the time. I don’t take no for an answer. I keep pitching, and pitching kindly.” Every donor receives a personal thank you note from her.
Melingagio said the donations she brings in help Boys Town “leverage our dollars. Those in-kind gifts she gets from corporations allow the monies we get to go to things that help the kids get better.”
When she approached Fr. Peter with her concept for the store, he embraced it. “I knew that if we let Louise loose at The Clothesline, that it would become very big,” he said. “The best thing to do is to let Louise do her work. She does it better than anyone else.” He said the store’s proved a winning venture. “Oh, yes, it’s a great idea. We needed it badly. It helps everybody. The best ideas come from people like Louise who have talent and a willingness to make their ideas successful.”
He added there’s never been any thought of taking it out of her hands. “It has been Louise’s baby from the get-go. What we do here is we give people a job and say, You’re in charge of making it a success, and she’s made it a success. We’re all proud of her.” He confirmed there’s also been no talk of what will happen once she’s gone. “We don’t want to think about that. We tell her, Take your vitamins. Stay healthy. We need you for years to come. She’s it.”
Before she came on the scene with her business-like practices, Daly said, the home didn’t have a formal apparatus for processing donated goods: “There was a day when, without Louise, you would have walked in and seen just big piles of stuff, and Louise moved the organization away from that way of handling donations to a very effective, modern way where things are very attractively displayed to the kids and to the adults.”
Daly said Abrahamson is quite adept at “networking with family teachers. She alerts people when new stuff comes in. She’s always pushing the product, so to speak. Louise has her favorites. If she gets something in that she knows one little girl would like, she makes sure that little girl gets the first crack at it.” He said it’s not only the 500-some kids on campus who benefit from the fruits of her labor. Another 200 or so in foster care settings also have dibs on what she collects. When supplies or shipments exceed the Boys Town demand, she places the extra goods with places like The St. Francis House and the Salvation Army.
Her office is also the base for a whole other category of gifts she acquires for children. Daly said she manages to get kids passes to movies, concerts, athletic events, skating rinks and many other activities. She gets donated food for parties. She ensures every Boys Town resident has gifts at Christmas and graduation. “It’s a lot bigger than just The Clothesline,” he said.
Service to others is a lifelong habit. Whether advising politicos such as Kay Orr and Hal Daub, or helping run their campaigns for public office or volunteering with the American Red Cross, the Arthritis Foundation, the March of Dimes, Hadassah, the Special Olympics and the United Way or serving as a member of the credit committee of the Boys Town Federal Credit Union or as president of the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society, she gives her time in many ways.
Then there are the two years she devoted to caring for her son Steve after he was left a paraplegic as the result of an auto accident. He now lives independently. She became a vocal advocate for the rights and abilities of the handicapped. She was also careprovider for her husband after he contracted cancer.
Her good works have been recognized. Under her watch the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society won the Federation’s Achievement Award. She was nominated for the National Council of Jewish Women’s Humanitarian Award for “her great compassion for the needs of others.”
Nothing slows her down, either. A bad back that laid her up last year only kept her away from the store a few months, during which time she did all her business from home. The flow of merchandise never stopped. But she knows she can’t do it forever. That’s why she’d like to work out a plan for a successor — ideally someone like herself who, as Melingagio put it, “goes the extra mile.”
“I worry what’s going to happen to this place when I no longer can do it,” she said. “My hope is that there is somebody who has pretty much the idea that I have. That they’re caring and want so much for the kids that they know how to express that caring. Because that’s the bottomline. That’s what it’s all about.”
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Legacy is a powerful thing, and when the shadow cast by a an older, highly accomplished figure looms large it can be a paralyzing specter of expectation to live up to for a young person following in those footsteps. In the case of the late celebrated realist figurative artist Kent Bellows, his larger-than-life presence in life and in death has not stymied the emergence of his talented nephew, Neil Griess, who is very much charting his own path as an artist to be watched. The following piece I did on Griess for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared three years ago, fast on the heels of Griess, then a high school senior, winning the same national award his uncle Kent Bellows had won 40 years earlier. Now, Griess is a college senior at the University of Nebraska, where he’s a studio art major, and is once again making waves with his work. Griess, who like his uncle did creates elaborate sets for his hyper-realistic paintings, had a work selected for a show at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art in Omaha in early 2011 and another of his works has been selected for a new show, The Fascinators, the inaugural Charlotte Street Biennial of Regional BFA/MFA Candidates at La Esquina in Kansas City, Mo. You can read a short piece I did about Neil’s famous uncle, Kent Bellows, on this blog.
Painting ©by Neil Griess, Placemats (Charrette), 2011
A Young Artist Steps Out of the Shadows of a Towering Presence in His Life
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the The Reader (www.thereader.com)
If 18-year-old award-winning visual artist Neil Griess of Omaha feels pressure to live up to the legacy of his maternal uncle Kent Bellows, he doesn’t betray it. Work by Bellows, the late American master of figurative realism, is in major private/public art collections. We’re talking the Metropolitan Museum of Art here.
In 2005 Bellows died at age 56 of natural causes in his Leavenworth Street studio/home, now preserved by the Bellows Foundation as an education center. The Omaha iconoclast was a player in New York art circles via his association with the Tatistcheff and Forum galleries. His paintings/drawings sold out wherever they exhibited. Interest in his work continues high.
A May Westside High School grad, Griess has far to go to reach such status, but perhaps not as far as you’d think. With his parents Jim and Robin Griess and his Westside art teacher Shawn Blevins on hand at New York City’s Carnegie Hall on June 15, Griess accepted the Portfolio Gold Honor in the national Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, which included a $10,000 cash prize. Griess, one of 12 Portfolio Gold winners from around the nation, trod onto the hallowed stage to accept the award. The presenter draped a large gold medal over him as the full, black tie-attired house applauded.
Forty years earlier Bellows won in the same competition. Other name artists have won, too, including Richard Avedon and Andy Warhol. The recognition brought Bellows scholarship opportunities at prestigious art schools. Griess too has been deluged with offers. Bellows studied at then-Omaha University. Starting in the fall, Griess will study at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln under realist painter Keith Jacobshagen, a friend of Bellows.
What makes the prospect of Griess’s future development alluring is that he works in the same style as Bellows did – meticulous realism. Their dense work renders persons, objects, settings in such rigorous detail that it draws viewers into an infinite space invested with meaning. With almost any Bellows, Griess said, “it feels like you can get lost in it.” Even up close, he said, “you can’t really derive how he did it.” The technique and the process are as invisible and ineffable as Bellows was enigmatic.
Griess said he’s always been drawn to realism. “Yeah, I always thought realistic work is the direction I would want to go if I continued art,” he said. He can’t exactly pinpoint why. “I don’t know. It’s interesting,” he said, “because you’re not trying to reproduce this object or this person…but more capturing it, I suppose, in a specific moment, a specific point in time.” Or as Bellows once put it in an interview, the goal is to capture what’s beyond the photograph to “what is actually happening…to capture the subject’s soul…the subject’s inner life.”
“And that’s something I wanted to try to do with the eight paintings for my portfolio,” Griess said. “I think if something’s rendered so fully and to its ultimate height, it feels like you can enter the work and like feel that draped cloth in a piece,” he said, referring to a Bellows print on the wall of his home, the image’s tactile realism begging to be touched.
Neill Griess, ©Photo by Andrew Dickinson
Naturally, Griess aspires to reach the mastery of Bellows, but by no means does he intend to be an imitator.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve tried to emulate him, although in certain instances I was when I was like really young, drawing based off some of the nudes he had done,” a smiling, nearly blushing Griess said, wiping his soft brown bangs from his face.
He’d especially like for his work to attain the openendedness that Bellows captured. In a Bellows work no single prescribed meaning is imposed on the viewer; rather the image invites viewers to glean their own meanings.
“That’s a quality I want to develop myself,” Griess said.
The process Griess uses to create his own work, much of it completed in a small, well-lit downstairs home work space he calls “thrown together” but that is neatly arrayed with brushes, pencils, acrylic paint tubes, is in the vein of photo-realism. He first photographs his subjects and with the resulting image as a guide he uses a pencil to map out the canvas before painting.
“I always paint based off pictures (photographs),” Griess said. “I grid everything out. I take that approach. Laying out a painting you still need to draw. It’s an important skill for getting things right when you finally start painting.”
The artist applies a clear plastic grid over a printed out photo of his subject and with a pencil divides the surface into squares running the length and width of the image. He transfers his grid to a board, which is what he paints on these days. He begins by drawing the major shapes or forms contained in each square onto the board before applying brush to paint and brush strokes to board.
“I pretty much just figure out where one square in the picture would be on the board and then from that one square I go to the next one” and so on, he said. “I add the smaller details later.”
Griess shares many predilections his late uncle indulged, including a love of film, a fascination with the fantastic, a passion for creating elaborate sets or backdrops for his work, although to date Griess has only employed sets to stop motion animation, and an interest in action figures and miniatures. Then there’s the fact Griess is left-handed, just as Bellows was.
“A lot of things line up like that,” Griess said. “Because I know he’s done all this great work it’s kind of like me now trying to discover what things I’m interested in beyond his work…to decide what I’ll ultimately be doing in my art. Of course this is an influence I’ll always keep while doing it.”
