If historic highways could speak, oh, the stories they would tell. That’s one of the appeals of the Old Lincoln Highway to Omahan Nils Anders Erickson, whose love of old things extends from highways to automobiles to buildings to music. This musician, sound engineer, and owner of Rainbow Music, a combination retail store and recording studio, has indulged his Lincoln Highway fascination by writing a song about the roadway and erecting signage about it outside an old mill he owns that sat on the highwway’s Omaha route. My story about Erickson and his magnficent obsession appeared The Reader (www.thereader.com).
Goin’ Down the Lincoln Highway with Omaha Music Guru Nils Anders Erickson
by Leo Adam Biga
Appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
On a sweltering Sunday afternoon in early July Omaha music guru Nils Anders Erickson takes me for a ride in his PT Cruiser to opine about his magnificent obsession with old things.
The singer-songwriter-musician owns Rainbow Music, a combined recording studio and music store at 2322 South 64th Ave. that features vintage sound equipment and instruments he’s passionate about.
He’s also into Golden Oldie songs, historic buildings, classic cars, and early roadways, especially the old Lincoln Highway. His Cruiser’s adorned with a chrome hood ornament from a 1951 Chevrolet he saved to repurpose in just this way.
The self-styled preservationist opposed CVS building a pharmacy at 49th and Dodge that took out old structures he deemed historic for lining the Lincoln Highway during its Jazz Age heyday.
The highway was not just a practical conveyance when there were few reliable roads but an expression of America’s new liberation, ambition, optimism and restlessness. He advocates saving whatever remnants stand from its active years (1913 to 1929), whether grain elevators, feed mills, silos, barns, office buildings, churches, homes, signs.
He owns what may be the oldest surviving structure still in use on the highway, John Sutter’s Mill, a circa 1875 Mormon-built structure where Saddle Creek Road and Dodge Street meet at 46th. “I just knew it was kind of a magical building and I didn’t know why,” he says. “My building is the last of the Nelson B. Updike empire.” Updike was a feed, grain, lumber and coal magnet and publisher of the Omaha Bee.
“Mormons used to refer to it in diaries as ‘the mill west of Omaha.’ It was painted bright orange a century ago to attract the attention of cross-country travelers.”
His says the site began as a water wheel grist mill before being turned into a planing mill and an outfitters store. He admires its construction.
“When I realized that behind all the crappy two-by-fours and dry wall were 10-by-10 solid chunks of cedar 50 feet long I had a new found respect for the building.” He hopes it one day becomes a Lincoln Highway museum or antique shop or coffeehouse.
The huge billboard Erickson erected above his Sutter’s Mill in midtown Omaha
The two-story 4,000 square foot building most recently housed National Cash Register, whose machines he would gawk at as a kid.
“When I was little I’d walk by it and be fascinated with the weird stuff in the windows – those mechanical things and different colored cash registers. So I was always drawn to the building.”
Erickson’s mounted an enormous billboard on site to commemorate his beloved highway’s legacy and Omaha being mid-point on the coast-to-coast route. The billboard replicates the L logo design and red, white and blue motif of the highway’s signage. An arrow pointing east informs eastbound travelers they have 1.353 miles to go to New York City. An arrow pointing west alerts westbound travelers they are 1,786 miles from San Francisco. Generations ago a large Welcome sign with Lincoln Highway above it greeted travelers at 18th and Farnam.
He’s also erected a Lincoln Highway marker that replicates the official markers that once dotted the side of the road every mile along its entire 3,400 mile path.
He feels Omaha could do more to celebrate its highway heritage.
“Before I put a sign up outside my building there was no Lincoln Highway sign in the whole city designating its history.”
Metropolitan Community College’s Elkhorn campus has a photo display of the highway under construction. The Boys Town archives traces the highway’s connection to the home. There are highway displays at the Great Platte River Road Archway in Kearney. “They’ve done a wonderful job with the exhibits,” Erickson says of the attraction..
If Erickson had his way every building the highway ran by would sport a sign or plaque about it.
“There’s car nuts, there’s building nuts, there’s highway nuts, and I find it aggravating that I’m all three and no one else is,” says Erickson, who could have added music nut to the list.
Given his musical bent it’s not surprising he wrote a theme song for the Lincoln Highway Association’s recent centennial celebration in Kearney and took photos of landmarks along the Omaha route to accompany the music. His countryesque ditty set to images is on YouTube.
I’m goin’ down the Lincoln Highway, I’m goin’ down the Lincoln Highway, Ga ga golly, I’m going down the Lincoln Highway.
“My song and video are trying to raise awareness of the Lincoln Highway all over the United States.”
He’s also created a website about the highway and his mill.
When it comes to motor vehicles and roads he prefers some age-worn history and character to them. Memories attach themselves to places and things and the Lincoln Highway carried the hopes, dreams and experiences of people. Road trips are part of the American DNA. Beat writer Jack Kerouac captured this spirit in his existential On the Road:
“In no time at all we were back on the main highway and that night I saw the entire state of Nebraska unroll before my eyes. A hundred and ten miles an hour straight through, an arrow road, sleeping towns, no traffic, and the Union Pacific streamliner falling behind us in the moonlight. I wasn’t frightened at all that night; it was perfectly legitimate to go 110 and talk and have all the Nebraska towns – Ogallala, Gothenburg, Kearney, Grand Island, Columbus – unreel with dreamlike rapidity as we roared ahead and talked.”
Built entirely by private interests to be the nation’s first coast-to-coast thoroughfare, the highway opened at a time when most roads, including many sections of the highway itself, were unpaved. As more folks sought the freedom a motor vehicle promised it was obvious the country’s roads needed improving.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower cited the arduous cross-country convoy he took on the highway as a young military officer with motivating him to authorize the creation of the U.S. interstate system.
As the first of its kind the highway owns a romantic mystique among history buffs and nostalgia fans. Much fanfare attended its October 31, 1913 dedication. Burgs across America celebrated with torchlight parades, bonfires, speeches, auto races, fireworks and cannon volleys. Some credit Omaha with the biggest celebration of all. A crowd estimated at more than 10,000 gathered outside city hall for a giant bonfire fueled by three train carloads of railroad ties from Union Pacific Railroad. Smaller bonfires lit up the sky in towns along the Platte River.
Long before the fabled Route 66 and decades before heavily traveled Interstate 80 was even imagined, Lincoln became known as America’s main street because it connected so many cities and towns all the way from Times Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. The highway spurred much development along its route.
“I think it’s basically a national hidden treasure,” says Erickson. “You can actually drive the Lincoln Highway and there’s parts of it where the original brick surface is still intact and you can reexperience what your great-grandfather did. It’s America the way it used to be without the bad parts.
“My dad would be out selling grain elevators all over the country and he’d throw two or three of us in the back seat of the car and half the time we were on the Lincoln Highway in our family’s Pontiac. No air conditioning. When you finally got to a little cafe it was heaven. You’d eat at these special places on America’s hIghway.”
The pull of those times is still great 60 years later.
“I don’t know, it’s in my blood.”
His fixation has something to do with his first love, music. He likes that big bands on the Midwest circuit traversed the highway “in those torpedo-shaped trailers” to get from gig to gig. Decades later he did the same, only in trucks, to run sound and lights for national acts.
“So it ties back to Omaha and to my recording studio and my background in music.”
For our Lincoln Highway sampler we make a circuitous 18-mile trek from the Omaha riverfront’s Lewis & Clark Landing to Elkhorn, where a three-mile stretch of brick survives, With nearly each landmark we pass Erickson offers historical tidbits and traces his fascination with the highway that long ago was rerouted and renamed US 30.
“In Omaha most of the Lincoln Highway is still there. It’s just under two or three layers of asphalt. We have a few things in Omaha that are one of a kind and the only ones left.”
The route starts on Douglas, snakes to Farnam around midtown, cuts over to Dodge, then jumps to Cass before resuming on West Dodge.
The former Hupmobile dealership in downtown Omaha
When it comes to highway landmarks, Erickson’s prefers old ones but appreciates new ones as well. “To me the Holland Center is a new landmark on the Lincoln Highway,” he says of the performing arts venue at 12th and Douglas.
“One of the most famous (old) landmarks is the Brandeis Building,” he says of the flagship for the J.L. Brandeis & Sons department store empire that reigned at 16th and Douglas for most of the 20th century.
He considers St. Mary Magdalene Church at 19th and Dodge a distinctive site for having “a door to nowhere” after downtown was lowered by dozens of feet.
A beautiful ballroom is among the distinguishing features of the Scottish Rite Masonic Center at 20th and Douglas.
He admires the “beautifully restored” former Riviera and Paramount theater, later known as the Astro and now The Rose at 20th and Farnam.
He likes that the Fraternal Order of Eagles building at 24th and Douglas hosts swing nights. “It’s kind of fun being in a historic building with the jitterbug,” he says.
Two of Omaha’s most impressive edifices, Central High School and Joslyn Art Museum, are only a block north of the highway.
He feels one of the most significant highway buildings is the former Hupmobile dealership at 2523 Farnam. The Hupp Auto Company built the popular car before being squeezed by the industry’s major players. He says the vacant building’s original showroom floor is intact as is the freight elevator for moving cars from floor to floor.
“I hope someone that cares will do something with that building. It would make a great auto museum,” he suggests.
