Omaha performer Brenda Allen recalls her friendship with Johnny Cash
Ring of Fire pays tribute to iconic singer-songwriter
Omaha high school and greater Nebraska prep football programs have a tradition of producing running backs who go on to play in college, including a pipeline from Central High to the University of Nebraska, though in the last decade or so that tradition has been interrupted and that pipleline has dried up. That may be changing. The premier high school back in the state right now, at least in terms of the eye-popping numbers he puts up, is Omaha North senior Calvin Strong, the subject of this profile for The Reader (www.thereader.com). He became the state’s first back to reach 3,000 yards in a season when he rushed for 3,008 yards and scored 43 touchdowns in leading his Vikings to the state Class A championship in 2013. He is not alone. Just the other night Central’s Tre Sanders exploded for 279 yards, including a handful of breakaway runs, in the Eagles opening game win over Lincoln North Star. Sanders and Strong have size working against them. The former is listed at 5’8, 160 pounds and the latter at 5’9, 175 pounds, neither measurement lines that would preclude them being recruited by FBS schools, but it just might put some off. Sanders has a measurable advantage over Strong in that his 40 yard dash time is listed at 4.4 seconds while Strong, a notoriously poor tester in the 40, can only muster a 4.6 or 4.7. While there’s some interest in Sanders to be sure and much more might be coming his way if he keeps producing the way he did in the opener, Strong has even more interest, but he surprised a lot of folks when he recently gave a verbal commit to South Dakota. The Coyotes were on him a long time, yes, and they had extended the only outright offer to Strong, that’s true, but according to North Coach Larry Martin there was a lot of interest in the player from FBS and FCS schools, only they were waiting to see how Strong performed again on the field this season and more importantly how he performed in the classroom and on the ACT, because his academics have been a problem. Strong could always change his mind, of course, and end up going to a football factory, but it might just be his comfort level was the deciding factor and he wanted to take a relatively sure thing rather than sweat out his grades and test scores and see what other offers came his way. Whatever happens, it doesn’t appear that Strong or Sanders or any of the other in-state prep backs are likely to be D-I sensations the way Gale Sayers, Joe Orduna, Keith Jones, Calvin Jones, Ahman Green, Kenton Keith were. But maybe, just maybe, Strong can be the next Danny Woodhead, who was snubbed by the big schools because of his small stature and less than electrifying speed and set small college records on his way to the NFL. Of course, as my article goes into, Strong has even more serious things to worry about, like staying clear of the gang culture that surrounds him in his inner city neighborhood and that has claimed some of his friends.
Strong and his Vikings open their season tonight, Friday, August 29, at home against Millard West.
Omaha North superstar back Calvin Strong overcomes bigger obstacles than tacklers Record-setting rusher poised to lead defending champion Vikings to another state title
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha North running back sensation and recent South Dakota verbal commit Calvin Strong put up sick numbers last season leading his school to its first state football title in the playoff era. His 3,008 rushing yards and 43 touchdowns set state and metro single season Class A records, shattering anything done by past star Omaha prep backs such as Gale Sayers and Ahman Green.
Despite measuring 5’9, 175 pounds, he runs like his name, strong, right into the heart of defenses, where his uncanny vision and agility allow him to avoid big hits. Even when he does run into contact he breaks tackles thanks to his superb balance, low center of gravity and ample strength. With his legs churning forward and his head on a swivel, he probes for creases, then spins, darts. bounces, bursts through heavy traffic into open lanes for big gains.
Known for a positive attitude, ready smile and being a vocal, emotional team leader, he saves his best moves for the off-field. There he does a precarious dance to avoid the gang-banging culture around him.
Strong and his pre-season No. 1 Vikings play Friday night’s season opener at home versus Millard West. All eyes will be on the senior when he touches the ball, which figures to be a lot given his 27-plus carries per game average last year. His 3,000 yard season came on the heels of a nearly 1,900 yard sophomore campaign, when he led North to the title game only to fall just short. He’s a two-time first-team all-state selection.
For someone with his credits it’s unusual he only had one college offer – from South Dakota. It may be more unusual yet he accepted it with a resume-enhancing session before him. North Head Coach Larry Martin confirms “there was a ton of interest out there” from FBS and FCS schools. Programs held off because Strong’s struggled academically and he’s posted sub-par 40-yard dash times (4.6-4.7) at camps.
The South Dakota commitment took Martin by surprise, though he confirms the school showed the most consistent interest in Strong. Martin, who’s “extremely close” to Strong and his family, said only two weeks ago, “I know he’s on a lot of people’s boards and people are waiting to see where all the intangibles measure out. Everybody wants to know where he’s at academically. Right now he’s a non-qualifier. If he was a qualifier, he’d have more offers right now. Somebody’s going to take him and is going to get a helluva running back.”
The pressure to perform well in the classroom and on standardized tests has sometimes gotten the better of Strong, whose commitment eases one stressor.
“He’s broke down on me multiple times about it,” Martin says.
Then there was the out-of-school suspension Strong served earlier this year for unspecified reasons. Martin says Strong put it behind him.
“He handled what he had to work through like a man. He came back and went right to work and he had his best summer since he’s been here. I thought our teachers did a great job of getting him his homework. He’s a very genuine young man. If he tells you he’s going to do something he’s going to follow through and do it. His word means something to him. I feel real confident with what I’ve seen. He’s learned from his mistakes, been apologetic for it, and moved on.”
Strong’s a celebrity wherever he goes in North Omaha and Martin believes even though the player is humble, a sense of entitlement creeped in.
“Sometimes kids think they can get away with a little bit more because of their status and I think he got caught up in that. I think he’s understanding that consequences apply to everybody.”
Martin has been pleased with Strong’s progress in and out of school and feels he’s prepared himself for what comes next.
“He has the grades – we’ve just got to get the ACT score up and we’ve taken the measures to get that headed in the right direction. God bless he stays healthy he’s going to be one of the more decorated football players coming out of this state in quite a few years.”
There’s never been any doubt, barring injury, Strong would play somewhere on a big stage at the next level. He may have a chance of being an impact player there, too. Of course, it’s always possible Strong could de-commit from the Coyotes and go to a football factory. It that happens, it would make him the first local back in a while to breakthrough after decades of guys doing it.
His coach won’t venture to guess, but Strong may even follow the path of two recent North players, in Niles Paul and Philip Bates, who went D-I and landed in the NFL. The path to the NFL doesn’t need to go through a big program either. Just ask Bates (Ohio) and Danny Woodhead (Chadron State).
The fact that Strong is even in this position is an achievement worth celebrating if for no other reason than he’s escaped the fate of friends lost to guns and gangs.
That harsh street life co-exists with his sometimes storybook, folk hero saga.
His school is in a neighborhood – Strong lives just down the hill from North – beset by poverty and crime. Drug dealing and turf wars pose dangers. Minus boundaries, gang culture exerts a pull. Strong, like his name, has stood firm against the allure and trap of that lifestyle, one that cost at least six of his buddies’ their lives. He continues knowing people caught up in it. He’s flirted with it himself. But he’s made known he wants nothing to do with it. The Gs know he’s off-limits.
“I still have friends that are in the gang life or whatever but they know and I know where I need to be at. It’s really not hard to x that stuff out of my life because I know and they know what I got going for myself and what’s in store for me,” Strong says.
“My freshman year I was pulled to doing dumb things but I’ve matured throughout these years to know what’s right from wrong, so I’ve been keeping myself away. Basically this whole summer I’ve just been with my coaches and teammates. I really ain’t been focused on anything else but football and studies so I can get to college.”
Martin’s aware of the pressures Strong faces. The coach and his family offer a respite when Calvin needs it.
“There is a pull and you can’t ignore it but he’s got his outs and when things get a little bit tough he calls coach and he comes stays with us, sometimes for a couple nights. We’re more than happy to provide that for him because he is a high quality young man.
“It’s also just to help take the burden off the family.”
In Martin, Strong appreciates he has a mentor and advocate, saying, “The only pressure that’s on me right now is finishing what he’s helped me with. Me and him have always had a relationship outside football. I’ll go to his house, chill out, eat steak. I’m like one of his own kids. He’s like a second dad to me. He’s always been there for me through anything. He has my back and I have his.
“He’s a real special guy and I give my heart to him. He’s prepared us for life, not just football. His speeches, they really just get to you, they spark something in you.”
Martin sees Strong mostly doing the right things these days.
“He’s really worked hard in terms of making sure he’s doing everything he can to make the right decisions. We’re just here to help continue to support him, provide him more options. Our total pursuit is to get that college education.”
Strong lives at home with his father, Calvin Strong Sr., and his younger brother, Jordan Strong. As a 6’2, 250 pound sophomore nose guard, Strong’s 15-year-old “little brother” is already getting hard looks from colleges. Because of his size, Jordan’s always played a couple grade levels up from his age group and thus he and his superstar older brother have been teammates growing up. The siblings are cogs in what may be a dynasty for years to come given the talent-rich depth and winning habits Martin’s built-up.
Calvin himself is only 17, so he may be fill out some come college, though in today’s sprint offenses size isn’t the factor it used to be.
Martin has always said, “it’s going to be about finding the right fit for him. I think people want to see him one more year. He did what he needed to do this summer and then we’ll let the first three or four games take care of themselves. We’ve got tough games right away – we open up with Millard West and Burke. If he does well in those games people are going to want to see that film.”
Among other things coaches will see, Martin says, is a dynamic back who’s “motivated and very competitive,” adding, “The one concern the bigger schools have is his top-end speed. Calvin just doesn’t test well in the 40. But I don’t know that top-end speed has to be the number one factor. He has so many other things he can do. Number one, he doesn’t turn the ball over. I mean, he just doesn’t fumble. He has taken extremely good care of the football. I think he has great vision. I think he anticipates where things are going to come open so well. He’s very durable. He’s elusive – he can make guys miss. He’s got great hips. His core and overall body strength is very good. His feet never stop moving, they’re constantly going.”
Strong has the ability to read defenses and anticipate where trouble lurks and then when things break down to change direction on a dime.
He says, “I see how everybody’s lined up. It’s really hard to tackle me unless the play gets all bunched up. I just keep my eyes focused and I shut everything else out, and once I break everything comes back loud again, all the screaming, and I can relax and have fun after I’ve gotten a first down or I’ve scored.