“Untitled” oil painting ©by Neil Griess
The art strain runs deep, as Griess’s maternal grandfather was a commercial artist and watercolorist, his mother is a watercolorist, one brother is a ceramicist/sculptor and another brother writes computer video game programs. “So I come from a long lineage of artists or creative thinkers,” Griess said.
Growing up, Griess was exposed to dozens of Bellows prints that adorn the walls of the family home. One of the nephew’s favorites, Nuclear Winter, is displayed in his bedroom. He felt drawn to Bellows as any adolescent would to a cool adult doing his own thing. “I admired him so much. He was probably the most charismatic, funny, interesting person that I know or probably will know,” Griess said.
The parallels between the two were obvious two weekends ago in New York City. It was the kid’s first time in the Big Apple, where in a whirlwind few days his path intersected with the path Bellows took in setting the art world on fire.
Just as Bellows attracted notice beyond his years, once cultivating Warren Buffett and his late first wife Susan Buffett as patrons, Griess, too, found himself the center of attention from older admirers at a post-awards dinner. The scene was the ritzy Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. There were congratulations, even autograph requests. “I got some very great compliments,” Griess said. Among the well-wishers was New York thespian Jason Butler Harner, who hosted the awards.
“He seemed very enthusiastic and impressed by my work, so that was great,” Griess said of Harner. “One of the guys that asked for my autograph said everyone was kind of talking about my work specifically, and that was nice. One woman actually came up to me and said my work brought tears to her eyes because of how young I am and I’m able to produce work like that.”
The plaudits began the night before, at Reeves Contemporary gallery in Chelsea, where selections of work by Griess and other Portfolio gold winners were shown. It was then, Griess said, that Alliance for Young Artists & Writers Chairman Dwight E. Lee “told me how much he loved my work.” At dinner the next night, Griess said, “he gave me his card and said if I should ever want to sell art work I should contact him.” Westside teachers and others have expressed interest in buying Neil’s work.
“I’m actually selling paintings this summer,” Griess said. “I’ve sold one already, so I’m starting to learn how it feels to part with something.”
As if that wasn’t enough, the June 14 issue of USA Today reproduced one of his paintings to illustrate a Life Section story on the awards. “The one picture they chose was mine — my painting Pool Boy,” Griess said. “That was a really nice surprise. My dad ran up and down the floors in the hotel acquiring more” copies.
Pool Boy is one of many self-portraits and portraits Griess has executed. Portraiture was a favorite form for Bellows as well. One difference is that while Bellows was known for a dark, brooding nature that made him look severe if not downright scary, Griess has a sweet face and demeanor. That’s not to say there wasn’t whimsy in Bellows or his work or that Griess and his art is all peaches and cream.
The award, the praise, the contacts, Griess said, “are obviously great exposure for me and a great thing I can put on the resume. I would say it’s probably the best recognition I could have received operating within a high school.”
Griess submitted eight works to the Scholastic competition but gave little thought to winning, as he photographed his entrees himself and the images he submitted were less than flattering to the works themselves.
“Because of the fact I did not have great pictures of these paintings I submitted, I kind of dismissed the idea that anything would happen with this,” he said. “But then I got the call (saying he’d won) and I couldn’t really believe it for a good amount of time. I was basically sitting at home on a Friday night when I got this call out of the blue. I was pretty unprepared…Surprisingly. I think I handled it well, although afterwards I was like shaking in disbelief for 15 minutes.”
The artist created his winning series for Westside’s Advanced Portfolio class, which he said allows student artists rare autonomy in finding their vision-voice.
“Not many high school classes give you that much freedom in developing your own line of thinking for a series of paintings…I think it kind of helped me develop my own thinking for how I want to approach my art,” he said. “In the typical class you kind of just think in terms of the assignment and what they’re expecting you to see as the outcome, not how you would best display your own ideas or get your own point across.”
Griess hit upon the theme of high contrast at night, playing with different light sources. Some of the inspiration for what’s depicted in the work, he said, comes from Russian fairy tales — “I’ve always been interested in fairy tales” — and some of it comes from what was going on in his life at the time. His girlfriend, Erica, a film studies major at Northwestern University, is the subject of more than one work. She’s a casual portrait study in a piece called “Home Again” and her absence informs another piece in which an anxious Griess cowers on his front porch, alone at night, a doll seen inside a window providing no solace.
“With some of my paintings I first kind of get like this mental image and then when I’m painting it, even weeks after, I start to think about why I needed to do that or what was the significance of it,” he said.
©Kent Bellows’s self-portraits
Just as Bellows sought out great art in his travels, Griess spent his weekend in New York soaking up treasures at the Met. He and his folks also made special visits there and to the Forum gallery to see Bellows’ work in each venue. The splendor of it all, Griess said, “made me want to go back home and start working again.”
Griess didn’t need all the hype to feel an artistic kinship to his uncle. He just wished Bellows could have been there. “I was probably more wishing he could have been involved in this with me and seen the work I did to win this award,” he said. He regrets too never discussing their shared sweet affliction. “I was a shy kid and probably still am. I wouldn’t have necessarily been ready to talk with him about art or these other interests we shared,” Griess said. “Now I would say I would definitely be ready to talk to him about things.”
It’s probably unfair to say Griess lived in the shadow of Bellows, but Bellows was a giant among artists and a looming presence in the life of the the sensitive young artist-nephew. A legacy he could not escape. Griess wasn’t necessarily a slacker before Bellows’ death, but then again he acknowledges he didn’t exactly apply himself to his art. When Bellows passed, Griess suddenly got busy, approaching his own art with a greater sense of urgency.
“After his death is when I really started to get serious about drawing and painting and that’s when I started to do better things and win awards,” Griess said. “I realized he would no longer be there to kind of give me advice or look at what I’m doing, so in some strange way that pushed me, It was kind of a way to deal with it. I mean, also I realized I need to be doing this for myself, too.”
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- Soon Come: Neville Murray’s Passion for the Loves Jazz & Arts Center and its Role in Rebirthing North Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Frederick Brown’s Journey Through Art is a Passage Across Form and a Passing On of Legacy (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Artist Bernard Stanley Hoyes Explores the Lamentations and Celebrations of Jamaican Revival Worship (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Here is a story I did in 1996 in the flood of refugees coming to America from war-ravaged Bosnia and Serbia. I tell the story of two families from Saravejo whose lives were turned upside down when the city fell under siege. Rusmir and Hari stayed behind to fight, as their wives and children narrowly escaped, eventually to the West. The men were eventually reunited with their families and ended up starting new lives in America. In my hometown of Omaha no less. I came across this story when I learned about a music and dance performance that a local choreographer organized as a way of commemorating the experience of these Bosnian refugees. The cathartic performance served as a bridge between the war that changed everything and the peace they had to flee their homeland to find.
War and Peace, Bosnian Refugees Purge War’s Horror’s in Song and Dance that Make Plea for Peace
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The forum for this unusual intersection of cultures was the finale of an October 25-26 Omaha Modern Dance Collective concert. The closing piece, “Day of Forgiveness,” featured a melting pot of dancers and musicians, but most poignantly, local Bosnian refugees performing as a five-piece band
The work incorporated vigorous Bosnian folk dances and songs symbolizing the relative harmony in Bosnia before the war and the healing so sorely needed there now. Ironically, a dance whose context was an ethnic war, joined Croats, Muslims and Serbs in a unifying celebration.
The refugees are among a growing, diverse Bosnian colony that has sprung up in Omaha since 1993. They say the Bosnia they knew was free of ethnic and religious strife until Serb nationalism began rearing its ugly head. Many are natives of Sarajevo, where they enjoyed an upscale, Western European lifestyle. Since escaping the carnage to start over in America, they’ve forged a tranquil Little Sarajevo in Omaha.
“Bosnia was like a small United States, where many different cultures, many different religions lived together,” says the band’s lead vocalist and guitarist, Rusmir Hadzisulejmanovic, 41, formerly a marketing manager with a Sarajevo publishing firm. Today, he works as a handy man and attends Metropolitan Community College. “We prepared a good life in our country. We had nice jobs. We made good money. But somebody from outside tried to destroy that. And we lost everything in one day.”
Fellow refugee and musician Muharem “Hari” Sakic, 39, a friend of Rusmir’s from before the war, was an import-export executive and now works odd jobs while attending Metro. Hari says, “In Sarajevo we never cared what religion you were. And none of us care about that now. It doesn’t matter. We only care what kind of person you are.”
Both men are Muslim. Rusmir’s wife is Serb; Hari’s, Croation-Catholic. They say mixed marriages such as theirs were typical.
The two men fought side-by-side defending their beloved Sarajevo, the besieged Bosnian capital devastated by Serb aggressors. Talking with Rusmir and Hari today, surrounded by loved ones in their safe, comfortable southwest Omaha apartments, it’s hard to imagine them as fierce soldiers engaged in a life and death struggle with forces who outnumbered and outgunned them. But then Rusmir passes around snapshots of he and Hari in camouflage fatigues, armed to the teeth, outside the burned-out shell of a train station. A later photo shows Rusmir, usually a burly 240 pounds, looking pale, drawn and shrunken from the near-starvation war diet.
