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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My alma mater, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, doesn’t possess the kind of larger-than-life, romantic tradition one associates with elite schools, which it most definitely is not. But in its own humble way the school has accumulated a notable and rich enough history. A modest book about that history was released a few years ago on the eve of UNO turning 100. This article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) more or less reviews the book and its impressionistic look at that school that’s seen much change over its lifetime and long ago left behind the West Dodge High moniker that many once attached to it.
Book Explores University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Rich History
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
With the UNO centennial nearing, a new book by two longtime historians at the university gives readers a primer on the events and persons that have shaped the school over its nearly 100-year existence. The book, simply titled “University of Nebraska at Omaha,” is part of Arcadia Publishing’s “Campus History Series.”
The text for the photo-rich work is mostly by Oliver Pollak, holder of the Martin Chair in History at UNO. He’s taught at the school since 1974. Pollak is the author of two previous books published by Arcadia — “Jewish Life in Omaha and Lincoln” and “Nebraska Courthouses.”
Selecting the 200-some images that illustrate the UNO volume’s 128-pages largely fell to Les Valentine, a UNO graduate (B.A. 1976, M.A. 1980) who has served as the university archivist since 1986. By virtue of his deep knowledge of UNO history and his intimate familiarity with the thousands of images and documents in the Dr. C.C. and Mabel L. Criss Library’s archives, Valentine was able to provide Pollak the context needed to flesh out the narratives and personalities behind the pictures.
Old acquaintances, the authors teamed up for the book in the spring of 2006 when Pollak suggested the idea to Valentine. The project marked the pair’s first collaboration. Pollak queried Arcadia with the proposal, a contract was signed and a December deadline set. The authors say they met the deadline on the dot.
As the subject is so close to them the men found the project a neat fit. “We’ve both been at UNO for years and years and years,” Valentine says, “and we have a good background on the history of the institution.” Pollak notes they have been at UNO for “a third of the lifetime of the school.”
The process of doing the book around normal duties proved relatively painless. “It was fun working with Les,” Pollak says. “We would get together on Saturday mornings and pull tables together on the lower level of the library and spread out these pictures and mess around with the order…what picture should be facing what picture. Les has been working the archives for so long he had stories and newspaper clippings to support the stories.”
Space issues meant only a small fraction of archival materials made the final cut. “It was a selection process,” Pollak says, adding he and Valentine chose from among digital images, prints, slides and negatives. “There was a variety. We managed to get high quality images and I think they got reproduced very well.” Some choices, he says, “are forced by technology and ratios of width to height.” Enough good photos had to be left out that he and Valentine have toyed with the idea of doing a presentation of them. “There’s still some good images out there,” Pollak says. Or, as Valentine put it, “There’s enough to do four or five photo-books, easy.”
Among their favorites to make it in is the cover image of a circa 1971 campus life scene. It pictures a diverse group of students gathered for a concert outside Arts and Sciences Hall — the then-administration building. The columned structure’s familiar cupola towers overhead. Pollak calls the photo “the iconic vision” of UNO. “It’s students spread out on the green, it’s 1971, it’s music, it’s diversity, it’s an urban university, it’s a school on a hill, it’s springtime. It was just a natural.”
Adding to its weight is the fact the 1938 building was the first structure built on the present north campus.
Valentine likes the background cover image, composed of smiling student faces, documenting a significant aspect of the school’s past. The picture is from a 1951 mill levy election victory party. In the institution’s municipal era, from 1938 to 1968, funding hikes were at the whim of city voters. Often as not, elections went against then-Omaha University. Some students actively campaigned in these elections.
The authors agree the milestone events in UNO’s history, each well documented, are the school’s 1938 move from its original north Omaha site to the current main campus and the move from the municipal model into the NU system. Just as the transition from municipal to state funding opened new horizons, including an expansion program that’s never really stopped, the university’s severing of ties to its Presbyterian Church roots ushered in new growth.
The physical move, Pollak said, was key to OU gaining accreditation by the North Central Association, another major event in the school’s life.