The dealership was part of Omaha’s original Auto Row.
The All Makes Office Equipment and Barnhart Press buildings on the north side of Farnam are handsome structures housing multi-generation family businesses but what really makes Erickson excited is ”a wonderful one-block stretch of brick north of them that enables you to actually experience what it felt like,” he says.
Kountze Memorial Lutheran Church at 2650 Farnam is one of Omaha’s oldest worship places.
He says hungry, weary highway travelers found eateries (Virginia Cafe, Tiner’s Drive-in) and hotels (the Fontenelle, the Blackstone) up and down its eastern Omaha route, Motorists would have gawked at Gold Coast mansions such as the Storz mansion at 3708 Farnam.
The Tudor-style building housing McFoster’s Natural Kind Cafe was once a White Rose gas station. Erickson recalls, “We’d be coming back from church and I’d always want Mom to get gas at that ‘castle’ across the street from the Storz mansion with gargoyles and trolls leaning out of the windows. These buildings were right out of children’s books I read. White Rose built odd buildings and this was one of their prettiest. I think it’s one of the few of its type left in the country.”
The Welcome to Omaha and Lincoln Highway sign that greeted motorists
The Admiral Theater sat at 40th and Farnam until it was razed.
Erickson says. “My slogan in Omaha is, ‘…and then the bastards tore it down.’” Jutting over to Dodge, he notes the Joslyn Castle is worth a stop a block north on Davenport. Continuing west on Dodge we arrive at his building. Since acquiring the former mill he’s used it as a staging space to assemble sound and lighting equipment for installs.
“That business has sort of fallen off, so I need to do something with the building now,” says Erickson.
As we reach 49th and Dodge he says, “Up until two years ago all four corners were intact from the Lincoln Highway. The Hilltop House duplicated a Bavarian restaurant. It was all pine inside. Reniers Piano was the Dundee Hotel and the Sunset Tearoom. The three buildings CVS tore down were all historic because they were on the Lincoln Highway. The 49er was a bakery. The coffeehouse was a pharmacy, The third was one the first self-service grocery stores in Omaha.”
He anoints historic status to the Dundee Theatre. The same to the Saddle Creek underpass and the pedestrian tunnel at 51st and Dodge.
He says long ago “there was a camp grounds at Elmwood Park” where motorists could spend the night before resuming their journeys. The park also contained a lagoon with a structure for monkeys. “The city fathers didn’t know monkeys can swim, so Monkey Island eventually became Monkeys in Dundee because after a week of getting free food they got bored and went all over Dundee.
The renowned Omaha Community Playhouse is a block north of the highway’s route.
We go another mile west and he says, “So here we are on 78th and Dodge. We’re taking a hard right because that’s the way the Lincoln Highway went. The New Tower Inn was at 78th. Before that it was the Tower Motor Court and before that it was a camp ground called
Towers Tours Village.” We arrive on Cass Street and the site of what used to be Peony Park and the extensive peony fields of Carl Rosenfield. Both were right on the highway’s path.
Erickson’s found brochures and postcards illustrating how attractions on the highway, such as Peony Park and Boys Town, marketed themselves as way-stops for travelers.
Following Cass west we merge onto West Dodge Road, where almost everything post-dates the highway. A major exception is Boys Town. Founder Father Edward Flanagan relocated his residence for homeless boys from downtown Omaha to the Overlook Farm right on the highway in 1921. Boys Town historians say Flanagan publicly touted the highway as a great avenue to see America and he invited motorists to follow it right up to Boys Town’s front door. Many did just that. Boys walked or hitchhiked their way on the highway to the home. So many made their way to Boys Town via the highway that in the ’30s Flanagan had some of the youths build a covered travel stop, of which there were few and far between then, as a comfort station.
The 1938 movie Boys Town includes scenes shot on the highway, including Pee-Wee being hit by a car.
Finally, we reach the ribbon of bricks in Elkhorn, where Erickson says, “You actually get a feel for driving on the road. This vista right here could be any day, any time. This is kind of what I remember driving in our old Pontiac with Dad. We’d hit a stretch of brick and, vroom, he’d put on the gas more. I don’t know why. I suppose he liked it, too. The highway was a lot nicer then because it was flat and smooth. Today it’s used as an access road. That’s part of the problem. The trucks are getting bigger and heavier and the road gets wavier.”
Stretch of the Lincoln Highway in Elkhorn, Neb.
He says the brick remains because people knew well enough to leave it alone.
“I mean, the reason it’s still here is that nobody needed to make it all pretty and nice and concrete. If they had, that concrete would be destroyed by now. The bricks are still here. Bricks will last forever, Concrete lasts maybe 20 years.
“If it had been in Omaha we would have paved it a long time ago.”
The Douglas County Board passed a resolution to preserve the brick segment for future generations. Milepost 1437 to 1438 was entered in the National Register of Historic Places. The historic mile was rededicated July 17, 1988. State historical markers offer background.
It’s all music to Erickson’s ears, whose eclectic music pedigree is the root of his love of history and nostalgia for bygone eras. He grew up listening to Johnny Mathis, James Brown, Motown. Then came the British Invasion bands. He was steeped too in traditional tunes from his family’s Swedish heritage. It’s why his repertoire today ranges from the Swedish folk song Can You Whistle Johanna? to the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen and pretty much everything in between.
“The best compliment I ever got was that my music is a cross between Frank Zappa and Bob Marley.”
His older siblings played in bands and he tagged along with them.
“They played at Mickey’s A-Go-Go and the Peppermint Cave and they dragged me around when I was like 6. I thought I was a roadie and they thought they were babysitting. So I was exposed to this wonderful monster music. I wrote my first song when I was about 4. I’ve written about 4,000 songs. Some of them are good and some of them are appreciated by people. ‘Shit Head, the Love Song’ was the most requested song the Fish Heads did, and it’s one of my mine.”
Erickson’s fronted several bands. He says his Wee Willie and the Rockin Angels broke attendance records at Peony Park. Today he gigs with his own Paddy O Furniture jam band. He’s sat in with many other groups. He’s been a fixture on the Omaha music scene not only for his music but for his work as a sound and lighting engineer. He’s made custom speaker cabinets and sound systems for decades.
Lincoln Highway National Museum & Archives
“We provided sound for Sprite Night at Peony Park all those years. Those were the original raves – 3,000 kids outdoors dancing to ‘dashboard light’ with a sound system you could hear pretty clear about two blocks away. It’s just cool to have that volume switch. You need it a little louder?”
He’s worked with musical artists of every genre:
The Beach Boys
The Isley Brothers
“When we were doing sound jobs for national acts all over the country sometimes I’d scoot on an old highway for awhile.”
Peony Park Sprite Night
When North O thrived as a jazz, R&B, funk and soul hub he did sound and lights for enough African American bands here – L.A. Carnivale, Crackin’ – to get inducted into the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame.
311, Boyz to Men and Jordan Sparks have all recorded at his funky Rainbow Music. But it’s the audio gear he buys, sells, trades and records on that really gets him amped up.
“We have all the new digital gear but to make the digital sound good you have to bring in some old tube gear. We basically made all of our own equipment because they hadn’t invented it yet. The old stuff still sounds better. We’re like the dinosaur on the block. Today you’d need about 24 of the hip new boxes to equal the sound pressure four old ones produce. At Rainbow you can record through some of the best gear they had back in the ’50s and ’60s to give it that fat, warm sound.
“We started acquiring all this tube analog tape gear and every piece we came up with was tied to famous recording studios and artists. We’ve got half the PA system used for the Grateful Dead, all the tube mixers Motown would have had. We have equipment from Sun Studio in Memphis, Sound City in L.A. and from other legendary studios.”
He’s no Elvis or Dylan, but he carries his catchy Lincoln Highway tune with great aplomb.
Got my baby sittin’ by my side, ’40s chop top, I got the ultimate ride
Since 1913…100 years ago today
Everybody’s driven’ cross the USA
I’m goin’ on the Lincoln Highway
I’m hopin’ to see you…somewhere along the way
He’s happy if his music video homage to the highway spurs wider interest in the history behind it.
“It’s been buried for so long, it’s almost like we destroy or shy away from history.”
He loves discovering and sharing that history, saying, “Give me a little kernel of information and I’ll go dig up some more stuff. That’s half the fun.” He also believes fate led him to the mill and its highway lineage.
“Magical things like that happen to me all the time. People call it coincidences. I call ‘em little tiny miracles.”
Visit his website at lincolnhighwaynebraska.com.
- Lincoln Highway turns 100, still in use (newsnet5.com)
- Celebrating 100 years of the Lincoln Highway (cnnphotos.blogs.cnn.com)
- Lincoln Highway Gumshoes: To Bedford and Back (jennifersopko.wordpress.com)
- Loyalhanna Creek parcel preserved by conservancy (triblive.com)
There can’t be too many people who’ve done what Dan Goodwin and Robert Armstrong of Omaha have done. Both men we’re at the historic 1963 March on Washington that became famous for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In 1995 Goodwin went to D.C,.for the Million Man March. In 2009 Armstrong journeyed to the nation’s capital for Barack Obama’s first presidential inaugration. That’s a lot of history between these two African American gentlemen. Those weren’t their only brushes with history either. They recently spoke with me about their memories from the ’63 March on Washington for the following story to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com). My path has interesected with them before. You’ll find on this blog a cover story I did about Goodwin and his Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barber Shop that I refer to in the story. That earlier piece is called “We Cut Heads and Broaden Minds Too.” Also available on the blog are two cover stories I did about the noted race documentary A Time for Burning, which as I allude to in the story shot some pivotal scenes at the shop. And I was embedded with a group of Nebraskans, among them Armstrong, who bused to the 2009 O’Bama inauguration. That story can be found under the heading, “Freedom Riders: A Get on the Bus Inauguration Diary.”