War Hits Home
Although Serbia invaded Croatia by late 1990, beginning the pattern of pogroms and atrocities it repeated elsewhere in the former Yugoslav Republic, most Bosnians never suspected the conflict would affect them. But it did, beginning, shockingly and viciously at noon, April 4, 1992, when Serb artillery units dug in atop the hills overlooking Saravejo launched an unprovoked, indiscriminate attack on the city’s homes, streets and businesses.
Rusmir was eating lunch in a cafeteria when the first explosions rocked the city. He was trapped there until morning. “I saw many, many damaged houses and cars and dead people in the streets. It was the first time in my life I saw something like that,” he recalls. It was the start of a three-year siege that killed thousands of civilians and soldiers.
At the family’s apartment he found his wife Zorana, 39, and their children Ida and Igor, then ages 8 and 2, respectively, unharmed, but “very scared.” He immediately set about finding a safe way out for them. Escape was essential, since Ida suffers from a serious kidney disease requiring frequent medical treatment, and his family’s Muslim surname made them targets for invading Serbs. As for himself, he had no choice but to stay – and fight.
The roads and fields leading out of town were killing zones, manned by roaming Serb militia. Air service was disrupted. With the help of Jewish friends he finally got his family approved for a flight to Belgrade, Serbia several days later. On the day of departure Zorana and the kids boarded a bus for the tense ride to the Serbian-held airport. As it was too dangerous to be seen together, Rusmir followed behind in a car.
The scene at the airport was chaotic. Hundreds of people milled about the tarmac, frantic not to be left behind. When a mad dash for the plane began, Zorana, carrying Igor in one arm, felt Ida being pulled away by the surging crowd. She grabbed hold of her daughter and hung on until they were aboard.
From a distance Rusmir watched the plane lift off safely, carrying his family to an uncertain fate. It was the last flight out for many months. Three-and-a-half years passed before he saw his family again.
While in Belgrade, Zorana and the kids stayed at a hotel. Zorana made Ida promise (Igor was too young) never to say their Muslim name aloud, but only her Serb maiden name, Vojnovic. Zorana says she felt “shame” at denying her true identity and “guilty” for what some Serbs were doing to Muslims. “It was very hard.”
“You had to say some Serb name to save your life,” notes Hari, whose family took similar precautions. Like Rusmir and Zorana, Hari and his wife Marina were desperate to get their daughter Lana out, as she has a kidney condition similar to Ida’s. Marina and Sakic’s kids eventually fled to Croatia.
In Belgrade Zorana often confronted Serb enmity, such as when a hospital denied Ida treatment fate learning her real name. From Belgrade, they fled to norther Croatia, staying with relatives and friends.
Life in Croatia had a semblance of normality until Croat-Muslim hostilities erupted. Then Zorana was denied work and Ida expelled from school and refused care. A human rights organization did fly Zorana and the kids to London, where her brother lived, but they were denied residency and returned to Croatia. Growing more desperate, she pleaded her family’s case at every embassy, to no avail.
With few resources and options left she heard about the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a humanitarian agency offering visas based on medical need. After her first entreaties were rejected she went to IOM’s offices “every morning for three months,” before finally getting the visa that eventually brought them to Omaha in October, 1993. Zorana was among the first group of Bosnian and Croatian refugees to arrive here.
Omaha – A New Home, A New Life
Why Omaha? Dr. Linda Ford, a local physician affiliated with IOM, was matched with the family as a medical caseworker and mentor. Zorana says Ford was her “main moral support” when she first arrived. “She showed me how to live on my own. She was a great help.”
Ford arranged for the family to live at the home of Dr. Dan Halm and at her urging Zorana, an attorney in Saravejo, earned a para-legal degree at UNO while working part-time jobs. Zorana now works full-time at Mutual of Omaha. Ford says the contacts Zorana made here as a result of her own refugee experience have aided other Bosnians in settling here, including Rusmir’s sister and brother-in-law. Since moving her family to the Woodcreek Apartments, Zorana has guided 12 other refugee families there.
Barbarism, Heroism and Sacrifice
Meanwhile, Rusmir, who as a young man served in the Yugoslav equivalent of the CIA, had joined Hari and others in mobilizing the local Bosnian Army, It was a civilian army comprised of Muslims, Croats and Serbs, They lacked even the most basic supplies. Uniforms were improvised from sleeping bags. Many soldiers fought in athletic shoes. Shelling and sniper fire continued day and night. The streets and outlying areas were a grim no-man’s land. The only respite was an occasional cease-fire or relief convoy.
As the siege progressed conditions worsened. Rusmir’s and Hari’s homes were destroyed. But life went on. “In war it’s not possible to keep a normal life, but we tried,” says Rusmir. For example, school-age kids who remained behind still attended classes, and Hari’s wife Marina gave birth to their son, Adi, on May 22, 1992.
“At that time the situation was terrible, especially for babies. No food, no water, no electricity , no nothing,” Hari recalls.
Somehow, they hung on. Marina and their two children got out as part of a Red Cross convoy that fall.
Hari and Rusmir fought in a special unit that took them behind enemy lines to wreak havoc, do reconnaissance, collect intelligence and capture prisoners. Miraculously, neither was wounded.
“I was many times in a very dangerous position,” says Rusmir. “I know how to use a gun and a knife. That helped me to survive. I’m lucky, you know? I survived.”
Two of his best friends did not – Dragan Postic and Zelicko Filipovic.
Rusmir witnessed acts of barbarism, heroism and sacrifice, An artillery shell landed amidst a group of school kids during recess, killing and maiming dozens. “That was very awful.” In the heat of battle, a comrade jumped on an enemy tank and dropped hand grenades inside the open turret, killing himself and the tank’s crew. Despite overwhelming odds and losses the city held. “We stopped them…we survived,” Rusmir says.
By the time a United States-brokered and NATO-enforced peace halted the war in 1995, Rusmir, who’d stayed gallantly (“Stubbornly,”says Zorana) on to protect his homeland and care for his ill father, felt very alone. Except for his father, there was nothing left – no home, no job, no family, no future. Hari was gone, too, escaping on 1994 on foot via a tunnel dug under the Saravejo airport, and then over the mountains into Croatia, where after a long search he was reunited with his family.
The Sakics emigrated here in January, 1995.
Music – Celebration and Mourning
Every refugee has a story. The Bosnians’ story is of suddenly being cast as warriors and wanderers in an ethnically-cleansed netherworld where borders and names suddenly meant the difference between freedom or imprisonment, between living or dying.
It all happened before – to their parents and grandparents in World War II. It’s a story burned in their memories and hearts and told in stirring words, music and dance.
Their music inspired choreographer Josie Metal-Corbin to create “Day of Forgiveness.” The professor of dance at the University of Nebraska at Omaha first heard the music when a former student and Bosnian emigre brought the band to her class. They played about 10 minutes and right away I knew I had to do something with this music,” Metal-Corbin recalls. “I was very taken by it, I’m part Italian and part Slovak, and this music really spoke to me. It’s very passionate.”
After months of working with the musicians and UNO’s resident dance troupe she directs, the Moving Company, Metal-Corbin grew close to the refugees and their families, particularly Rusmir, Zorana and their children, now ages 12 and 6. Zorana acted as the project’s interpreter and cultural guide.
During the Creighton concert, which marked the dance’s premiere, Rusmir and the other, all-male musicians exuberantly accompanied the rousing dance from a rear corner of the stage.
Rusmir, who grew up singing and playing the romantic tunes that accompanied the dance, says, “I feel the songs in my heart, in my soul, in my blood.” Song and dance are a big part of Bosnian celebrations, which can last from evening through dawn.
A Gypsy song – “Djurdjevdan” (“Day of the Flowers”) – was chosen by Metal-Corbin to give the dance its thematic design. The song, like the dance she adapted from it, tells of a holiday when people go to a river to cleanse themselves with water and flowers as an act of atonement and plea for forgiveness. According to Rusmir, the song and dance reflect Bosnians’ forgiving nature.
“What is very hard about the war is that we lost so many friends. We lost neighbors. We lost family members. And for what? Really for nothing. We tried to keep Bosnia in Bosnian borders. But I can forgive,” Rusmir says, “because my wife and kids are alive. My father is alive. It’s time for forgiveness, for one reason – the war must stop, always, I cannot live with hate. My people are not like that. You can kick me, you can beat me…I will always find a reason to forgive you. That is the Bosnian soul.”
Hari, though, cannot so easily let go of the memory of Marina and their two children barely escaping a direct artillery hit on their Sarajevo apartment. “Forgive, yes, but forget, no,” he says. “I must try never to forget.” Even now, the whine of a siren and the clap of thunder are nervous reminders of incoming artillery rounds. “That is the kind of sound you can never forget,” Hari says.
He still wakes up in a cold sweat at the thought of the three-finger sign used by Chetnik Serbs in carrying out their terror campaigns. “When they started to use that sign,” he says, “the poison came. It meant. ‘You are not with us.’ Then the killing started.”
As a haunting reminder of what the dance was about, an enlarged news photo in the background pictured the tearful reunion of a Bosnian refugee family. The image had special meaning for Rusmir and Hari, who had only recently reunited with their own families. For them, the dance was their own personal commemoration of loss, celebration of survival, offering of thanks and granting of forgiveness.