“Plus, I’m real small and my linemen are really big, so it’s good I can hide behind ‘em and just choose where I can break off. It makes it real difficult for the linebackers to read me.”
He acknowledges he’s also run behind an exceptional line anchored by Nebraska commit and fellow all-stater Michael Decker, who returns.
But not every defender’s blocked every play and Strong doesn’t back down from the one-on-one challenge of a backer trying to blow him up.
“I’m just a real strong small guy – I don’t take nothing from nobody. Playing against some of the biggest linebackers in the state I’ve always gone heads up with ‘em, I never try to fall down when they’re coming – I take it to ‘em. I’m a small back but I’m going to show you I have power. I’m not afraid of contact.”
The contact part is funny because Strong confirms he once hated even the idea of being tackled before playing organized football. His dad and uncle forced him to play to toughen him up. His first full year at running back for the Little Vikes, after a year wasted on the line, he’d curl up to avoid hits but after dominating the youth ranks he decided the contact was no big deal, though he rarely took a clean hit. When tackled today he takes it as a personal defeat, which only makes him come back harder the next time. At the end of the day his heart and will are what separate him from others.
“I feel like that’s what it is because I want it more than a lot of people. I’m always competitive. Everything is competition to me.”
As for his less than stellar 40 clocking, he discounts it with, “My speed and everything shows on the field.” Indeed, he’s rarely if ever caught from behind. Martin, who coached current NFL players Phil Bates and Niles Paul, is waiting to see what Strong shows this year before comparing him to those elite athletes.
“I’ll know a lot more with him after our first couple games. You know, we tell our kids that the guys from North who’ve made it to the next level are the hardest working players every day. I will say Calvin’s work ethic has definitely increased. I think we’ve got him to the point where he understands if he wants to be the elite of the elite then he needs to continue to work harder.”
Besides what’s on the line for him personally, Strong’s dedicated himself to getting North back to the title game again.
“I worked very hard. I’m determined this year to come out with a real big bang. I really want that ring again. I really want that experience again.”
He’s aware no Omaha Public Schools team has made it to three straight finals games and he wants North to be the first to do it.
The North program’s come to the point where winning’s the expectation. Playing for the title two years ago and then winning the championship last year has meant a huge boost in confidence.
“It really set the bar for us,” Strong says. “Now nobody can really bring us down. Nobody can say they’re better than us. Nobody can say anything about us being an underdog team because we showed we’ve climbed all those obstacles. It was very heartwarming to me because we’d been talking about it since my freshman year and just to have it after we should have had it my sophomore year was really nice.”
Strong’s also keenly aware of his role model and celebrity status. He still finds all the attention, as in everyone from children to adults wanting his autograph or screaming his name, a bit surreal, saying, “It’s crazy.” He adds, “There’s not a lot of 17-year olds that can give little kids hope.”
The importance he attaches to his gift for football as his gateway out of The Hood is clearly reflected in a Tweet he made:
“If I didn’t have this I’d be nothing. That’s why thrive (sic) to be the best to do it.”
The way he sees it, realizing his dreams also honors the memory of his late friends who encouraged him to pursue football as far it would take him. Strong was en route to a game two years ago when he got word his friend Tyler had shot himself in the head playing Russian Roulette. He found out during the game Tyler died from his wounds.
In a Tweet, Strong wrote:
“Rip to my brother Tyler Brent Hickerson
When I die I want my BROTHERS walking my casket down …the ones who stood next to me when I once stood#cant get know Realer
If only u was here to see me shine … I miss u”
Strong’s grown up a Husker fan and Nebraska definitely has him on their radar. The only camp he attended this past summer was in Lincoln, where he’s got to know NU’s premier back, Ameer Abdullah, to whom he’s often compared. Before saying yes to South Dakota Strong hinted he’d like to reestablish the once continuous running back pipeline there from Omaha that’s gone dry the last decade-and-a-half.
He said, “I’d love to keep it in state just to show everybody how good North Omaha competition is. Playing for Nebraska would make a lot of people happy in Omaha.”
If Strong were to renege and select another school’s offer, assuming one’s proffered, there’s still those test scores. Martin felt the junior college route was a distinct possibility for Strong. His own son, Zach Martin, who quarterbacked North to the 2012 title game, is thriving at Iowa Western Community College, which sends many players to D-I.
Once Strong’s South Dakota decision sunk in, Martin understood it because the player’s developed a trust with the Coyote coaches that reminds him of what Strong has with him and his coaches at North.
“Calvin and his family mean so much to me, he’s almost like my own son. My message to Calvin has always been I will find a place that’s going to be the right fit for you. I’m just not going to turn you over to somebody that hasn’t invested that much time in you. We’re going to take care of you.”
He says for nearly every dream Strong wants to accomplish, South Dakota will be able to provide that for him. If not, Martin’s sure there are plenty of other places that will fit the bill.
Stay strong, Calvin, stay strong.
North hosts No. 3 Millard West this Friday at Kinnick Stadium on the Northwest High campus. Kickoff is for 7 p.m.
Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo is a big deal. We’re talking one of America’s Top 100 attractions with annual attendance near two million and a large gallery of state of the art indoor exhibits to complement its outdoor viewing areas. In the next year the zoo will introduce a huge new outdoor African Grasslands exhibit that should boost attendance to a whole new level. As my new story for thr Metro Magazine describes, the grasslands project’s natural habitats, diverse species, intimate observation points, and built-in education components will give visitors an upclose experience with and appreciation for an African wilderness environment that comes as close as possible to the real thing.
Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium calls its coming African Grasslands project the next big thing for Omaha. It’s certainly that and then some in terms of the $70 million it will cost to transform 28 acres into an equatorial savannah experience in the Midwest.
The exhibit will open in two phases in 2016. Omaha-based Kiewit Construction, which realized the Zoo’s existing big ticket immersive exhibits, will lead construction. Work begins in earnest this fall.
The project’s the next big step for the Zoo in educating visitors about the conservation research work it does here and around the world. Ongoing education efforts include classes for youth ages 3 to 18, day camps, interpretive tours and safari-eco adventure trips.
The Zoo’s Jungle, Desert Dome and Aquarium exhibits are indoor immersive experiences that recreate ecosystems within four walls. The Grasslands will be a sprawling natural mosaic that puts you in an open-air expanse where elephants – slated to return after a long absence – rhinos, impalas, giraffe and other iconic African animals roam.
“For the first time we’re going to transport you outdoors to another world,” executive director and CEO Dennis Pate says. “What you’re going to see and feel is going to come closer to understanding what the savannah is like without us saying a word.”
Pate says the Grasslands will come as close as an urban zoo can get to replicating the experience of exotic mixed species inhabiting the wild.
A group from Omaha recently returned from a two-week Zoo-organized safari to Botswana and Zambia, one way the institution tries building awareness and appreciation of endangered habitats and species.
Participants of the May safari, which featured former Zoo director Lee Simmons and his wife Marie as escorts, won’t soon forget the breathtaking scenes they witnessed.
“What I brought home is the sacred peace of sounds that come only from the inhabitants of Africa, the interconnectedness of all creatures for survival and seeing the variety of animals,” Ann Pape says.
The trip satisfied a Bucket List wish for Jean Bell, who says the experience impressed upon her “how very important” it is these wild environments and species “be preserved and that humans “are really the only ones who can make that happen.”
Ellen Wright says, “People often take for granted these majestic and remarkable creatures will always be with us but when you are exposed to the devastating toll of poaching and to the human effect on the land you realize all this beauty could disappear unless we act now.”
As most folks will never go on an actual African safari, the Zoo tries giving visitors increasingly authentic, intimate experiences in their own backyard. The goal is to display how these animals function in the wild as well as how they are cared for and protected. Interactive demonstration areas in the Grasslands exhibit will allow the public for the first time to observe staff conducting animal welfare maintenance, such as checking the condition of teeth and feet.
Interpreting the natural world indoors is one challenge but doing it outdoors, at scale, is a whole other challenge.
“It’s harder to do because you can’t control everything,” says Pate.
Construction will move many tons of dirt to reconfigure hilly old grounds and contour them into the gradually sloped savannah. Buildings will be recessed behind trees and landforms to obscure them, with the exception of a new African game lodge-inspired structure. Overlooks will provide visitors with panoramic views.
It’s all part of the evolution of zoos.
“For the past 25 years what we’ve been doing as opposed to simply displaying animals in cages or pens is to try to present animals in their ecosystems and give people a chance to actually experience that ecosystem,” says Simmons, now chairman of the Zoo Foundation. During his long tenure as Zoo director he initiated the institution’s staggering growth that shows no signs of stopping. “Anytime you get people in the same environment with the animals it does make a difference. To see an animal from a distance through bars, a fence or glass is a lot different than being able to get up close and personal.
“What we’re really interested in is the experience and what people come away with.”
Omaha Zoo Foundation director Tina Cherica says, “We’re trying to create an experience that will make people actually care about the realties these animals face in their natural habitats.”
“Zoos have become kind of giant classrooms,” Simmons says, “but we preach this two dollar Sunday sermon by osmosis. We want people to come in and have a really good experience, realize they suddenly know something more than they did, and come away feeling they need to support conservation of habitat.”
Simmons says the state of wildlife conservation is a mixed bag.
“The good thing about a lot of places in the world is that the locals on the ground have realized eco tourism has a very important economic and political impact. There are areas we go back to that are being managed significantly better than they were when we first started leading safaris 30 years ago. There are some that are not and we don’t go to those anymore.”
He says in addition to the destruction of habit by human encroachment, poaching of elephants and rhinos is “rampant.”
Pate says zoos like Omaha’s are perhaps best positioned to educate the public about these challenges.
“On average 96 elephants a day are killed in Africa and one really large bull was just poached in a national park, and so it’s a huge problem. The decline in elephants has been pretty radical. Rhinos are in even worse shape. If we as zoos don’t bring this to the public then there’s very little likelihood they’re going to appreciate the diversity of species alive in the world today.
“I think these problems are being day-lighted through what zoos are doing. People learn that the zoo they support is playing a role in trying to stem some of those problems.”
Cherica says, “I think it brings it home to people. When you see a news story, you’re so far removed from that reality. When you come to your zoo and see these animals and learn about the work we’re doing, then all of a sudden there’s more of a personal connection. This is an opportunity to take a venue with 1.7 million visitors a year and use it as a learning experience to create that personal connection.”
