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Omaha World-Herald Columnist Mike Kelly: A Storyteller for All Seasons

April 2, 2014 1 comment

I suppose it’s inevitable and only natural that I write about journalists from time to time.  After all, the world of journalism what I know best having plied the trade myself for many years.  The following New Horizons cover profile I wrote about the popular Omaha World-Herald columnist Mike Kelly is like a lot of stories I’ve done about journalists that you can find on this blog in that like those other pieces this one focuses on a veteran in the field whom I admire.  Kelly has become the face of that venerable daily and a leading advocate for Omaha and for good reason: he’s a prolific storyteller well plugged into the ryhthms of life in his adopted hometown of Omaha, Neb.

 

 

Cover Photo

New Horizons Newspaper

 

 

Omaha World-Herald Columnist Mike Kelly: A Storyteller for All Seasons

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons
The face of a newspaper
When it comes to local print media, the Omaha World-Herald is the only game in town owing to its vast coverage and reach. For a long time now the venerable daily’s most public face has been lead Metro columnist Michael Kelly, also a much in-demand master of ceremonies and public speaker. The Cincinnati, Ohio native has made his life, career and home here. He often uses the popular column he’s penned since 1991 as a platform for celebrating Omaha.

He served as sports columnist-sports editor for a decade before his Metro gig. He was a news reporter for 10 years before that. He estimates he’s produced 6,000 columns and another 2,000-plus bylined pieces. The sheer volume and visibility of his work make Kelly the paper’s most branded writer commodity.

Managing editor Melissa Matczak measures his impact this way: “Mike Kelly has endured as a popular columnist because he knows what makes Omahans tick. He understands the people and our culture and he has deep sources within the community. People trust him and want to talk to him. He is invaluable to our news organization. His knowledge base, connections, sources and trust in the community take decades to build. There is no one in Omaha quite like Mike Kelly.”

Working at the same publication for the entirety of one’s professional life is increasingly rare in a field where job turnover’s common. Kelly”s survived upheavals, housecleanings and regime changes.

His allegiance to this place is such he lives here year-round while his wife Barb is in Cincinnati. Their commuting relationship finds him going there regularly, sometimes filing stories from Ohio, and her coming here. Phone and email help keep them connected.

As Kelly explains, “We’re both from Cincinnati. We raised our kids in Omaha. Barb always wanted us to relocate and I didn’t want to leave. Meanwhile, our oldest Laura and her husband moved to Cincinnati. They now have five kids. We just got to the point where I said, ‘We can do this two-city thing.’ I knew she wanted to go back. So we bought a house there near our daughter. Barb helps them. She sees her siblings (she’s the oldest of 11) all the time, and I go back there one week a month. Then Barb comes out here (she’s back in April). She’s still very active in Omaha. She has lots of friends.

“We’re at the age we can pull this off and it works very well.”

Kelly says his bosses tell him they can’t tell the difference when he’s here or away, “and that’s good, but it is harder writing from away. I just wish the whole family was here but they’re not. They’re dispersed.”

Too close to home
His scattered clan includes daughter Bridget, who lives in New York City with her husband. In 2002-2003 Kelly wrote a moving series about Bridget surviving a traumatic attack in Killeen, Texas, where she taught school. She’d moved there to be near her then-Army boyfriend stationed at Fort Hood.

The morning of June 21, 2002 Kelly was at his newsroom desk when he got the call that changed everything. A detective informed him that overnight Bridget had been abducted from her apartment and taken to a field, where a male suspect raped her and shot her three times. She somehow made it 200 yards to the home of Army combat veteran Frank James, who cared for her until paramedics arrived. The call to Kelly came after emergency surgery at the Fort Hood hospital.

“I kind of stuttered, ‘Is she going to live?’ ‘I think so,’ was the reply. I hung up the phone and turned to Anne Henderson, my editor, who was having a confab, and said, ‘Anne!’ She looked at me like, Why are you interrupting me?, and I told her. I was told later it was like everything stopped in the newsroom. Our executive editor Larry King spoke to our publisher John Gottschalk, who made a private jet available. I went into an office and called Barb in Cincinnati. She had the terrible duty of calling our three other kids and telling them.

“I ran home, grabbed a few things. Steve Jordon, my buddy (and Herald colleague), got on the plane with me without so much as grabbing a toothbrush.”

Ironically, only months before Kelly had written about WOWT Omaha anchor John Knicely’s daughter Krista being attacked while a student at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. But this was Kelly’s own flesh and blood. At the hospital he found Bridget conscious in the ICU.

“She couldn’t speak because of all these tubes. I just leaned down, both of us crying, and tried to comfort her. Then she motioned with her hand she wanted to write something and I pulled out my reporter’s notebook. She wrote, ‘I was thinking of you and Mom and the whole family when this was happening. I didn’t want to die.’ I’ve still got that notebook. That afternoon the police took me out to the field. I saw her blood. I met the James family at their house to thank them. That night her survival was the lead story on the 5 o’clock TV news down there. No name, but everyone from the school she taught at figured it out.”

Kelly received a message of support that evening from John Knicely.

“I appreciated that.”

The “tight-knit” Kellys came together as they always do in crisis.

“The waiting room was overflowing with people. Barb and our daughter Laura got there the next day. Eventually the whole family was there.”

Business reporter Jordon, who was there to support his friend, witnessed Kelly rise to the occasion amidst the anguish:

“Mike showed impressive calm during that time, and that’s what Bridget and the other family members needed. Mike was able to talk with the authorities, make decisions about what to do for Bridget, talk with her friends about the incident, keep family members informed and engaged and help Bridget start on the road to recovery during those first few days. He was a true father.”

Bridget’s assailant, who’d driven off in her car, was soon captured.

“The police down there were amazing,” Kelly says. “About four days after Bridget had given her long statement to the police and identified her attacker in a photo lineup, I was talking and she was writing. The whole story had not been told at that time. The paper down there, The Killeen Daily Herald, said a 24 year-old school teacher had been raped and shot, left for dead, survived. The World-Herald said Bridget Kelly, a local girl, was abducted and shot three times and was in critical condition. It didn’t say anything about rape.

“I explained to her the difference in the coverage and she wrote, ‘Did they say rape?’ and I said, ‘No, this is born out of compassion. Also, some people think there’s a stigma on the victim.’ And she wrote, ‘Why is it more shameful to be a rape victim then a gunshot victim?’ And I thought, Oh my gosh, she wants to say something. That would have been against our policy.”

His first column about the incident expressed gratitude that “our daughter was still alive” and singled out those who aided her. The lead read, “June 21, the longest day of the year for daylight, became our family’s longest, darkest day.” He laid out in stark, sparse prose the nightmare of her attack and the miracle of her survival.

But after what Bridget communicated in the hospital, he knew there was more that needed to be said.

“I told my editors Bridget wants to say what happened, that she’s not ashamed, she didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t get the OK right away. Five weeks after it happened the suspect was charged with attempted murder, abduction, robbery and rape. I asked, ‘Are we going to report that?’ The decision was yes and so I wrote a column whose headline was, ‘A plea for more openness on rape.’ I wrote, ‘You don’t have to read between the lines and wonder if my daughter was raped…’

“When that column ran we heard from so many people. A lot of women survivors of rape were just glad someone was talking about it. The outpouring was unbelievable.”

Much more lay ahead for Bridget’s recovery and story. Kelly recounts, “She went to Cincinnati to recuperate. At the end of the summer her blood sugar shot through the roof and she was diagnosed with Juvenile Diabetes (Type I). She still has to deal with that. We believe it’s tied to the trauma. She was bound and determined to get back. She resumed teaching (at the same Texas school).”

National media picked up the story. The Dallas Morning News asked Kelly to write a piece that ran on the front of its Sunday paper.

“So then came a whole other wave of response.”

His handling of her story netted wide praise from peers. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized him with its Award for Commentary/Column Writing. Jordon summed up what many admired about Kelly’s treatment of the intensely personal subject matter:

“His writing about the attack was straightforward, honest and unvarnished, the right approach to a story that deserved to be told without embellishment and tricks. In the end, he was able to tell Bridget’s story fully, from a father’s perspective that resonated with the readers. He put himself in the story, but didn’t dominate the writing. It’s Bridget’s story, and he told it as her father would tell it.”

Bridget did many interviews. The Herald’s Todd Cooper went to Texas to file a story about her. “I appreciated that because then it wasn’t just the dad writing,” says Kelly. Bridget spoke at her alma mater, Duchesne, and at a Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation banquet her father MCd and her Good Samaritan, Frank James, attended. A commendatory telegram from Colin Powell recognized James for his heroic service.

“That was very memorable.”

Tragically, James died a few years later. “The family asked me to speak at his funeral, which I was honored to do.”

Then a movie-movie twist occurred. ABC’s Prime Time flew Bridget to New York City to be interviewed by Charles Gibson. She met an associate producer with the show, Eric Strauss. A couple years later Bridget moved to the Big Apple to get her master’s in literacy. A mutual friend reconnected Bridget and Eric and the two developed a friendship that bloomed into a romance that culminated in marriage.

Kelly wrote a 2012 Herald piece updating Bridget’s journey, including her work as a teacher, her public speaking and her volunteering as a trained advocate for rape-domestic violence survivors.

“She’s on call one weekend a month to go to any (NYC) emergency room,” says her father. “I’m very proud of her for doing that.”

His piece referenced that at the behest of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault she went to the field where she was attacked and made a video shown statewide for a public awareness campaign.

His story appeared ahead of a scheduled New York Times article about Bridget and Eric’s unusual meeting and storybook romance.

“We were looking forward to the Times piece. Then I get a call from a Times editor who says, ‘We’re killing the story.’ ‘Oh, that’s too bad, why? ‘We want to run your story.’ They wanted it longer, so I had to actually interview Bridget and Eric. It was interesting because I asked questions I never would have asked.”

Her advocacy will bring her to Omaha as featured speaker for the April 11 Torchlight Ball to benefit the SANE/SART (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner/Sexual Assault Response Team) unit at Methodist Hospital.

Omaha love affair
Some hearing about Kelly’s two-city lifestyle assume he resides in Cincinnati, only maintaining the facade of an Omaha presence through his column. Mailing it in so to speak. He sets the record straight.

“No, I live in Omaha, I pay a lot of taxes here. This is my home. But I do have a job where I can get away with going back to Cincinnati.”

As a locals columnist he must stay in touch with Omaha’s heartbeat.

“I love the neighborhoods. We raised our kids in Dundee, Happy Hollow. They went to St. Cecilia, Duchesne and Mount Michael.”

Kelly later moved to the Skinner Macaroni Building downtown. Now he’s in a 7th story condo in the restored Paxton Building.

“I feel like we’re right in the middle of everything here, close to the airport. I’m a block from my office. As my wife said when I bought here at the Paxton, ‘Well, now you’ll be happy, you’re going to spend 24 hours a day at the World-Herald.’ It’s not a 9 to 5 job, so it’s good and bad to be that close. You do have to get away.”

Kelly values many Omaha attributes.

“We’re not quite big enough to have major league professional sports but we’ve got everything else. It’s a great-sized city. Not to use the cliché but people come together, it’s friendly, it’s easy. I love my colleagues, I love my job.”

This big-fish-in-a-small-pond can find anonymity when he wants it, though his gregarious side doesn’t mind the limelight.

“I love my privacy and I love being out and around people.”

He’s a featured performer at Omaha Press Club Shows, where his gift for mimicry and ability to carry a tune have seen him impersonate Elvis and Johnny Cash, among others.

“Then, of course, there’s my new career, singing.” he says, jokingly, referring to recent vocal lessons he’s taken from Omaha crooner Susie Thorne. which he wrote about in a March column.

Kelly’s closely charted Omaha’s coming out party from placid, nondescript burg to confident creative class haven.

“I’ve seen the whole Omaha attitude change. The late ’80s for me was the low point. There was so much stuff going wrong, you wondered what the future was of this town, Then in the ’90s things started turning around.”

 

 

 

Mike Kelly

 

 

Downtown-riverfront redevelopment spurred a cultural-entrepreneurial explosion. Omaha suddenly went from a staid place where 20 and 30-somethings complained there was nothing to do to an attractive market for young professionals and tourists.

“The Chamber of Commerce had some studies done saying, Well, Omaha doesn’t have a bad image, it doesn’t really have an image. People didn’t know who we were. So I think the change is not so much that people have a great image of us but our image of ourselves. I hear this over and over from people. I think we had kind of a negative feel about it, like we weren’t worthy. Now we’re worthy.

Kelly says in national socioeconomic rankings “Omaha’s consistently in the top 10 for livability,” adding, “At the same time we’ve got urban problems any city has. A few years ago Kiplinger’s ranked Omaha as the number one overall place to live and I interviewed the reporter who came here and he said, ‘You’ve really got a lot going on, but if you could just solve the north Omaha problem you’d be a great city.’ That is my lament, having come here in 1970 and seen that the north Omaha problem has not improved. There’s a lot of people working on it. I’d love before I retire to see north Omaha rise up.”

Writer’s life
What’s the best part of what Kelly does?

“Just getting to tell people’s stories. being able to touch people, whether make ‘em laugh, make ‘em think, put a lump in their throat now and again. People do read the World-Herald. We do have one of the highest penetration rates – the percentage of people in your local market that read the paper – in the country. It’s like we have this commonality of interest. It doesn’t mean we agree, it doesn’t mean we’re all interested in the same things, but people are interested in what goes on in this community.”

Story after story, his column paints a rich human mosaic.

“i do believe everybody’s got an interesting story.”

He doesn’t believe a writer should draw undue attention to himself or to his style. “The better material you have the more important it is for you as the writer not to get in the way but to let it tell itself,” he says. “Your job is just to organize it for maximum impact.”

He’s outraged some journalists resort to fabricating things, saying, “The true stuff has great natural utter born drama. You don’t need to make stuff up, just keep listening, keep asking questions.”