Adding further resonance, virtually the entire local Bosnian refugee colony attended out of a deep communal sense of pride in their rich culture, one they’re eager to share with the wider Omaha community they’ve felt so welcomed by.
Zorana was there. “I was real proud, but at the same time I was kind of sad,” she says. “It was the music of our country – but in a different country. I was real touched when I saw Americans feel the same we do. I wanted to cry.”
Zorana, whose journey with her children across the war-torn region took a year before she found safe passage to America, adds that forgiveness must never come at the price of wisdom. “I would not let anybody to that to us again. Yo can trick us one time, but just one time.”
Yes, these Bosnians, are remarkably free of bitterness, but they do feel betrayed by the European community’s delayed, timid intervention. Zorana says, “You cannot wait so long and be so passive. You cannot say, ‘Oh, this is not my war. I don’t want to be bothered – they’re not killing me.’ Because tomorrow they may come to your house and try to kill you.” Hari says, “All the time we waited for a miracle.”
Rusmir decries the Serbs’ targeting of civilians. Hari hopes “world justice catches the war criminals, so that they will never sleep good again.”
With the aid of Neb.Republican U.S. House of Representatives member John Christensen Rusmir finally got permission to immigrate and was reunited with his family last November. Once here there were many adjustments to make. Igor didn’t remember him. Ida was slow to warm to a father she hadn’t seen for so long. Rusmir spoke no English. The family barely got by. But in classic immigrant tradition they’ve adapted and now call Omaha – a city they’d never heard of before – their home.
“It is hard. But step by step, day by day, we make connections, we make new friends we make a good life, too. We feel like Bosnian pioneers in Omaha and Nebraska,” says Rusmir, who hopes to start a construction business with Hari.
The Bosnians like America and feel sure they’ll thrive here. Their children already have, with many earning top grades in school. Ida and Lana are both healthy and doing fine. The Bosnians are deeply grateful to America, which Hari calls “a dream country” for its warm reception.
Hari says, “In America I can once again live like a normal person. There’s no fear that somebody will knock on my door and ask, ‘Who are you?’ and say, ‘You’re guilty.’ We are safe here. Many Americans have helped to give us a chance. Thanks America. We are sure that we will be a success.”
Zorana downplays their heroic struggle, saying, “You need to go on if you think ou have some tomorrow. You need to believe in yourself. Then nothing is impossible.”
America is, after all, the land of opportunity.
“You give me a chance to be equal,” she says. “To work. To be a citizen. I wanted my children to be Bosnian, but now I want them to be American. Here, you can be proud of your last name. You don’t have to feel ashamed.”
- A Long Way from Home (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Mladic could face two trials for alleged Bosnian war crimes (cnn.com)
- Serbia alert over Mladic protests (bbc.co.uk)
- Bosnia tensions live on despite Mladic capture (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Key dates and events in the Bosnia war (zokstersomething.wordpress.com)
- No closure (bbc.co.uk)
This story from a decade ago or so is one of two I have done that try to paint a human, intimate portrait of the late 20th century European wars that erupted in the aftermath of the end of Communist rule, when generations of long-simmering ethnic hatred spilled over in the power grabs that ensued. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) portrays the journey of two Kosovo Albanian families escaping the chaos and horror of war in their homeland to starting new lives in America. The second story along these lines, which I will be posting soon, tells a similar journey, only of a Bosnian family. There were numerous atrocities to go around in these wars, and on both sides, but the sad truth of the matter is that every day men, women, and children like the people I write about got caught up in the carnage. The result: untold hundreds of thousands dead and injured; broken societies and families; hatred that perpetuates from one generation to the next; retaliation attacks; refugee cultures; and the recipe for ongoing tensions that will only continue flaring until there is true reconciliation. The related articles below indicate the region is still a cauldron of unrest.
A Long Way from Home, Two Kosovo Albanian Families Escape Hell to Start Over in America
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Among the mass exodus of ethnic Albanians fleeing their embattled native Kosovo last year were two young couples who met in a refugee camp and ended up starting new lives together in Omaha. Gazmend and Fortesa Ademi and Basri and Valbona Jashari left Kosovo during the March-May 1999 NATO bombing campaign targeting Serbian military strongholds.
With Serb troops ousted and NATO peacekeepers in their place, many refugees returned to the ravaged province. The couples, however, opted for asylum in America. After arriving here July 1 under the auspices of a humanitarian agency, they lived five weeks with their Bellevue sponsors, the Theresa and Richard Guinan family, whose parish — St. Bernadette Catholic Church — lent aid. The Kosovars, who today share a unit in the Applewood Pointe Apartments near 96th & Q Streets, are now first-time parents: the Ademis of a 5-month-old boy, Eduard, and the Jasharis of a 3-month-old girl, Elita.
Last August, Basri Jashari’s sister, Elfeti, her husband and their five children moved to Omaha (sponsored by Kountze Memorial Church). Another 59 Kosovars settled in Lincoln. The U.S. State Department reports some 14,000 Kosovars found asylum in America. Of the more than 800,000 refugees who fled the province, most have gone home, including some who came to Nebraska.
War may have been the catalyst for Kosovo Albanians’ leaving their homeland, but the events prompting their expulsion are rooted in long-standing ethnic conflict. During a recent interview at their apartment, Gazmend Ademi and Basri Jashari told, in broken English, their personal odyssey into exile. As the men spoke, sometimes animatedly, their wives listened while tending to their babies.
Only in their early 20s, the Kosovars exhibit a heavy, world-weary demeanor beyond their years. They carry the burden of any refugee: being apart from the people and culture they love. With a patriotic Albanian song playing in the background (“the music, it gives us power to live…to go on,” Ademi said) and defiance burning in their eyes, the men lamented all they have lost and left behind and expressed enmity for Serb aggressors who threw their lives into turmoil.
“We never wanted what happened. We never wanted this. THEY wanted the war. It’s like old Albanian men used to say, ‘Don’t ever trust the Serbs. They don’t keep their word,’” Ademi said. Do the refugees hate the Serbs? “No, I just don’t like them,” Jashari said, adding, “I know not every Serbian was guilty. But I still hate the cops.”
Aside from bitterness, sadness consumes them. Ademi said, “Sometimes I stop and think, Why do I have to go through all these things? It’s just too much. I miss my family. I miss my friends. I miss everything in Kosovo. That’s why I’ll go back. But, for now, things are still bad there. Many people have no work, no homes. What the Serbs couldn’t take they destroyed. When I speak to my friends by phone they all tell me to stay where I am.” Or, as Jashari simply put it, “It’s better here.”
Watch Out for the Dark
Conflicts between ethnic Albanians and Serbs were part of the uneasy landscape Ademi and Jashari grew up in. Born and raised in southeastern Kosovo cities 40 kilometers apart, the two came of age in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the ugly rhetoric of Slobodan Milosevic’s Serb nationalism turned openly hostile. Serb aggression in Bosnia erupted into full-scale war that United Nations forces helped quell. Although ethnic Albanians comprised the vast majority of Kosovo, Serbs controlled key institutions, most tellingly the police and military, which became oppressive occupying forces.
Ademi and Jashari say police routinely interrogated and arrested people without cause, extorting payment in return for safe passage or release. The harassment didn’t always end there. “For just a little thing they could arrest you or beat you or kill you. If they stopped you and demanded money, and you didn’t pay, your car was gone or you were gone,” Jashari said. “You had to pay,” Ademi said.
As Milosevic pressed for a Greater Serbia, life became more restrictive for ethnic Albanians (schools were closed and the display and teaching of Albanian heritage banned), whose Muslim culture contrasted with Serb Orthodox Christianity. The Ademis and Jasharis received much of their education in makeshift schools housed in basements and cellars. When young ethnic Albanians began fleeing Kosovo to avoid military service in the raging Balkans War, a moratorium on passports was enacted. Freedom could be bought, with a bribe, but most Kosovars could not afford it. Ademi, a bartender, and Jashari, a university student, faced bleak prospects. Jobs were scarce and those available paid low wages, yet prices for goods and services remained high. Bartering and blackmarket trading prevailed.
The start of the Kosovo War is generally agreed upon as March 23, 1998, when a Serb police action ended in the massacre of some 50 civilians and ignited the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) to escalate its armed resistance. However, for rank and file ethnic Albanians “the war started much earlier,” Jashari said. As early as 1989 the Serb political-military machine tightened its noose around Kosovo. Ademi and Jashari say they witnessed friends beaten by cops. Ademi said a cousin was held and tortured for days in a police station without legal counsel.
At mass demonstrations he recalls police firing tear-gas, even bullets, into crowds. Once, he said, a cop guarding a train load of tanks drew his weapon on he and some friends taking a short cut through a rail yard. In such a climate, once carefree days spent playing soccer or shopping in open air markets were replaced by caution. Nights were most ominous, with the Black Hand, a secret police/paramilitary force, roaming the streets. “After the dark would come, people who were out on the streets were taken away. Many were killed. Everybody was afraid from here,” Ademi said, clutching his chest. “Walking home every night I was afraid what might happen. I didn’t know if I was going to make it back. If you saw a car coming you turned back into the road and stayed until it passed. When they passed, you were like, ‘Whew, I made it okay.’”