“The new move is to not only show people these animals but to talk about their plight and what the local zoo is doing to assist them,” Pate says. “That makes us really unique. There’s a lot of conservation organizations but very few have a place to be able to talk about it with the public. We have a place where we educate millions of people.”
Pate says the Omaha Zoo “has a strong record of conservation and we’re going to begin talking a lot more about what we do in the wild.” He adds, “A modern zoo does more than just take care of its own animals, it takes care of animals wherever they are in the world. That’s evolving and we’re going to be at the point of that sphere. It’s part of feeling a greater responsibility toward animals in general, whether they’re in zoos or in the wild.”
Simmons says, “We’ve been doing our bit, not just in Omaha. We’ve had a very active conservation program going for the last 30 years.”
The Center for Conservation Research based in Omaha employs several PhD scientists who spend months at a time in the field.
“We’ve had people actively in the field doing conservation in South Africa and East Africa and particularly in Madagascar,” he says. “We’ve got permanent and temporary establishments in Madagascar all focused on conservation, lemurs primarily, but also habitat, reforestation, turtles, frogs, bats and a whole lot of other things. We send people to many places. We’ve contributed a lot to the conservation of Siberian tigers and Amur leopards in far Eastern Russia, both by sending people to do training there and bringing Russian biologists to do training here. We’ve also brought Chinese and Vietnamese here. We have also trained scientists, researchers and interns from over 40 countries here.”
Pate says tying all the threads of this story together “starts with not necessarily the science or the slaughter, it starts with an emotional attachment to a living being – not ones you see on television or read about in a newspaper.” “That’s why it’s important for us to have kindergarten kids through here. It’s why we do day camps. It’s why we have a high school,” he says. “That emotional connection starts early. Then we can build on it with the science. It’s nice to go a little deeper with these animals and talk about what’s affecting them in the wild and how our zoo is helping them and their counterparts in the wild. That’s the exciting part – the whole interpretive story.”
A quarter million youth annually participate in Zoo education programs.
Ellen Wright, a longtime donor and Zoofari volunteer, says the need for conservation education cuts across all ages. “The African Grasslands project is crucial for engaging the widest possible audience and building awareness of the conservation challenges here and around the world.”
Her passion’s shared by many. Much of the work Cherica and Simmons do through the Omaha Zoo Foundation is to cultivate donors to make a wish-list of major projects possible. When pitching projects Simmons knows he’s struck a chord when “the donor’s eyes light up” and that’s happened enough to realize a string of multimillion dollar undertakings.
Another indicator of people’s embrace of the Zoo is the mass of humanity that streams through its gates – enough to make it the top tourist destination in the region. It also boasts a membership of 72,000 households, which translates to about a third of the metro’s population.
“We’ve got way, way more zoo than you would remotely expect in a community this size,” Simmons says. “It’s because the community has been supportive. We have had the highest attendance and membership in North America (among zoos) as a percentage of our metro population base.”
Cherica says that same loyalty is born of trust.
“The community has a lot of confidence in us because we deliver on what we say we’re going to deliver, so over time that’s instilled not only community pride but donor confidence to continue reinvesting in what we’re doing here.”
Being a well-run venue helps.
“Since 1970 we’ve never run an operating deficit,” Simmons says. “We had our first positive year in 1970 and we’ve been positive ever since.
And we’ve brought every project in on time and on budget.”
No endeavor has been as big as the Grasslands project.
“We knew it was going to be a challenge,” Cherica says. “It’s twice as much as any project we’ve done to date but we’re confident in the donor community and in their ability to push this forward. We fully expect the project will be funded by the end of the year.”
“The community support here is unusual and it makes it a highly attractive place to work,” says Pate, who came to Omaha five years ago from the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. “The opportunity to affect that many millions of people is pretty incredible. There’s space, there’s money, there’s its place in the community, there’s the conservation research and welfare of animals. It all comes together.”
Follow Grasslands progress at http://www.omahazoo.com.
“A modern zoo does more than just take care of its own animals, it takes care of animals wherever they are in the world. That’s evolving and we’re going to be at the point of that sphere. It’s part of feeling a greater responsibility toward animals in general, whether they’re in zoos or in the wild.”
~ DENNIS PATE, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AND CEO
North Omaha’s prospects are looking up, even as longstanding problems remain a drag on the largely African-American community, and a strong, established leadership base in place is a big part of the optimism for the area’s continued revival. These leaders are in fact driving the change going on. Working side by side or coming up right behind that veteran leadership cohort is a group of emerging leaders looking to put their own stamp on things. The following article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) takes a look at this next generation of North Omaha leaders and their take on opportunities and vehicles for being change agents.
Thomas Warren and Julia Parker
Next generation of North Omaha leaders eager for change: New crop of leaders emerging to keep momentum going
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
If redevelopment plans for northeast Omaha come to full fruition then that long depressed district will see progress at-scale after years of patchwork promises. Old and new leaders from largely African-American North Omaha will be the driving forces for change.
A few years and projects into the 30-year, $1.4 billion North Omaha Revitalization Village Plan, everyone agrees this massive revival is necessary for the area to be on the right side of the tipping point. The plan’s part of a mosaic of efforts addressing educational, economic, health care, housing, employment disparities. Behind these initiatives is a coalition from the private and public sectors working together to apply a focused, holistic approach for making a lasting difference.
Key contributors are African-American leaders who emerged in the last decade to assume top posts in organizations and bodies leading the charge. Empowerment Network Facilitator Willie Barney, Douglas Country Treasurer John Ewing, Urban League of Nebraska Executive Director Thomas Warren and Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray are among the most visible. When they entered the scene they represented a new leadership class but individually and collectively they’ve become its well-established players.
More recently, Neb. State Senator Tanya Cook and Omaha 360 Director Jamie Anders-Kemp joined their ranks. Others, such as North Omaha Development Corporation Executive Director Michael Maroney and former Omaha City Councilwoman and Neb. State Sen. Brenda Council, have been doing this work for decades.
With so much yet to come and on the line, what happens when the current crop of leaders drops away? Who will be the new faces and voices of transformation? Are there clear pathways to leadership? Are there mechanisms to groom new leaders? Is there generational tension between older and younger leaders? What does the next generation want to see happen and where do they see things headed?
Some North Omaha leaders
The Reader asked veteran and emerging players for answers and they said talent is already in place or poised to assume next generation leadership. They express optimism about North O’s direction and a consensus for how to get there. They say leadership also comes in many forms. It’s Sharif Liwaru as executive director of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation, which he hopes to turn into an international attraction. It’s his artist-educator wife Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru. Together, they’re a dynamic couple focused on community betterment. Union for Contemporary Arts founder-director Brigitte McQueen, Loves Jazz and Arts Center Executive Director Tim Clark and Great Plains Black History Museum Board Chairman Jim Beatty are embedded in the community leading endeavors that are part of North O’s revival.
Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corp. Executive Director Othello Meadows is a more behind-the-scenes leader. His nonprofit has acquired property and finished first-round financing for the Highlander mixed-used project, a key Village Plan component. The project will redevelop 40 acres into mixed income housing, green spaces and on-site support services for “a purpose-built” urban community.
Meadows says the opportunity to “work on a project of this magnitude in a city I care about is a chance of a lifetime.” He’s encouraged by the “burgeoning support for doing significant things in the community.” In his view, the best thing leaders can do is “execute and make projects a reality,” adding, “When things start to happen in a real concrete fashion then you start to peel back some of that hopelessness and woundedness. I think people are really tired of rhetoric, studies and statistics and want to see something come to life.” He says new housing in the Prospect Hill neighborhood is tangible positive activity.
Meadows doesn’t consider himself a traditional leader.
“I think leadership is first and foremost about service and humility. I try to think of myself as somebody who is a vessel for the hopes and desires of this neighborhood. True leadership is service and service for a cause, so if that’s the definition of leadership, then sure, I am one.”
He feels North O’s suffered from expecting leadership to come from charismatic saviors who lead great causes from on high.
“In my mind we have to have a different paradigm for the way we consider leadership. I think it happens on a much smaller scale. I think of people who are leaders on their block, people who serve their community by being good neighbors or citizens. That’s the kind of leadership that’s overlooked. I think it has to shift from we’ve got five or six people we look to for leadership to we’ve got 500 or 600 people who are all active leaders in their own community. It needs to shift to that more grassroots, bottom-up view.”
Where can aspiring North O leaders get their start?
“Wherever you are, lead,” John Ewing says. “Whatever opportunities come, seize them. Schools, places of worship, neighborhood and elected office all offer opportunities if we see the specific opportunity.”
“They need to get in where they fit in and grow from there,” says Dell Gines, senior community development advisor, Omaha Branch at Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.
Empowerment Network board member and Douglas County Health Department health educator Aja Anderson says many people lead without recognition but that doesn’t make them any less leaders.
“There are individuals on our streets, in our classrooms, everywhere, every day guiding those around them to some greater destiny or outcome,” Anderson says.
Meadows feels the community has looked too often for leadership to come from outside.
“A community needs to guide its own destiny rather than say, ‘Who’s going to come in from outside and fix this?'”
He applauds the Empowerment Network for “trying to find ways to help people become their own change agents.”
Carver Bank Interim Director JoAnna LeFlore is someone often identified as an emerging leader. She in turn looks to some of her Next Gen colleagues for inspiration.
“I’m very inspired by Brigitte McQueen, Othello Meadows and Sharif Liwaru. They all have managed to chase their dreams, advocate for the well-being of North Omaha and maintain a professional career despite all of the obstacles in their way. You have to have a certain level of hunger in North Omaha in order to survive. What follows that drive is a certain level of humility once you become successful. This is why I look up to them.”
LeFlore is emboldened to continue serving her community by the progress she sees happening.
“I see more creative entrepreneurs and businesses. I see more community-wide events celebrating our heritage. I see more financial support for redevelopment. I feel my part in this is to continue to encourage others who share interest in the growth of North Omaha. I’ve built trusting relationships with people along the way. I am intentional about my commitments because those relationships and the missions are important to me. Simply being a genuine supporter, who also gets her hands dirty, is my biggest contribution.