If there’s a Kelly axiom he abides by it’s – get it right.

“I always feel I have a responsibility to the readers and to my editors and to the source to tell the person’s story accurately. There’s nothing more important than accuracy.”

He says he’s methodical, “plodding” even as he hones copy to the bone and compulsively fact checks. “I keep the reader in mind all the time.” Next to accuracy, clarity and brevity, structure is everything.

“I do have a philosophy about writing, and that is the importance of getting your key words and phrases at the ends of sentences. It’s just like telling a joke – where does the punchline go. And then you always want to have a thump. You don’t want it to just end, you want to have an ENDING.”

Like father, like son
When he joined the Herald in 1970 at age 21, fresh out of the University of Cincinnati, he couldn’t have imagined still being at the paper in 2014. Next to Jordon he’s the newsroom’s most senior staffer.

“I was happy to get a job here. I thought Omaha would be a nice place to go for two or three years. No regrets for having stayed. I feel very lucky I’ve latched on here.”

Kelly wasn’t the first journalist in his family. His late parents Frank and Dorothy Kelly put out a small weekly, the St, Bernard (Ohio) Journal, during the Great Depression. Though his father, who was also a stringer for various publications and news services, gave up the business to work for the IRS, it remained his life’s true passion.

“That was his love – journalism,” says Kelly, whose prized possessions include a framed front page of the St. Bernard Journal and the old portable Underwood typewriter his father employed. “I used to type my term papers on that,” Kelly says with pride.

“We always had newspapers around the house. Cincinnati had three daily papers in the ’50s when I was growing up and my dad subscribed to all of them. I was the only one of his eight kids that went into what was his love, so it was a nice connection. This is my heritage.”

The devoted son spent much of his first decade in Omaha covering the police and city hall beats, where former head cop Richard Andersen and mayor Ed Zorinsky were among the public servants he covered. Next he became a general assignment reporter. Then he unexpectedly got offered the position of sports editor.

 

 

 

Back in the day before computers

 

 

From news to sports to news again
“I’m a sports fan like a lot of people but I had no intention of going into this. The managing editor, Bob Pearman, liked a couple things I wrote, one of them a piece on Ron Stander (the ex-club fighter who fought heavyweight champion Joe Frazier at the Civic Auditorium). I wrote this long piece with flashbacks to the championship fight, which I was at, and it got Associated Press story of the year.

“Pearman wanted me to be writer and editor. I hemmed and hawed for days. One day he calls me into his office. ‘Mr. Kelly, have you decided yet?’ ‘Well, I was thinking I wanted to…’ ‘Mr. Kelly, shut the god______ door. Do you want to be my sports editor or don’t you?'”

Kelly timidly accepted.

“I’d just turned 33, so I call this the highlight day of my career. Oh my gosh, it was like jumping into the deep end and not knowing how to swim. I’m glad I did it, but the problem was trying to do two jobs. You’re a middle manager with no middle management training in charge of 25 people, plus all of a sudden you’re a columnist with your picture in the paper. I’m dealing with Tom Osborne and I had been a fan. I knew enough that now I had to have an arm’s length relationship.

“Newspapers were starting to cover recruiting. It’s an industry now. I’m there at 9 o’clock one night after putting in 12 hours. I get a call from an assistant Nebraska football coach. He cussed me out, every filthy word I’ve ever heard and about six others I hadn’t, because we were doing recruiting stories and letting Oklahoma know who they were going after. Well, Oklahoma knew who they were going after. He tried to intimidate me and I was a little shaken. I remember hanging up the phone and thinking, Oh my God, this is not fun and games is it?”

Besides being young, Kelly was an interloper coming from news into a sports role that older, more qualified colleagues had been in line to get.

“Acting sports editor Bob Tucker was a veteran and all of a sudden some guy from news side was put into the job he deserved to get. He was my assistant, I relied on him. It worked out. He was the kind of guy who could make the trains run on time. That’s what I needed.

“I think I injected some creativity. I was more controversial in my sports days than I am now. I used to get criticized regularly by Cornhusker fans. I wasn’t constantly critical but sometimes that’s what you’re supposed to be. I enjoyed the 10 years in sports for the most part but I could never get my arms around both those jobs.”

A highlight was covering the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, where the U.S. gymnastics team, which included Nebraskans Jim Hartung and Scott Johnson, won the gold medal. He considers Creighton’s 1991 College World Series run “the most fun event of my time in sports.” His father covered the 1940 Major League World Series in Cincinnati.

But Kelly was already torn by the enormous time sacrifice covering sports events demands. He was missing, among other things, his daughter Laura’s volleyball matches.

“I asked if I could go back to news side.”

He got his wish when named a Metro columnist. But where sports provided a constant, steady stream of in-season subjects related to area teams, news side subjects were less defined.

“I remember thinking, How am I going to come up with 200 column ideas a year? What am I going to write about?”

He gives the same answer to the question readers most often ask him: Where do you get your story ideas?

“I read a lot, I get out and talk to people, but luckily the best source for me is people calling and telling me stuff. That’s usually a function of I’ve been around for a long time and they’ve seen what I write, so that’s a benefit. But when I left sports and started column writing in the news section I didn’t quite have that. It was harder in the beginning.”

Full circle
One of his most “memorable” columns dealt with the Vietnam War. The subject’s always been sensitive for him because his enrollment in college deferred him from serving and then when the draft lottery went into effect his birth date exempted him. He found these privileged exclusions “patently unfair.” Then he got the idea of following what happened to one of the unlucky ones with a birthdate near his own.

Reggie Abernethy of Maiden N.C. was born one day removed from Kelly and that was all the difference it took for him to get drafted and ultimately killed in Quang Tri, South Vietnam while the luck of the draw allowed Kelly to stay home, launch his career and start a family.

“I made a couple calls and found out a little bit about Reggie. I went to his hometown and met with his family, friends, his old girlfriend. I went to his school.. It was really moving. It’s one of these moments where you think, What a privilege to get to ask people these personal questions. It was like he had only died a week or two before.

“Before I left his brother took me out to his gravesite. I had a letter from his friend who was with him when he was killed. I wrote the piece for Memorial Day and that got the biggest reaction of anything I’ve written up until the columns about my daughter a decade later. It was kind of a story that hadn’t been written. It was just a different angle. It was definitely (motivated by) survivor guilt.

“That damn war, it had so many tentacles, even today. It was just dumb luck I didn’t have to go.”

It’s one thing being haunted by the specter of vets who served in his place. It’s quite another coming so close to losing his daughter. It’s inevitable he wrote about her odyssey. He still gets emotional about it.

“You’d think at some point I’d be able to talk about this without getting choked up.”

Bridget Kelly went from being an interested observer of her father’s work to being the focus of it.

“Growing up, my dad helped me understand the power of storytelling. We can learn more about what it means to be human through reading about other people’s struggles and experiences. After my attack, there was an outpouring of supportive messages from family, friends, and my dad’s readership.

“It seemed a natural response my dad would share in his column some of what my family and I were going through.”

How did the experience of writing about it impact him?

“Something like that’s got to affect you. I think I was compassionate before. I don’t think it’s made me more compassionate but maybe it has.”

Bridget says, “I always knew my dad was a compassionate person He handles sensitive and difficult subject matter with compassion. Now I better understand what a special voice he has at the newspaper. He gets people talking about all kinds of topics.

“I gained a real respect for his connection to the readers of the World-Herald. He tells me he meets people in the Omaha community even today who still ask him how I’m doing. All kinds of people feel comfortable asking him about such a personal story because he made it okay in the way he wrote about it.”

He says seeing others not always get Bridget’s story right “caused me to redouble my efforts when I’m writing about someone to think of it as a little documentation of their life.”

His daughter got a deeper appreciation for what he does..

“He talked with me during his writing process, and I could tell he wanted to be sure my perspective was accurately reflected in what he wrote. I can see he takes that kind of care in telling other people’s stories, too. I think that’s one reason people trust him to give voice to their personal experiences.”

As for how much longer he’ll keep working, Kelly has no plans to retire.

“I love my job. I hope I can keep doing it reasonably well. I would miss it.”

His devoted readers would surely miss him, too.

Follow Kelly online at http://www.omaha.com/section/news60.

 

 

 

Veteran Omaha TV Meteorologist Jim Flowers Weathers the Storm

August 28, 2013 1 comment

Jim Flowers may not be the boon to KMTV‘s ratings the station hopes for as it tries to climb out of last place among local network affiliates, but there’s no question he brings a recognizable name and face to TV weathercasting.  After his contract was not renewed by WOWT last fall  he had to deal with unfounded rumors that took him and his family aback.  All that’s behind him now as he leads the weather team at KM3 just as he did at WOWT and KETV before that, making him one of the rare on-air talents, if not the only one, to have worked for all three major Omaha stations.  My Omaha Magazine story about Flowers follows.

 

 

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Jim Flowers

Veteran Omaha TV Meteorologist Weathers the Storm

© Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Now appearing in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

Dapper Jim Flowers, with his trademark moustache and buttonhole flower, is a fixture in people’s lives after 31 years as an Omaha television meteorologist. This husband and father of two has invested himself in the community as a public speaker, Knights of Columbus volunteer, and churchgoer. He and his wife, Barb, are members of Mary Our Queen parish.

It all made the ugly rumors that surfaced about him after WOWT did not renew his contract last December more unsettling. With Flowers suddenly off the air and no official word from station management explaining his absence (due to contractual reasons), anonymous social media speculation filled the information void. The chatter was mostly innocuous, but some alleged Flowers had been caught in a 2012 FBI sting operation targeting a local massage parlor fronting for a prostitution ring. It’s not the image a public figure like Flowers can afford, especially when looking for a new job.

Flowers, who flatly denies involvement in any illegal activity, believes a parlor client used his name when procuring sexual services. Unfortunately, Flowers found his good name sullied when the sting broke.

“…in social media, people can say anything about anyone they please without identifying themselves or taking responsibility…just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean it’s the truth.”

Despite the cloud, Flowers landed at KMTV. He debuted there June 3 as part of a long-term contract he reached with the station, thus making him perhaps the only on-camera talent to have worked at each of Omaha’s three major network affiliates.

The Ohio native and Penn State University grad came to Omaha in 1982 to work at KETV from a TV weathercaster post in South Carolina. After 10 years, he moved to WOWT. He was there 20 years, the last several as chief meteorologist.

He says he and his wife found Omaha to be “a great place to raise kids.” Even though their boys are now men, he says all the roots he and Barb put down here and all the relationships they built here make it a hard place to shake.

 

 

Barb and Jim relaxing at home.

Barb and Jim relaxing at home.

 

 

But in the wake of what happened over the winter, he seriously considered moving to another market.

With his exit from WOWT fueling the gossip mill, he posted Facebook and TVSpy responses that reflected his resolve to lay the tittle tattle to rest.

“…I have never been involved in a massage parlor prostitution investigation. I have not been arrested, questioned, or told by the authorities that I am a suspect [a statement confirmed by Omaha Magazinewith Omaha Police Department public information officer Lt. Darci Tierney]…those lies have been very hurtful to me, my wife of 34 years, and our family…I appreciate the loyalty of the many fans who have continued to support me, and I want to assure them that there is nothing behind those rumors.”

He more extensively addressed the situation in June 3rd guest spots on the Todd-N-Tyler radio show and KM3’s own, The Morning Blend.

“Doing that interview with Todd-N-Tyler literally put an end to it,” he says.

But when the rumors were still fresh, they stung. “When this first happened, I was like my life has been an open book, people know me, who’s going to believe this stuff? Obviously, people do, and that was the surprising part of the whole thing. Some folks want to bring people down, for whatever reason. It’s the human psyche.”

“When this first happened, I was like my life has been an open book, people know me, who’s going to believe this stuff? Obviously, people do, and that was the surprising part of the whole thing.”

His initial reaction was to get mad.

“The first thing you feel is anger because you know you’re not a part of it. That’s what’s frustrating. It had an effect more on my wife and my family, especially my two boys. My two boys were angry…They wanted to find out who used my name, how the stuff got out there.”

His wife has had his back the whole way. She offered this statement about the rumors: “I knew it wasn’t true. It was hurtful to me and my family to think that people would believe those rumors about Jim. I would like to thank those that supported us with positive comments.”

Flowers, an outdoorsman who loves fishing, hunting, and chasing storms, isn’t the type to run scared, but there was little he could do about this.

He gained insight into how his name got dragged into the mud when he contacted authorities, none of whom could speak to the specific case, then active in the judicial system. However, they did lay out a likely scenario.

“I was told by the Omaha Police Department’s public information officer Lt. Darci Tierney that, in general, this is the way it works. The guys that go [to massage parlors] wind up on a list. They don’t use anything that will identify themselves. They don’t use credit cards, they don’t use checkbooks, and they don’t use their real names. She said, ‘Obviously, someone decided to use your name and guess what, now you’re a part of it.’ I said, ‘Is there anything I can do?’ and she said ‘no.’”

 

 

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He says the local FBI office and U.S. Attorney Jan Sharp confirmed the same.

Unfortunately for Flowers, someone used his familiar name. It comes with the territory of being a
public figure.

“Our exposure to this kind thing is not unusual, but this form and how it took off seemed to have a life of its own,” he says. “The constraints that exist for print, television, and radio don’t exist for social media. There are no checks and balances out there. So if there’s a lesson, it’s that, in social media, people can say anything about anyone they please without identifying themselves or taking responsibility. But just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean it’s the truth.”

He’s satisfied with how he’s managed the incident. “You take the high ground and have faith that things will work out. The night before I went on The Blend and Todd-N-Tyler, I told my wife, ‘I’m starting tomorrow [on KM3], and I feel really excited about it. There’s all these opportunities. But the one thing that’s still out there is this whole rumor thing. I don’t know where, I don’t when, and I don’t know how, but at some point in time this thing will be put to rest.”