Amid brutal police tactics and outright terrorist acts, the KLA began striking back with savage retaliatory attacks of its own, which led to Serb reprisals. When entreaties and threats by the U.N., the European Union and the West failed to get Milosevic to back down, a controversial U.S.-led NATO military response followed.
A Taste of Freedom
The night of the first air strikes prompted celebrations.
“We were very happy. We were waiting for this day,” Jashari said. “Some people started to shout, “NATO, NATO” and “Clinton, Clinton.” Everybody was cheering and shaking hands.” Any sign of air power brought hope, even though the concussion from bombs and missiles shook and even shattered windows. “Every time I saw the planes in the air I could feel myself a little bit more…free,” Ademi said. “I prayed for the noise of those planes.”
The revelry soon gave way to dread.
“The Serbs were really mad. They didn’t know what else to do, so they started to burn out everything,” said Ademi, referring to the systematic ethnic cleansing that ensued.
The Ademis and Jasharis joined a flood of refugees streaming into villages, where they presumed it was safe. They were wrong. The villages, some housing KLA bases, were burned or pillaged. Houses that once served as quarters for OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) monitors were torched or trashed. Pundits criticized the fact that, for a time, the air strikes only intensified the Serb raids and further destabilized the region. While Ademi and Jashari confirm “that’s how it was,” they contend what happened “was not NATO’s fault,” As Jashari said, “We didn’t flee because of NATO bombs. We fled because the Serbs started to attack us.”
With no where to hide, ethnic Albanians became a displaced people, moving from village to village and house to house in a desperate bid to stay ahead of marauding Serb troops. The Jasharis managed to remain at home until Serb forces closed in. Once a house was vacated, a next wave of refugees moved in and consumed whatever stores were left. “
People didn’t know where to go,” Ademi said. “They would stay a couple days and move again, helping themselves to food. People would take from all over just to stay alive.”
Ademi’s family found long-term shelter at the home of an uncle in a nearby village. Soon, they were joined by a caravan of refugees from a ransacked village, their dead and injured carted on tractors and trucks. “I carried in a young woman who was wounded in the leg. An old woman who’d been shot died later,” said Ademi, whose family took in dozens of new arrivals, swelling the house’s occupants to 50.
When, weeks into the bombing, there seemed no end in sight to the war, the Albanian Kosovars decided to cross the border into Macedonia. “Everything was going bad. Supplies were low. We thought it better to move because maybe later we could not get out. If Milosevic won, we could not live in Kosovo,” Jashari said.
While there was little choice but to flee, leaving was hard. The refugees brought only bread and the clothes on their back, “My family cried. They knew that maybe we were not coming back,” said Jashari, who left with Valbona and his family in May and made it across the border in a motorized convoy. Weeks earlier, the Ademis set-off, in two groups, for the border. Gazmend and a younger brother went ahead first, traveling on foot with a band of young men along a mountain road. A guide helped them skirt Serb patrols and checkpoints.
The men crossed the border after a 15-hour hike. Two days later Fortesa got out with Ademi’s family, enduring rain and snow on a trek along the same path. Upon reaching northern Macedonia the refugees were housed and fed by ethnic Albanians who led them to a camp, Stenkovec #2. It was there the Ademis and Jasharis, who were still single, married as insurance against being separated later. The couples befriended each other and after six weeks sleeping 10 to 20 to a tent, their applications for asylum were granted. Their shared destination: Omaha. Neither couple had American relatives.
Meanwhile, half-a-world away in Bellevue, Theresa and Richard Guinan followed the unfolding refugee odyssey via media reports. Moved by what they saw, the couple contacted Sen. Chuck Hagel’s office and were put in touch with Heartland Refugee Resettlement, an affiliate of the ecumenical Church World Service. The Guinans volunteered as a host family and the Ademis and Jasharis were matched with them.
Why agree to take in a four refugees? “We wanted to do more than just send money. That’s too easy. We have so much to offer here (in America) and this was our way to help,” Theresa Guinan said. After an 18-hour journey (by plane from Macedonia to Greece to New York to St. Louis to Omaha), the refugees arrived here exhausted. Fortesa Ademi, then pregnant, was sick for much of the trip. They were overwhelmed by the greeting party awaiting them at the Eppley Airfield terminal, including the Guinans, members of their church and reporters.
Within a week Richard Guinan found jobs for the men, as cold storage construction laborers, and they’ve been employed ever since. “They’re hard workers and their employers love them,” Theresa Guinan said. Living under one roof, the Americans and Kosovars forged deep bonds that remain strong a year later. “We love them like our own. We call them ‘our kids,’” Theresa Guinan said.
Ademi said, “Our sponsors helped us a lot. They made us feel like we were in our own home. Everything was just perfect. We call Theresa and Dick our American parents.” Still, adjusting to American life has posed many challenges, not the least of which is Omaha’s nearly non-existent Albanian community, which Ademi said has left he and the others feeling isolated. “We really haven’t had a chance to make any friends. We don’t go out too much. When we came here we meant to stay five or six years, but now I don’t how we’re going to make it. It’s really hard.” He and the others would like to meet members of the ethnic Albanian refugee colony in Lincoln.
Should the Ademis and Jasharis return to Kosovo any time soon, they know what awaits them: few prospects, a devastated infrastructure and a region littered with land mines and ethnic tensions. As efforts to form a new democracy proceed under NATO’s Joint Interim Administration, the men dream of an independent Kosovo. “That’s the best way to be. That’s what we deserve,” Ademi said.
In the wake of human rights investigations confirming Serb atrocities and of international tribunals naming Serb war criminals, the split between ethnic Albanians and their adversaries is greater than ever. Ironically and tragically, some ethnic Albanians have been engaging in ethnic cleansing reprisals against average Serb citizens. As the cycle of bigotry and violence winds on, the possibility of peaceful co-existence seems remote. Jashari described the gulf this way, “Albanian and Serbian culture is very different. That’s why the conflict is so deep.” Ademi said blood will continue to be shed “until the Serbs are out of Kosovo.” After all that has happened, he said, an ethnic Albanian like himself cannot abide living, drinking or working beside a Serb: “He’s going to be in my way. I’m going to be in his way. There’s no escaping that.”
Like the lyrics of the song playing that night at the apartment, Ademi said one thing is clear. “If you are Albanian, you are my friend. We want the same thing. If you are Serbian, then living together is too hard.” And the jingoistic beat goes on.
- New trial for Kosovo ex-premier (bbc.co.uk)
- Kosovo: Nato sends in reinforcements (independent.co.uk)
- New Violence in Kosovo Could Pose a Quandary for an Overstretched NATO (globalspin.blogs.time.com)
- Unlikely matchup: Albanian women wed Serbs (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Kosovo launches Serbia border crossings take over (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Violence in north Kosovo draws EU warning – Reuters (news.google.com)
- NATO Takes Control at Kosovo Borders (nytimes.com)
- Fear and exodus: ethnic Serbs squeezed out of Kosovo (rt.com)
- War and Peace (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Family. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them. For the Bryant-Fisher extended family, who call home base Omaha, Neb. but have members scattered all over the nation, they keep things tight with a annual family reunion. Big deal, right? Well, before you dismiss their get-together as routine, consider that this is a really big family, as in more than 2,200 direct descendants of family reunion founder Emma Early Bryant Fisher, by last count. Their Second Sunday in August reunion usually draws 500 or more folks, and for those milestone years it sees 700, 800, or more. Eight generations worth come from near far. Then consider they’ve been doing this for 94 consecutive years.
A Family Thing, Bryant-Fisher Family Reunion
©by Leo Adam Biga
As published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The biennial Native Omaha Days began in 1977. But it’s a newbie compared to the historic annual reunion that dates to 1917, when Emma Early Bryant Fisher inaugurated the event with a family picnic at Mandan Park near her South Omaha home. The picnic was held there for 30 years.
Sunday’s picnic at Levi Carter Park will mark its 94th consecutive year.
The Days and the reunion coincide only every other year. Just as NOD winds down, the reunion gears up, though there’s an extra week between them this time. NOD officially runs a week. The reunion, three days.
NOD boasts signature events attracting sizable crowds. The Bryant-Fisher reunion has one main event – the sprawling, all-day August 14 picnic. The picnic moved to Carter Lake in the early 1990s.
The picnic draws the biggest family throng.
“They’re going to be at the park. If they don’t do anything else for the whole weekend or the whole year, that Sunday they will be at the park,” says family historian Arlett Brooks. “You cook your food and you pitch your tent, and you may be there for an hour or you may be there for five hours, but you go.”
This mega extended family, whose population rivals that of many Nebraska towns, takes over a few acres at Carter Lake.
The Bryants and Fishers exert a considerable presence wherever they encamp. They comprise what’s believed to be the largest African-American family around, extending over 12 branches. They’re so large they conduct their own census. At last count they numbered more than 2,200 direct descendants.
If this year is like others, 500 to 800 souls will gather Sunday.
“People just don’t realize the magnitude of it until they get there,” says Brooks, whose sister Cheryl Secret and mother Patricia Moss are family stalwarts.