“You can’t live without accreditation. It’s important because it’s sort of like a seal of approval,” Pollak says. “You can’t live without a physical plant that’s attractive, just as you couldn’t live on Presbyterians alone.”He said that the school achieved three major defining goals in the 1930s — to municipalize, relocate and be accredited — amidst the constraints and struggles of the Great Depression “is an accomplishment.”
Change runs through UNO’s history, but the authors say its mission of providing a quality higher ed option to urban, working-class students has remained constant. What may surprise readers? One thing the authors point to is how the school welcomed women and racial minorities long before politically correct to do so.
UNO’s latest sea changes, they say, include the addition of dormitories, the development of the south campus and the embrace of information technology. Pollak says the way the university adapts to its times “is like a breeder-reactor” — putting out an ever exponentially greater return than what it takes in. UNO’s growth, while not always smooth, moves forward.
“Some hiccups, some burps, some setbacks, some waiting a little bit longer than you thought you would want to wait for innovation, and then crafting it in a way that fits Omaha,” he says. “Some people oppose it because it’s state funds, some because ‘they’re coming into my neighborhood,’ but it’s positively relentless.”
Leadership drives change and the figures at the top over this 100 years range from loyal soldier W. Gilbert James to tragic William Sealock to strong Milo Bail to embattled Leland Traywick to visionary Del Weber. The authors say the tenures of UNO presidents/chancellors tend to be placid or stormy. But the heartbeat of a university is its students, faculty and staff and the book is replete with examples of programs, activities, classes and rituals that express this human dimension.
From parades, athletic contests and commencements to groundbreaking ceremonies to visiting dignitaries to student protests to class/team photos to walks in Elmwood Park, it’s all charted. Even life in those awful annexes/Quonset huts.
Valentine says beyond alums, the book should appeal to a wide readership.
“Certainly people in Omaha should enjoy the book. It was their institution, for years and years and years, and in fact it’s still their institution,” he says. “We kind of grew up along with the city in many ways.”
The book is available online at www.arcadiapublishing.com or at fine bookstores.
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As many of you know the filmmaker Alexander Payne is a Greek American with a fairly unpronouncable given name and he regards his heritage as much more than an aside. It’s a core aspect of his life. Hisv ery Greek family ran a popular, long gone eatery in downtown Omaha and some years ago I sat down with his father George to recall the life and times of their Virginia Cafe. Alexander, who has some fairly distinct childhood memories of the place, lent a few tidbits as well. Perhaps Payne’s most public display or acknoweldgment of his family and heritage came when he accepted the Oscar for Beast Adapted Screenplay last February and used the occasion to thank his date, who happend to be his mother Peggy, for enabling his early cinephile stirrings, even saying “I love you” in Greek before the worldwide audience. If you happen to be a Payne fan then this blog is for you. I’ve covered him for 15 years and counting and you’ll find the fruit of that work here.
Remembering the Virginia Cafe and the Restauranter Family Legacy of Filmmaker Alexander Payne
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
It’s nearly 40 years since Alexander Payne‘s family owned and operated the Virginia Cafe, a restaurant that for generations held a niche in the city’s downtown dining market. Recently, the filmmaker’s father, George Payne, shared some history and memories of the place and the family with The Reader.
George’s immigrant father, Nicholas (Papadopoulos) Payne, was founder and proprietor of the Virginia. Nick, as the patriarch was called, came to America in 1910, learning the confectionery trade from an uncle, John Birbilis, who helped Nick and brother Peter open the Palace of Sweets in Council Bluffs. In 1920 Nick, with cousin Fred Schizas and two other partners, bought the Calumet, a large, busy, around-the-clock food joint at 1413 Douglas Street that dated back to 1893. They remodeled it, renamed it the Virginia and kept it one of Omaha’s few 24-7 operations, George said. The other partners eventually dropped out.
According to George the Virginia served strictly American fare — steaks, chops, sandwiches, salads, a full breakfast line, daily lunch and dinner specials and traditional holiday favorites. The cafe housed its own bakery, had its own butcher and stocked a freezer with eight kinds of ice cream.
At its peak, he said, the popular cafe kept a payroll of 85 employees on three different shifts and served up to 3,000 diners a day.