Omahans Recall Historic 1963 March on Washington
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omahans Robert Armstrong and Dan Goodwin were among the estimated quarter of a million people gathered 50 years ago on the National Mall for the historic event. As young black men active in the civil rights movement they went to show solidarity for the cause of equality. Each was a military veteran and family man. Each had felt the sting of racism and gotten busy confronting it.
Armstrong had been a member of the NAACP Youth Council in his native St. Joseph, Mo., where he participated in demonstrations. He led the integration of a movie theater in his hometown. By 1963 Omaha native Goodwin already made his Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barbershop a haven for political discourse. It’s where Ernie Chambers held court en route to winning election to the Nebraska Legislature. Goodwin was involved in the social action group 4CL and its efforts to combat discrimination. Goodiwin helped organize a local speaking appearance by Omaha native Malcolm X the next year and his shop played a prominent role in the 1968 race documentary A Time for Burning.
At the time of the march Armstrong was teaching high school with his wife Edwardene in east Texas. The couple moved to Omaha a year later. She embarked on a teaching career with the Omaha Public Schools, whose quota of black male teachers denied him getting on there. He broke barriers as the first black professional to work at Mutual of Omaha’s home office and went on to a city government career, eventually heading the Omaha Housing Authority.
He attended the 1963 march to honor his late father, an AFL-CIO field representative. The union co-organized the march. In 1960 the family home hosted AFL-CIO titan Walter Reuther, other labor leaders and King. Mere months before the ’63 march Armstrong’s father, who was slated to attend, was killed in an automobile accident and his son felt compelled to go in his place.
Goodwin says he attended the march because “I felt I needed to be involved…” He shared the expectations of Armstrong and others that it would foster change. “We hoped it would bring people together. Of course we needed more than a feel good moment.”
Despite oppressive heat that summer day the crowds were larger than anticipated and none of the predicted disturbances occurred. Neither Armstrong nor Goodwin had ever seen that many folks assembled at one time. They couldn’t get anywhere close to the Lincoln Memorial, where the presenters were, and the sound from the speakers wasn’t always clear but both men were struck by the prevailing calm mood.
“The atmosphere was tremendous, it was awesome,” recalls Goodwin. “In a word what I saw was unity. People felt for the day or for that period of time empowered. It made you feel like some things were really going to change.”
Armstrong remembers “the sense of purpose of people knowing why they were there – the fight for freedom, integration,” adding, “We had no idea of the magnitude of the people that were going to be there. That was overwhelming, seeing all the people from so many different places.”
Before King came on civil rights stalwarts Reuther, A. Philip Randolph, John Lewis, Whitney Young and Roy Wilkins spoke. Artists Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Mahalia Jackson and Marion Anderson performed. As the program drew on the crowd grew a bit restless, anxious to get out of the sun. That changed when King launched into what became known as the “I Have a Dream” speech.
“About three minutes into it you realized this is a different kind of speech,” says Armstrong. “You could hear the attention go back to the podium. When he got to the point about the blank check (“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check.”) people really got into listening to what he was saying. From that point all attention was on him.
“When people talk about Dr. King’s speech they concentrate on the ‘I Have a Dream’ portion because that’s what people wanted to hear. But they seem to have forgotten he also talked about accountability and responsibility…We saw his speech as a call to action.”
It was the culmination of a black pride-filled gathering.
“I felt like it was our day,” says Goodwin. “I just felt like we really had something going on.”
Armstrong says, “You felt good about the day, the day had gone well. We’d heard a great speech and we hoped the nation would rally to offer more freedom, jobs, integration.” Back home, pragmatic reality set in that “the discrimination you faced yesterday” was still there.
“People went back and fought for the things they talked about that day. It still took a lot of work by a lot of people in different locations in different ways to make these things happen.”
Goodwin saw the march as a positive thing that ushered in major civil rights protections but he says the dream MLK and others envisioned is far from being fulfilled.
“I feel a strong sense of disappointment about the way things are today. Racism is hot and heavy in this country.”
Both Goodwin and Armstrong returned to the site of the ’63 march for more recent history-making occasions, In 1995 Goodwin bused into D.C. for the Million Man March and in 2009 Armstrong and his wife joined other area residents on a bus trip to the Obama inauguration.
Armstrong says Obama’s swearing in as the nation’s first black president “was a much happier occasion than the March on Washington,” adding, “The inauguration was a celebration – the march was a plea for justice.” Goodwin feels Obama’s presidency has been rendered more symbolic than anything by partisan politics.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.
- Obama to speak on 50th anniversary of March on Washington (upi.com)
- March on Washington leader John Lewis: ‘This is not a post-racial society’ (theguardian.com)
- 50th anniversary of King speech to be marked (newsday.com)
- Obama says income inequality could worsen racial tensions (thegrio.com)
The Great Plains Theatre Conference in Omaha is always looking for new ways to connect with audiences and in the following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) I share the latest attempt to bring theater to where people live. The conference’s PlayFest is presenting Neighborhood Tapestries in two well-defined inner city communities that don’t always have the kind of access to theater that other communities do. The idea of these tapestries is for people of these communities to share various aspects of their neighborhood’s art, music, culture, and history.
Tapestries to celebrate Omaha neighborhoods; Theater by any other name
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The play’s still the thing with the Great Plains Theatre Conference but organizers are making a concerted effort to expand theater’s definition in order to connect more people to it.
The May 26-29 PlayFest is the Metropolitan Community College conference’s answer to making theater more accessible. That means staging works at nontraditional sites, including one along the riverfront, and, new this year, holding Neighborhood Tapestries in the inner city.
The inaugural tapestries, a cross-between a chautauqua, a street arts event, a storytelling festival, a salon and a variety show, will happen outdoor on separate dates in North and South Omaha. Each neighborhood’s art, culture and history will be celebrated through a loose program of music, poetry, stories, dance and other creative expressions. The performers will include professionals and amateurs.
Union for Contemporary Art
Chapman, an actress and stage director, is the Omaha Community Playhouse education director and a Metropolitan Community College theater instructor. She’s worked with a team to produce the event.
“We’re creating a thread,” she says. “We are thinking of our show as a block. So who are these people on the block? Borrowing from Sesame Street. who are the people in your neighborhood? We want to have this musical and movement throughline with these transitional words and the sharing of these stories as people get up and talk about community and food, growing up on the North Side, memories of their mothers and just all these different people you might encounter on a street in North Omaha.
“That thread allows us to plug in people as we get them, as they see fit. Who knows what could happen with the evening. We’ve got that flexibility. It’s not a rigid the-curtain-opens and this-series-of-events needs to happen for the show to make sense and come to some conclusion. Instead it’s this nice woven piece that says here are some things that happened, here are some reflections, here is some music , here’s a body in space moving. Hopefully at the end you’re like, Oh, let’s get around this circle and have a conversation.”
She says GPTC producing artistic director Kevin Lawler gave her a “very open” script to take the event wherever she wanted.
“I’m excited about this project because it allows us to explore the concept that we’re all performers with this urge to tell a story or to share this happening or to recount this thing that happened to us. But where’s the platform for that? When do we get together and do it? What we’re doing is throwing some artists and musicians and actors in the mix. It’s engaging us as theater practitioners to not be so static in our art form and it engages the community to understand that theater isn’t this other thing that happens on the other side of the city.”
Featured storytellers include Nancy Williams, Felicia Webster, Peggy Jones and Dominque Morgan, all of whom will riff and reflect on indelible characters and places from North O’s past and present.
Jazz-blues guitarist George Walker will lay down some smooth licks.
Member youth from the North Omaha Boys and Girls Club will present an art project they created. Works by Union for Contemporary Art fellows will be displayed.
Chapman sees possibilities for future North O programs like Tapestries that celebrate its essence. She says such programs are invitations for the public to experience art and own it through their own stories.
“Then you start having those conversations and then you realize the world is a lot smaller than you think it is,” she says. “It just starts to close the gap. So yeah I think there’s a real possibility for it to grow and create these little pockets of reminders that we’re all performers and we all need our platforms for creation.”
The May 29 South Omaha tapestry will take a similar approach in fleshing out the character and personalities of that part of town. The site is Omaha South High’s Collins Stadium, 22nd Ave. and M Street. Director Scott Working, the theater program coordinator at MCC, says he’s put together an event with “a little music, a little storytelling, a little poetry to let people know some of the stories and some of the history of the neighborhood.”
He says he got a big assist from Marina Rosado in finding Latino participants. Rosado, a graphic designer, community television host and leader of her own theater troupe, La Puerta, will also emcee the program. She led Working to retired corporate executive David Catalan, now a published poet. Catalan’s slated to read from three poems written as a homage to his parents.