“Moving forward, I will make an honest effort to offer my expertise to help build communication strategies, offer consultations for grassroots marketing and event planning and be an advocate for positive change. I am also not afraid to speak up about important issues.”
If LeFlore’s a Next Gen leader, then Omaha Small Business Network Executive Director Julia Parker is, too. Parker says, “There is certainly a changing of the guard taking place throughout Omaha and North O is not an exception. Over the next several years, I hope even more young professionals will continue to take high level positions in the community. I see several young leaders picking up the mic.” She’s among the new guard between her OSBN work and the Urban Collaborative: A Commitment to Community group she co-founded that she says “focuses on fostering meaningful conversation around how we can improve our neighborhoods and the entire city.”
Parker left her hometown for a time and she says, “Leaving Omaha changed my perspective and really prompted me to come home with a more critical eye and a yearning for change.”
Like Parker, Othello Meadows left here but moved back when he discerned he could make a “meaningful” impact on a community he found beset by despair. That bleak environment is what’s led many young, gifted and black to leave here. Old-line North O leader Thomas Warren says, “I am concerned about the brain drain we experience in Omaha, particularly of our best and brightest young African-Americans students who leave. We need to create an environment that is welcoming to the next generation where they can thrive and strive to reach their full potential.” Two more entrenched leaders, John Ewing and Douglas County Commissioner Chris Rodgers, are also worried about losing North O’s promising talents. “We have to identify, retain and develop our talent pool in Omaha,” Ewing says.
Omaha Schools Board member Yolanda Williams says leadership doors have not always been open to young transplants like herself – she’s originally from Seattle – who lack built-in influence bases.
“I had to go knock on the door and I knocked and knocked, and then I started banging on the door until my mentor John Ewing and I sat down for lunch and I asked, ‘How do younger leaders get in these positions if you all are holding these positions for years? How do I get into a leadership role if nobody is willing to get out of the way?’ They need to step out of the way so we can move up.
“It’s nothing against our elder leadership because I think they do a great job but they need to reach out and find someone to mentor and groom because if not what happens when they leave those positions?”
Ewing acknowledges “There has been and will always be tension between the generations,” but he adds, “I believe this creative tension is a great thing. It keeps the so-called established leaders from becoming complacent and keeps the emerging leaders hungry for more success as a community. I believe most of the relationships are cordial and productive as well as collaborative. I believe everyone can always do more to listen. I believe the young professional networks are a great avenue. I also believe organizations like the Empowerment Network should reach out to emerging leaders to be inclusive.”
Author, motivational speaker and The Truth Hurts director Tunette Powell says, “It’s really amazing when you get those older leaders on board because they can champion you. They’ve allowed me to speak at so many different places.” Powell senses a change afoot among veteran leaders, “They have held down these neighborhoods for so long and I think they’re slowly handing over and allowing young people to have a platform. i see that bridge.” As a young leader, she says, “it’s not like I want to step on their toes. We need this team. It’s not just going to be one leader, it’s not going to be young versus old, it’s going to be old and young coming together.”
In her own case, Yolanda Williams says she simply wouldn’t be denied, “I got tired of waiting. I was diligent, I was purpose-driven. It was very much networking and being places and getting my name out there. I mean, I was here to stay, you were not just going to get rid of me.”
LeFlore agrees more can be done to let new blood in.
“I think some established leaders are ignoring the young professionals who have potential to do more.”
Despite progress, Powell says “there are not enough young people at the table.” She believes inviting their participation is incumbent on stakeholder organizations. She would also like to see Omaha 360 or another entity develop a formal mentoring program or process for older leaders “to show us that staircase.”
Some older leaders do push younger colleagues to enter the fray.
Shawntal Smith, statewide administrator for Community Services for Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska, says Brenda Council, Willie Barney and Ben Gray are some who’ve nudged her.
“I get lots of encouragement from many inside and outside of North Omaha to serve and it is a good feeling to know people trust you to represent them. It is also a great responsibility.”
Everyone has somebody who prods them along. For Tunette Powell, it’s Center for Holistic Development President-CEO Doris Moore. For Williams, it’s treasurer John Ewing. But at the end of the day anyone who wants to lead has to make it happen. Williams, who won her school board seat in a district-wide election, says she overcame certain disadvantages and a minuscule campaign budget through “conviction and passion,” adding, “The reality is if you want to do something you’ve got to put yourself out there.” She built a coalition of parent and educator constituents working as an artist-in-residence and Partnership 4 Kids resource in schools. Before that, Williams says she made herself known by volunteering. “That started my journey.”
Powell broke through volunteering as well. “I wasn’t from here, nobody knew me, so I volunteered and it’s transformed my life,” says the San Antonio native.
“The best experience, in my opinion, is board service,” OSBN’s Julia Parker says. “Young leaders have a unique opportunity to pull back the curtain and see how an organization actually functions or doesn’t. It’s a high level way to cut your teeth in the social sector.”
JoAnna LeFlore, ©omahamagazine.com
Chris Rodgers, director of community and government relations at Creighton University, agrees: “I think small non-profits looking for active, conscientious board members are a good start. Also volunteering for causes you feel deeply about and taking on some things that stretch you are always good.”
The Urban League’s Thomas Warren says, “We have to encourage the next generation of leaders to invest in their own professional growth and take advantage of leadership development opportunities. They should attend workshops and seminars to enhance their skills or go back to school and pursue advanced degrees. Acquiring credentials ensures you are prepared when opportunities present themselves.”
Gaining experience is vital but a fire-in-the-belly is a must, too. Yolanda Williams says she was driven to serve on the school board because “I felt like I could bring a voice, especially for North Omaha, that hadn’t yet been heard at the table as a younger single parent representing the concerns and struggles of a lot of other parents. And I’m a little bit outspoken I say what I need to say unapoligitically.”
Powell says young leaders like her and Williams have the advantage of “not being far removed from the hard times the people we’re trying to reach are experiencing.” She says she and her peers are the children of the war on drugs and its cycle of broken homes. “That’s a piece of what we are, so we get it. We can reach these young people because our generation reflects theirs. I see myself in so many young people.”
Just a few years ago Powell had quit college, was on food stamps and didn’t know what to do with her life. “People pulled me up, they elevated me, and I have to give that back,” she says. In her work with fatherless girls she says “what I find is you’ve got to meet them where they’re at. As younger leaders we’re not afraid to do that, we’re not afraid to take some risks and do some things differently. We’re seeing we need something fresh. Creativity is huge. When you look at young and old leaders, we all have that same passion, we all want the same thing, but how we go about it is completely different.”
Powell says the African-American Young Professionals group begun by fellow rising young star Symone Sanders is a powerful connecting point where “dynamic people doing great things” find a common ground of interests and a forum to network. “We respect each other because we know we’re all going in that direction of change.”
Sanders, who’s worked with the Empowerment Network and is now communications assistant for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chuck Hassebrook, says AAYP is designed to give like-minded young professionals an avenue “to come together and get to know one another and to be introduced in those rooms and at those tables” where policy and program decisions get made.
Aja Anderson believes Next Gen leaders “bridge the gap,” saying, “I think this generation of leaders is going to be influential and do exceptionally well at creating unity and collaboration among community leaders and members across generations. We’re fueled with new ideas, creativity and innovation. Having this group of individuals at the table will certainly make some nervous, others excited and re-ignite passion and ideas in our established group.”
County treasure John Ewing sees the benefit of new approaches. “I believe our emerging leaders have an entrepreneurial spirit that will be helpful in building an African-American business class in Omaha.”
While Williams sees things “opening up,” she says, “I think a lot of potential leaders have left here because that opportunity isn’t as open as it should be.”
Enough are staying to make a difference.
“It’s exciting to see people I’ve known a long time staying committed to where we grew up,” 75 North’s Othello Meadows says. “It’s good to see other people who at least for awhile are going to play their role and do their part.”
Shawntal Smith of Lutheran Family Services is bullish on the Next Gen.
“We are starting to come into our own. We are being appointed to boards and accepting high level positions of influence in our companies, firms, agencies and churches. We are highly educated and we are fighting the brain drain that usually takes place when young, gifted minorities leave this city for more diverse cities with better opportunities. We are remaining loyal to Omaha and we are trying to make it better through our visible efforts in the community.
“People are starting to recognize we are dedicated and our opinions, ideas and leadership matter.”
Old and young leaders feel more blacks are needed in policymaking capacities. Rodgers and Anderson are eager to see more representation in legislative chambers and corporate board rooms.
Warren says, “I do feel there needs to be more opportunities in the private sector for emerging leaders who are indigenous to this community.” He feels corporations should do more to identify and develop homegrown talent who are then more likely to stay.
Shawntal Smith describes an added benefit of locally grown leaders.
“North Omahans respect a young professional who grew up in North Omaha and continues to reside in North Omaha and contribute to making it better. Both my husband and I live, shop, work, volunteer and attend church in North Omaha. We believe strongly in the resiliency of our community and we love being a positive addition to North Omaha and leaders for our sons and others to model.”
With leadership comes scrutiny and criticism.
“You have to be willing to take a risk and nobody succeeds without failure along the way to grow from,” Rodgers says. “If you fail, fail quick and recover. Learn from the mistake and don’t make the same mistakes. You have to be comfortable with the fact that not everybody will like you.”
Tunette Powell isn’t afraid to stumble because like her Next Gen peers she’s too busy getting things done.
“As Maya Angelou said, ‘Nothing will work unless you do,’ I want people to say about me, ‘She gave everything she had.'”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.
The Omaha Public Schools District deals with the diversity, needs, and challenges that any large urban school distrect does but it has had more than its share of infighting, controversy, and push back in recent years, much of it revolving around an administration deemed distant and unresponsive. As the following profile of new OPS Superintendnet Mark Evans indicates, there’s a new approach at the top, starting with him, as he has ushered in sweeping changes, much of them having to do with the district being more transparent and inclusive. This change agent has led the development of a new strategic plan among many other transformative actions. My piece is now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com).
Mark Evans, ©ketv.com
Change Agent: Mark Evans leads OPS on bold new course full of changes in his first year as Omaha Public Schools’ superintendent
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
When Mark Evans accepted the job of Omaha Public Schools superintendent in December 2012, he knew the mission would be immense in this sprawling urban district facing myriad challenges.