He says he and Barb put their “very strong faith in God” that this bad dream would disappear. “I’ve had people compliment me and say you handled it professionally.”

KMTV General Manager Chris Sehring is pleased how it all worked out, too. “Jim’s a great guy, and we are thrilled to finally have him on our KMTV Weather Alert team.”

“You take the high ground and have faith that things will work out…I don’t know where, I don’t when, and I don’t know how, but at some point in time this thing will be put to rest.”

Though Sehring couldn’t comment on what steps the station took or on how much the incident played in its hiring decision, he did say, “Journal Broadcast Group is second to none in its commitment to integrity and the highest ethical standards. I still believe we live in a society where one is innocent until proven guilty…It’s truly a shame Jim and his family have had to endure these unsubstantiated rumors and malicious speculation. After all, it could happen to any of us.”

Both Sehring and Flowers are focused on making KM3, currently in last place in the ratings, number one. Flowers helped bring both KETV and WOWT to the top spot and feels confident he can work magic a third time.

“I’ve been down this road before. I know what it takes to win,” says Flowers. “Whoever wins weather in Omaha wins the ratings; that’s what it boils down to. You can ask every general manager, and they’ll tell you the same thing. It’s not only in Omaha; it’s in a lot of weather-sensitive markets. I didn’t decide that, the public did.”

He feels his experience and attention to detail set him apart from other weathercasters in this market.

So do his fishing skills. Once a competitive bass tournament champion, he takes his boat and fishing gear out these days purely for relaxation. With the rumors behind him, he’s forecasting nothing but clear skies and calm waters ahead.

Visit the Omaha Magazine website to see the story and the rest of this issue’s stories at: http://omahamagazine.com/

My Omaha Magazine Story on Iraq War Veteran Jacob Hausman Wins Best Feature Story and Best in Show at Omaha Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards Competition

June 9, 2013 4 comments

 

 

Yours truly was part of the Omaha Magazine team that won in the Best Feature Story and Best in Show categories at tonight’s Omaha Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards Competition.  The recognition came for my story about Jacob Hausman, a U.S. Army combat veteran who endured some serious trauma in Iraq and has come out the other side of PTSD to live a full, productive life.  Jacob deserves much credit too for bravely sharing his private struggles.  In addition to my writing, the awards recognized the layout, design and cover art for the 10 to 12 page cover spread that ran in the Nov/Dec 2012 issue.

It was a great evening with my colleagues and best of all I got to share it with my dear friend Tina Richardson.

Check out the story on the blog by linking to it at-

http://leoadambiga.wordpress.com/?s=hausman

Or by entering the name Hausman in the search box in the upper right corner of my blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com.

 

 

Photo: Our awards from the Omaha Press Club tonight!
The Best in Show Award is the big one in the background.  It’s really heavy.

The Omaha Star Celebrates 75 Years of Black Woman Legacy

April 11, 2013 1 comment

 

If you’re not from Omaha or you don’t live here then you may be surprised to learn this nondescript Midwesten city is the home to a sizable African American community with a rich history.  It may further surprise you to know that a significant figure in the American black press of the mid to late 20th century was a transplanted Omahan and a woman to boot, Mildren Brown, who founded, published and edited the Omaha Star, which became the leading and eventually only black owned and operated newspaper serving the community.  As my story below for The Reader (www.thereader.com) reveals, Brown heavily influenced two black women who became media titans:  Chicago Crusader publisher-editor Dorothy Leavell and Radio One chairperson Cathy Hughes.  When Brown died in 1989 the paper passed onto to her niece Marguerita Washington, thus continuing the publication’s black woman legacy.

NOTE: The story posted here is a longer version than the story that appears in The Reader.

 

 

Mildred Brown

 

 

The Omaha Star Celebrates 75 Years of Black Woman Legacy

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

In this fluid transmedia age an old warhorse of a newspaper, the Omaha Star, celebrates 75 years of continuous publication at an April 19 Scholarship Banquet benefiting the Mildred D. Brown Memorial Study Center.

The Star may not be known for exceptional reporting but it does own a groundbreaking gender and activist lineage. Its late publisher, Mildred Brown, was among very few women, white or black, to run a newspaper of its size and reach. She and her first husband co-launched the Star in 1938 though Brown was the real driving force behind it. Within a few years she divorced and from that point on served as sole publisher and editor until her death in 1989.

A black woman at the head of a successful media enterprise inspired Chicago Crusader publisher-editor Dorothy Leavell, the featured speaker at the April gala, and Radio One chairperson Cathy Hughes.

Though several years younger, Leavell’s career paralleled Brown’s when her first husband, Balm Leavell Jr., who founded the Crusader, died and she took over as a young single mother. She expanded the Crusader empire to reach hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses. Leavell’s also served as president of the National Newspapers Publishers Association, a trade organization representing hundreds of African American newspapers, and chairperson of Amalgamated Publishers, a company thats sells national advertising to black papers.

 

 

 

Dorothy Leavell

 

 

As a fledgling journalist Leavell pattered herself after the “strong black woman” she saw in Brown. She admired the way Brown handled herself amid their mostly male peer publisher colleagues.

“She had a profound affect on me because…the men would try to discount you but they couldn’t discount Mildred. She was a strong personality, She would stand her ground. I always say, Mildred put the ‘n’ in nerve. Mildred was no-nonsense with those guys.

“Seeing how she would not let them relegate her to a female role was certainly an influence on me and as a result when I became a publisher I insisted I be accorded the same courtesy and respect accorded the males. I would net let anyone take me lightly because they did not take Mildred lightly.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

The history of the Star, located in a former mortuary at 2216 North 24th St., is bound up in the story of Brown. The dynamic entrepreneur became synonymous with the paper for her front page editorials, out-front activism, personal style and legendary salesmanship. She often sported a fresh carnation pinned to her shoulder, a hat crowning her head and fitted gloves over her hands,

The Alabama native and former educator migrated north with her then-husband, Shirl Edward Gilbert, a pharmacist. The couple started a newspaper, the Silent Messenger. in Sioux City, Iowa. In 1937 they were recruited to Omaha to work for the city’s then-black newspaper, The Guide, whose co-publisher, Charles Galloway, Brown remained friends with even after she quit to start the Star.

The Star chronicled black people’s lives through the Depression, World War II, the Great Migration, the civil rights movement and America‘s changing face post-Vietnam and Watergate. When North 24th St. burned in outbreaks of civil disobedience this militant who didn’t believe in “breaking glass” called for both calm and redress.

She filled her paper with aspirational stories and advocacy journalism that sought to uplift her community and expose injustice. Its banner motto reflected her own ideals:

“Dedicated to the service of the people that no good cause shall lack a champion and that evil shall not thrive unopposed.”

She printed the names of businesses that refused to hire or serve blacks. She carried guest editorials by then-Nebraska Urban League and future National Urban League head Whitney Young. She supported the Omaha civil rights groups the DePorres Club and the 4CL. She observed, “This paper broke down discrimination in this town. They called us troublemakers nothing bit troublemakers. Oh, I’m a militant, always have been.”

Upon her death her niece, former educator Marguerita Washington, assumed command of the Star and she’s still in charge today, giving the publication the distinction of being the nation’s longest running newspaper led exclusively by black women.

 

 

 

Marguerita Washington

 

 

Omaha native Cathy Hughes, who sold Star ads in the 1960s, appreciates the paper’s “black woman legacy.” Hughes built a media empire as a single woman. Her son Alfred C. Liggins III succeeded her as Radio One CEO but she wishes she also had a daughter to pass things onto.

“I love my son. I can’t tell you how much I thank God and appreciate the fact he embraced my vision and followed in my footsteps but my only regret is that I didn’t have a daughter to go along with him because I really would have liked to continue this legacy under the banner of female leadership.”

Hughes knew many sides of Brown. who was in her life from the time she was a little girl. Brown was a friend of her parents, William Alfred Woods and Helen Jones Woods. When her father graduated from Creighton University Brown let him office inside the Star.

Asked to assess the influence Brown and the Star had on her, Hughes said, “It’s why you have me on the phone now as the founder and chairperson of Radio One, which is the parent corporation for TV One, Interactive One, Reach Media, Distribution One. It’s why I have this media conglomerate. I went through a couple decades working on my career and my personal and professional growth and development before I realized the impact the Omaha Star had had on me.”

Seeing a smart, bold black woman totally in charge made an impression on the young Hughes, who says she naturally looked up to “this woman whose personality and physical presence were bigger than life,” adding, “I can still smell the carnations to this day. Every Monday a big box of carnations that went straight into the refrigerator was delivered because she wore a fresh carnation bouquet every day of the week. She wore absolutely beautiful hats, matching outfits, shoes to match the outfits, fresh flowers. She lived in a beautiful apartment behind her business.”

Drivers chauffeured her around in a big shiny sedan.

 

 

 

Cathy Hughes

 

 

“She had a good looking husband (Brown’s common-law second husband Max Brownell), she had a wardrobe, she had all the trappings of a media mogul. To me the Star was a conglomerate. She was NBC, ABC, and CBS combined in my mind,” says Hughes.

“The Star was to Omaha what Jet and Ebony were to the black community nationwide. You had really made it when you made the cover of the Omaha Star. Remember, during these days there were no blacks on Omaha TV, there was no black radio, the (Omaha) World-Herald basically covered crime in North Omaha. There were no alternatives, there was no other place to turn for information about you and your organization, you and your family, you and your neighborhood, you and your existence in Omaha, Neb. other than the Omaha Star.”

Hughes, who’s built a corporate dynasty in the face of sexism and racism, was impressed by the way Brown’s force of nature personality smashed barriers. She recalls her “dogged determination,” adding, “When somebody told Mildred no, that they weren’t going to take an ad, she was going to write you up and that write-up would become public record. Mildred combined her activism with her marketing and salesmanship…When people said no to Mildred she saw it as an opportunity to change their mind, she never saw it as a rejection. She didn’t take no seriously. No to her meant, ‘Oh, they must not have enough information to come to the right conclusion because no is not the right conclusion.’

“Nothing stopped Mildred.

Marguerita Washington marveled at her aunt’s drive.

“She wouldn’t give up. She was very persistent. I went with her many times to a business place where she would be told the person in charge was not available. A lot of times the boss told their secretary, ‘Just tell her I’m not here.’ Of course, she knew he was, so she would say, ‘Well, I’ll wait on him,’ and she would sit there in the lobby until finally the guy would come out and say, ‘Oh, Mildred, what do you want?’ Nine chances out of 10 she got the sell.

“She was better at the game then they were.”

Star contributing writer Walter Brooks, the 2013 Omaha Star Legacy Award honoree, doubled as Brown’s driver. Going on sales calls with her he saw her operate at parties and meetings, working the room with everyone from small business owners to corporate. He notes in a video interview:

“Mildred Brown was liked by those people. They liked her style. They respected her because they knew quite honestly nobody else could have done what she did. When you think about starting that paper in 1938 and never quitting, never backing down, always moving forward, and then the role of course that the paper played during the civil rights era, and just the fact she was so smooth and tough.”

 

 

 

Mildred Brown and Hubert Humphrey

 

 

Brooks saw an assertive woman supremely sure of herself. “Mrs. Brown was fearless. She was not intimidated. When she asked for an ad it wasn’t hat in hand, mealy-mouthed, please-Mr.-Charlie, it was her being received as an equal.”

Hughes says Brown was proud of leading a newspaper that at the time of her death was half a century old and she imagines if Brown were alive today she would be thrilled it’s still going strong.

“I think her crowning glory was the newspaper and its ability to continue – the longevity.”

The Star may not be the primary news source it once was for most readers but outside Revive! magazine it offers Omaha’s only black on black print perspective. It maintains a black press tradition emphasizing positive news, conveying black pride stories of individual accomplishments and informing readers of community events, as well as examining issues of inequity.

Brooks says before today’s multimedia platforms the Star was Omaha’s only reliable media source for what was happening in the black community.

“If it wasn’t in the Star in many ways it didn’t exist,” he says. “It’s primary value has always been as the one outlet we could count on to represent the black community.”

In a documentary tribute to Brown the late Omaha musician Preston Love Sr. articulated what her paper meant to its readership.

“She gave every little person on the street a shot at getting some recognition. Families were publicized for constructive things they did and successes. It’d have the picture of some young man or woman on the front page who’d got their master’s degree and that was important to people. Everybody likes publicity. If they tell you differently, they’re lying.

“People who never had their picture in the paper for anything else, there they were in the new dress they got for the dance or the affair, the new tuxedo for the guys. We were impoverished people and we had no other means of getting recognition, especially in this town.”

Its interest in the whole gamut of African American life provided fairly comprehensive coverage of goings-on in the black community.

“And because it goes back eight decades it is actually an historical repository because no one else was consistently capturing events and things taking place in the black community week after week,” notes Brooks.

Now that the Star’s archives are being digitized a new resource will soon be accessible online to anyone researching people, places and events covered by the paper over much of its history.

Today, the black owned and operated weekly remains a voice for a community not always well represented by traditional mainstream media. Subscriptions and advertisements are the lifeblood of any print publication and Brown scored ads like nobody else, sometimes using moral indignation to guilt whites into buying space.

“Especially with a tough customer or potential customer she would try to appeal to his or her conscience,” says Washington.

“She had a way of relating to business people to get them, sometimes with a little arm twisting, to advertise in her newspaper,” says Leavell.

Getting people to do the right thing, whether buying ads in her paper or giving blacks equal opportunity, extended beyond the office. Brown was part of a coterie of black professionals, including Cathy Hughes’ parents, who shared similar aspirational-activist values and put them into practice.

 

 

 

Mildred Brown with Father John Markoe (seated)

 

 

“It was less than a dozen of them and they really formed this close friendship and partnership in so many areas – business, education, civil rights – and in that mixture my father and Mildred became best friends,” says Hughes. “Mildred Brown was a member of an organization my parents were members of, the DePorres Club, that challenged Omaha institutions that practiced overt discrimination.”