Rosado also referred Working to artist and storyteller Linda Garcia.
“I will be doing a storytelling segment based on my Abuelita (Grandmother) Stories,” says Garcia. “The story I am telling is an actual story of my abuelita, Refugio ‘Cuca’ Hembertt, and my exposure to her insatiable reading habits. That led to my discovery and connection with languages and the power of words.*
Even Louie M’s Burger Lust owner Louie Marcuzzo has been marshaled to tell South O tales.
Also on tap are performances by the South High School Louder Than a Bomb slam poetry team, Ballet Folklorico Xitol, the Dave Salmons polka duo and a youth mariachi band. Working also plans to bring alive an El Museo Latino exhibit of Latinos in Omaha. Individuals will read aloud in English the subects’ bios as a video of the subjects reading their own stories in Spanish plays. He says his inspiration for the evening’s revolving format is the Encyclopedia Shows that local artists and poets put on.
“It’s a combination of like standup and poetry and music and theater,” Working says. “It’s relaxed, it’s fun. Plus, I don’t think I could get David Catalan and Louie Marcuzzo to come to six rehearsals to get it right. I trust them.”
Rosado embraces the format.
“I believe in the power of art. Music, dance, literature, theater and all cultural expressions can change a person’s life. That’s why I am so excited about the event. Scott has a genuine interest in showcasing the best of our community. Tapices is the word in Spanish for tapestries and I can hardly wait to see the unique piece of art that will be made at the end of this month.”
Catalan feels much the same, saying, “Stories told as a performing art leave lasting impressions on audiences and motivate many to learn more about heritage and ancestry.” He applauds Metro for its outreach to inner city Omaha’s “rich cultural history in the transitional ethnic populations.”
Lawler says Tapestries enables the conference “to be more rooted in the community,” particularly underserved communities. “I wanted to go further into involving the community and being something relevant for the community. That’s why I want to generate these stories from the community. It’s kind of a lifelong quest I have to keep looking at the art form and saying, ‘What are we doing that’s working but what are we doing that’s not working very well’ That’s part of the reason the whole PlayFest is free. Theater is just priced out of society’s ability to go. That doesn’t work.”
Just as Chapman feels Tapestries can continue to mine North O’s rich subject matter, Working feels the same about South O. He adds that other neighborhoods, from Benson to Bellevue, could be mined as well.
Both the North O and South O events kick off with food, art displays and music at 6:30 p.m. Storytelling begins at 7:30.
For the complete PlayFest schedule, visit http://www.mccneb,edu/theatreconference.
- Artists running with opportunity to go to the next level; Carver Bank resident artists bring new life to area (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Kevin Lawler Guides Ever Evolving Theater Conference to Put More Focus on Fewer Plays and Playwrights and to Connect Deeper with Community (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Community-builders Jose and Linda Garcia Devote Themselves to a Life Promoting Latino Art, Culture, History
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in the New Horizons
Jose Francisco Garcia and Linda Garcia are one of those meant-to-be couples you rarely meet in real life. They’ve very different people in some ways and clealry alike in others but what they have at their core is an abiding respect and appreciation for each other.
Call them simpatico.
These retirees are two of the busiest people you’ll ever know. They immerse themselves in community activities that seek to enrich, educate and entertain.
Both bring diverse experiences and gifts to their relationship and to their community-centered work. Jose, 67, has business and organizational acumen from his years as an activist, program developer and corporate officer. He also brings a certain discipline from his stint in the U.S. Army. Linda, 66, is a artist, storyteller, teacher and former children’s librarian, with a fine aesthetic sensibility and keen intuition.
He’s the fly-in-the-ointment agitator. She’s the smooth-everything-over nurturer.
Though he says he’s a loner by nature, he doesn’t mind public displays and isn’t shy about promoting himself or Linda or their work. That’s not the case with her. You won’t find the many awards she’s been honored with displayed in their home.
“I’m not a commodity. I don’t want to be. I have a real hard time tooting my own horn,” she says. “To get people to pull stuff from me is real hard. I don’t like to be in the limelight that much. There for a while I couldn’t even sign my artwork because it’s not really just me, it’s a gift that comes through me. I really feel that.”
The multimedia artist works with lots of recycled materials, including cardboard and paper, to create sculptures, cutouts, toys and dolls.
She says she gets so lost in her work that “time is distorted,” adding, “I could be working on a project thinking it’s only been an hour and it’s been six hours.”
“The real world means nothing to her” in those creative reveries, says Jose, who credits whatever aesthetic awareness he’s gained to her.
Each is knowledgable and passionate about the art, culture and history of their shared Chicano roots. They’ve spent countless hours studying Mexican art, traveling to exhibitions, workshops, conferences. For decades they’ve collected Mexican art objects and materials and shared them with the public.
“We’re Chicanos. What we do is we share art history and culture – that’s what Chicanos do and we’ve lived by that credo,” says Jose.
Their largest scale event to date is Music to My Bones, an exhibition and celebration of Dia de los Muertos or The Day of the Dead that runs October 6 through November 12 at the Bancroft Street Market in South Omaha.
In addition to displaying original artwork by contemporary artists from the metro and Mexico the multimedia event features art presentations, art classes and live music and dance performances.
“We’re showing all those aspects of the Day of the Dead, from the traditional to the modern, and how people in the United States and in other regions, especially artists, have embraced the Day of the Dead,” says Linda. “It’s crossed cultures, it’s crossed religions, it’s crossed ages, it’s crossed regions as an expression of death, of talking about death in a positive way.”
The exhibit is dedicated to the memories of Isabel “Chavela” Gonzales Hernandez and the Barrientos brothers – Vidal, Juan and Panfilo – and their musical contributions to the community. Linda’s designed a large music ofrenda installation in honor of those two families and other Latino artists.
“We want it to be multidimensional for people who honestly want to know the tradition and culture of Dia de los Muertos.” says Jose. “We’ll have everything from ofrendas to presentations to kiosks to musical groups. We want to blanket it as best we can. And we have so much material we can put into action. It’s going to be relevant and traditional and not made up. The art’s going to be primo.
“We have a collection of metal works – candelabras – from Mexico. We have a huge collection of calaveras sugar skulls. Dioramas. So it’s a chance for us to utilize our collection.”
Jose will also be drawing on his huge Spanish music archive “to give body to the work.”
The dozens of artists and musicians participating in the show were “hand-picked” by Linda. “I want to highlight these artists and musicians. I feel like a mom to them,” she says.D
Among the featured artists she’s adopted is Bart Vargas, who’s come to appreciate what she and Jose contribute to artists like himself.
“Personally, I am very pleased to be working with Jose and Linda,” he says. “As a mixed blood artist I have often struggled with having a metaphorical foot in two worlds, never quite feeling a sense of belonging to either. As a child I had very little exposure to half of my origins, often feeling like an immigrant to my own Mexican heritage. I am excited to work with Jose and Linda because the upcoming exhibit is the first time that I get to work within the context of my own cultural heritage. Both Jose and Linda are very generous, knowledgeable and approachable. I have already learned much from them and look forward to working with them again.”
Much as the Garcias collect art, they collect artists, whom they work with over and over again. The exhibits the couple curate flow from their collection, which they began accumulating shortly after marrying in 1977.
“She didn’t become a material collector until I come around,” Jose says of Linda. “She was a spiritual collector. Everything was here,” he says, indicating her head.
Many of their acquisitions come from trips they’ve made to their ancestral homeland. They’ve now amassed private holdings that would be the envy of any museum. Their multi-story Bemis Park neighborhood home, whose oak-finished interior is in the Craftsman style, is filled with art and artifacts from basement to attic.
“We surround ourselves with our collection,” Linda says. “You’ll see we don’t take care of some household things because we spend all our money on art and books.”
Off-site storage units contain the rest.
At one point they did operate the Las Artes Cultural Center in South Omaha as a venue for showing some of their vast Mexican wares. More recently they formed the Mexican American Historical Society of the Midlands as a kind of extension of their collection. They now serve on the board of the organization, for whom they curate exhibitions and programs.
They often dip into their collection for presentations and workshops. Linda is an artist for the Nebraska Arts Council Artist in Schools and Communities residency program. She just finished a three-month summer residency at the Omaha South Branch Library, where she taught Mexican folk arts. She covered repujado (metal embossing), pinturas de amate (bark painting), nichos (Mexican decorative boxes), papel picado (Mexican paper cutting art), pinata making, printmaking and yarn painting of the indigenous Huichols and wood carving and painting of the indigenous Oaxaca people.
Maria Teresa Gaston, emeritus director of the Center for Service and Justice at Creighton University, has had the pleasure of being taught by Linda.
“One of my favorite experiences with Linda was attending an art workshop she led when she and Jose had Las Artes. She taught us how to make Mexican-styled cut metal ornaments from soda cans. I loved being in her presence and being led to connect with ancient traditions and release my own creative spirit. I have often thought of that Saturday morning and longed for more of that mentoring.
“She has a way of teaching that calls out beauty and belief in all who are with her.”
Gaston’s also enjoyed Garcia’s storytelling talent.
“This past summer I had the opportunity to hear Linda present stories and lead 50 young Latinas in hands-on artwork and personal exploration as a part of the Latina Summer Academy. Linda had the girls in the palm of her hand. They listened so attentively as she presented folk stories of love and beauty.”