With 51,000 students spread out over 86 schools located in divergent environments ranging from inner city poverty to suburban affluence, the district responds to a wide spectrum of needs and issues. In his due diligence before starting the job he found the district’s good work often overshadowed by controversy and conflict due to an embattled school board and an aloof administration and no clear, unified vision.
Besides struggling to close the achievement gap of its majority minority student population, many of whom attend overcrowded, poorly resourced schools, the district reeled from internal rancor and scandal. Longtime district head John Mackiel exited with a $1 million retirement payout many viewed as excessive. His replacement, Nancy Sebring, quit when it came to light she’d exchanged sexually explicit emails with her lover during office hours at her previous employer. The often divisive OPS Board of Education and its handling of the matter drew sharp criticism that resulted in its president’s resignation. The perception was of deep rifts among OPS leaders who spent more time putting out fires than making systemic changes,
District elections turned over an almost entirely new board when Evans, who came to OPS from Kan,, officially started in 2013. The board has navigated a flood of changes that Evans has introduced in fulfilling a promise to shake things up and to address identified weaknesses in Neb.’s largest school district.
One of his first orders of business was conducting a needs assessment that sought broad community input. Feedback from parents, teachers, administrators and stakeholders shaped a new strategic plan for the district. The plan outlines strategies for better communication, more transparency and accountability, closer alignment of goals and greater classroom rigor. He reorganized district staff and created new positions in response to an expressed need for better support of schools. He’s overseen a new student assignment plan, a new hiring policy and a facilities wish-list for $630 million in upgrades.
Evans wants to stem the tide of students OPS loses to other districts, saying that’s difficult “if you don’t have room for them and many of our schools are just packed to the gills.” He adds, “You can’t compete with other districts unless you have facilities of similar caliber and we’re a real inequitable district today. About half our schools are beautiful facilities. The other half there’s a whole list of things that need to be worked on.” The facilities plan may go before voters as a bond issue.
He compares the task of changing the district’s direction to turning around an aircraft carrier at sea. As captain, he plots the course but he relies on a vast team to implement the necessary maneuvers. Evans began the turnaround even before he started.
“I didn’t start officially until July 1 but once I accepted the job I started visiting, collecting information, studying, so that when I did walk in the door I didn’t walk in cold. I walked in running because I’d already met staff and community. I’d purposely reached out. I had a very clearly laid out entry plan that described the things we were going to do.
“You have to have a real clear plan of how you’re going to implement this kind of stuff or you’re going to get lost and lose the prioritization. You’ve still got to do what you’ve been doing but do it better while doing these major lifts. So a lot of it has to do with prioritization and focus. A lot of it has to do with 60-plus hour work weeks.”
Evans likes what he sees on the horizon now that OPS has aligned goals at every level.
“We’ve not had a clearly defined destination until today. What you had was some schools saying, ‘This is my destination, this is what I think is most urgent,’ and they just kind of did it on their own. The difference today is we’ve got clear alignment and we’re creating a system that creates support and accountability throughout. Everyone’s success is contingent upon someone else’s success.
“Accountability is now built in because it’s on paper, it’s in writing:
Here’s your goal for graduation rate, here’s your goal for NESA scores, here’s your goal for the achievement gap…”
He says strategies are being honed “to create that same level of accountability” at all 86 schools and in every classroom.
“That’s the whole restructure piece we created. Principals told us, ‘We want more help in our schools,’ so we shut down a department in the district office and put 30 people out in schools. Then we created four executive directors of school support positions. Each is directly responsible for 21 schools. We spent all summer training them. They’re former star principals who serve at the cabinet level with me and top level staff. They look at the alignment of the big picture goals to the school improvement plan and help principals improve that. Everyone is working towards the same goals.”
He says until the strategic plan there wasn’t a coherent, clearly expressed vision “of where we’re at, where we’re going and how we’re trying to get there,” adding, “I think what I feel best about is we’ve created more transparency and communication from the get go because we asked people what are the strengths and needs of our district. We did forums, we did surveys, we used different tools on our website. That was the start of our saying, ‘We’re going to ask you first and then we’re going to use what you tell us to help us see our critical needs.’ To be honest, I already knew we had critical needs but it can’t be my plan, it’s gotta be our plan, it can’t be my thoughts, it has to be our thoughts, and the truth is most of where we ended up at I would have ended up at, too.”
Engaging people in the process, he says, “is much more powerful” and staff take more ownership for “achieving specific targets.” The changes have been welcomed by some and met with push-back by others. He jokingly says response is “somewhere between embrace and fisticuffs.”
He’s well aware steering this unwieldy district in a new direction will take time given its sheer size.
“You just have to know it’s a big journey.”
He left a good thing at the Andover (Kan.) school district to make this journey.
“I had a great job, we were making progress and nationally recognized. I’d been there eight years and I could have finished my career there fairly easily.”
He declined OPS overtures before throwing his hat in the ring.
“I knew what it was going to take to do something like this, so I said no twice. The third time they asked me to call some people I knew up here and I did and I heard positive things from them. They said to look beyond the headlines because the headlines had been pretty devastating. In my initial research I saw a mess beyond repair but the further I looked, and I still feel this way a year later, the mess has been at the 10,000 foot level – with the superintendent and the board. It’s about getting rid of the noise and distraction and chaos there.
“It wasn’t easy moving but at the end of the day I thought I could make a difference here. I know how to systemically build schools. Everywhere I’ve gone we’ve been able to have progress with kids because I understand how to bring a system together and to build teams and create collaborative decision makers.”
Making it easier for him to take the plunge was the community support he found here he didn’t find in Wichita, Kan., where he spent 20 years working in that city’s largest public school district.
“I’d spent most of my career in Wichita in a very similar setting – from the size of the schools to the number of employees to the demographics of the kids. But there is one significant difference and this is part of the reason I said yes – the community here is more supportive than Wichita is. This community still cares. People want OPS to be successful. There’s philanthropic support. There’s several foundations and individuals that care about OPS.”
Along with the deep pockets of the Sherwood and Lozier Foundations, OPS has relationships with mentoring initiatives like Building Bright Futures, Partnership 4 Kids and Teammates. Recognizing that many of its students live in poverty and test below grade level, the district partners with organizations on pre-K programs in an effort to get more at-risk children ready for school. New early childhood centers modeled after Educare are in the works with the Buffett Early Childhood Fund and the Buffett Early Childhood Institute.
Evans champions community-driven endeavors aimed at improving student achievement and supporting schools because no district can do it alone, especially one as large and diverse as OPS.
“Not only is it a big district, which creates some challenges, we have more and more free and reduced (lunch) students who qualify for the federal poverty line and we know that brings with it some extra challenges which is why we need community support. We have an increasing number of English as Second Language learners because we have a growing number of refugee families. These young people not only have language barriers but huge cultural barriers.
“We also have more young people coming to us with life challenges and neighborhood issues. Partnering with community groups makes a big difference with those extra challenges. What we’re trying to do in many situations is fill in gaps. Organizations are critical because we’re filling in more gaps than we have before.”
Those gaps extend to resources, such as high speed Internet access. Some kids have it at home and school, others don’t because their parents and schools can’t afford it.
He says the efficiencies possible in a corporate, cookie-cutter world don’t fit public schools because no two suppliers, i.e. parents, and no two products, i.e. students, present the same specs.
“We take whoever walks in the door and wherever they’re at is where we take them, whether they have special needs, language arts deficiencies or advanced skill sets. So school A and school B might look different, in fact they’ll inherently look different even though the summative assessments are still going to look the same with standardized testing and those kinds of things. We do have these summative tools that tell us something about whether a school is progressing or not.
“On the other hand, school A may be quite a bit different than school B because school A has 20 percent refugees with some very specific skill gaps and so how we support them and the grade level assessments tied to that curriculum are going to be a little different than school B which has no refugees, no ELA-ELL (English Language Acquisition-English Language Learner) students. Students in school B are prepared and ready for something much different than what students at school A are prepared and ready for. And so we demand that each school and each staff differentiates based on the needs of the young people. You do formative tests to get those early indicators of where are the skill gaps and how are we going to bridge those skill gaps.”
Differences aside, the same overarching goal apply to all schools.
“No matter where they’re at, what you’re looking for is progress in both groups. It’s gotta be about growth and progress, wherever they came from, whether from a refugee camp or a single-parent family or a household where both parents are college graduates. The day they walk out they’ve gotta be better than the day they walked in.”
Closing the achievement gap, he says, “is not just resources,” adding, “There’s a lot of things we can do with existing resources – that’s what we’re trying to do with alignment. For example, if we know of a specific strategy to improve math or language arts skills for kids below level why wouldn’t we train all our staff in that methodology for all our schools? We’d never done that. Instead, school A and school B would pick out whatever strategy they wanted. Some would buy a compute-based piece and some would do a tutorial piece at the Teacher Administration Center.
“There was no collaborative where educators said, ‘Which one has the highest return on impacting those skills?’ That just doesn’t make any sense. So now we’re attempting to scale those things. Part of it is getting out of our silos and scaling the quality and part of it is helping people develop the skill sets to know how to implement that, because not everybody knows.”
Pam Cohn (Secondary)
Melissa Comine (Elementary)
Dwayne Chism (Elementary) Lisa Utterback, Elementary
His executive directors of school support, including Lisa Uttterback, were principals at high performing schools. Evans has charged them with helping principals adopt best practices at their own schools.
“Lisa had great success in a high needs school (Miller Park). The test scores look good, there’s community partnerships and parent involvement. Kids are walking out the door with pride, ready for middle school. I took grief for taking her out of there but my thinking is she can have more impact by scaling her capacities to 21 schools. I need her to develop her skill sets to these principals she supports and I need the other EDs to do that with the leaders they support.
“The whole concept is to find where it’s working and make decisions collaboratively on best practices and then support the implementation. It doesn’t happen overnight. It didn’t happen overnight at Miller Park, but it did happen. So what happened? Well, you had good leadership. She (Utterback) figured out strategies that work.”
Other principals have done the same thing.
“We’ve got islands of excellence, we’ve got schools doing wonderful things, but then you’ve got other schools that for whatever reasons need more supports and until now there really wasn’t a methodology to try to recognize it and to provide that support.”