The enormity of the history and scope is a point of family pride.
“I think it’s associated with pride, it’s associated with tradition, respect for our elders. By continuing this we’re respecting our great-grandmother,” says Secret.
For milestone reunions like the 90th in 2007, when upwards of 1,000 or more gathered, the family throws its own Saturday parade on North 24th Street.
In this frantic age, the reunion expresses solidarity and consistency. The family likes to say no matter where you are in the world, you know the reunion will be held on the second Sunday in August ,come hell or high water. Neither storms nor floods will deter it.
“Nothing has ever stopped it,” says Secret. “You don’t even look at the weather, you just go.”
“We’ve been rained on a lot of times, but not rained out,” says Moss, who by her reckoning hasn’t missed a reunion during her 85 years.
Having something to count on helps this enormous family remain tight.
“It’s wonderful to have that bond, to have something that brings us together as opposed to separating us,” says Paul Bryant. “We need more things like that in society – showing love as opposed to hate or indifference.”
“We may not see each other every day, but if you need us we’re there. That’s how we are,” says Juanita Sutton.
Meeting and greeting at the picnic is an invitation for young and old to share where they fit on the vast family tree. “If someone says, ‘How are you related?’ it’s an honor to be able to go down the line as to how you belong in the family,” says Secret.
Arlett’s daughter, Makida Brooks, says, “It means a whole lot, just knowing I can go anywhere and not be alone. I can go anywhere by myself and be pretty sure I’m going to be in the same area as one of my relatives, so I’m going to be okay, wherever I go.”
On their Dozens of Cousins Facebook page, Makida says, “We send messages, ‘Do we have any cousins in Alabama? In Buffalo, New York.? In L.A.? Most places we do. On Facebook I have 500-600 friends and 90 percent of them are my relatives. I don’t accept you if I don’t know you, so you have to be related to me.”
Moss, whose grandmother was reunion founder Emma Early, does old school social networking at the picnic, where she seeks her closest cousins.
“When I could walk I used to walk from one end of Carter Lake all the way to the other to make sure I saw every one of my cousins, especially my first cousins,” says Moss, who as an elder now has relatives come and wait on her.
When she was still spry, her daughters shadowed her as she made the rounds. It ignited their interest in family lore.
“We got to visit and develop relationships with all 12 families because we were with her,” says Brooks.
Patricia’s daughters cherish their mother’s and other elders’ tales.
“She loves telling us stories,” says Secret. “She’ll tell stories about racial things that happened in South Omaha, where they kind of pushed the blacks out, and how her father’s family stayed put. Her uncle sat on the porch with a shotgun and said, ‘I’m not going anywhere.’ They stood their ground.
“When we’re like this, just sitting around, all you gotta do is just give her a little hint of what direction you want to go, and she’ll just start sharing stories.”
As if on cue, Patricia recalls how long-ago customs were enforced at the picnic.
“I remember when we were kids my grandmother had all of the cousins sit at one table. The sisters (daughters, daughters-in-law) had to wait on everybody before they could eat. My grandmother would sit down with the men and she’d have her dinner and she’d make sure all the kids had theirs, and then the sisters could sit down and eat.”
Where a pavilion or large tent once accommodated the picnic, she says, “It’s got so big, now each family’s got their own tent.”
The Bryant-Fisher thing turns Carter Lake into a multi-colored tent city. Black folks of every shade and hue mingle. Eight generations worth. Some sport Bryant-Fisher T-shirts, complete with the family crest. Some “wear” the logo as body art. Jazz, blues and R&B mix with hip-hop.
One could mistake it all for Native Omaha Days. But don’t confuse the two. The family is protective of what they have and don’t like sharing the spotlight.
The reunion’s longevity and large turnout regularly attract media notice, even gaining Guinness Book of World Records mention. During election cycles the picnic’s known to bring out politicians in search of votes.
Party crashers are not unheard of.
“Oh, yeah, but they’re kind of welcome, as long as they’re not bringing trouble,” says Mary Alice Bryant. “To me, what’s great, with all the violence in Omaha, we’ve never had one incident, not one.”
Rev. Doyle Bryant, pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church, says his family’s commitment to staying connected, and the reunion’s high profile, explain why it’s endured and why it’s coveted by outsiders.
“This family reunion is nationally known, that has a lot to do it. When you get that type of notoriety you don’t want it to die out. We have people coming from all over the country to participate.”
“I know some families struggle to keep the family together, but I grew up with us always having it. It’s just expected,” says Arlett Brooks. “I think a lot of people admire that we could have kept it going that long.”
“There’s not too many that have gone on this many years,” says Marcelyn Frezell. “I think it has encouraged other families to have family reunions.”
But there are posers, too.
“We’ve got a whole lot of wannabes,” says Patricia Moss.
With a family this size, it’s impossible to know everyone.
“I think it’s intimidating, especially for the people who come from out of town maybe only every five years,” says Secret. “You walk through the park and you know all these people are your relatives, but you just don’t have a clue who they all are.
“I think the more we go down in generations the less connection they seem to have with each other. That’s something we talk about, we really need to work on – the young people getting to know each other to maintain the closeness and bonds with one another.”
And the lineage beat goes on.
There have been countless occasions when two young people who are sweet on each other find out they’re cousins.
“I had six children and every last one of my kids, every last one of ‘em, brought somebody home as their girlfriend or their boyfriend,” says Moss. “When I got through questioning them, they were cousins. And we all live right here in Omaha. That’s what I couldn’t understand – how they don’t know each other.”
Arlett and Cheryl had it happen to them, as did most of their cousins.
“I went all the way through high school with a guy and one year I seen him at the family picnic. He said, ‘This is my family,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, where have you been all of these years?’ Sometimes, they’ve been there and you’ve been there, you just haven’t seen each other,” says Arlett.
Someone she works with turned out to be a cousin. “We’re very close now.”
Cheryl began a family genealogy book 16 years ago. Arlett’s revised it every five years. The family consults it when there’s a question.
“I took the initiative to research and find out all of the generations underneath my mother’s generation,” says Secret. “If someone can’t go down that line and tell me who their grandmother was or who their great-grandmother was, then you know they’re a wannabe or they married in or they’re somebody’s friend.”
Not that friends aren’t welcome, they are. “I have two girlfriends I’ve been knowing all my life, and they don’t miss it,” says Mary Alice Bryant.
Coming on the heels of Native Omaha Days, it makes for two weeks of black pride heritage celebrations.
Folks catch up with family and friends, revisit old haunts and make the rounds. The Days is a succession of reunions, picnics, barbecues and block parties. There’s music, dancing, card playing. Church. A parade down North 30th. A communal picnic at Elmwood Park. A Blue Monday at local watering holes to tie one on before parting-is-such-sweet-sorrow goodbyes.
The Bryants-Fishers turn out in force at The Days. A family matriarch, Bettie McDonald, co-founded the event and its sponsoring Native Omahans Club. Not surprisingly, the itinerary is patterned after that of the Bryant-Fisher bash.
Though the Dozens of Cousins picnic has changed, one thing that hasn’t is the dawn fish-fry breakfast, followed by a church service. Other activities include a talent contest, volleyball, foot races, fishing. Pokeno, gin and dominos are the favored card games.
There’s a formal dinner dance Friday night at the Lake Point Center, a Family Fun Day Saturday at Fun-Plex and various odds and ends.
When the family has a parade, Bryant-Fisher floats and drill teams pass by the Native Omahans Club on North 24th. The building doubles as the family clubhouse for Dozens of Cousins meetings and fish-fry dinners.
Just as The Days ends on a blue note, some relatives will ring out the reunion on Monday at the club or a bar – tilting back a few to bid each other farewell, till next year.
For Paul Bryant, the reunion’s been a given his whole life, and with it the realization his family is far from ordinary.
“Some of my earliest childhood memories are at family picnics at Mandan Park,” he says, “and of some of the same things still going on today. The dance contest, the races. We used to almost always go down to the bottom of the hill to play football.
“The little kids would watch the older kids. ‘Oh,he plays for Central! He’s my cousin?’ Then you become older and you become the one the little guys are watching. Then you get older still and admire someone like my cousin Galen Gullie, who made us all proud playing ball for Bryan (High). In my day, I was kind of doing that.”
Bryant sees the reunion as continuity. An each-one-to-teach-one opportunity for older generations to impart the family heritage and tradition.
“I always knew we have a big family,” says Bryant. “When I was 8 or 10 they’d hold a program with a dinner and the mayor or someone would speak. I was like, ‘Wow, there’s something special here.’ Politicians come to the picnic and press the flesh. I mean, there’s a lot of people there and a lot of them have done some things in the community.
“As a kid, you’d see that, you’d hear that, and you knew your family had something special. And you were proud to be inheriting all that legacy.”
He enjoys discovering some notable is a relative. He’s a notable himself. He excelled in sports in high school and college, then embarked on a fast-track corporate career before assuming leadership of the Nebraska Urban League. He found a new mission as executive director of the Wesley House, where he formed an excellence academy. Today, he’s a presenter at schools with his purpose-driven leadership program.