The DePorres Club’s founder, the later Rev. John Markoe, a Jesuit priest at Creighton University, was befriended by Brown after his civil rights work made him persona non grata at the school. She allowed the interracial club to meet at the Star. The paper often printed the minutes of the club’s meetings along with listings of its social action activities.

As a girl Hughes joined her parents and Brown at demonstrations.

“I carried my first picket sign when I was around 4 or 5 years old. I grew up with community service and activism.”

She says her parents and Brown “imbued” her with the mandate “to improve the community” by standing up and speaking out for right.

Brown’s Star promoted aspirational pursuits. She often included news about herself, such as meeting visiting dignitaries or receiving some award, because she enjoyed the attention and the affirmation it provided.

Washington says, “There wasn’t a camera she didn’t like.” Some readers disapproved of Brown’s frequent appearances in the paper but Washington says, “she didn’t care.” Besides, she adds, “her being in there a lot of times was noteworthy, like when she met presidents and what have you. She hoped people would be inspired.”

Preston Love Sr. was Brown’s contemporary and sometime employee. He sold advertising off and on there for 26 years, His rise to prominence in music paralleled Brown’s in journalism. They maintained a mutual respect. After she passed he wrote, “It’s the end of an era. The paper was the center of the black community in many ways…Mildred Brown and the Omaha Star have been the most potent forces for the progress and advancement of blacks in Omaha and in this state.”

Though some felt she didn’t go far enough, others felt she did all she could.

“She was definitely considered a conservative by the Black Panther Party,” says Brooks, a one-time Panther member. He says she refrained from “the more radical hard push back approach” and instead focused on “collaboration and coalition.” Practical realities of the time constrained Brown from being too harsh in attacking racism.

Love said that “she was militant in that she was persistent in fighting for the cause” but “she wasn’t a firebrand,” adding, “What needed to be done she did it through the medium of this newspaper.”

Dorothy Leavell leaves no doubt about Brown’s activism.

“Milldred was just really an unusual woman. She was a very strong militant activist during the days when women were thought of as at home taking care of children. Mildred was a fighter who fought hard for the rights of blacks.”

Even near the end Brooks says Brown still “was totally hands on…totally in charge. Nothing went in that paper she didn’t sign off on. She was still much willing to say, ‘No, I don’t like that.’ Still very much focused on the political bent that she wanted the paper to be. She was like, ‘Yeah, I know it’s the 1980s now but this is what has worked, this is what the people want it to be, this is want the advertisers want to see.’ It was very much, If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That was very much I feel her attitude.

“Not only was it hard to argue with that, but there’s the door, if you really just have a problem with this, hey, thank you for your service…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Editorially, Brooks says he was given great freedom by her and is given even more by Washington, who’s serializing his new book about the state of black America. Outside of the late Charles B. Washington, who got his start in journalism under Brown, the Star’s not groomed any black journalists, though Washington says the Mildred B. Brown Memorial Study Center and its Junior Journalist Program is an attempt to do that.

Margeuerita Washington says that because “it’s a different day” than when her aunt ran the paper she’s given space to more militant voices her aunt would not have accommodated, including former Omaha activist Matthew Stelly and Neb. state senator Ernie Chambers.

The opinion pieces by Chambers can be particularly controversial and that’s why Brown shied away giving him a forum during her reign.

“She was afraid he might turn away some of her advertisers,” Washington says. “When I took over I felt like, ‘Well, give him a chance, and if he goes too far out on a limb. I can always tone him down some. It’s worked out fine. Only once have I had to tell him to cool it…to find another topic.”

She believes the Star remains a relevant voice today. “I think the main thing I’m proud of is this paper has really become the people’s paper. It is a sounding board. We have a number of local columnists. It’s the community’s paper with a diversity of voices.” Ad revenues and circulation numbers are way down from its heyday and took more hits during the recession but Washington says the paper is slowly “building back.”

Hughes says the Star has a vital role to play in the same way black magazines, radio stations, TV networks and websites do.

“Next to the black church black-owned media is the most important institution in our community. I think too often African Americans have looked to mainstream media to tell our story. Well, all stories go through a filter process based on the news deliverers’ experience and perception and so often our representation has not been accurate. But the reality is we have to be responsible for the dissemination of our own information because that’s the only time we can be reasonably assured it’s going to be from the right perspective, that it’s going to be from the right experience, and for the right reasons. I think the black community just intuitively understands that.

“Information is power. I think Mildred Brown understood that. It wasn’t just about a business for her, it was about a community service.”

The clout and wealth Brown earned put her in position to help others and she did.

“She was instrumental in helping St. Benedict the Moore Catholic Church build the Bryant Center,” says Hughes. “She was kind of a one woman social agency before social agencies became in vogue in indigenous communities. She helped a lot of people. If your husband was beating you, you ran to the Omaha Star. Mildred would give you some money, help you check into a hotel. Your child got arrested, it was Mildred people came to asking, ‘Can you loan me $150 to get my child out of jail?’

“Charlie Washington had a very troubled background and yet because of her he rose to being respected as one of the great journalists of his time in Omaha. Dignitaries would come and sit on Charlie’s stoop and talk to him about what was going on. He was considered iconic because of Mildred Brown.”

Hughes says Brown also assisted young people getting their education.

“She’d put them through school in a minute, go up to Creighton raising hell, going up to Duchesne (Academy) when my mother didn’t have the tuition and telling them, ‘You just wait, we’re going to get you your money, but don’t be threatening to put her out of school.'”

Washington says her aunt sponsored many college students. After her death a Creighton University journalism scholarship was established in her name. It goes to black students from Omaha area schools.

“She literally walked the walk as well as talked the talk,” says Hughes.

“She didn’t tell folks what they needed to do, she helped them do it.”

After her father died Hughes says Brown drew closer to her. “I think I was that connection for her. She continued to inspire and advise and mold me right up to the time she passed.”

The legacy of the Star is felt by Washington, who is childless and has no plans to hand it off to a relative. Her will dictates the paper will be sold upon her death. That is unless, she says, “some dashing young person comes along who I think this is just the right fit to carry it on.”

She holds out little hope someone will, in effect, endow the paper’s future operations.

“No Warren Buffett is going to come and help us,” she says, referring to the billionaire’s recent World-Herald purchase. “Unlikely.”

She intends continuing as publisher-editor for the forseeable future. “I’m in good health and I’ve still got some energy left.” A project she’d like to see happen is the renovation and expansion of the space-starved Star offices.

Tickets to the April 19 Star gala at the Downtown Hilton, 1001 Cass St., may be ordered at 402-346-4041, ext. 4 or 6.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ex-Reporter Eileen Wirth Pens Book on Nebraska Women in Journalism and their Leap from Society Page to Front Page

March 22, 2013 3 comments

Women journalists cover anything and everything today.  They work in all facets of media.  But there was a time, and not so long ago at that, when they were restricted to a narrow range of reporting topics and jobs.  There were always exceptions to that rule.  Here and there, pioneering women journalists defied conventions and overturned stereotypes to file assignments and fill roles traditionally prescribed for men only.  A new book by Eileen Wirth profiles some of the revolutionary figures among Nebraska women journalists over the last century.  Wirth is a pioneer or revolutionary herself.  She became one of the first modern women in city news at the Omaha World-Herald in the late 1960s-early 1970s, then she broke the gender barrier in the public relations at Union Paciific, before becoming the first female chair of the Journalism Department at Creighton University, where she oversees what’s now called the Department of Journalism, Media and Computing.  Her book, From Society Page to Front Page, is published by the University of Nebraska Press.  It’s officially out in May.  My story about Wirth and the female journalists she writes about whose lives and careers advanced the cause of women both inside and outside the media field will appear in the April 2013 New Horizons.  This blog contains several stories by me about journalists in print, radio, and television.

 

 

Eileen Wirth

 

 

Ex-Reporter Eileen Wirth Pens Book on Nebraska Women in Journalism and their Leap from Society Page to Front Page

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in the New Horizons

 

Eileen Wirth doesn’t seem to fit the part of a revolutionary but that’s exactly what she’s been during her three careers. Wherever she’s worked, whether as a reporter or public relations practitioner or academic, she’s broken gender barriers.

As the women’s liberation movement played out from the 1960s through the 1980s she fought the good fight for equal rights, only not in the street or in the courtroom but by challenging male chauvinism, sexism and discrimination in newsrooms, offices and boardrooms. Her feminist predecessors fought similar battles as suffragists from the late 19th century through the immediate post-World War II era.

She says the struggles women endured to open new opportunities in the workplace is a story she feels deeply about, especially the stories of women in her own profession of journalism.

In the course of researching her new book, From Society Page to Front Page, Nebraska Women in Journalism, Wirth developed a deep appreciation for and kinship with maverick women who preceded her in the field she loves. She documents dozens of women of high achievement, many of whom she never previously knew about, and the obstacles they faced to work as publishers, editors, reporters. PR professionals and media moguls.

Some ran small weeklies, some made their names as columnists with local newspapers, others as reporters with national wire services and major metropolitan dailies. One woman covered the White House. Three women covered the Starkweather murder spree in great detail. Beverly Deepe became the longest serving American correspondent of the Vietnam War.

Mildred Brown became one of America’s only black newspaper publishers. Cathy Hughes is still running a media empire. Other women are still doing their thing as well.

“In writing the stories of these women it became a journey of self discovery,” says Wirth. “I identified so strongly with these women and with their struggles and their achievements. Both of my sisters had national level careers and I’ve always been in Omaha, but I realized we need to redefine what we mean by female achievement. We have too often downplayed the local, the personal, the balancing act of career and family. I don’t think our society values that enough. One of the things I hope this book does is really give recognition to women who juggled both.”

 

 

 

 

She also hopes the book gets some deserving women elected to the Nebraka Journalism Hall of Fame, where there are cases of men inducted there whose wives are not, even though the wives were co-editors and publishers and full partners of small weeklies.

Wirth says doing the book proved both an awakening and an education for her.

“What was amazing to me is that we had so many absolutely remarkable Nebraska women in journalism. Even as someone who has spent her entire life in journalism and more recently teaching journalism history, if you had asked me to name them I probably couldn’t have named five or six, until you get to the ’50s when I knew some of these people. But even then I was finding people right and left.”

The finding took considerable effort. “It took a lot of digging to find most of them,” she says.  “This book is nothing but a huge reporting process. I went to people and said, ‘Who do you know about, what am I missing?’ I went to sources and people would tell me stuff and I would follow up on leads.”

Elia Peattie, a popular Omaha World-Herald writer from the late 19th century into the and early 20th century, is a prime example of someone Wirth found..

“If I were going to pick one woman in the book I fell absolutely passionately in love with it was Elia Peattie. Hardly anybody has heard of her. I resonated to her. She wrote a column that in some ways is very similar to the Mike Kelly columns of today’s Omaha World-Herald. This was before they had social or women’s pages. She’s kind of the World-Herald’s entree into that.

“She came to Omaha in the 1880s. She had been a society girl on a Chicago paper. She got a woman’s column at the Herald. This is when women’s news was in its infancy and the reason why women’s news was created in the first place was for advertisers. Women could not vote and the headlines were mostly about politics and crime, and if you look at the lives of women in the 1880s this just wasn’t relevant to them. They were working incredibly long days, raising large families, taking in work. They had very hard lives.

“Advertisers pressured the papers to do something to attract women readers because women were the primary shoppers. This was in an age when advertising was exploding. And the Herald hired Elia Peattie to write a column about women and apparently they put almost no restrictions on her. It was up to her to define what would interest women. Well, what she thought would interest women was apparently anything that interested her, which was everything.”

 

 

Elia Peattie

 

 

Wirth admires Peattie’s range.

“A professor from the University of Nebraska-Kearney compiled her columns in a book and I was blown away because it was reading a social history of the city in the 1880s. I mean, she has everything from this wonderful description of a young Bohemian slaughtering cows down at the Cudahy plant to a nursing sister at St. Joseph Hospital to the people riding a streetcar to showgirls. She did a very sympathetic portrait of the African American community when racism was horrible.

“She did some hilarious satirical columns about Omaha society people and why did they have to go back East to buy finery when they could buy anything they wanted in Omaha.”

Peattie’s community service involvement also appeals to Wirth, who has a strong service bent herself.

“Peattie ran for the school board when that was the only office women could run for or vote for. She was also one of the founders of the Omaha Woman’s Club. It was a way of localizing the city’s upper class women to do social work stuff. Nationally the woman’s club movement got behind the needs of working women in factories.”

All these activities made Peattie a popular figure.

“She became a larger than life personality,” says Wirth.

Another reason to like Peattie, according to Wirth, is “the work she did to bring together the handful of women journalists in the state. She documented a great deal about fellow women journalists. A lot of my best material came from work she did and recorded for history. She gathered the names of women active in journalism in the 1880s and 1890s. That was invaluable.”

Peattie’s become something of a hero to Wirth.

“One of the other reasons I resonated to Elia Peattie is that while she was writing this column her husband got very ill and it was up to her to support the family. She was writing everything right and left to make money to keep the family going and as a former working mother raising two children I just totally identified with her.

“If she was alive today she’d be running half the city, she’d be writing a blog.”

She might be publishing her own newspaper or magazine, ala Arrianna Huffington.

Wirth also writes about the one certifiable superstar among Nebraska-bred women reporters – Bess Furman.

“If you were going to pick a single woman that was our state’s most distinguished contribution to journalism it would probably be Bess Furman Armstrong,” says Wirth. “She was remarkable and she spanned a lot of eras. She was once referred to as a flapper journalist for her work in Omaha in the ’20s. She was what we would now call a liberated young woman writing rather risque satirical stuff about Omaha. She covered bootleggers and weird crimes down in Little Italy. She wrote this saucy column about Omaha’s most eligible bachelors.”