To achieve the greater classroom rigor district-wide the strategic plan calls for he says OPS is enhancing efforts started before he came to “retrain teachers on baseline skill sets for instructional practice.” He acknowledges “these are things they should have probably had in college but for whatever reason didn’t.”
In addition to raising performance, there’s a push to keep kids in school.
“In our district right now were at 77.8 percent graduation rate, which by the way is pretty high for an urban setting. But the truth is we’ve got to be higher than that, we’ve got to be over 80 and be moving toward 90, because if they don’t have a high school diploma today the research abundantly shows the opportunities in life are slim.
“Were trying to move 13 percentage points over the next five years,
which doesn’t sound like a big deal but it kind of is a big deal.”
Moving forward, he feels good about the school board he answers to.
“I would say our relationship’s good. They’ve had an enormous learning curve. I think their hearts are really good. I think they’re still struggling with the learning curve – heck, I am. They’re trying to wrap their arms around big stuff, I mean, we’re talking big numbers here – a $600 million facilities plan. We’re talking big information – a strategic plan, a student assignment plan, a new hiring policy. I think they’ve done amazing for the amount of time they’ve had to try to capture this.”
He says minus drama and acrimony at the top, OPS can thrive.
“We have great schools doing really good things. I thought and I still think if we could get rid of that noise and distraction and have an aligned, coherent system we may have one of the only opportunities in America where a community still values urban education, and they do here. There are very few communities like this.”
He feels good, too, about he and the board having come in together to provide a restart for the district.
“I think this community wanted and desired a feeling of a fresh start. I think people feel like they are seeing something different today than what they saw the last five years. I know we are doing things different because OPS hadn’t done a strategic plan in 10 years, they hadn’t done a bond issue in 15 years, they haven’t done a student assignment plan in many years, they hadn’t done a reorganization with a focus of supporting schools.”
Evans likes where his ship of a district is headed.
“We’ve got the pieces in place to get it lined up. We’re already doing partnerships, we’re developing better classroom practices, we’re developing leadership for the schools and aligning them to very specific, collaboratively agreed upon goals. If we can pass this facilities plan we can give kids high speed internet access and safer, more secure environments.
“Without those kinds of pieces the ship’s going to go on the wrong course.”
I dare say there’s not a more instantly recognizable voice than that of the late Johnny Cash. You hear that deep Southern molasses growl and it’s unmistakably him and no one else. When I got wind of a Cash tribute show playing Omaha, I immediately thought of Omaha performer Brenda Allen because she’s the only entertainer in these parts that I know of who counted Cash as a friend. She also jammed with him and appeared on the same bill as him. Allen’s her stage name. Her real name is Brenda Allacher. I’ve interviewed Brenda before, once for a story about the play A Piece of My Heart which dramatizes the real life experiences of American women who were in the Vietnam War as nurses, aid workers, and entertainers. Brenda went there as part of an all-girl band. More recently I wrote an in-depth profile of Brenda that revealed her Cash ties. Both those stories can be found on this blog. For this new story I recount some of Brenda’s priceless Cash recollections, including an amusing, can’t-make-up-this-kind-of-stuff anecdote about the perculiar way they met. I also aounded out some admirers of Cash from the local music scene. Additionally, Ring of Fire cast member Erika Hall shared her thoughts about the man and his music and how adaptable his songs are to women interpreters like herself. The story appears in The Reader (www.thereader.com).
NOTE: Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash concludes this weekend at The Waiting Room in Benson.
Omaha performer Brenda Allen recalls her friendship with Johnny Cash
Ring of Fire pays tribute to iconic singer-songwriter
With impresario Gordon Cantiello’s new tribute show The Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash at The Waiting Room, it’s only natural to consider what makes the singer-songwriter of the title so enduring.
The king of hard-scrabble, honky-tonk infused with gospel, country, folk, blues and rock, became a living legend with his Man in Black and Folsom Prison Blues persona. His soulful music fit his wayfaring life. In his last decade Cash enjoyed a renaissance among artists and fans across the musical spectrum. The Reader solicited local musicians and music lovers to reflect on his work and found many admirers, but only Brenda Allen, aka Brenda Allacher, counted him as a friend. She also jammed with Cash and played on the same bill as the late star.
As a young vocalist-guitarist Allen was befriended by Cash, whose generosity she fondly remembers. Their memorable first meeting happened in 1958 when she auditioned for a guest spot on ABC-TV’s Ozark Jubilee at the Jewell Theatre in Springfield, Mo. She was 18 with some modest credits. Cash was 26 and already an established star.
“I did my audition and they said I could stay and see the show, which was starting in about an hour. My girlfriend and I were looking at three guys sitting in front of us. They weren’t regulars on the show.”
A dark-featured man in a black shirt caught Allen’s eye.
“I said, ‘God, he’s good looking,’ and my girlfriend said, ‘All three of them are good looking.’ Yeah, I wonder who that is?”‘
In the meantime the Jubilee’s version of a Hee-Haw couple, Uncle Cyp and Aunt Sap Brasfield, were rehearsing. A live elephant was part of the act. The animal did some tricks. Then the beast decided to pee.
“It sprayed 20 rows out. All the performers were in their costumes already. Everybody got hit. We were soaked,” Allen recalls. “We dived under the seats and I saw these long legs go running over top and I said, ‘Is he done yet?’ And this deep male voice said, ‘No, you better stay down there,’ and he went on by me. Finally I peeked up and they were putting saw dust all over the place, wiping seats down and I heard that same voice say, ‘Well, how high is the water, mama?’ I said, ‘It’s two feet high and rising.’ It was Johnny Cash.
“I popped up and said, ‘Are you staying across the street?’ ‘Yeah,” he said. ‘We’re staying there, too, you want me to bring you a shirt?’ ‘Hell, yes,’ and he gave me the key to his room and I got him a clean shirt.
“We sat and played guitars that night and talked about country music. That’s what started it. He was a perfect gentleman.”
After returning to her home in Lincoln, Neb. Allen stayed in touch with Cash. “I wrote him a letter and I got a letter back. I set him a picture of myself with my Fender Telecaster and he sent me his first song book. Without me even knowing it he sent my picture to Fender. That’s the kind of guy he was. Fender offered me a contract to model.”
She never signed. Instead, she landed with Marty Martin, who gained fame as Boxcar Willie. In 1962 the Marty Martin Show Featuring Brenda Allen opened for Cash at Lincoln’s Pershing Auditorium and Omaha’s Ciivc Auditorium. Later, as part of the Taylor Sisters, she was on the same program with Cash at a 1964 Wichita, Kansas show also featuring June Carter, Minnie Pearl, the Statler Brothers and Lefty Frizzell. “I’d say we were in damn good company.”
“Wonderful,” is how she describes sharing the stage with Cash. “He had such a charisma about him. You just felt there was something special about this guy.”
Brenda, circa 1970s-1980s
Brenda with Cash in his later years
Ad promoting a show she was in
His interest in her career continued. “I told him I was looking to join a band and he said, ‘Why not get your own band together?’ He told me, ‘You’ve got a damn good voice.’ He and his lead guitar player Luther Perkins sat me down and said, ‘Brenda, stick with country music, you’re going to make it.'” The elephant anecdote always connected Allen and Cash.
As for his troubled personal life, she says, “Around the time June Carter entered the picture I started noticing things about John from when I first him. I knew of the wildness.” Depression and addiction took their toll in “the bad years.” Allen’s been there. At 74 the recovering alcohol is a karaoke regular. She sings some Cash tunes. His melancholy, redemptive ballads work well with female interpreters. Just ask Erika Hall, who performs Cash standards in Ring of Fire.
“He was real, he was gritty, he was flawed, he spoke for all of us who make mistakes, who feel pain, and he had a very unique gift of being able to tell that story through music,” Hall says. “He gives us something to grab onto when we feel like we are alone in our pain. I find it interesting how well some of those songs do transfer to a female singer. It just shows you how much emotion was present in that music.”
Hall, who essayed Patsy Cline in a recent Cantiello-produced show, says the Cash canon lives on because “he was able to speak to multiple generations in the same way.” She adds, “Pain is pain, joy is joy – those emotions don’t change from generation to generation and Johnny Cash was able to send those emotions through his music in a way every human can identify with. He spoke to us. That’s his legacy.”
That legacy cuts across boundaries performer Billy McGuigan (Rave On) says.
“There are very few artists who ascend above the labels used to classify artists. We love to say Elvis is the King of Rock, Michael Jackson is the King of Pop, Hank Williams and Waylon Jennings are undeniably country. But The Man in Black? He’s above all that. He started as an early rock artist, became a country icon, a television personality and influenced the undertones of rap music.
“There’s something about that voice. That deep baritone resonates the soul and goes beyond his just singing a song. Add in the driving rhythm of the Tennessee Three and you’ve got a magical formula.”
“The legacy of Johnny Cash stretches across seven decades,” Pacific Street Blues host Rick Galusha says. “His influence was felt at the onset of rock and roll at Sun Studios and into the new century with his historic American recordings with Rick Rubin. Any artist able to stay-on-top while maintaining a high level of artistic integrity is bound to be influential.”
“Who hasn’t been inspired by Mister Cash?” asks Rainbow Recording studio owner and Paddy O Furniture band leader Nils Anders Erickson, “He wrote and sang about what he knew and you believed him. It wasn’t just a song, it was the truth. Love the man, love the music.”
The Ring of Fire cast also includes Sue Gillespie Booton, D. Kevin Williams, Thomas Gjere and Zach Little. Cantiello directs with musical direction by Mark Kurtz and Vince Krysl.
The show’s remaining play dates are Saturday, August 9 at 1, 5 and 8 p.m. and Sunday, August 10 at 1 and 5 p.m. The Waiting Room is at 6212 Maple Street. For tickets, call 402-706-0778.
For details, visit performingartistsrepertorytheatre.org.
It’s a star-studded lineup of artists at this Friday’s North Omaha Summer Arts Crawl. Stroll or drive to five venues (listed below) near and along North 30th Street. 6-9 pm. Food and beverages served at each site. It’s all free.
For details, visit www.facebook.com/NorthOmahaSummerArts or check out the Facebook Events page for the Arts Crawl post.
Participating artists include:
Artists from Metropolitan Community College
Pamela Jo Berry
Kim Whiteside (Kim Louise)
The five Arts Crawl venues are:
Metropolitan Community College, Fort Omaha Campus, Mule Barn (Building 21)
Church of the Resurrection, 3004 Belvedere Blvd.