Bryant, his wife Robin and their three kids are widely recognized for their community service. He says high achievers in the family, whether the late coach-educator Charles Bryant or current young hoops star Galen Gullie or the family’s bona fide celebrity, actress Gabrielle Union, serve to inspire.
Union gets back for The Days some years and for the reunion others. Her appearances, lately with NBA squeeze Dwyane Wade, cause a sensation in the black community every bit as electric as the buzz Lady Gaga generates among her Little Monster fans.
The family is unapologetically possessive in claiming “Gabby” as their own. Paul Bryant’s as starstruck as the rest, but he’d rather his kids view their elders as role models and their family history as cool.
“My son can tell you, ‘My dad’s Paul Bryant, whose dad was Doyle Bryant, whose dad was Marcy Bryant, whose dad was Thurston Bryant, who’s the son of Emma Early, who’s the daughter of Wesley Early, who’s the son of a plantation owner.
“For me, it’s important to pass that down. I want every one of my kids to know their lineage as far back as we can trace it. I think that’s part of what this whole Bryant-Fisher thing is. If you don’t know, if it’s just going to the picnic Sunday and you don’t feel connected with something bigger, you miss out, you’ve got nothing to pass on.”
Makida Brooks values the experiences her elders share. “Just knowing what they had to go through and what they had to do makes me appreciate what I have now. I understand I don’t have nearly the struggles they had.”
Ninety-four years since it’s start, the reunion appears set for the future.
“I’m not expecting anything different than what has happened in the past,” says Arlett Brooks. “People will step up and make sure it continues, just like I have for my generation, and I’m sure my daughters will for their generation. It’s just expected.”
“I think it’s embedded in so many of us we couldn’t stop this thing if we wanted,” says Cheryl Secret. “I think in each tribe there are children who will make this thing happen, no matter what.
“It will go on I think for generations.”
- Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- The Ties that Bind, One Family’s Celebration of Native Omaha Days (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Native Omaha Days: A Black is Beautiful Celebration, Now, and All the Days Gone By (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Native Omahans Take Stock of the African-American Experience in Their Hometown (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Get Crackin’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Parenting the Second Time Around Holds Challenges and Delights for Senior Kinship Caregiver Theresa Glass Union, Who Always Puts Family First (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
We are all suckers for stories of long separated family members reuniting, and while I have written a few stories that have touched on this subject, it’s never been the the entire focus of an article. Until now. As soon to be published in a small Omaha newspaper called El Perico, two half siblings (a brother and sister) born in Puerto Rico recently found each other after years apart in the United States and their reunion took place in, of all places, Omaha, Neb., where it turns out the brother lives and the sister’s husband is from. In fact, the brother’s wife is from Omaha as well. The unlikely parallels and coincidences that brought them together in Omaha are legion and hopefully make for a good read. On a personal note, I actually knew some of the family members involved in this tug at your heart tale before I got into the reunion story.
Long-Separated Brother and Sister from Puerto Rico Reunited in Omaha
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to be published in El Perico
Omaha’s Hilton Hotel hosted a July 7 reunion between two Puerto Rico-born siblings separated almost their entire lives.
Myraida “Mimi” Goodwin knew she had a younger half brother somewhere. Likewise, Angel Rodriguez knew he had a half sister. Though they share the same father, the two had only met once, and then only briefly.
The two mothers arranged a single weekend meeting between the estranged siblings. Mimi was put on a plane to visit Angel in Tampa. She was 11, he was 8. There was never a second visit. Life moved on. Each relocated, embarked on careers, started families of their own. Decades passed without any contact.
Mimi became a women’s fashion designer. Angel, a dental assistant.
Meanwhile, in a improbable twist of fate or coincidence, each married an Omaha native. Mimi and her husband, film and television actor Randy Goodwin, live in Los Angeles with their six children. Angel, who returned to Puerto Rico for a time, actually moved to Omaha with his wife, former U.S. Army Reservist Kenyatta McCray, some years ago. They have four children.
When Mimi visited Omaha in the past, she and Angel were oblivious to their being so near. Their paths never crossed but easily could have, as Angel and Kenyatta live near Randy’s mother, Mary Goodwin.
“We’ve been back there five-six times since we’ve been married,” says Mimi. “All this time I’ve been going there and I’ve been so close to him, and I didn’t even know it.”
“There’s times when she’s probably been right up the road from me,” says Angel.
It’s only recently that Mimi rediscovered Angel. Learning that he lived in, of all places, Omaha, was too strange. “That just can’t be,” Mimi recalls saying.
“It’s crazy how it all came to be — the circumstances of it,” says Angel.
The Omaha links run even deeper, as Kenyatta and her family have known the Goodwins for years. She used to get her hair done by Randy’s brother Bryan.
“It’s overwhelming to take all of it in,” says Angel. “I can’t wrap my mind around it. Even now I still don’t believe it. I told Mimi I’m not going to believe this until you’re in front of me.”
When Mimi caught sight of Angel in the Hilton lobby last Thursday she says, “I flew into his arms,” adding, “I practically knocked him over.” Their tearful embrace lasted minutes. In the two weeks leading up to then, they traded countless texts and calls, catching up with each other’s lives, struck by how similar they are. As their weekend reunion unfolded they noticed more subtle similarities.
“I think it’s a lot of little things, not so much things we’re saying,” she says. “Like when I look at him he does certain eye movements that are the same as mine or that remind me of my dad’s. Or the way we laugh. Oh, my gosh, I can see myself in him.”
“Yeah, it’s kind of weird,” says Angel. “We have so many things in common it’s just crazy. It’s really neat though.”
Instead of feeling like two strangers, says Mimi, “it’s actually really familiar, it’s like we’ve known each other our entire lives.”
All the parallels make their reunion seem like destiny fulfilled. Angel says, “I think it was a long time coming and I think this is supposed to happen for us.” “This has to be an absolute manifestation of God‘s work,” says Mimi, “and it’s absolutely meant to be — I’m supposed to have him in my life.”
None of it may have happened if not for Mimi’s dogged search. Apart from him all those years, she hungered to reconnect and fill a hole that left her feeling incomplete. The more she was around her husband’s tight-knit family, the more she pined for her long lost brother.
“It became almost like a mission to find him because I found myself jealous of the relationship Randy has with his family,” says Mimi. “Yeah, I have Randy and the kids, but there’s nobody like me around, and so I started trying to find him. About once a year, I would go on the Internet and type in his mother’s name and his name and whatever ever little information I had, and nothing would come up. After a while I kind of just gave up because I really didn’t know what else to do.
“I even thought of hiring somebody.”
In the end, it didn’t take a private detective, just prodding from her mother, a key lead from her father, the help of social media and perhaps some divine intervention. Never in her wildest dreams though did she expect finding Angel in Omaha.
Connecting the dots that lead her to Angel happened June 25. She was doing a Facebook search for him when his profile popped up and listed Omaha as his residence. Before going any further, Mimi felt apprehension.
“The strange thing is I was so afraid that he wouldn’t want a relationship, and I don’t know why I felt that way. I thought, Gosh this could be awkward, what if we don’t have anything to say, what if our personalities are so different?”
After exchanging a couple texts, it was clear they were indeed blood and were two sides of the same coin. Angel explained he’d been wanting to reconnect with her, too, but just hadn’t got around yet to searching.
“She was definitely on my mind, but I guess she beat me to the punch,” he says.
Mimi says any fear they would not jive soon disappeared. “Talking to him it was like he was the other half of me. We say the same things, we like the same things, we have the same sense of humor. He was as excited as I was to have found him. It was like instant chemistry.”
He says, “It’s an awesome feeling knowing that I’m not alone in the world, that there’s somebody out there actually just like me.”
After going to bed flush with excitement, Mimi says she awoke the next morning wondering if she’d dreamed it all. “I thought, Was that real, did I really talk to him? I checked my phone and I texted, ‘Are you still there?’ And he texted back, ‘I’m not going anywhere.’”
Again, chalk it up to fate or coincidence, but Mimi and Randy were already booked to come to Omaha when she connected with Angel via the Web. Their story became a communal celebration here, where the reunited siblings’ only desire was to finally get some alone time together. Mission accomplished. They vow never to lose track of each other again. Small chance, given their shared Omaha ties.
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As the July 27-August 1 Native Omaha Days festival draws near I am posting articles I’ve written about this African-Ameican heritage and homecoming event and about closely related topics. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared some years ago, at at time when predominantly African American North Omaha was experiencing a large increase in gun violence and media reports laid out the widespread poverty and achievement gaps affecting that community. In response to dire needs, the African American Empowerment Network was formed and a concerted process begun to to bring about a revitalized North Omaha. Native Omaha leaders and others expressed hope that events like Native Omaha Days and the Omaha Black Music and Community Hall of Fame might serve to unify, heal, and instill pride to help stem the tide of hopelessness and disrespect behind the violence. Things have improved recently and North O really does seen the verge of coming back, thanks in large part to efforts by the Empowerment Network, but the stabilizing role of events like Native Omaha Days shouldn’t be forgotten or dimissed.