Linda also teaches at Granville Villa Retirement Center, the South Omaha Boys and Girls Club, the Joslyn Art Museum and other sites.
Whatever the program or subject or theme, the Garcias likely have a ready archive or reference or example at hand to give the project depth or perspective. If they don’t have what they need themselves, they get it.
“We’ve used our material to design exhibits and as teaching materials. I use it a lot to teach,” says Linda. “Anything we do, whether an exhibit or a talk, we do a lot of research. That’s the reason we have a collection, because we use it.”
Jose says the sizable library they’ve cultivated invariably contains books that “bubble up whenever we have a project.”
Their teaching and research often lead to new collecting interests.
For example, as soon as the couple began teaching about Oaxacan wood carvings, Jose says they had to have them, and so they collected them. “Now we own about 15 Oaxacan wood carving objects. Thats’ the story of our lives.” Thus, the collection ever expands as they add new elements. Their hard cover book collection alone numbers in the thousands.
Linda’s not alone in presenting the material. Jose, a trustee with the Nebraska State Historical Society and a former Douglas County Historical Society board member, also does his share of presenting and teaching. Gaston can attest to his ability to hold an audience.
“I fondly remember a presentation Jose gave on the life of Frida Kahlo (the Mexican painter and wife of Diego Rivera). Jose is a great teacher and his words were accompanied by the power of the images he presented and the beautiful papel picado hanging behind him – works of Linda’s hands.”
Jose has also taken it upon himself to document Omaha Latino life through photographs. He makes a point of showing up and snapping pics, these days mostly with a digital camera, at countless community events. He posts the images to his Picasa web albums on Google-Plus. Sometimes his photos are published in El Perico and other local publications.
Gaston says, “I love seeing Jose around the community at events of all kinds.”
“You can call him a community photographer,” says Linda.
He also searches out documents and photos that illustrate the long, rich history and culture of Latino Omaha. Just one of his discoveries is an original framed poster printed in Spanish promoting a 1935 Cinco de Mayo celebration in Omaha. The event was sponsored by the Sociedad Mutualista Mexicana or Mexican Mutual Aid Society, founded in 1928. He says the society operated a school called Lazaro de Cardenas, where English was taught to Mexican immigrants, and took a census.
What’s important to know, he says, is that “we had neighborhoods that had experiences with our ancestral artistic and historic culture that was relevant to American history but we weren’t being taught it, we never learned it in public school. We learned from our own community. There was a Mexican community.”
He says most of the local Mexican population then was based in South Omaha. The railroads and packinghouses were their main employers.
“The history and contributions of Mexican-Americans to Omaha is such an important part of our story,” says Gaston, “and Jose so reverently, professionally and passionately keeps this history alive for Latinos and non-Latinos. He presents the courage and beauty and also the luchas (battles) and sufferings of La Raza (Spanish-speaking peoples). His leadership and advocacy on behalf of the Latino community have inspired young and old.”
She says the Garcias are nothing less than “community builders,” adding, “Jose and Linda’s incredible dedication to the well-being of the Latino community and the Omaha community deserves great thanks.”
Both Garcias are on the Speakers Bureau for the Nebraska Humanities Council. She’s a storyteller with NHC’s Prime Time Family Reading program at the South Branch Library.
Because of the amount of material in the Garcias’ possession, ranging from sculpture to fabric to paper objects to books, only a fraction can be displayed at any given time. So they bring out small selections to present with their talks and programs, et cetera.
“We don’t have a gallery, so our gallery is the community,” says Jose, and for Music to My Bones their gallery is the Bancroft Street Market.
The fall exhibition, which has been made possible by grant funding, “is a Jose and Linda Garcia production,” he says. “We’ll receive no compensation for our activities. It is all in benefit of the Mexican American Historical Society and to keep this historical objective going.”
These life partners enjoy collaborating on projects.
“Some people say relationships are like rivers and you’re within the same bank but with us it’s more than that. We’re a symbiotic relationship,” he says. “She’s kind of like my Jiminy Cricket. I’m very aggressive, I’m in your face, I’m an attack dog, that’s what I do. And she reels me in.”
Linda admires his tell-it-like-it-is style.
“You may not like what he says but he speaks up and says it in front of you. One thing I really learned from Jose is to speak out and not be this timid girl. I saw the respect people would give him because he would ask for what he wanted.
I’ve learned to ask for what I want.”
She believes they make an effective team. “I think to an extent we balance with each other. I think we do blend well.” And they genuinely enjoy each other’s company.”We like to spend time with each other. We share a lot of things. We have stacks of stuff we’ve written together. Some of it’s real personal.”
Jose, who grew up in Kansas City, Mo. and lost his mother at age 6, lived a kind of vagabond life until he wound up in Omaha and met Linda. He was going through a divorce at the time and he and Linda were just friends at first before becoming serious. He appreciates what he found in her.
“Linda is a very natural creature of her element,. She’s like an angel without being blessed. Everything is full of life and energy and she just can’t wait to tap into it, to share it. Linda has never brought a negative or bad influence into our relationship or into our domestic life or into the way that we raised our family.”
The couple have two grown sons, Che and Carlos Garcia, and two granddaughters, London and Elliette.
One of the key things that brought them together in the first place and that keeps them together after 35 years is their shared Chicanoness. They both got caught up in the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s and for them the movement’s aim of empowering and immersing U.S. citizens of Mexican descent in the richness of their shared heritage has never ended. Indeed, the Garcias have devoted their retired years – she’s a former Omaha Public Library children’s librarian and he’s an ex-Union Pacific Railroad officer – to preserving and displaying their heritage.
“The Chicano movement was about identity,” Jose explains. “Yes, we were American and yes we knew English and yes we were third generation and yes we had college degrees but there was a certain disconnect between our life experience as Mexican Americans and George Washington. And then when the Chicano movement started welling up…Rev. Robert Navarro was the seminal guy, the match that lit the Chicano movement here in Omaha. Then all of a sudden nothing made sense, especially when you started hearing about all of this art and culture that had a thousand years of equity – the Mayans, the Aztecs – that was never even approached in our educational experiences. It drove Linda to find out what was going on.”
It drove Jose to find himself.
“I suppose part of the motivation to seek out an identity began way back on the 31st of January, 1966. At my Army induction-swearing in ceremony, I had a copy of my birth certificate I had never seen. On it my name was listed as Jose Francisco Garcia. This was an identity taken away from me by my kindergarten teacher Miss Margaret, when she changed my name to Joe Frank. So I enlisted in the US Army as Jose Francisco Garcia. To this day everyone in K.C. that is family knows me by Joe Frank.”
He served one tour in Vietnam with an engineer battalion operating in and around a support base, Dong Tam, near the city of My Tho. He was apolitical entering the service but he came out highly politicized.
“Emotionally, I changed and became obsessed with ending the war when I returned stateside. To this day I see every environment I am in as a possible threat and am under constant alert for intruders, danger, checking for escape routes, just in case. The Vietnam experience literally buried the joy of being alive and changed it into the anxiety of living.”
Back home he not only joined the antiwar effort he intersected with the burgeoning Chicano Movement. Much of his activism centered around the two colleges he attended in his native Kansas City.
At Penn Valley Metropolitan Community College, he says, “I connected with every radical group on the face of the planet, including the Weathermen, SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), the Brown Berets, the Black Panthers. Always a loner, I gathered my causes in a singular manner and marched as they say to my own drums. After a stint on the student council, I organized Libra, an alternate bookstore.
“My first action as a student activist was taking over our chancellors’ office because he refused to install a ramp for a veteran that had been wounded in action and for other handicapped people.”
He says at the University of Missouri Kansas City he organized a group called United Mexican American Students and “became involved in West Side actions, blow-outs, marches, demonstrations.”
After getting his bachelor’s degree from UMKC he worked as a program developer with the Kansas Council of Low Income Peoples and Migrant Workers in Garden City, Kansas. He made several trips to D.C. to negotiate proposals for housing and health services.
Before coming to Omaha in 1976 he married and worked a series of jobs. He was employed at Xerox, twice, he became a hypnotist helping people lose weight and reduce stress,, he sold cemetery lots, he sold Kirby vacuum cleaners door to door, he even picked apples one harvest season in Kansas.
“I couldn’t keep a job. Then I came to Omaha and I started the whole thing all over again. I did various things here.”
He eventually got on with the Chicago Northwestern Railroad as a clerk and worked his way up to training personnel. The railroad was purchased by Union Pacific and years later he took his buy out from them.
Among his early Omaha gigs was serving as director of the Chicano Awareness Center. It’s where he met Linda, who was already active in the organization.
Omaha Latino activist Abelardo Hernandez says then as now Jose and Linda were a force to be reckoned with.
“She helped us with our art classes and later joined us in our folkloric dance troupe. She sacrificed a lot of her time to help the young kids understand the arts and traditions of our people. Linda has never let up in our struggle for knowledge.
Jose was able to identify with what we as Chicanos were trying to attain. He has managed to find some great archives that people have entrusted unto him.He has also given a lot of his time towards communicating with city and state officials. He seems to know what buttons to push when working in our behalf.”
When it came to relationships, Linda says she was dead set against marriage and had a whole rationale worked out to justify her attitude.