Trinity Lutheran Church, 6340 North 30th Street
Parkside Baptist Church, 3008 Newport Avenue
Heartland Family Service, 6720 North 30th Street
At some venues artists will be on hand to discuss their work. Free food and beverages will be available at each stop.
For more information, call 402-502-4669 or 402-445-4666.
Please share this info with family, friends and coworkers in support of this grassroots community event that enriches and engages North Omaha with art.
If you ever doubt what difference an artist can make in a community, consider Linda Meigs. The Omaha native has found a way to connect her love of history, art, and preservation in a labor of love project and site, the Historic Florence Mill in North Omaha, that is equal parts museum, gallery, installation, and gathering spot. In so doing , she has gifted one of Omaha’s oldest neighborhoods with an attraction and resource that, were it not for her, would probably have never happened. She saved the Mill, which has a rich history closely related to the Great Western Mormon Migration, from almost certain demolition and she’s lovingly preserved it as a landmark and transformed the site into a communal space that connects agriculture, history, and art. It is a story of one woman’s passion and magnificent obsession, which if you read this blog you know by now is the kind of story I love to sink my teeth into. You can find this story in the August 2014 New Horizons.
Linda Meigs, ©Allen Irwin blog
Linda Meigs Brings Agriculture, History and Art Together at Florence Mill
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in the New Horizons
Artist, history buff, preservationist Linda Meigs didn’t set out to be the Mill Lady but that’s what she’s known as at the Historic Florence Mill, 9012 North 30th Street. It’s appropriate, too, because ever since saving this landmark from likely demolition it’s been her baby.
The wood structure dates back to the 1840s and boasts direct ties to the Great Mormon westward migration and to Church of Latter Day Saints leader Brigham Young. After near continuous use as a flour and lumber mill it was abandoned in the 1970s-1980s. Sitting vacant, the interior was exposed to the elements from a damaged roof and broken windows. Vandals released stored grain from the chutes. Heaps of matted oats and dried pigeon-rodent droppings covered the floors.
Meigs acquired the Mill in 1998 when no one else wanted it. She purchased the-then wreck for $63,000 and much more than that has gone Into its cleanup, repair and restoration. The Mill’s become her magnificent obsession and all-consuming art project.
Today, Meigs, 64, operates the site as a historical museum. Photographs, interpretive text panels, tools, implements, letters and posters tell the story of the Mill and the people behind it. Because she’s retained the historical character of the building, including original timber, the Mill also speaks for itself. The ArtLoft Gallery she created on the second floor is dedicated to her late son Connor Meigs, who followed her path to become an artist. He was a sophomore at her alma mater, the University of Kansas, when killed in a 2004 automobile accident. She was already six years into the project when he died and since then she’s only thrown herself more into it.
An outdoor farmer’s market happens Sundays on the grounds, which she leases from the Nebraska Department of Roads. She also hosts special events at the Mill. This full-fledged cultural attraction began as a cockeyed dream that nearly everyone but her architect husband John Meigs tried talking her out of. It’s turned into a life’s work endeavor that’s preserved history, created a new community space and spurred tourism in one of Omaha’s oldest sections. Her efforts have earned recognition from several quarters.
She’s owner, caretaker, curator and everything else there.
“I’m doing everything here the executive director of any historical society does, only they have paid staff,” she says. “I’m the executive director, docent, historian, janitor, public relations person, events programmer, grant writer, and it just goes on and on.”
She could have added market master. She “runs the show” at the Florence Farmers Market on Sundays in her gaudy market hat.
Those roles are in addition to being a wife, mother and rental property owner-manager. The Mill though requires most of her attention.
“I’m the unpaid slave of the Mill.”
She’s glad to be in service to it, saying, “This is my gift to the city – to keep it open to the public.” She adds, “I’ve always been interested in preservation. My husband John, too. He worked on the restoration of the Orpheum Theatre and Union Station. We have a hundred year-old apartment building, the West Farnam, at 3817 Dewey Avenue.
“I was an officer with Landmarks Inc.. It makes me sick when we tear our history down and go to Europe for history. The Mill is wonderful history. The building is really an encyclopedia of the grain industry. It has a unique niche as the only building in this region that bridges the eras of the overland pioneer trails and territorial settlement. I get a lot of visitors from outside Omaha, really from all across the country, who retrace the Mormon and Gold Rush trails.”
The Mill today
This intersection with history would probably have been razed if not for her passion and perseverance.
The Mill’s been endangered several times, first by the people who built it, the Mormon pioneers, when they left their winter quarters settlement to journey west to Utah. Brigham Young himself supervised the Mill’s construction. But after serving its purpose for that caravan of faithful it was left to the Indians and nature. Scottish emigre Alexander Hunter was on his way to the California Gold Rush when he saw an opportunity to rescue the Mill. He rebuilt it. An employee, Jacob Weber, later bought it. The Mill remained in the Weber family for more than a century, thus it’s often called the Weber Mill and Elevator.
A 1930s flood nearly claimed it. The threat of future floods motivated Jacob’s grandson, Lyman Weber, to move the building, intact, to higher ground. In 1964 the Webers sold out to Ernie and Ruthie Harpster. Interstate 680 construction in the 1970s was slated to run right through the property before Ernie Harpster secured historic status for the site, which necessitated the Interstate being re-routed around it.
Meigs first learned of the Mill when Haprster put it up for sale in 1997. Despite its awful condition Meigs saw potential where others saw ruin.
“My role was to have it make a career change from an obsolete mill and grain elevator into a cultural site. And it took me years to figure out what its theme was, and it was just in the last year or two I recognized the obvious – it connects agriculture, history and art. I never would have thought I’d be able to choreograph my life so that those very separate things would come together in anything as good as this building. It’s like they all tied together in this serendipity project.
“I feel I was the right person at the right time for this to steer it in a different direction – in an attraction direction.”
Indeed, it’s unlikely anyone else possessed the necessary skills and interests, plus will and vision, to take on the Mill and repurpose it.
The oldest of three siblings, Meigs is the only daughter of Francis and Pauline Sorensen. Her parents grew up on north-central Neb farms. Linda spent her early childhood in the Dundee neighborhood, where she and John have resided since 1975, before her family moved to southwest Omaha’s Sunset Hills.
Though she grew up in the city, Meigs gained an appreciation for agriculture visiting her maternal grandparents’ farm.
“My mother’s family farm was my second home. We went out there weekends and holidays. In fact. I’ve used it for my artwork quite a bit,” says the veteran visual artist who’s shown at the Artists Cooperative and Anderson O’Brien galleries.
In contrast to this bucolic idyll was her “Edgar Allan Poe childhood.” Her mother sang at funerals and Linda accompanied her to the dark Victorian gothic mansions where these somber services were held.
She’d sit on a red velvet settee outside the viewing room and wait for mom to finish “Danny Boy,” “In the Garden” and “The Lord’s Prayer.”
Meigs traces her love of old buildings to those times.
Linda’s talent for art asserted itself early. As a girl she drew and colored on any paper she could lay her hands on, filling reams of notebooks with her Childcraft book-inspired designs,
“i won a Walt Disney coloring contest before kindergarten. I got free tickets to Westward Ho the Wagons at the Dundee Theater. That was the payoff. In grade school I got a scholarship to an art class at Joslyn Art Museum. The teachers were always reinforcing about my artwork.”
Westside High School art teachers Ken Heimbuch and Diane (Hansen) Murphy were particularly “encouraging.”
“I still keep in touch with them and they come to my art shows here at the mill. We have a nice relationship.”
Her talent netted a scholarship to the University of Kansas art camp, but her parents couldn’t afford to send her. Heartbroken though she was she still fixed her sights on studying art in college. She started at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln before switching to KU.
“I went to UNL my first year but I wasn’t very happy there. The art department wasn’t as large then as it is now. (Landscape painter) Keith Jacobshagen was a graduate student at the time and he encouraged me to check out KU, where he’d gotten his bachelor’s degree.”
The state university in Lawrence proved a good fit.
“It turned out my current husband was down there. It all came together. I loved the campus – you’re on a hill and you can see the horizon from three directions. Aesthetically, it’s very beautiful.”
Her insurance adjustor father and homemaker mother never opposed her pursuing art.
“My parents were very accepting, they knew I had a gift in that area and we’re encouraging. They were proud of me – even to the day I graduated with a totally useless BFA in printmaking. My folks never pressured me about how I was going to make a living. I never worried about it because I always felt, and I raised my kids this way, that if you’re a creative person you could figure out what to do.”
She and John made a go of it after marrying in 1975. He worked as an architect for Leo A. Daly before going into the building supplies business. She worked in a design studio before going off on her own as a freelance illustrator. She’s taught art at Joslyn and Metropolitan Community College and more recently with Why Arts?
She kept her hand in art in other ways, too.
“I was the cultural arts chair of Washington Elementary School for nine years. I invented a theme every year. The first one was Artists in Our Midst and every month I brought in a different artist. Whether they did pottery or silkscreen or painting, there was an artist in residence in the hallway demonstrating their work. I leaned on my artist friends for that to make this program for the school.
“One year we did a history theme and we had an all-school quilting bee. Each class designed a different block for this school quilt that won two blue ribbons at the Douglas County Fair. All of that was practice for events at the Mill. I learned how to be an event producer.”
Her and John’s appreciation for history developed into a hobby of driving around to admire houses and buildings in the old parts of town.
When they had four kids in six years, including twins, they developed an extra income stream by buying older residential properties and renting them out. That led to her day job as “a landlady.”
Then in 1997 she saw an Omaha World-Herald article that changed her life. Headlined “History for Sale,” it detailed the Mill’s colorful past. Having come to the end of its commercial life, the Mill was for sale.
“When I read the article I had a sinking premonition it (the Mill) would be my job,” she says with a laugh.
When she and John toured the Mill for the first time it marked her first visit to Florence. The building was a mess.
“It was boarded up and pitch black inside. We used flashlights to see. It had 2,000 pounds of fermented grain in a bin. Another 12,000 pounds were on the floor. We shuffled through piles of grain, dirt, dead animals and pigeon poop. It was stinky, dark, scary and unhealthy in there.