 

 

Bess Furman Armstrong

 

 

Furman was a product of her post-Victorian emancipated times.

“The ’20s were a wonderful period for women,” notes Wirth. “They had gotten the vote, there were more economic and education opportunities. She loved Omaha and she probably would have stayed except she worked for the Omaha Bee and when it  was purchased by William Randolph Hearst she wanted out and when the opportunity came to leave she did.

“With women now having the vote the Bee needed somebody to write the women’s angle to politics. When Al Smith came to give a speech in Omaha in his 1928 campaign she got assigned to cover it and she wrote such a good story that she won a major journalism award for it and the head of the ;Associated Press who was in town with Al Smith offered her a job in Washington (DC) and she took it. Timing is everything.”

Furman made an immediate impression on Capitol Hill

Wirth says, “She was one of the first women to be allowed on the floor of the House of Representatives. She was assigned to cover First Lady Lou Hoover, who absolutely hated journalists. One time in order to write a story about what the Hoovers were doing for Christmas she dressed up like a Girl Scout” and infiltrated a troop visiting the White house. The ruse worked, too.

“When Hoover got beaten by FDR Eleanor Roosevelt started holding women’s only press conferences in order to force papers to give jobs to women,” says Wirth. “She and Eleanor Roosevelt hit it off wonderfully. Furman and her husband hit it off so well with the Roosevelts that they took home movies of the Roosevelts. When Bess became pregnant she decided she wanted her child to have a Neb. birth certificate, so she drove back here in the middle of the Dust Bowl to have her physician brother deliver what turned out to be twins. She brought with her a baby blanket Eleanor knitted her, and that got reported and went nationwide. Postmaster General (James) Farley sent her $10 worth of flowers and that was such a big order they had to send a special train.”

Furman later she did war information work during World War II and then joined the New York Times as one of its first female political reporters.

“She ended her career as the public information officer for the Department of Health Education and Welfare under Kennedy. Bess Furman may have gone to Washington but she was very deeply a Nebraska person and remained so for her whole life,” says Wirth.

Bringing to light women of distinction she feels connected to is satisfying to Wirth.

“Oh yeah, these are my people. We’re out of the same background, the same occupation. Yeah, I felt a very strong affinity with these women. I really found myself as I was writing about them feeling like I knew them and wishing I could actually have known them. I guess I felt especially this way with the women who wrote books, so you got a real feel for them, you weren’t just getting them second hand, you were getting their own take on the world.

“Their struggles were things I could totally identify with. You don’t have to be a journalist to feel this way about these women. Their humanity, their humor, the way they overcame obstacles with grace and courage and dignity, their persistence. To have careers like theirs was pretty daunting but they did it. I identified with the fact they juggled the personal and the professional and really probably never lost sight of either one.

“Culturally, anyone who has Neb. roots would identify with their style. Most of them let their work speak for them, which is what a journalist usually does.”

 

 

Mary McGrath

 

 

One that Wirth did get to know well is Mary McGrath, who preceded her at the Herald and labored 12 years in club news before becoming a highly respected health and medicine reporter. McGrath helped the green female reporters like Wirth negotiate the male-dominated newsroom.

“Mary McGrath was really the pioneer in city news at the Omaha World-Herald,” says Wirth. “She made a huge difference.”

Wirth recalls McGrath organizing potlucks for the paper’s women journalists and how these occasions became vital airing out and strategizing forums.

“It was a support system and an expression of solidarity. It was a safe place to bounce off ideas. If we would have said we were having a consciousness raising session the older women wouldn’t have gone, but to throw a potluck, how more Midwestern could you get? Mary knew the young women on staff were increasingly militant and she knew how smart and talented they were and she knew they were not writing about who was having who to coffee because they wanted to. She broke down the barrier between the two sections (city news and women’s news) by having those potlucks.

“The guys never had a clue what was going on.

Wirth says the Omaha Press Club served the same function for women in journalism across different media. “It was a great way to get to know other women journalists. You realized you were not alone.” Wirth adds, “A sociologist at Iowa State told me if you’re going to get social change made you have to have a cohort and in a sense you could look at the potlucks or the friendship ties that women journalists formed through the Press Club is how we had a cohort. There were enough of us who felt the same way to make a difference and it really made me feel for women of earlier eras who were one of a kind, out there on their own, whereas

I could go cry on Mary’s shoulder or vice versa .”

Each pioneering woman journalist in her own way contributed to the women’s rights cause and helped move their peers a little further along than before.

“There was a movement afoot. That was how this revolution was waged – one tiny step at a time.”

All those steps taken together made big changes, which is why Wirth was so offended when a feminist of high stature, former First Lady Hilary Clinton, was subjected to sexist coverage during her 2008 presidential campaign bid. The way Clinton was dismissed felt to Wirth like a slap in the face and a setback given how far women have come and what they’ve endured to get there.

“It was very disrespectful to women of our era,” says Wirth. It was like, Don’t they realize what we went through? Most of the Baby Boomers fought very quietly to infiltrate, to get a seat at the table, and nobody knew what it had taken to integrate the American workplace. That was my inspiration for writing the book.

“The women involved have kept silent about what they did because that’s how they were able to do it. We were a minority. The women were mostly just asking to practice the field they loved and were good at. They weren’t asking for special treatment.”

Much like the civil rights movement, the women’s movement gained its biggest victories through mass protests, the passage of new laws and court decisions, but there were many smaller, no less important victories won every day by ordinary women asserting their rights.

“When you look at coverage of the women’s movement it all focuses on things like lawsuits and militant demonstrations and you couldn’t do that in a city like Omaha if you intended to go on working in journalism. It wasn’t like you had a union that would protect you or a vast choice of employers, and for most of us that wasn’t our style anyway,” says Wirth.

Big, loud, public displays, she says, “weren’t the only way women made progress.”

Most of the change, she says, was the result of “the stealth revolution.” She adds that “KETV News Director Rose Ann Shannon said it very well when she told me, ‘I always felt I was dealing with reasonable people and we could work problems out.’ I too found that if you could have a reasonable conversation with somebody you could make progress. You were not going to change things overnight.”

She says there’s still work to be done, such as closing the pay gap between the sexes and shattering the glass ceiling that still limits women from advancing the way men do.

“But it’s sure better than what it was in 1970, and those changes were made nationwide by unsung young women quietly sticking their necks out on relatively small things over and over again.”

She says “it kind of boggles the mind” of her students to realize that as late as the 1970s women were still marginalized in journalism. “When you tell this to girls today they’re like, What? They can’t believe it, which I guess shows that we succeeded. They take it for granted.”

Wirth grew up in a large, high-achieving Nebraska City farm family whose parents set high academic standards and expectations for their children. Wirth loved reading and showed a knack for writing early on. She intended on being a history major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln until her father insisted she take a journalism course.

“What really made me into a journalist  besides Dad ordering me to take the class was working on the Daily Nebraskan and I still think of as ‘the rag.’ It was so much fun. I fell in love with journalism people. The women were strong, funny, delightful, intelligent people and the guys wouldn’t have had us be any order way. I had found myself.”

When Wirth went to work for the World-Herald in 1969 she became one of the paper’s few female news reporters and right up to leaving its employ in 1980 she and women colleagues there, along with women at t countless other workplaces, waged that “quiet revolution” to bring about change.

“When women said, No, I’m not going to get you coffee, that’s not part of my job description, they were part of this revolution,” she says.

So was Wirth when she brought to the attention of an editor the fact that some young males colleagues hired the same time she was had received new section assignments while she was still in the religion beat she began in three years before.

“I’m a contemporary of Steve Jordon and Mike Kelly and both of them had had a couple of assignment changes, and I thought I was as talented as they were and I certainly worked as hard as they did. I told my editor, ‘If you’re doing this for the guys then you should treat the two groups the same. There shouldn’t be a difference. You should give young women the same opportunities as young men.”

She got the assignment change she desired.

At a time when female journalists were confined to covering only certain subjects, such as religion or society news or women’s news, her work made the case that women were capable of covering anything.

“There was a lot of hesitancy about assigning women to cover cops, which was fine with me because I hated it, but I covered them every Saturday for years simply because I wanted to show that a woman could do it.

“There was a lot talk that women couldn’t cover politics because they couldn’t get stories in bars and nonsense like that. There was real hesitancy about sending women to certain places. The ironical thing is that my religion beat in the early ’70s was at a time when the churches were heavily involved in the civil rights movement, so under the guise of covering religion I was actually doing a tremendous amount of civil rights coverage.

“I never regretting spending those three years on religion but I felt like I wanted to grow, to expand, to try new things.”

She also had the opportunity to take on occasional stories that struck a blow for women’s rights by shining a light on gender inequities.

“Quite a few of the stories I did were aimed at showing this inequality.”

 

 

Connie Claussen

 

 

Take the time that former University of Nebraska at Omaha women’s coach and athletic director Connie Claussen called to say she was fed up with the unfair and unequal treatment she experienced at the beginning of her career there. Claussen, whom Wirth describes as “a force of nature, a great lady.” was an equal rights champion who served on the Mayor’s Commission on the Status of Women.

Claussen eventually built a much envied women’s athletic department at UNO featuring championship programs but that legacy almost ended before it started because of how frustrated she was with the short end of the stick offered her and her student-athletes. Before Title IX was passed women’s athletics were separate and unequal in every way.

Wirth recalls, “Connie called one Saturday and said, ‘I’ve had it, I’m not going to do it anymore, I’m not going to teach a full load of physical education classes and coach two or three sports for nothing extra.'” Wirth was sympathetic. “No male would ever coach a (college) sport for free. Women’s athletics were housed in a quonset hut with no showers. I thought, Well this is a sports story and I went over to the UNO beat reporter and he yelled at me, ‘Women sports are a joke, there’s no story here.’ He practically threw me out of the sports department. So I went over to the city desk and they said, Oh yeah, great story. I wrote it and they put it on page one of the Sunday paper. It stirred up enough indignation and attention that Connie ran with it and she got the support she needed to build an outstanding program.

“And I think that was one of the major things we did as women journalists – we were approachable, we were interested in the problems.”

Another story resulted when Doris Royal, a farm wife from Springfield, Neb., called Wirth and in her gravely voice asked, “Are you interested in stories on women?”

“She told me a lot of farm women were losing the family farm operation because of inheritance taxes. The IRS said farms belong to the husband. The only way a woman could escape paying inheritance taxes on a family farm or family small business if she became a widow was if she had worked in town, so she could show she made an economic contribution or if she had brought family inheritance into it.

“A lot of women on farms had worked side by side, they’d driven the tractor and milked the cows, they’d done all the farm work, plus kept the books, and of course that doesn’t account for all their work in the home. But the IRS in effect said, You have made no contribution. Well, that was driving women off the farm because they couldn’t afford it. Land prices had gone up. So Doris started a petition drive and she wanted me to cover a story on it, so I did, I looked into all this stuff. I grew up on a farm and I was horrified, I was shocked, I had no idea. I wrote the story and Doris leveraged my story in the World-Herald to get the Farm Journal, which is the nation’s largest farm magazine, to take up the crusade.

“Doris got petition signatures from every state, she testified before Congress. This woman’s amazing, and they got the law changed.”

Wirth did an entire series on inequitable credit practices that devalued and punished women. “If a woman got married and changed her name she immediately lost all of her credit history,” says Wirth. “Banks assumed the credit rating belonged to the husband even if the women worked full time and could document it.”

With stories like these to file, Wirth’s work was fulfilling enough but when she and her then-husband Ron Psota decided to start a family she knew the demands of her work and the inflexibility of her employer would make motherhood and reporting incompatible. Besides, she was ready for a change.

“It was still the era when women were fired if they got pregnant. My ex-husband and I had been approved to adopt a child and at the World Herald at that time there was no way you could be a reporter and a mother. You had to work 12 and 15 hour days at the drop of a hat if some story broke.”

Making it easier to leave, she says, was the fact that “after 11 years I was burned out on reporting. It was time.”

When hired as the first woman outside of secretaries or receptionists to work in the Union Pacific public relations department she broke down the doors of what had been an exclusive boys-only club. She didn’t appreciate it when one of the old gang complained that she was a token hire to conform with Equal Employment Opportunity and affirmative action policies.

“A crusty old guy who didn’t begin to have my educational credentials and who couldn’t write protested that they had had to hire a woman.”

The bosses set him straight, she says by stating, ‘We hired someone who could write.’ Period. End of story.

Then in 1991 she joined the teaching staff at Creighton University, where in addition to her professor’s role she later became that Jesuit institution’s first female chair of the Department of Journalism (now called the Department of Journalism, Media and Computing). Teaching college is something she always knew was in her future and making a difference in the lives of her students is what most satisfies her about academia.

She’s glad that her book gives students an appreciation for who came before them.

“I think it is very important for my students, especially my female students. You want to give them a sense of what went before so when they invariably face some challenges they will do so with grace and with confidence knowing that women like themselves have conquered similar challenges.”

Wirth’s book, published by the University of Nebraska Press, is available starting May 1.

 

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

January 25, 2013 2 comments

I can’t speak for my colleagues but for this journalist anyway it’s fun to write about other journalists, particularly if the person has enjoyed a rich career in the field we share.  The subject of this New Horizons profile, Bob Hoig, has definitely seen a thing or two in a 56 year career that progressed from copy boy to reporter to editor to publisher.  He’s best known today as publisher of the Midlands Business Journal but he had some intriguing newspapering adventures before he launched that publication in 1975.  I’ve had the pleasure of profiling many fascinating folks in the field, including Don Chapman, Warren Francke, Bill Ramsey, Howard Rosenberg, John Hlavacek, Rudy Smith, Don Doll, and Howard Silber.  You can fnd my stories about them on this blog.  I now add Bob Hoig to the list.