“I knew clear back as a girl that nobody was going to make me happy. I wasn’t going to give that responsibility to a person, no matter who it was,. Happiness does not come from outside, and I knew that when I was in the third grade. I don’t know what it was. I tell people I was born with old lady eyes. I was an old soul.”
Jose was immediately taken by her beauty and spirit. Linda, on the other hand, says, “I didn’t want a thing to do with him. I was involved with somebody else at the time anyway. Besides, I just didn’t think it was in the cards for me. I was older, kind of set in my ways being single. I wanted to do my own thing.”
She began warming however to this newcomer. He intrigued her.
“It was more curiosity about each other. We found out we could talk. Love and all that didn’t come until much much, much later, and I don’t even think we spoke it then. We just both knew we’d be together. He was one of the few people I could talk to and he really listened and he really looked at you and he had opinions.” We were compatible.”
Poster for the Garcias’ Music to My Bones exhibition and celebration
Just as Jose did, underwent her own identity catharsis.
“When I went to Mexico my senior year at College of St. Mary I came back very disappointed knowing I had taken four years of art history and the only time anything Mexican was mentioned was one period, and it was just four muralists, and they were all male,” she recalls.
Mexico opened a whole new world to her she was eager to explore.
“In the marketplace I’d watch the women grab a piece of material and roll it and before your eyes came out a doll. It was amazing.”
She was enthralled by the handmade art, some of the techniques going back centuries, she came upon. Then there was all the history she discovered.
“It hit me really hard when I came back. First, it was a cultural shock. It was like, ‘Why didn’t anybody ever tell me this?’ And the answer was because it wasn’t up to them to tell you in any way, it’s up to you. But how do you know to look?
“I just became really hungry for getting my hands on this and the Chicano movement. It was like an awakening. That happened to a lot of people. What was awakened was the art, literature, of becoming who you are as a Chicano. I’m not really Mexican, I’m an American, but the combination made me a Chicana, which means I seek knowledge, but it’s not enough to stop there, you must transmit it to other people and share it. In other words, be a teacher.
“It’s not enough to collect and learn and keep it all to ourselves. Thats’ the reason for this place,” she says, referreing the Mexican American Historical Society.
It’s the reason for Music to My Bones.
“It is stuff to people, it’s more than that to us. It’s more than leaving things to people, it’s leaving the story. Without the story it’s absolutely meaningless.
“I made the commitment to show the kids I was teaching that there’s so much more. I just started digging. In the process of learning you have to do the research, you have to go out there and dig.”
There’s also the matter of leaving and passing on a legacy.
“I think everybody wants to do that in a way – to say, ‘I was here, I want to leave a mark.’ Like with the Day of the Dead they say there’s three deaths: the first death is the physical and then when you’re buried and nobody can see you, but the worst death is to be forgotten.
“We want to leave a legacy, OK, but it’s more than that, it’s trying to teach the community. They also have a legacy and they also have a responsibility to carry their family traditions and to know how to take care of photographs and keepsakes.”
About their role as historians, curators and culturalists, they say, “Somebody’s gotta do it.”
Their work is far from done in their estimation. They’d like to form a free research and public library containing their catalogued and digitized collection. They’d like to have a permanent exhibition space.
“We don’t have a million dollars but were Chicanos, we’re going to do what we have to do to get it done.,” says Jose.
And these two will do it together as long as they can.
“We’ve become two old souls together,” he says.
For Music to My Bones details call 402-651-9918 or visit http://www.bancroftstreetmarket.com.
- SOULS OF THE CITY / Dia De Los Muertos (freesolarts.wordpress.com)
- A Conversation on Chicano Art: Artist Jose Lozano and Collector Armando Duron (kcet.org)
- 6 Stunning Day of the Dead Makeup Looks (bellasugar.com)
- Latino Writers Collective supports aspiring KC authors and artists (kansascity.com)
- The Garcia Girls (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- When a Building isn’t Just a Building (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
What follows is a historical narrative I was commissioned to write for the Creighton University College of Businesss. The gist of the assignment was to articulate how the enterpreneurial focus and service to society mission of the college is in alignment with the enterprising and giving natures of the university’s pioneering founders, including businessmen and staunch Catholics Edward and John Creighton and the Jesuits.
Creighton College of Business Anchored in Pioneering Entrepreneurial Spirit and Jesuit Philosophy
©by Leo Adam Biga
Enterprising Spirit Animates the Creighton Story
Creighton University was founded in 1878 thanks to a confluence of figures whose pioneering, entrepreneurial, for-the-greater-good spirit established a caring, comprehensive academic institution on the Great Plains.
As Creighton has grown, so has the city it is situated in, Omaha, Nebraska. The Jesuit school and campus provide an anchor in the north downtown district. Graduates of Creighton’s professional schools and colleges of law, medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, nursing, and business, for example, are recognized leaders in their fields. Creighton is lauded for being a good neighbor and a vital asset to the community.
The university makes contributions to many quality of life areas and some of the most visible are made by the Creighton University Medical Center, which combines teaching, diagnosis, and treatment in a real-life, critical care setting.
Community service is a vital facet of the Creighton experience. Students, faculty, and staff donate time and talent through health care and legal aid clinics. Service-learning efforts address myriad needs at home, around the nation, on Native American reservations, and in the Dominican Republic, where Creighton maintains an Institute for Latin American Concern mission.
Community collaboration and partnerships are other dimensions of Creighton’s outreach. The Werner Institute is a model initiative for negotiation and conflict resolution in the conduct of business, in relationships within and among organizations and communities, in the workplace, and in health care settings.
The Halo Institute is a collaborative that provides incubator space and professional consultation for emerging start-up businesses with a social or bioscience entrepreneurial bent. Halo is located in a complex of buildings in Omaha’s Old Market, a historic district whose warehouses were home to the city’s wholesale produce and outfitting businesses. Creighton University’s founders, brothers Edward and John Creighton, did business out of the very 19th century structure that Halo occupies today.
Creightons Set a Precedent for Being Entrepreneurial and Community-Minded
It is only fitting that the university retain a tangible connection to the Creightons, as the family’s lives and careers embodied the same principles that underscore the institution’s core mission and the way in which it’s carried out.
Edward and John Creighton were business magnates and devout Catholics from the East who settled in Omaha in the years immediately prior to the Civil War. The Creightons amassed a fortune through various business interests and invested significant portions of that wealth into bettering the community through charitable support.
Builder, developer, and visionary Edward Creighton, the older of the two, got in on the ground floor of the burgeoning telegraph and railroad industries. He and his companies played a major role in supplying and constructing the transcontinental lines and rails that grew America’s communication and transportation networks.
Edward’s vast commercial empire was also built on bank, mine, cattle, and land holdings. His many business partners included fellow movers-and-shakers in the development of Omaha and in the settling of the West. Concurrent with Edward’s capitalist impulses was a desire to give back. It had long been his wish to form a Catholic school that prepared young people through a quality, values-based education program. After Edward’s death, his widow Mary Lucretia Creighton, and his younger brother John, a successful entrepreneur in his own right, carried out his wishes by founding Creighton University, which was originally called Creighton College.
Respected for their expertise as educators and for the rigorous morals and ethics-based course of study they administer, the Society of Jesus was given rein over the university. The Jesuits have continued guiding Creighton throughout its existence.
That same early spirit of aspiration, invention, and service is still imbued in Creighton more than a century later. Consistently rated one of the top institutions of higher learning in the Midwest, Creighton is rooted in its Catholic and Jesuit identity and mission of educating the whole person and leaving the world a better place. Creighton graduates are prepared to lead purpose-driven lives and careers.
College of Business Reflects the Creighton Legacy and the Jesuit Tradition
This mission extends to the university’s College of Business, founded in 1920 as the College of Commerce. Guided by the school’s Jesuit heritage, Through its highly respected undergraduate and graduate level programs he College of Business forms leaders who promote justice and use their business knowledge to improve the world.
Michael Jung, Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of Cantera Partners, has used his MBA from Creighton to assist nonprofits develop public-private partnerships aimed at building economic development and sustainability in emerging and Third World nations.
“It is rewarding work, not only financially but from seeing the difference these programs can make in the world,” says Jung. “Some of the work that I have been involved in is feeding children in Afghanistan. We were feeding 75,000 school kids on a daily basis for five years. Just seeing the impact that can have on those children, mothers, families is very rewarding. I like being part of work that is actually making a difference with those not as fortunate as us here in the United States.”
The Creighton College of Business advances values-centered conduct through its courses as well as through its Academic Integrity Policy, Dean’s Honor Roll for Social Responsibility, Executive Partners Program, Anna Tyler Waite Center for Leadership, Leadership Conversations series, and other programs.
The business college is a founding member and active participant in the Greater Omaha Business Ethics Alliance. This partnership with the Omaha Chamber of Commerce and the Better Business Bureau advocates ethics in business.
Creighton MBA graduate Laura Larson is associate director of the Business Ethics Alliance.
“I think Creighton’s Jesuit focus prepared me so well for my job now in the business ethics industry,” says Larson. “I saw a focus in my classes on looking out for each person individually, the good of every person, taking the time to think about how a decision affects all stakeholders involved.