George joined his father in the family business in the early ’50s. An Omaha Central High, Dartmouth and Northwestern University grad, George is a World War II vet who worked on the war production board in Washington D.C., where he met his wife, Peggy. He and Peggy settled in Omaha, where the youngest of their three sons, Alexander, fell in love with movies.
The future filmmaker was only 9 when a fire destroyed the Virginia but he has fond memories of the cafe.
“People loved that place,” Alexander Payne said by phone. “There was no key to the front door. They didn’t need one — they never closed. I used to like to go back to the kitchen and watch the chefs work. I remember all the wait staff and cashiers were so nice to me because, of course, I was the owner’s son. Our family ritual was dinner there every Thursday night.”
The Paynes ordered right off the menu.
While no Greek food was on the menu, the restaurant embodied Nick Payne’s classic immigrant made-good success story. Like many newcomers he went out of his way to be a super patriot. He sold millions of dollars worth of government Liberty Bonds during the Second World War, said George Payne, who added his father landed “quite a coup” when he inked a contract to feed all area military enlistees. From WWII through Vietnam, the Virginia served “last meals” to wide-eyed recruits en route to basic training.
“Those are the kinds of things that are a little unique from the Virginia,” the dapper George Payne said. There’s more. The cafe played a part in a tense chapter of Omaha history when a 1935 streetcar strike erupted in violence. George was 20 then and working part-time in the restaurant. Martial law was declared and more than 1,000 National Guard troops sent in to restore order. “That was serious stuff,” George recalled. The Virginia, located right on the streetcar line, was near the conflict between strikers and strikebreakers. The soldiers’ presence quelled the rioting. The cafe was commandeered into serving three meals a day to the troops.
“They came in and took over our business,” said George, who remembers the first guardsmen tromping in with their boots and packs and hanging their rifles on coat hooks attached to the fine mahogany wainscoting, which sent his father into a fit. From that point on the soldiers stacked their weapons safely out of harm’s way.
The Virginia was justly proud of its decor. Its glorious neon signage, plate glass windows, decorative tile-fronted exterior and rich mahogany interior with white table cloth covered tables and booths were straight out of an Edward Hopper painting. Distinctive murals of the American landscape and fine renderings of all 50 state seals adorned the lounge and dining room and the massive cross-section of a redwood tree was mounted in the party room.
“There wasn’t a restaurant in town that had that kind of atmosphere at all,” George said. “It was very well done. My dad had vision.”
This eclectic design reflected the diverse customers the Virginia catered to – professionals, office workers, politicos, housewives, clerks, stock boys, cabbies, crack-of-dawn delivery men, night owls and bar crawlers.
Up front, right at the door greeting customers, was Nick, trademark cigar in hand, dressed impeccably in a suit and tie and kibitzing with the line of people that formed at lunchtime. If anyone tired of the wait and started to leave George said Nick would coax them to stay with, “‘Don’t go. You know you’ll be back in five minutes. Where you going to go?’ He had a way with people.”
The cafe enjoyed a brisk trade before it went up in flames in 1969. Neither Nick nor George were there when the fire broke out on a Sunday night. They were awakened with the news and came down to see a burned out shell. After two full days of being hosed down, George said, the building collapsed in on itself. It was a total loss. George salvaged a few mementos and artifacts. There was talk of reopening at another spot but the family opted to walk away. The site of the Virginia was sold to the city, which built the W. Dale Clark Library there.
“I really didn’t quite know what I was going to do…” George said. He wound up with the Sheraton Hotels group and then the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration – posts that took him around the world.
Nick Payne left a rich legacy that George has carried on. The elder Payne helped found the Omaha Restaurant Association, which his son presided over as president, as he did the Nebraska Restaurant Association. In 1956 American Restaurant Association Magazine inducted Nick into its Hall of Fame. The father was heavily involved with St. John Greek Orthodox Church. Nick Payne died in 1989. George Payne, now 92, has continued, with Peggy, his father’s support. The family, who’s made periodic trips to their ancestral homeland, retains close ties to Greece, where Alexander Payne intends to one day shoot a film.
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