 

 

Bob Hoig

 

 

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in the New Horizons

 

Midlands Business Journal publisher Bob Hoig has often wondered how his life might have turned out had his curiosity not gotten the better of him one fateful day in 1957.

He was a young man recently arrived in New York City after years pining to go there, He was born in rural Kansas and grew up in Pueblo and Colorado Springs, Colorado but he sensed he was meant for bigger things.

“I just had wanted to be there. It was a city that always intrigued me. It had a mystique. I fancied myself a poet at the time. My reading preferences in literature have always tended toward writers who had a lot to say about New York City. That would include F. Scott Fitzgerald. John O’Hara, who was a real favorite of mine, and Ernest Hemingway.”

Hoig actually met the iconic Hemingway in an old German bar in New York.

Rich in words but poor in dollars, Hoig’s Big Apple sojourn was beginning to seem more folly than destiny. Then something happened that changed the course of his life.

“I was out of work, I didn’t have a lot of money, and I was walking down 42nd Street, just past 3rd Avenue, towards 2nd and the East River and the United Nations Building, when my peripheral vision caught the lobby of a building. Inside the lobby was a giant globe of the Earth, roughly 8 or 10 feet high, revolving around. I was just interested, so I walked in. I didn’t know what was going on there.

“There were a lot of brass gauges like you might think of as nautical or aeronautical. There was a guard by the elevator and I said, ‘What building is this? and he said, ‘Why, it’s the New York Daily News.’ Well, I needed a job and so I just asked, ‘Are they hiring?’ He said, ‘It beats me, why don’t you go up and talk to personnel?’ So I did that and the next thing I knew I’d been hired, with no particular qualifications, as a copy boy.”

That mere chance encounter turned into a career 56 years old and counting. He was a reporter for the Miami News, the UPI and the Omaha World-Herald and the managing editor of the Omaha Sun Newspapers and the Douglas County Gazette before founding the MBJ. He still can’t get over how his life in the Fourth Estate began in such an off-handed way.

“I had very little college, one year at the University of Colorado before I dropped out and I had no particular reference to journalism at all.”

He briefly worked in accounting. He’d sold shoes in the basement of Ben Simon department store. But he was restless for something more adventurous. Then he struck out for New York. He was nearly flat broke when he got on with the big city newspaper despite a lick of experience. He was 24, clueless about the world he was about to enter, but soon found himself in a “rich stew” of people and places that spurred him on.

All these years later he recalls the job of Daily News copy boy “a supreme experience,” adding, “The main thing that made it a great experience is that it offered many avenues toward advancing in he trade of journalism.” Being in the newspaper game in New York put one right in the mix of things in the most exciting metropolis in the world. And if one showed a spark of initiative and promise, as he did, opportunities availed themselves.

“That set me up for everything that came after. I was ambitious and ambitious people in New York are always rewarded. I was just ready to do anything. I guess I displayed a little bit of panache in the way I approached things and I was soon made assistant head copy boy. I know that’s not much of a title but it opened doors. It meant I handed out the other copy boys’ assignments, which gave me the pick of the best for myself. That included going to to Yankee Stadium and sitting in the press box just above the dugout when legends like Yogi Berra, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle were trouping out to the plate and back.

“It was not totally glorious because after two innings I had to take the photographer’s film and get out of the stadium, race to the subway and rush the photos back to the Daily News office in time to make the Bulldog edition.”

His entree to the Who’s-Who of New York sports figures didn’t end there.

“That experience had parallels in every sport,” he says. “I was on the sidelines for the New York Giant games on Sunday when Kyle Rote, Roosevelt Grier, Frank Gifford and other legends of Giant football were playing. I got to charge up and down the sidelines with the photographer (until the end of the first quarter when Hoig had to high-tail it back to the office with the film). I got to go to the races at Belmont. Once again, that same drill – after the Daily Double I had to rush the film back to the office.”

It was a fertile training ground, especially for anyone with aspirations.

Hoig says, “That was a great way to get into it and build up a little bit of knowledge and sophistication to life in Manhattan. The main way it helped breaking into the     newspaper business as a writer was that I got to work on Sunday features. What it amounted to was working with some of the legends of New York city journalism and having the benefit of them critiquing my work and being a little bit patient with me. They weren’t totally patient with the copy boys if they showed no spunk but if you did they would work with you. And I got to have bylines in the paper as a result.”

For a journalist, getting a byline is like your name appearing on a theater marquee. It’s your chance to puff out your chest and bask in the spotlight. Hoig took full advantage.

“There was a lot of glory in that kind of byline, for this reason: the stories appeared in the zoned editions of the Sunday edition and for instance my work would appear in the Manhattan Bronx section but there was also a Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, so forth. And the good thing about that was those sections wrapped around the whole newspaper, so on Sunday if you were lucky enough to get a front page byline in the Manhattan Bronx section there your name was staring up from every New York newsstand. So you can bet that any girlfriend I was wining and dining at the time I made sure we walked past that Sunday stand and I’d say, ‘Oh look…'”

The ethos of the times found Hoig following the newspaper pack to the bars, where drinking and swapping stories through the night was routine.

He positively subscribes to the sentiment that if you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere. “Yeah, it’s true because it tees you up. For one thing you’re used to some of the more dire circumstances. A lot of them required you to have your wits about you and to sort of be as much as actor as a reporter.”

Working at the News offered other advantages, too.

“The News was a totally Irish dominated newspaper. it was quite a place to be in my day by the way because some of the absolute legends of the New York scene were actually there then. For instance, Ed Sullivan still had a desk. He was just breaking into television. He’d been a columnist for years. If I had a tip I would try to feed it to his column. Paul Gallico was not only a top sports editor he was famous around the desk for getting knocked out by Jack Dempsey. He was also a great short story writer who won the O’Henry Award. Harry Nichols was a big-time city editor. A tough, no-nonsense kind of guy. He was a legend.”

Hoig also got his feet wet in live TV.

“The News not long before had started a television station, WPIX, which was also in the building, and I got the chance to write the most basic kind of copy for the news scripts – death, weather, anything very routine. That opened the door to some other sophistications that the average kid working in Grand Island or Kearney wouldn’t find at the introductory level.”

He was only in New York about two years when he left for Neb., where he had family. He’d spent time visiting relatives in the state as a youth. “The Hoigs got out here about 1895 around Beatrice and Wymore. My dad had deep roots with the old Cooper Foundation theaters. I returned to Lincoln, Neb. on the advice of one of the ‘lobster’ city editors of the New York Daily News. That’s the editor who comes on at midnight and works until 8 in the morning. He became a friend of mine.”

Hoig was itching to do crime reporting but as a copy boy it would have taken him longer than he cared to wait before he got his opportunity to cover that beat.

“My friend felt I had enough talent that I needed to get out and get right into the mainstream of what i was interested in, which was crime writing. Now you could go that route with the Daily News but they rarely if ever hired from the outside and you had to work up from a copy boy through junior assistant and that kind of thing, and the waiting period could be fantastic. For instance, Jimmy Cannon, who’s a legend in sportswriting, was a copy boy for seven years on the Daily News. The man who at the time was the travel editor had been a copy boy for 13 years.

“There were all kinds of names in New York City who had followed that route. This editor thought I would benefit by getting out and getting a job. It worked out that I did get a chance to work in Lincoln covering police and fire in the period when Charles Starkweather had been brought to trial and was being executed. At the time it was the Lincoln Journal-Star, but I worked for the Journal, which was the afternoon paper.”

Hoig wound up in Omaha, first on the United Press International desk and then as an Omaha World-Herald newsroom staffer, but not by way of Lincoln as you might expect, rather by way of Miami and Chicago of all places. His wanderlust called again.

“That was kind of a circuitous route,” he notes. “After I cut my teeth on police reporting, doing a lot of it in Lincoln, I felt the same lure to Miami that I did to New York. I went to Miami and after being rejected at the Miami Herald by the then-assistant managing editor, Harold “Al” Neuharth, who went on found USA Today, I wound up working for in my opinion the greatest newspaper in all of Florida and the South at the time as a young crime reporter, the old Miami News. It was a real blood and guts paper. It was edited again by a legend in newspapering down there.

“It was a great place to be and right off the bat they assigned me to the sheriff’s office and so many good stories would come out of there.”

Organized crime was well entrenched in the city, as was rampant police corruption, and one assignment required him to “go up to a known Mafia family head and ask, ‘How do you feel about your son being shot-gunned to death?’ When you’re in a crazy situation like that you gotta just quick think and get out. “

He enjoyed being in the thick of the action of a cosmopolitan city built on tourism and graft. It was a vital place and time where the news never quit.

“I had a chance to really move along there,” says Hoig. “I cultivated a friend who was probably my closest colleague on the Miami News. He was an old-timer who had worked on the war desk during World War II in New York for United Press. I loved the job at the Miami News but I didn’t like Florida and neither did my then-wife, and at that time she was my new wife. We didn’t like the heat, so we decided to go north.

“When Bill Tucker, this friend of mine, heard we were going north he said, ‘Well, I hate to see you leave but as long as you’re going I’ll give you a reference to the man who’s the division news manager for United Press International in Chicago. I interviewed with him, I was hired and I had (incidentally) some Neb. roots but they just happened to send me to Omaha. That’s how I wound up in Omaha.”

UPI was still a player among wire services in the 1960s.

“We were totally rivals with the Associated Press. We had more radio and TV clients in Neb. than AP did. AP was ahead of us in newspapers. But we shared all the biggies, like we were both in the World-Herald, the Lincoln Journal-Star, and their editors played that very cleverly because they would pit us against each other in a competitive way.”

His highlight with UPI came with a bit of newspaper bravado.

“I was sitting in the United Press Bureau one night in the mid-‘60s when a report came in about a shooting in Big Springs. An armed robber had come in the bank, lined up four people on the floor and shot them. Three of them died and one of them survived. So this gunman was on the loose and nobody knows who it was.

‘We got a tip authorities were searching for a Kansas farm boy, Duane Earl Pope. We found out his father had been cruel to him. Duane had recently graduated from McPherson College, where he was a football star. I thought, Who could issue an appeal I could write that would lead Duane to surrender. His father? No. His coach? Maybe. His college president? Yeah. When Pope finally was captured they learned he’d heard that appeal in a hotel room in Las Vegas. He made arrangements to fly back and surrender to the FBI in Kansas City, That was the biggest coup I ever staged and I think there is a classic role in journalism for that sort of thing.”

 

 

Duane Earl Pope in custody after turning himself into authorities

 

 

He left the Omaha Bureau of UPI after roughly seven years to join the World-Herald. He explains, “I had what seemed like a much better offer at that time from the World-Herald to become a crime and corruption reporter. That was 1969.

“The biggest story I covered up to that point was a banking scandal in Sheldon, Iowa. A spinster named Bernice Geiger was the trusted bookkeeper for the local bank owned by her aging parents and she had embezzled $2 million. So I went up there and every day just as I was getting ready to leave something major developed in the story. All of a sudden reporters from Time, Newsweek, the New York papers and all over the country came flooding in to cover this story.

“It had so many angles that you could write a book about it. It had such human interest, including a possible love angle. A young con man came in and there was suspicion that he helped her spend the money. It turned out she blew the money on the Chicago Commodities Exchange, which is a weird place for a spinster to blow money.”

In 1971 he was the Herald’s nominee for a Pulitzer Prize for a series he did about serial sexualpaths that led to a state law being changed to tighten lax security procedures at the then-Nebraska State Hospital. To get the story Hoig says he “went down to Lincoln and asked a lot of questions.” He explains, “That story was precipitated by a particularly bad actor who was an inmate down there. Staff just let inmates like him wander the grounds. There was no particular supervision and this guy every now and then would just wander off and do his thing. What got him caught is he wandered off to Omaha, where he raped a couple women, and so that set in motion the Herald’s interest in it.”

He remained with the Herald until 1972.

His path to launching the Midlands Business Journal actually began at the end of a brief turn he took as editor of the Douglas County Gazette. “By that time I’d had my fill of crime and corruption and looking under every rock to expose something sinister or wrong or some crime,” he says. “I didn’t want to do that anymore.”

When a Herald column mentioned he was leaving the Gazette, he recalls, “that morning my phone was ringing at a quarter to eight and it was the owner of Rapid Printing, the late Zane Randall, saying, ‘If you’re out of work, come and talk to me.’ So I did and he hired me as general manager of a bunch of suburban shoppers he either owned or printed. I talked Zane into letting me take a shot at founding a business newspaper with somewhat of a unique concept.”

Few people thought the business journal could work.

“This came in the face of many prophecies of doom from people like Jim Ivey at the Herald, so it wasn’t an assured thing. But what I wanted to do was produce a product that would localize and bring close to the community stories of businesses and with a particular angle of success stories. I’ve always been a good salesman and I think I’m a good enough writer and editor that I had the two components you need to start a successful paper, and that’s why I thought it would be successful.

“It was something nobody was doing at the time and that’s what I staked my guess it could be successful on. Zane was backing me in a sense. He didn’t put any money into it but he printed the paper for us and he let us use his composing room and typesetting and so forth. So it was a relatively painless way to try something that worked.”

Hoig and Randall drew up a contract to be half-and-half partners of MBJ at the start but as time went on the enigmatic Randall wanted out.

“Zane was the kind of guy who would just take a chance on anything and he backed newspapers and mailing operations that failed. He had a lot of failures out there with little probes into different aspects of journalism. Of course, he sold (Rapid) out to the Herald for a reputed seven or eight million bucks, so when he scored he scored big. His inclination to back anything is what helped me out in the long run.

“But we were about a year into the MBJ when several relatives he had working for him told him to get out of it.’ I tried to point out to him that we were in the process of being successful and for our humble niche in the community we were being very successful. The ad sales were almost good enough to meet the goals and the subscription sales were renewing at a fantastic 90 percent rate. That usually doesn’t happen.