“Values have always been very important to me and acting morally and ethically has always been very important to me. When I came to Creighton and got the opportunity to work with the Business Alliance it really was a dream job to me because I’m making a difference in Omaha organizations every day. I’m bringing knowledge, skills, and resources involving ethics that organizations may not already have. I feel like I have a dream job just because I get to help others. “
Pat Lazure is president of World Interactive Group, an Omaha World-Herald company. He founded a hyper-local Web platform, WikiCity, whose breakout success led the Omaha World-Herald Co. to buy it and bring him into the fold.
Holder of a Creighton MBA, Lazure appreciates the solid foundation he received in ethical business practices during his Creighton graduate studies.
“Business ethics is doing the right thing, sometimes even when it is uncomfortable to do,” Lazure says, “and in my education at Creighton business ethics was just a common ingredient, categorically, in every class I attended. It was just engrained in you. I think a Creighton graduate is conditioned to take that moral compass into their career.
“The Jesuits have always engrained being men and women for others. In a business career especially I think you can fall into a trap of being self serving, of only looking at what can I do to climb that corporate ladder. Or what can I do to promote my own stock. Or how can I cut corners. I think the Jesuit way instills in people a focus of being that man or woman for others, and seeing the broader landscape of things. Perhaps that’s through philanthropy or community service. Whatever it may be, it’s commingling the philanthropic aspects of life with the drive to turn a profit.”
Imagination, Innovation, Integrity Find a Home at Creighton
The College’s Social Entrepreneurship and Bioscience Entrepreneurship programs emphasize business models that feature sustainable new practices and technologies that can positively impact society and community.
Omaha native Sameer Bhatia graduated from medical school in India and then earned his MBA from Creighton’s Bioscience Entrepreneurship Program. That experience led him to the Halo Institute, where his start-up business, Guru Instruments, found a nurturing space. Guru is focused on designing and marketing tools for medical professionals that improve surgical and other procedures, thereby increasing efficiency and reducing costs. Bhatia dreams of automated devices that can serve as “virtual physicians” in patients’ own homes or in nursing homes by feeding data to doctors’ offices to help inform diagnostic or treatment options.
Creighton Entrepreneurship Program director Ann York says Bhatia fits the model of a socially conscious entrepreneur who is not only motivated to succeed with products that have a humanitarian utility but who will likely “give back.”
For York there is a clear throughline from what the Creighton brothers did as early social entrepreneurs and the way Creighton University graduates learn to apply social entrepreneurship today. She says the principles and lessons of social entrepreneurship taught at Creighton dovetail with those of the Jesuit tradition and its challenge to students to be stewards of society.
“Given the mission and the values of our university as a Jesuit institution it makes perfect sense that social entrepreneurship would capture the hearts and minds of our students,” says York.
She cannot help but see the connection between the way Edward Creighton conducted business and the way Creighton students and graduates learn to engage with each other and with community.
“The older brother, Edward, was sort of a maverick,” says York, “but he was very into social causes. He was very concerned about Native American rights and education and respecting the integrity of the Native American people. In working on the railroad routes and telegraph lines, negotiations with Native Americans occurred all along the way and he was very concerned about some of the things he saw going on and actually was pretty outspoken about it. He was also an abolitionist, and pretty vocal about that, too. That’s very socially conscious.
“Entrepreneurs are the most socially conscious of all business people. Entrepreneurs who make money often want to give something back to the community that helped them grow and flourish, and the Creightons were very much that type of family.”
York also sees a parallel between the technological pursuits of the Creightons and the university’s bioscience entrepreneurship efforts. Just as that pioneering family helped to advance rapid communication through the telegraph and to further mass
transportation through the railroad, the school’s entrepreneurial success stories are forging new frontiers of their own.
“I think the Creightons would embrace very much what we’re doing in the biosciences,” York says, “because I think they would recognize it as an emerging industry like the ones they were involved and they would see the potential for future entrepreneurs like themselves.”
Nurturing Creatives and Leaders
After experiencing success with its undergraduate Bioscience Entrepreneurship program, Creighton has developed a professional science master’s program in Bioscience Management. College of Business Dean Anthony Hendrickson says the emphasis in this graduate-level program “is really the management of that bioscience innovation process — the research and development.”
The Halo Institute is a supportive proving ground for social and bioscience entrepreneurial business models generated by Creighton students and faculty, although the incubator is open to applicants outside the Creighton community as well.
“The distinguishing thing about our Halo business incubator is that it is tied to our Jesuit mission,” says Hendrickson. “When as a board we look at different businesses the first question we ask ourselves is, ‘Relative to this service or product, what is its impact on society?’ Not its money making potential, but its impact on society. We consider that first and then after addressing whether it’s a good thing for society, we look at its business viability aspects, which is a different orientation. Most business institutions don’t do that because of their secular focus on business viability and profit potential. Most organizations ranking those things wouldn’t necessarily look at that social impact issue first.”
Halo Institute chair Roger Fransecky says participants in the incubator benefit from “the sponsorship, direction, and guidance of a values-based staff, and it’s all a reflection of what Creighton is about as an institution.”
Fransecky has an interesting perspective on the principled way Creighton approaches business precepts. Founder/CEO of the global leadership firm, Apogee Group, he serves on the College of Business advisory board and teaches a special course in personal leadership in the Creighton MBA program.
“I share deeply the values that Creighton espouses,” says Fransecky. “My students are doctors, lawyers, dentists, bankers, accountants, business people, and the common denominator is — they’re in this program not simply to get an MBA, they’re in this program to find work with meaning and to then link that work to the larger values of their lives. I’ve been very touched and moved by these grownups — they’re really smart and they care a lot. The thing that links them together is their aspirations and their values.
“I’ve taught at New York University and UCLA and Princeton and a lot of other places, and these (Creighton) students are very unique in my experience.”
ESPN reporter Paula Lavigne, who does enterprise piece’s for the cable sports network’s investigative “Outside the Lines” series, was a college graduate and working journalist when she decided to enhance her marketable skills. She decided to pursue a master of business administration degree and after considering several graduate schools she opted for Creighton’s MBA program.
“I chose Creighton because it has a wonderful reputation,” says Lavigne. “I appreciated the values it disposes. It was the Creighton faculty that really won me over. It was a wonderful blend of experienced faculty leading a discussion of people from all different backgrounds and engaged in really thought-provoking material.
“I feel like since I’ve gotten my MBA from Creighton I am more confident in my job and in the ideas I come up with. I feel that my MBA has really given me skills as a leader as well as a sense of credibility and business savvy I didn’t have before.”
Lavigne says she struggled with leadership until a breakthrough at Creighton.
“I think one of the most powerful moments from my Creighton experience was a personal leadership class I took. The professor really encouraged us to bring forth a lot of things from our past that were uncomfortable. By doing that it allowed me to see what I had been doing wrong as a leader and what strengths I could pull from to be a better leader going forward. It felt like a very cleansing moment for me.”
She says she learned leadership “is not just about numbers and board meetings, it’s really about people and it’s about your individual skills. This class really helped me come to terms with a lot of that. ” She says she now practices leadership on the job and as a presenter of workshops and training seminars for other reporters.
A Moral Compass
In addition to honing her leadership skills, Paula Lavigne says Creighton’s MBA program gave her a new, healthier perspective of business.
“Before I started the MBA program at Creighton I had a pretty cynical view of business, especially big business not really having much respect for business ethics or morality or social justice. In my view those values really didn’t have a role in the business community. My MBA classes at Creighton taught me that’s not really true. Professors were very good about incorporating that sense of justice, ethics, and morality into business, and really teaching us as students that there is a role for that. It is not just a dog eat dog world.
“I mean there is definitely a role in business to follow a moral compass of sorts and still be successful. I think that really plays into those Jesuit values, and I know that that sense of the Golden Rule is not just for Sunday school, but it’s for the boardroom as well. Our professors instilled in us that you don’t just have to run over everyone, you can respect your competition, you can respect your customers, and at the end of the day you can still profit from the bottom line.”
Creighton business professor and Robert Daugherty Chair in Management Robert Moorman says the College of Business encourages students not to be satisfied with the status quo. He says students are challenged to look beyond merely making a profit or returning a dividend to shareholders by asking questions that go deeper than bottom line numbers. He says students are trained to look at larger considerations; What’s next? What else is there to do? How are you going to use shareholder value to drive changes in the world toward justice, toward the improvement of society for the many?
“It’s that sense of responsibility to take one more step,” says Moorman. “Gathering the knowledge is a necessary important first step. Using the knowledge completes the circle. So I think this is a place where we try to ask the question, How are you going to use the knowledge, what are you going to do with it? Leadership is the method, the lever or the device that links knowledge to the outcomes we wish to see.
“I often say to students, ‘We want you to take ethics classes and really think about the ethics side of it, because we want you to be leaders who influence the world.’”
Moorman says that if students are going to be successful entrepreneurs they must know finance, marketing, strategy, and underlining business principles. Just as they must have a complete grasp of such business models, he says if f they are to be socially responsible entrepreneurs they must know and apply sound ethics. It’s this holistic approach to doing business, he says, that differentiates Creighton’s focus.
“Everything is kind of tied together that way,” he says. “I think the entrepreneurship major is really about fostering a drive towards innovation that makes a difference for society.”
Hendrickson sees plenty of evidence that Creighton business graduates implement the social consciousness taught in school in their own careers.