“Another couple went through it. The woman was Mormon and wanted to do a restaurant there. She asked me, ‘Are you interested in it?’ and I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know, it’s pretty rough,’ and I said, ‘Are you interested in it?’ and she said, ‘Oh, no, it’s too far gone for me.”
It wasn’t too far gone for Linda, though. Not by a long shot.
“I thought, I can do this. It was a commitment, sure, but I thought this was a gem. I wasn’t afraid of it. I was used to working with old buildings. I didn’t know why there weren’t hundreds of people that wanted to buy an 1800s building.”
Still, it was a huge decision. After weeks hemming and hawing about its potential she recalls, “On Valentine’s Day my husband came home with a loaf of my favorite bread, I set it out on the counter, and he said, ‘Well, aren’t you going to open it?’ So I opened it and underneath the bread was a purchase agreement that if I wanted to do this he would stand with me. That was lovely.”
If she hadn’t gone through with it, she says, “the Mill probably would have been bulldozed. It was falling on its own. There were letters to the editor asking why doesn’t somebody tear that ruin of a building down and others saying it needed to be fixed up. So there were two sides – there always is in preservation. There are those who think it’s served its purpose, and so let it go. Then there’s those who say it’s a link to our past and heritage that should be salvaged, and I’m in that camp.”
“The writer David Bristow may have best captured its magic when he said, ‘I feel like I’m standing inside of a tree with the rings of history around me.’ I love that – I think it’s such a perfect metaphor for this building. From the outside you don’t know what to expect from this industrial-looking building but the inside is very lovely and soulful.”
For Meigs, the Mill is a living history lesson.
“The wood in here tells a story if you know where to look.”
She says the original hand-hewn timbers felled and erected by the Mormons are intact, as are the timbers Alexander Hunter used in rebuilding it. The circular marks from Hunter’s saw are visible in the timbers. There are vintage signs, pay stubs and time cards about.
Getting things up to code meant addressing myriad problems, from fixing huge holes in the roof to replacing rotted windows to draining fetid water in the basement she called “a stinky swimming pool” to removing seven tons of gunk.
“It was a big project.”
Her first order of business was cleaning all the walls and floors and open surfaces – “I scrubbed the entire building with trisodium phosphate and a brush” – and repairing the leaking roof.
She got a pleasant surprise when she discovered all those strewn oats acted as a sealant that protected the wood floors. “So the bane of the building was its blessing,” she says.
The building today “is a lot more solid than it was,” she says thanks to the new roof, siding, windows and insulation. “We did the restoration on the outside to preserve the inside because it’s the inside of this building that’s historical. It’s just the opposite of most restoration projects, where they’ll keep the facade and gut the inside. We didn’t want to do that because it would ruin the building.”
It wasn’t long before she got a sense the Mill just might be the attraction she thought it could be.
“That first summer I was in here cleaning I had a thousand visitors and it wasn’t even open. Actually the Mill told me through all those visitors that it needed to be open as a historical site. I had very vague ideas what to do with it. It’s an odd building functionally. As an artist I thought there would be a good gallery space here.
“I decided to open it up to the public as a museum.”
Meigs may have come to Florence as an outsider but she soon established herself as a good neighbor dedicated to building community and boosting economic development.
“It bothered me the historic sites of Florence were closed most of the summer, the Mill included, except for the Mormon Trails Center,” she says. “Kiwanis was keeping the historic depot and bank open on summer Sundays. I got a grant from the Mammel Foundation to staff those sites every day during the summer. It was a three-year grant and we kept them open with paid staff from Kiwanis clubs. It was a lovely relationship of improving Omaha.”
When the grant ended the depot and bank went back to being open a few select days but she decided to keep the Mill open on a regular basis, she says, “because I could do it – I’m donating my time.”
The Mill’s open seasonally, May through October. It goes in hibernation for the winter as it’s without heat and indoor restrooms.
Although still a newcomer to Florence, she’s become one of its biggest champions and feels it’s often overlooked considering its rich history.
“This is an unknown part of town. I call it the forgotten fringe. When i got the Mill and I started doing the research I realized the depth of the history here and I got involved in the neighborhood.”
She chaired the group Florence Futures that developed the master redevelopment plan for the Florence neighborhood.
When the Mormon Winter Quarters Temple opened she organized a Lunch in Historic Florence event that gave visitors to the Temple a button for a discounted lunch at area restaurants.
“It was the first time the community had done a project with the Temple,” she says, adding the promotion won a state tourism award.
Much sweat equity and money went into getting the Mill into its present restored state.
“It’s taken 17 years to do what we’ve done. It’s not been overnight.”
With no paid admission, the trickle of income from vendor rentals and gift shop sales isn’t nearly enough to keep the Mill open and maintained. She depends on grants and donations. She and John also “pitch in money to keep this afloat.” She estimates more than $300,000 has been invested in the building thus far from various sources.
“I have a Friends of the Mill group and people kindly donate to that. It fluctuates from year to year but the funds from that do not cover the operating costs.”
Some major donors have come through for pricy projects, such as automatic barn doors. The Peter Kiewit Foundation and the Lozier Corporation helped fund their purchase and installation.
“A Questers group won a grant from the statewide Questers to replace the basement windows. It’s not like that happens all the time but there’s enough that it helps. When the need arises, good things happen, angels appear.”
She’s proud of how she converted the mill’s loft into a rustic art gallery bathed in natural light.
“I put some things up there early on. The first show was a show of my farm photographs with fiber art by Dorothy Tuma.”
The space didn’t become a full-fledged gallery though until her son Connor’s death.
“Loss is hard. Losing a child is pretty unacceptable because it’s out of the order of things. He died from injuries in a car accident on Christmas Eve of 2004. He was 19.”
Two images above are of the ArtLoft Gallery
Connor was an award-winning editorial cartoonist with the Omaha Central High Register and the Daily Kansan. He was home for the holidays, driving with his twin brother Doug, when the collision happened near the south side of Elmwood Park.
“We were over at John’s parents’ house waiting for Doug and Connor to come over to play board games with us,” says Linda. “The roads turned to black ice. Both boys suffered injuries and lost consciousness.
“Doug came out of it and Connor did not.”
There was a huge outpouring of support, including $10,000 in memorial gifts to the Mill.
She also wanted to do something to commemorate his love for art.
“It was actually in the wilderness of British Columbia that the idea came to me to give an art award in his memory,” Meigs explains. “I had promised Connor a show at the gallery when he graduated. I decided to give one young person a year what I promised to give Connor.”
The Connor Meigs Art Award is a merit award to help launch a young artist’s career. It includes a month-long solo exhibit, mentoring, artist’s reception, lodging and $1,000 honorarium.
Because Connor was an organ donor his mother knew he helped give life to others and would live on through the recipients.
“I wrote a letter to the families of the transplant patients who received his organs about what kind of a young man he was. I wrote that he was a hockey player and an award-winning artist. It had been six months since his passing and I had not heard any response.”
Linda had been waiting for a letter but she got a personal visit instead.
“We were here working at the Mill on a Sunday cleaning pigeon poop when a couple drove up in a car with outstate license plates. The woman got out and said, ‘We’d like to see Connor’s work.’ I said, ‘How did you know there was an exhibit?’ She looked down and after a pause she looked up to say, ‘I have Connor’s liver.'”
There had been a recent article about the Mill’s renovation and Connor’s show. Maggie Steele of Norfolk, Neb. contacted the Nebraska Organ Donors Society saying she wanted to meet Connor’s family. She was told protocol requires a recipient correspond a year with the family before a meeting is set. Meigs says Steele persisted until the organization finally gave in and said, “follow your heart.”
“Maggie and her husband Phil stop by to visit the Mill nearly every summer,” Meigs says. “Though I wrote a letter to all the organ recipients, Maggie was the only one we heard from. We are grateful to have heard from her.”
Plaque commemorating Linda’s late son Connor
Maggie Steele with Connor’s work in background, ©Dennis Meyer/Norfolk Daily News
Historically, the Mill’s always been a landmark for travelers. whether on foot, by wagon or motor vehicle, and it remains a magnet for all kinds of visitors and events.
“Its still a natural meeting place,” Meigs says. “It’s right next to the Interstate, it’s very easy access, it’s on the way to the airport.”
Warren Buffett’s been there. The grounds have accommodated campers following the Mormon Trail. it hosted a Great Plains Theatre Conference program in May that drew hundreds. Each fall it’s a site on the North Omaha Pottery Tour. The gallery hosts several exhibits annually. The farmers market features dozens of vendors on Sundays from June through September.
Meigs says the Mill gets 8,000 to 10,000 visitors each summer and the farmer’s market, begun in 2009, is a major draw. It’s an eclectic scene where you can listen to live bluegrass music and get a massage. Children can ride ponies and pet alpacas. Linda sometimes joins the circle jam of fiddle and dulcimer musicians to play the washboard.
The laid-back vibe is largely attributed to Meigs.
“I get a lot of thank yous and gratitude from some people for saving this building but it’s blessed me back. I’ve met so many wonderful friends in this part of town. It’s enriched my life.”
Two measures of how much her efforts are appreciated happened this summer. She went with her family on a Bucket List trip to British Columbia and artist friends ran the Mill in her absence. “I almost wept when people stepped forward to say, ‘I’ll help.'” Folks in Florence organized a Thank You for the Mill party. “What a nice thing for people to do,” she says. “It’s nice to be appreciated.”
She says fellow creatives “always understand the building itself is my art project – it is the creation, it is an art and history installation.”
She feels she’s part of a long lineage of people who have been entrusted with the Mill.
“All of the owners of the building have honored that pioneer heritage and have had a role to play in the building’s preservation”
Meigs doesn’t have a succession plan for handing-off the Mill when she retires or dies. She says the Douglas County Historical Society or the Nebraska State Historical Society may be possibilities. She even thinks there’s a chance the Mormon Church might have interest in it.
She’s not giving it up anytime soon, though. Besides, she’s become so identified with it that she and the Mill are synonymous.
“People want me to be here. When they come here and I’m not here they’re disappointed. I guess my personality’s ingrained in this thing. I’m the Mill lady.”
It may not be exactly what she she had in mind as a young artist. Nevertheless, she says, “it’s my dream.”
For Mill hours and activities visit http://www.theflorencemill.org.