“Based on all that I said to him, ‘Look ahead one more year and this thing is going to be doing really well.’ I couldn’t talk him out of it, and he said, ‘No, we’re closing it down. I said, ‘Well, how about you name a figure and if I can possibly meet it I’ll sign a note and pay it off? and that’s the way that one went.”

 

 

 

 

Thirty-eight years later MBJ is still going strong. He attributes its enduring success to his ‘nose for news,” his business sense and his numbers crunching ability.

“I can spot stories or I can cook them up.”

“I know accounting and I keep the books and so every day I know what my cash position is to the penny. Every month I reconcile the bank statements and I do my general ledger entries. I’ve never graduated from that routine and that’s one way to keep your hands on your business and know what’s going on.”

Meeting unforgettable characters and public figures has also come with the territory. A bigger-than-life politico he had occasion to know was the late South Omaha kingpin Gene Mahoney. Hoig recalls a memorable encounter.

“I was walking on South 13th Street when Mahoney in this old beater of a car pulls up and says, ‘Where you going?’ ‘Back to work,’ and he said, ‘Hop in.’ So I got in and asked, ‘Where we going?’ and he said, ‘We’re going on the Polish sausage run.’ He had his car loaded with Polish sausage and other things and good old politician Mahoney was swinging by everybody in South Omaha that he’d found out was either sick or laid off or injured. He was just a master politician that way.

“He was such a powerbroker. I think I’m the last guy to know how great he was. As a powerbroker, maybe not as an individual. He had some sides to him that I don’t think I’d recommend. But as a guy who just controlled everything…”

Once, when Omaha Federation of Labor AFL-CIO president Terry Moore launched into a favorite theme about Mahoney being “all washed up” Hoig set the record straight. “I said, Terry, think about it, where is Mahoney right now? His best friend has just been elected to the U.S. Senate, Ed Zorinsky. His handpicked apparatchik is in the legislature, Bernice Labedz. She’s keeping him totally informed about everything. He’s got a job that has more perks and power than any job in the state as Games and Parks commissioner. He can airplane people out to any lodge, so as a position to collect IOUs you can’t beat that. Plus, he’s got a say in a certain amount of projects that get built.”

Hoig, who closely follows politics and doesn’t exactly pull punches when critiquing politicians, admired Mahoney’s savvy when it came to patronage and influence.

“As a former legislator and someone who’d been across political parties – he switched back and forth from Democrat to Republican to Democrat again – he could talk to anyone. He was a master at doling out favors. He’d get together with Peter Kiewit and Walter Scott on what were their desires and what needed to be done and all of a sudden things got built.”

Hoig has anecdotes about all the big names he’s met, including corporate tycoons Peter Kiewit and V.J. Skutt, then presidential candidate Richard Nixon, then-vice president Lyndon Johnson, not to mention Neb. politicians whose wrath he’s earned. His life is as full as any of theirs though. He toiled for others the first third of his career before striking out on his own and becoming a successful entrepreneur. Besides MBJ he publishes the Lincoln Business Journal and the Omaha Book of Lists. MBJ was the Chamber’s 2002 Golden Spike Award honoree. He’s been recognized by the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce (2004) and the Omaha Kiwanis Club (2006) as Entrepreneur of the Year.

“As a unit success our biggest success is our 40 Under 40 program with the Chamber. That, of course, isn’t a paper but it’s a yearly program we started in 2002 during the depths of another bubble recession and it made it’s way through. It’s forged on identifying and honoring 40 professional businessmen and women under the age of 40.”

He’s also the father of three adult children. Long divorced, he’s well into his second marriage with an old friend, Martha, who’s every bit as bit as active as he is. He’s a veteran tennis player and swimmer. He used to ski. Since taking up skiing late in life Martha’s become quite the devotee and continues to enjoy the sport despite some mishaps on the slopes. She’s also an artist with her own downtown studio. Bob says her streaks of “daring-do” and whimsy have led her to stand on her head atop the Olympic Tower in New York and to ride a motorcycle with him. She’s also his faithful flying companion. He only took up flying a decade ago but it’s his main hobby today.

He’s not conceding anything to age as he continues coming to the office every day and living it up away from the office. He says he enjoys “keeping everything in balance now,’”adding, “I like the idea of having the balance. The work, the great relationship with my wife, the flying and the writing – I’m really starting to ramp up my own fiction writing.”

At 80, he still plays tennis and swims. He only gave up skiing three years ago. He works out a few days a week at the gym.

His boundless curiosity invariably leads him to some new passion he takes up with vigor and once he hit upon flying it’s become his main fascination and outlet.

 

 

Hoig pilots a Cessna very much like this one

 

 

“Almost every decade of my life I’ve turned a corner into something that fascinates me,” he says. “When I was 68 my son and I were in my den playing flight simulator and I was like, ‘This is really interesting and fun, I think I’ll take a (flying) lesson.’ So I went out to get a lesson and just from the first landing of feeling like a big bird, sailing slowly, slowly, now a little faster, and then, whoosh. It just captivated me and that’s all I could think about for a year other than my work.”

He got his private pilot’s license in 2000 and purchased his own Cessna SkyLane in 2003. He earned his instrument rating in 2005. He’s logged 1,700 hours in the air.

He’s proud of his blue and white Cessna he personally selected from the plant. “It’s a beauty. It’s a good one for traveling and my wife and I travel a lot. Any vacation, we fly. That has really kept my spirits and kept me thinking.”

He and Martha love seeing the sights.

“We do travel an awful lot. The most routine trip we make is every year we fly the plane to New York and go to the U.S. Open tennis tournament. That’s in late August-early September. Of late we’ve taken to flying into New England or to upstate New York. In 2011 I flew it up to a place called Plattsburgh, New York just across the lake from Burlington, Vermont. It’s way up there. That was good.

“A couple times a year we fly it up to a place called Rosemary Beach in the Florida Panhandle. Three years ago I flew it all the way down into the Florida Keys, beyond Key Largo. I’ve flown it a lot to my hometown of Colorado Springs.”

He has the chops to fly into airports large and small.

“I really made it my business to learn GPS and that has helped us fly into big airports and feel comfortable doing it in rain, in clouds, and so on.”

Between changeable weather systems and heavy air traffic, he says, “You have to keep your wits about you.”

Sometimes he and Martha just light out on a whim.

“We’ve gotten up on a Saturday morning with no idea of what we’re going to do that day and one of us will say, ‘Hey, it’s a nice day, why don’t we go to Kansas City?, so you jump in the plane and you’re in Kansas City for lunch.”

The couple also travel to Europe with great regularity. They never do tours. Instead they simply “follow the wind,” he says.

Martha, who is a breast cancer survivor, has also been a key cog in his publishing empire as vice-president in charge of marketing. His sister Cindy is vice-president of advertising. And his daughter Andrea once worked for him as well before branching off on her own. Much to his surprise and delight Andrea’s followed his footsteps. She began working for him as a photographer and in 1996 she purchased a fledgling publication he started, Metro Monthly, and she’s since transformed it into Metro Magazine, whose niche is covering the area’s philanthropic scene.

Seeing her blossom into a peer entrepreneur and publisher, he says, gives him “great satisfaction,” adding, “She’s done a terrific job with the magazine that I told her in the beginning, ‘Just forget it, it won’t go,’ so she proved me wrong on that.”

 

 

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

 

 

It’s sometimes hard for him to reconcile the rebellious girl who worked for him with the mature woman who is a colleague today.

“When she was a teenager we just didn’t mix at all. We didn’t get along. In the course of maybe working around me a little bit and getting into journalism it turns out of my three children she’s more like the apple that fell closest to the tree. She seems to have an instinctive ability in journalism for some of the things I think are very important. She’s unusually good at detail. She gets along very well with people and unlike me she has a very kind heart. She just empathizes with everybody and for the niche that she’s in that’s really the way to be anyway, but she is like that.”

They’re very different people though. “She is liberal where I’m conservative,” he says. “She doesn’t even read my editorials.” But his admiration for her is complete. “I’m very proud of what she’s accomplished, She’s come so far from where I thought.”

Last fall father and daughter were honored as Faces on the Barroom Floor at the Omaha Press Club.

Over time he’s learned some lessons from her, too, such as giving up control.

“I was the typical entrepreneur in feeling that if I didn’t do it it couldn’t be done right. Everything really important I felt I had to do myself. It’s hard enough to grow a really      small business like ours without giving it total attention and I probably lost a lot of good people over the years by not turning enough over to them. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten better at delegating responsibility. I’ve started to turn more over to our editor and to our advertising director and that’s been good.”

As he’s taken more time out for himself, his wife, his family and his passions, he’s found his later years to be the best of his life. He’s far from retired though.

“There’s a saying I heard long ago that work ennobles a person and I find this work very ennobling because it keeps me alive, it keeps me involved and it keeps me thinking. It also keeps people employed.”

Media Updates: I talk about my Alexander Payne book on the radio tonight; My cover story about Payne’s new film ‘Nebraska’ is in this week’s issue of The Reader

October 25, 2012 Leave a comment

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Be sure to catch my Tom Becka Show appearance from 5 to 6 p.m. this evening (Thursday, Oct. 25) as I talk Alexander Payne, my new book about the Oscar-winning filmmaker, the writer-director’s new film “Nebraska,” and my life as a freelance author-journalist-blogger.  That’s tonight on KOIL News Talk Radio 1290 on the a.m. side of things.  Omaha actor-radio talent Dutch Haling is filling in for Tom and promises to turn me loose for the full hour.  I’m grateful for the opportunity to promote my book.  It’s a call-in show to boot, so maybe you’ll want to drop in on the conversation and express your two-cents worth.

Don’t miss my cover story about Payne’s “Nebraska” in the new issue of The Reader.  It hits the stands tonight.  Check the paper’s website later today to see the story online at http://www.thereader.com.

Dick Cavett’s Desk Jockey Déjà Vu


 

Dick Cavett hasn’t hosted an actual talk show in a long time but occasionally he still settles behind a desk or a table to do a faux version for charity. A few years ago Turner Classic Movies featured him in a special tete-a-tete he did with Mel Brooks.  TCM’s also showed some of his classic interviews with Hollywood legends.  He also has DVDs out of his best programs with film and rock icons.  The following piece appeared before the TCM specials.  You’ll find several more stories by me about Cavett, whom I’ve had the chance to interview multiple times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dick Cavett’s Desk Jockey Déjà Vu 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

The Dick Cavett Show. Ladies and gentlemen, Dick Cavett …… ”

That intro, silent for a generation, is back, thanks to Turner Classic Movies. The cable channel (Cox 55) is presenting interviews the Nebraska native comic, author, actor and talk-show host did with screen giants on his ABC late-night  The Dick Cavett Show of the late 1960s, early 1970s. On Thursday nights this month and next, TCM resurrects these originals just as a new DVD is out with him and Hollywood legends.

In this spirit of revival, TCM’s produced an hour special, recreating Cavett’s old show. In it, he goes one-on-one with comic dynamo Mel Brooks before a live studio audience. The TCM special marks his desk jockey return of sorts. The Dick Cavett Show’s many incarnations over 30 years ranged from daytime and late-night runs on ABC to versions on CBS, PBS, USA and CNBC. A radio gig in 1998 was his last.

Cavett, born in Gibbon, raised in Lincoln, educated at Yale and schooled in comedy by some of the greats, displays the same ease and wit with Brooks as he did in his exchanges with Golden Age legends. Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Groucho Marx, Woody Allen, Robert Mitchum and Alfred Hitchcock headline the guests he adroitly draws out and trades barbs with in the TCM re-airs.

It must be surreal for the 69-year-old to relive his talk show past. Indeed, as he glides on stage for the special, wearing a perplexed face, the first thing he utters, with senatorial incredulity, is, “That was dééjàà …… something, all over again.” The timing’s just right. “It puts me right back stage at our studio on 58th in New York, right next to the Zip Your Fly sign,” he says, switching from highbrow to low.

A call to his place in Manhattan finds him begging off an interview for another hour. He explains it’s so he has time to finish a letter to the New York Times in which he chides a staffer for her “absolutely, unforgivably erroneous, mean-spirited crappy review” of the special. It’s not the first time he’s taken on a Times’ scribe. His last diatribe, he says, was “to my amazement, spread …… all over the front page of the Sunday entertainment section.”

On the call back, he’s ready to get nostalgic about Hollywood royalty. The thought of those full-blooded figures reminds him today’s stars are, by comparison, “almost entirely” devoid of gravity or grandiosity. “Who would be Tracy or Fonda or Mitchum today? Who do we have? They just aren’t there,” he says. “Cagney (James), there’s nothing like him around. De Niro is about it.” He can’t put his finger on what this means, except, “ …… that’s something gone wrong in the gene pool or something.”

The mention of his odd 1973 show with Marlon Brando, then fronting the American Indian Movement, reminds Cavett how dismissive the actor was of his own craft. “Yes, because of his silly notion he kept peddling all his life that acting was a kind of offhand profession that anybody could do,” he says. “I don’t know if it was on the show or off, but he said, ‘You know, when they ask — Did you pee on the toilet seat? You lie and say no, and that’s acting and that’s all acting is.’ I know I did say to him, ‘In other words, I could have been as good a Stanley Kowalski as you?’ That kind of stopped him for a moment.”

Mitchum, “his eyelids at half-mast,” affected similar disdain for acting, despite all evidence to the contrary. “Yeah, he talked about walking through parts. That it was not really a manly profession,” Cavett says, “but Mitchum was a superb actor and anybody who thinks he wasn’t let’s see them get up and do what he did. He could have done Macbeth. I had to use pliers virtually to get him to admit he wrote poetry. I saw some of it and it was wonderful. He wrote music for some other things as well …… the score to the first movie he produced himself, Thunder Road.”

Of his hero Groucho, whom he did several shows with, Cavett says, “I knew a lot about him going in, so I wasn’t surprised by much, except by how much he liked to read and he was virtually always funny.” Groucho’s perfect one-liners came so fast and often, he says, “somebody should have been around” to record them.