“It seems like there’s a number of Creighton grads that embrace this idea of social entrepreneurship, mostly because that’s the ethos from which they spring,” he says.
That ethos is one embodied by the Jesuit philosophy, past and present, and it’s certainly an ethos the Creighton family manifested.
Building on a Foundation of Serving the Greater Good
According to Creighton archivist David Crawford the Creightons were visionaries who saw the need for quality higher education that was broad in scope, yet specialized. The family’s philanthropy made possible the addition of the schools of medicine, law, pharmacy, and significantly, business. He says Creighton University added the then-School of Commerce at a time when there was growing recognition of the need for “scientific training” in business administration.
Whether donating the money to establish Creighton University or providing funds to build out the campus, including St. John’s Church, or financing the creation of professional schools, or supporting St. Joseph Hospital, Crawford says “the Creightons acted out of “a sense of responsibility” to serve their community and faith.
“Through a lot of their charitable works the Creightons took care of a number of voids in Omaha and Nebraska. I think they just saw this as part of giving back to the community.”
Crawford says this outward focus still resonates today with the social justice and community service work that Creighton students, faculty, and staff do in accordance with the school’s Jesuit mission.
“You see a strong sense that that’s what you do here — that’s the norm, and I think that really ties directly back to the Creightons. The commitment to putting a school here was part of a larger commitment. The leadership role of the Creighton family was very much in that mode of noblesse oblige (nobility obliges) — of feeling a responsibility to people in the area,” says Crawford. “There was a sense of, We’ve been blessed, there’s a lot of people in our community who are less fortunate, and we need to take care of them.”
Omaha is well known for its generous business and entrepreneurial sector and Creighton College of Business graduates are among the major players who make community service a priority here and wherever they live.
Laura Larson of the Greater Omaha Business Ethics Alliance credits Creighton University with nurturing a focus on others.
“Something that was really emphasized at Creighton was giving back to the community,” she says. “One way Creighton helped me to grow was that it really gave me the opportunity to make a difference in the MBA program. When I had an idea for a project I’d go to a faculty member to talk about it, and they were completely open to hear what I had to say and they gave me the tools necessary to implement the project. I was able to start a graduate student association and plan the first hooding ceremony for graduate business students.”
“After I was done with my MBA I got involved with a mentoring program in the Omaha area, so I now mentor a group of four to six kids twice a month. Serving others is something I was always very passionate about. It is something that has been instilled in me from a young age and Creighton emphasized it as well as I went through the program. “
Robert Moorman says the example of the Creightons and university graduates giving back demonstrates how trailblazers can assert leadership that goes beyond selfish business interests to serve much wider community and societal interests.
“It’s really about the drive that prompted the Creightons to explore new territories, new business ideas, new endeavors and not stop at perhaps a simple way station and say, I am successful now, that’s good enough, and I’m resting on my laurels. It’s about a very forward leaning entrepreneurial notion,” says Moorman, “and at least being comfortable with accepting the mantle of responsibility that comes with opportunity.
“Responsibility comes with those benefits. Leadership is the way in which influence is exercised. At the end of the day it’s all about exercising influence over the actions and views of other folks, and the Creighton brothers did that, the Creighton wives did that, and that I think is the connection we want to have to that legacy. It’s the what’s next — what else are you going to do now? outlook.”
An Unbroken Chain of Ingenuity and Inspiration
The holistic approach the Creightons modeled has remained a constant at the university and in its business college, whose graduates cultivate a sense of responsibility and concern they carry with them, paying it forward in their personal and professional lives.
“Getting my MBA at Creighton has made me more of a whole person,” says ESPN’s Paula Lavigne. “It has made me a better contributor in the workplace. It has made me a better leader. It has given me opportunities at ESPN and I believe it has opened up my opportunities for the long term as well regardless of what I do.
“One of the things we learned in our leadership classes was the importance of being authentic. You can’t be authentic if you have one face at work and a different one at home and a different face in your spiritual life. You have to make sure the person you are at work is true to the person you are at home because that makes you a better leader. As long as you’re being authentic to yourself, you can be a better person, you can be a better leader with your coworkers, with your supervisors, and the customers that you deal with.”
Balance, congruence, integrity, innovation, integration, service. These qualities have been a hallmark of the Creighton experience since its start. They remain a cornerstone of the values taught there today.
The enterprising and philanthropic spirit of the school’s founders has been taken up year after year, generation after generation by new mavericks animated with the same desire to achieve and lead.
Like the Creightons who began it all, the university continues producing men and women of substance, vision, and conscience who succeed in business and in life not in spite of their compassion and generosity but because of it.
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I generally don’t hold with designating individuals as heroes in any field of endeavor, much less honoring the efforts of combat participants, but I have no trouble understanding people’s need to acknowledge, recognize, and commemorate the deeds of the valiant. This is a short story about some Nebraska Medal of Honor recipients whose lives and valor were the subject of an exhibition a few years ago at El Museo Latino in Omaha. The institution was a good home for the exhibit because two of the state’s Medal of Honor winners were young Latino men: Edward “Babe” Gomez and Keith Miguel. A legend is also among their ranks in the person of William F. Cody, better known to some as Buffalo Bill. A once prominent politician now looking to reenter the political arena, former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey, is also among the state’s Medal of Honor men.
Nebraska Medal of Honor Winners: Above and Beyond the Call of Duty
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
A new historical exhibition at El Museo Latino pays tribute to Nebraska’s Medal of Honor recipients. Among the honorees are Edward “Babe” Gomez and Miguel Keith and former Nebraska governor and U.S. senator Bob Kerrey.
The Congressional Medal of Honor is the highest U.S. military decoration. It is bestowed by Congress to armed forces members who distinguish themselves “conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity,” risking life “above and beyond the call of duty” in action.
Nebraska’s accredited with 18 Medal of Honor recipients in conflicts as far back as the Civil War and on through two world wars, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
William F. Cody, aka Buffalo Bill, received the Medal for his work as a civilian scout with the 3rd Cavalry during Indian campaigns along the Platte River in the early years of Nebraska’s statehood.
Otto Diller Schmidt of Blair received the Medal during peacetime when, while serving on board the U.S.S. Bennington, he displayed “extraordinary heroism” following a 1905 boiler explosion.
Gomez, an Omaha native, attended South High School and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps reserves at 17. He was called to active duty with the 1st Marine Division in Korea. During a fateful 1951 battle he repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire as an Easy Company ammunition bearer. When a hostile grenade landed amidst his squad, he sacrificed himself by absorbing the explosion.
Keith, a San Antonio, Texas native, moved to Omaha, where he attended North High. He fought as a Marine Corps machine gunner in Vietnam. During a 1971 attack he was hit multiple times but kept fighting to protect his unit’s command post until mortally wounded.
Kerrey, a Lincoln native, led a Navy SEAL team in Vietnam. During a 1969 mission to capture intelligence assets his team came under fire. Despite massive wounds he directed a successful counterattack. He lost part of a leg as a result of the engagement.
Eight recipients born in Nebraska have their Medal accredited to other states where they resided or enlisted. Among their ranks is the most recent recipient with Nebraska ties, Randall Shughart, a Lincoln native who entered the service in Newell, Pa., where he and his family moved. Shughart fought in the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia as part of a Special Ops Army team inserted to rescue the crew of a downed U.S. helicopter. While under siege he applied fire that allowed the crew’s rescue. He sustained fatal wounds.
El Museo Latino director Magdalena Garcia says the exhibit highlights how America honor its military heroes and how Nebraskans contribute to defending freedom. The images and text, including Medal of Honor citations, help provide a timeline and context for the various wars and conflicts America’s fought, she says.
Outside of Bob Kerrey, perhaps the best known native Nebraska recipient is Gomez. One of 13 children, Gomez is recalled as “happy-go-lucky,” an “extrovert” and “a go-getter” by younger brother Modesto Gomez. He says Babe, a scrappy 5-foot-1 former Golden Gloves boxer served a year at the former Kearney reform school before turning his life around. He wore their father down insisting he be allowed to join the Marines.
A letter from Babe before his final, fateful mission seemed to signal his own foreboding. Eva Sandoval says, “He wrote, ‘Remind the kids of me once in awhile,’” referring to young siblings who had indistinct memories of him before he left for Korea.
Eva and her mother Matiana were at home when a Western Union messenger delivered the telegram announcing his death.
“My mother said I went into hysterics,” says Eva. “It was really a shock to me. He was just a year older than I. He was so young when he died. I couldn’t believe it. In my mind I’d say, Oh, he’s coming back — it was a big mistake. I didn’t want to accept he’s gone for good.”
Babe’s selfless actions reflected his upbringing, says Modesto. “He was prepared to do what he had to do because that’s just the way we were raised. ‘Get in there and get it’ my dad used to say. You just do the right thing.”
The Medal was presented to Babe’s family at an Our Lady of Guadalupe ceremony.
Gomez’s legacy lives on in a mural at the Nebraska State Capitol and in Nebraska Medal of Honor displays at the American GI Forum, Omaha-Douglas Civic Center and Durham Museum. A local school and avenue bear his name.
“All of these things they’ve done in his name have been a tremendous honor,” says Modesto.
Gomez is buried at St. Mary Cemetery in South Omaha.
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