Native Omaha Club photo by lachance (Andrew Lachance)
Native Omaha Days: A Black is Beautiful Celebration, Now and All the Days Gone By
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader
Organizers of the 16th biennial Native Omaha Days call it the largest gathering of African-Americans in Nebraska. That in itself makes it a significant event. Thousands fill Salem Baptist Church for the gospel fest, spill into North 24th Street for the social mixer/registration and the homecoming parade, boogie at the Qwest Center dance and chow down on soul food at a Levi Carter Lake Park picnic.
This heritage celebration held every other summer is a great big reunion with many family-class reunions around it. Parties abound. Hotels, casinos, eateries, bars fill. Jam sessions unwind. Bus tours roll. North 24th cruising commences. Stories and lies get told. It’s people of a shared roots experience coming together as one.
Unity is on the minds of natives as their community is poised at a historic juncture. Will North 24th’s heyday be recaptured through new economic-education-empowerment plans? Or will generational patterns of poverty, underemployment, single parent homes, crime and lack of opportunity continue to hold back many? What happens if the cycle of despair that grips some young lives is not broken?
“The Native Omaha homecoming is very important, but a lot of young people don’t know what it’s all about, and that really bothers me,” said Hazel Kellogg, 74, president of the sponsoring nonprofit Native Omahans Club, Inc.. “They’re the future and what we’re trying to do is make them realize how important it is to hang in with your community and to keep your community pulling together for the betterment of our people. OUR people, you know?
“We have a big problem on the north side with violence and crime and all that, and I want to reach out to young people to let them know this homecoming is all about family and friends coming home to be together and enjoy a weekend of good clean fun. Eventually the young people are going to be heading up Native Omaha Days and they need to know what it’s all about.”
She said she hopes the event is a catalyst for ongoing efforts to build up the community again. After much neglect she’s encouraged by signs of revitalization. “I’ve been through it all. I’ve been through the riots. For a long time it moved in a negative direction. Now, I’m very hopeful. We need the whole community to come together with this. Together we stand.”
Vaughn Chatman, 58, shares the same concerns. He left Omaha years ago and the problems he saw on visits from Fair Oaks, Calif., where he now lives, motivated him to found the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame. The Hall seeks to restore the sense of community pride he knew. An induction ceremony held during the Days honors area black artists, athletes, activists, entrepreneurs and leaders. He feels young blacks can only feel invested in the future if exposed to successful folks who look like they do. He works with the Omaha Public Schools to have local black achievers discussed in classroom curricula as a way to give kids positive models to aspire to.
“Back in the day” is an oft-heard phrase of the week-long fest. Good and bad times comprise those memories. Just as World War II-era Omaha saw an influx of blacks from the South seeking packinghouse-railroad jobs, the last 40 years has seen an exodus due to meager economic-job prospects.
photo by Cyclops-Optic (Jack David Hubbell)
Centered in northeast Omaha, the black community hub became North 24th, where Jewish and black-owned businesses catered to every good and service and a vital live music scene thrived. Hence, many Days activities revolve around 24th, which declined after the late ‘60s riots. A few blocks have seen improvements, but much of this former “Street of Dreams” is run down or empty. Gang violence in the district is a problem. It’s concerns like these now spurring coalitions of residents and expatriate natives like Chatman to craft sustainable solutions.
For a change, Karen Davis sees “substance” in the new initiatives targeting rebirth. Enough to make the Native Omahans Club officer feel the area “can be back to where it was or even more. Businesses have come down or moved back, and I think it’s a good thing for us,” she said.
The Native Omahans Club is quartered in a former lounge at 3819 North 24th. During the Days the building and street outside overflow with people reminiscing. Visitors mix with residents, exchanging handshakes, hugs, laughter, tears. Scenes like this unfold all over — anywhere neighborhood-school chums or relatives catch up with each other to relive old times.
“We haven’t seen each other in years, so it’s just a fellowship — what we used to do, what we used to look like…It’s just big fun,” said Davis.
Like countless Omahans, Davis and Kellogg each have friends and family arriving for the Days. No one’s sure just how many out-of-state natives return or the economic impact of their stays, but organizers guess 5,000 to 8,000 make it in and spend millions here. Those hefty numbers lead some to say the event doesn’t get its just due from the city. No matter, it’s a family thing anyway.
“People come in from all over for Native Omaha Days. My family comes from Colorado, Minnesota. It’s a time I can get together with them. I have a friend from Arizona coming I haven’t seen in 20 years. I’ll be so glad to see her. Those are the things that really just keep my heart pumping,” Kellogg said. “It’s just a gala affair.”
For details on the Days visit www.nativeomahans.com or call 457-5974.
- Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- The Ties that Bind, One Family’s Celebration of Native Omaha Days (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A Rich Music History Long Untold is Revealed and Celebrated at the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
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One of the last of the old line ethnic grocery stores in my hometown of Omaha closed down a few years ago. The small Italian market is one my family and I shopped at quite a bit. It was the last of its kind, that is among Italian grocers. Truth be told, there are many ethnic grocers in business here today, only the owners are from the new immigrant enclaves of Latin America and Africa and Asia rather than Europe. The owner of the now defunct A. Marino Grocery, Frank Marino, inherited the business from his father. It was a throwback place little changed from back in the old days. My piece about Frank finally deciding to retire and close the place appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader
The final days of A. Marino Grocery at 1716 South 13th Street were akin to a wake. The first week of October saw old friends, neighbors and customers file in to say goodbye to proprietor Frank Marino, 80, whose late Sicilian immigrant father, Andrea, a sheepherder back in Carlentini, opened the Italian store in 1919.
News of the closing leaked out days before the local daily ran a story about the store’s end. As word spread Marino was deluged with business. Lines of cars awaited him when he arrived one morning. Orders poured in. He and his helpers could hardly keep up. Those who hadn’t heard were disappointed by the news. Some wondered aloud where’d they get their sausage from now on.
A Navy veteran of World War II, Marino long talked of retiring but nobody believed him. Still, decades of 50-60 hour weeks take their toll. When he got an attractive offer for the building he took it. The new owner plans to renovate the space into an interior decorating office on the main level and a residence above it.
Folks stopping by for a last visit knew the store’s passing meant the loss of a prized remnant of Omaha’s ethnic past. Housed in a two-story brick structure whose upstairs apartment the family lived in and Marino was born in, the store represented the last of the Italian grocers serving Omaha’s Little Italy. While the neighborhood’s lost most vestiges of its Italian-Czech heritage, time stood still at the small store. Its narrow aisles, vintage fixtures, wood floors, solid counters, ornate display cabinets and antique scales bespoke an earlier era.
It was a living history museum of Old World charms and ways. No sanitary gloves. Meats and cheeses comingled, but regulars figured it just added to the flavor.
An aproned Marino would often be behind the deli case in back, hovering over the butcher’s block to cut, season, grind and encase choice cuts of beef for the popular sausage he made. He sold hundreds of pounds a week. He carried a full line of imported foods. Parmigiano reggiano, romano, provolone, mozzarella and fresh ricotta cheese. Prosciutto, mortadella, salami, capicolla and pepperoni. Various olives — plain or marinated. Meatballs. Homemade ravioli and other stuffed pastas. Canned tomatoes, packaged pastas, assorted peppers, et cetera. At Christmas he sold specialty candies and baccala, a salted cod used in Italian holiday dishes.
He’d slice, grate, measure, weigh and bag items himself. Nothing was precut. What few helpers he had were mostly old buddies. Banter between the men and with the customers was part of the experience. Characters abounded.
Marino rang up your purchases on an old-style cash register and engaged you in crackle barrel conversation from behind the massive front counter his father had made to order in 1932. Behind the counter, whose built-in drawers stored 20-pound cases of pasta, he’d light up his trademark pipe and shoot the breeze.
“I love being here and I love being around people,” he said.
It was the same way with his father. The two worked side by side for half-a-century. They had their spats, but the disagreements always blew over. There was, after all, a business to run and people to serve. His papa taught him well.
“It’s service-oriented. You’ve got to hand-wait on everybody,” Marino said.
In some cases he waited on three generations in the same family. He enjoyed the association and interaction. “I’ll miss that. There was a lot of closeness, you know.”
That last week people expressed heartache over the closing.
Mary Cavalieri of Omaha shopped there all her life. “It’s really sad,” she said, adding she felt she was losing “a tradition” and “a friend” in the process.
Oakland, Iowa resident Anna D’Angelo was among many who came some distance to shop there. Asked what she’ll miss most, she said, “The sausage and all the Italian specialties, and Frank. He knows everybody by name. He knows what you like. Frank never needs to see my ID. It’s that personal touch you don’t get anymore.”
Omahan Leo Ferzley, an old chum of Marino’s, said, “You hate to see it go, but what do you do? Everybody will miss it. A lot of memories.”
Marino is worried what he’ll do with all his free time. He and his wife plan their first trip to Italy. “That’s all we’ve ever talked about,” he said. One man told him that if the opportunity comes, “whatever you do, don’t pass it up.”
Customers, some whose names he didn’t even know, wished him and his wife well. One wrote a $100 check for the Marinos to treat themselves to a night on the town. As Mary Cavalieri said, “He deserves some retirement time.”
As Marino told someone, “It’s the end of the line. 88 years we’ve been here. Since before I was born. It’s been good to us. But I’m 80-years-old. I think it’s time.” Besides, he said, “I’m wore out.”
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