A highlight for Cavett was writing for Groucho, among many temp hosts of The Tonight Show after Paar quit and before Johnny took over. “Groucho was the thrill, of course, for us writers or ‘the Shakespeares’ as he called us.”

Cavett first met Groucho and Woody Allen only a day apart. At the time Cavett wrote and coordinated on-air talent for Paar. Woody was a standup in New York clubs. “I was sent by the Paar show to scout this young man who they said had written for Sid Caesar when he was 17. I just thought, ‘I’ve got to know this guy.’ We met at the Blue Angel where he was appearing and vomiting back stage from stage fright, the master [emcee] making him go on and the audience sitting there talking during his fledgling act. He was a dud. His material was the greatest I’d ever heard. Genius.”

 

 

 

For those who only know the guarded sophisticate filmmaker Allen is today, Cavett says they “will be amazed he was ever a standup comic, in a period of his life he hated, and went on talk shows. Pure gold.”

Cavett, whose sardonic tone and neurotic persona make him a kind of WASPish Woody, would have killed to have been a staff writer, as Allen and Brooks were, for Caesar, whose stable included Neil Simon, Carl Reiner and Larry Gelbart. “By the time I got to New York, damnit, Show of Shows was no longer,” Cavett says. He expresses similar regret to Brooks on the special: “God, I wish I’d been in the room with those guys.” When Cavett tells Mel he imagines those writing sessions as times when “countless gems were flying around the room,” Brooks deflates him with, “They could be counted. A lot of bulls*** flew across the room.”

Brooks played a wild, 2,500-year-old brewmeister to Cavett’s deadpan reporter in Ballantine Beer radio spots that Cavett says showcased Brooks’ “God-given, outrageous, eccentric comic talent.” The crazy Jew and placid Gentile played off each other well. During the special, Brooks ribs the host for being “spectacularly Gentile. You should be in a wax museum as THE Gentile.”

Cavett says there are enough star segments from his old show for more DVD-TCM revivals. His interviews with jazz greats will be on a forthcoming DVD. Still mourning the July death of his wife of 40 years, actress Carrie Nye, Cavett busies himself as much as he can. There’s still that letter to get out and so he excuses himself with his trademark, “I’ll be seeing ya.” We’ll be seeing you, too, Dick.

Check tunerclassicmovies.com for Cavett on TCM.

Dick Cavett Gets Personal, Still Gets Laughs


 

A celebrity I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing a half-dozen times or so in the last decade, Dick Cavett, breezed through Omaha in June and I didn’t even know it or else I would have tried to arrange interviewing him again.  It never gets old.  Neither seemingly does he.  But I can solace in the fact that I did just happen to interview him by phone shortly before that in advance of his appearance at the Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk, Neb., the hometown of his late friend and fellow talk show host, Johnny Carson.  You can find my story on the festival, including some Cavett snippets, on this blog.  The story I’m posting here I wrote based on a public speaking appearance he gave here a half-dozen years ago or.  He addressed his battle with depression at a fund raiser for Community Alliance, a local mental health recovery organization.  He managed to tell his story and to be funny at the same time.  The blog also features the other Cavett stories I’ve completed over the years, including two major feature profiles.  I look forward to whenever our paths cross again.

 

 

 

 

Dick Cavett Gets Personal, Still Gets Laughs

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

On his recent Omaha visit, Dick Cavett revealed glimpses of himself as entertainer, raconteur, pundit and recovering clinical depression patient.

At the October 19 Omaha Press Club “Face on the Bar Room Floor” event, Cavett adroitly made with the quips and rejoinders that made him a talk show-meister from the late 1960s into the ‘90s. He only alluded to his depression. However, in a talk for the Community Alliance’s “Breaking the Silence” dinner the next night at the Holiday Inn Central, he described his odyssey with mental illness as “lots of pills” and “years on the couch.”

Amid the gloom, he said, “it’s so awful and so inexplicable and whatever you do to try and imagine it, you can’t. If there were a magic wand across the room on the table that would make you happy and give you everything you want, it would be too much trouble…to pick it up.”

His career as a host stalled after a manic-depressive episode prevented him from fulfilling a contract to front a radio program. He felt so low, he said, “that it became just too awful to get out of bed in that familiar way.”

His wife, actress Carrie Nye, has been a major support in his treatment and recovery. “She’s been very intuitive and very good about it. She’s the one who said, ‘You’ve got to turn yourself in,’ and because of that I did. It’s good to have somebody there.” Married since 1964, the couple has overseen the restoration of Tick Hall, their historic Montauk, Long Island home ravaged by fire in 1997.

In interviews, Cavett segues from anecdotes about his career to observations about his illness. He said depression poses many questions, is easily misunderstood, inflicts pain on others and takes a toll on the libido. Quoting Mort Sahl, he said, “Sex is great, if memory serves.”

It’s much how he was on his ABC show and later public-cable TV variations of it. He was the hip alternative to Johnny and Merv. While steeped in show biz history, the politically aware Cavett was more plugged into current events than his older counterparts. They favored small talk and shop talk to his substance and represented more middle-of-the-road mainstream views than his counterculture leanings.

Not that the former standup doesn’t cut up. His eloquent banter, filled with asides and non sequitirs, is not above the ribald. In what may be a first for an Omaha society speaking engagement, he ended his remarks, albeit as the punchline to a Groucho Marx joke, with, “f_ _ _ you.”

His ABC show was an eclectic melange of Vegas variety acts, extended interviews with serious artists and self-promoters hawking everything from faith to politics to pet projects. The sardonic Cavett wasn’t above name-dropping or gossip. Indeed, he still sprinkles his comments with juicy tidbits. Rare among TV personalities, he’s been willing to be himself or as close as TV allows. As he’s said, “It’s not you that does the show, it’s the show you that does it. When you go on, you take the show you with you, and when you go off, it’s the you-you, you take home.”

Wry, reflective and smart as hell, the ad-libber loves going off script, whether ruminating on “the anatomical roots” of Truman Capote’s “ridiculous voice” or the correct usages of forte or the unusual way Jack Benny stood while peeing. He’s also self-deprecating enough to acede a compulsion for trivia and minutae. “Annoying little things like that have me very unpopular in conversation,” he said.

 

By Jim Horan, ©Omaha Press Club

 

 

Then there’s his mellifluous bass voice. He uses it to underline the ironic musings and quips he delivers as the studied sophisticate and the mischevious brat that are equal parts of him. His dulcet tones can also resound with warm regard and sage insight, as in the University of Nebraska TV/radio spots he’s lent his voice to for years.

Vulnerable, if not as confessional as Jack Paar, who gave him his big TV break, Cavett’s unafraid to expose his serious and silly sides, often in the same monologue or interview. He doesn’t treat interviews as bits to hurry through, funny-up or dumb-down. As an emcee, he had conversations with guests, engaging them and, by extension, audiences, with exchanges that probed, grated, charmed and cajoled.

He negotiated answers with squirrely Marlon Brando. He told LSD prophet Timothy Leary “You’re full of crap.” He put Norman Mailer’s ego in its place with “Would you like another chair to contain your giant intellect?”He waxed poetic with John Neihardt. He never could draw out Spiro Agnew.

When not challenging taking public figures, the forever star struck Cavett bowed in the presence of their brilliance. One of his many booking coups was getting a reluctant Kate Hepburn for a studio interview, minus an audience. His nerves calmed when he noted “a slight tremor in her down stage cheek.” To his relief, “she was nervous as hell,” too.

A childhood molestation may have “chased” him into emotional distress. His depression first manifested itself at Yale. As a pro, he recalled the inexplicable apathy he felt on the eve of a Laurence Olivier interview, which he struggled through. “I just wanted to go home and get under my bed.” A curious thing about depression, he said, is its affective symptoms overwhelm the victim, but largely remain unseen. “It doesn’t look nearly as bad as you think it does.” That masking can obscure detection.

The gravity that earned Cavett an egg-head label explains why he never resonated with the masses the way fellow Nebraskan Johnny Carson did.

“I hated it whenever it came up and I wanted to say, If anyone thinks I’m an intellectual than the country’s in a very sad state. When people would say, ‘You’re trying to do a more literary show, aren’t you?’ — I’d say, ‘Oh, Jesus, no — I’m trying to do an entertainment show.’”

His comic persona is a complex of Bob Hope’s topical wisecracks, Jack Benny’s relaxed delivery, Paar’s anxious energy, Woody Allen’s neurotic analysis and Groucho’s irreverent bombast. There’s also a lot of Carson in him. Cavett was inspired by Carson, 10 years his senior, from the time he saw the Great Carsoni’s magic act. He followed a similar path as Carson, for whom he became a joke writer.

Their careers paralleled each other’s. He recalled a venerable on-air radio talent at Lincoln’s KFOR saying, ‘You know, Dick, you’re going to get up and out of here the way Johnny did.’ It was a poignant moment because it was a man in his middle-age saying, ‘I’m as far as I’m going to get and I have faced up to that, but you and Johnny…’ I didn’t know what to say.”

 

 

 

Cavett, who as a boy saw Hope perform at the Lincoln Colisieum, couldn’t imagine one day having the icon on his own show. Or being an intimate of Groucho’s. Or joining Carson as a TV desk jockey. Perhaps it was their shared background, but Carson had “a tremendous affection for me,” he said, “and it took someone else to point it out to me. It embarrased me.” Two Nebraskans hosting competing network talk shows, yet Cavett said, “I don’t think we ever did discuss how curious it was. I wish we had.”

Well aware they head “The List” of Nebraskans to find fame as TV performers, he speculates there’s “something about the place” to account for so many legends, but can’t pin it down.

Sharing Carson’s fondness for Nebraska, Cavett often returns. He re-enacted his talk show on stage one night last April for a Lincoln Public Library fundraiser. He’s long made driveabouts through the Sand Hills as a kind of pilgrimmage. “It’s one of the most gorgeous places in the world and it’s a blessing tourists don’t know about it or just don’t get it.”

As folklorist Roger Welsch roasted his old friend and classmate at the Press Club, Cavett interjected, in his best Jack Benny, “Now cut that out” and “Please tell at least one true story.“When Welsch ended with, “He left Nebraska, but he’s never gotten over it and Nebraska’s never gotten over you,” Cavett replied, “Now that’s more like it.”

The Man Behind the Voice of Husker Football at Memorial Stadium

June 20, 2012 1 comment

There are many voices of University of Nebraska football.  Head Coach bo Pelini. Husker Sports Network play-by-play man Greg Sharpe.  Not to be forgotten though is Husker football’s Memorial Stadium public address announcer Patrick Combs, who lends his own signature personality to the goings-on inside that cathedral of college football without ever detracting from it.  I did the piece a few years ago about Combs and his dream role as “The Voice of Husker Football.”

Patrick Combs working the PA system, ©(JACOB HANNAH/Lincoln Journal Star)

 

 

The Man Behind the Voice of Husker Football at Memorial Stadium

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine

 

Patrick Combs, 41, lives a dream each Husker game day as the in-stadium announcer for Nebraska football. He grew up cheering Big Red at Memorial Stadium, where he and his late father, Lincoln, Neb. car dealer Woody Combs, bonded on Saturdays.

From age 13 on, he said, “it’s safe to say my dream was to be the Voice of the Huskers. I always thought how cool it would be someday to be that booming voice…”

When not living his dream he’s director of business development for NRG Media, a Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based company with 83 radio stations in seven states. Combs works out of the Omaha office, home to Waitt Radio Network. He loves radio, but despite a resonant voice he didn’t seek a career in broadcasting, it sought him.

Growing up he and his family were into horses. His father, whom Combs said “had a great voice,” announced area equestrian events, including those a young Pat rode in. Whenever his dad couldn’t do an event, Combs filled in. People would invariably tell him, “You should be an announcer.” Instead, he attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln intent on going into law or politics. He interned for then-Governor Bob Kerrey.

He ended up going to work for his dad. Recruited away by another dealer, he made general manager at 24. In 1993, he led a group of young American professionals to Taiwan for an international business summit and found a new calling.

“It was a life-changing month for me,” Combs said. “I realized very quickly how fortunate we are in this country with the freedoms we have and the abilties we have to be entrepeneurial. I came back idealistic and energized…and I decided to channel that by running for political office to try to make a difference.”

He entered the ‘94 U.S. Congressional race against Neb. Republican incumbant Doug Bereuter. Combs, a Democrat, was a 27-year-old unknown. But in a GOP-heavy state he managed 40 percent of the vote by campaigning every day and raising an unheard of $250,000 for his upstart bid. He failed to gain the same seat again in ‘96.

By then soured on selling cars and being denied a political career, he answered opportunity when KLIN in Lincoln asked him to co-host a talk show. The gig got in his blood and he learned the biz, laying the foundation for his 13-year radio career.

Life was good. He married, became a father of two, saw his career flourish at Waitt, which merged with NRG, and indulged his “passion” for riding Harleys. But two things were missing. The man he calls “my biggest idol and mentor” — his dad — died in 2001. And his dream job as Voice of Husker Nation seemed unattainable.

“I’d pretty much written off that job,” he said. Enter fate. In 2003 the job came open and Combs won it after auditioning, including calling that year’s Spring Game.

Going on his fifth year as the P.A. man, he said, “I’m still like a little kid in a candy store. I love it.” Though few know the name behind the voice, he said, “that’s OK. I’m just thrilled to be there. I’m humbled every day I walk into the stadium and to be part of such a storied program. There’s pressure to do a good job and I try very hard to do a good job. I do not want to let the fans down.” That’s why he preps hours before each contest. Calling a good game, he said, comes down “to being a facilitator of information and adding to the environment of the game.”

From the booth Combs imagines his dad, who got him started announcing, hearing him in the stands.

“I know he would be so proud his son is the Voice of the Huskers.”

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