Omaha performer Brenda Allen recalls her friendship with Johnny Cash
Ring of Fire pays tribute to iconic singer-songwriter
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.
I don’t know what it is, but I keep winding up doing stories about cabaret singers. One of the latest I’ve profiled is Mary Carrick, whose new CD Let’s Fly is an interesting collaboration with J. Gawf, a pianist who serves as Opera Omaha resident music director and chorus master. Carrick got to know Gawf while performing in the Opera Omaha Chorus. Impressed with her versatile voice, he began coaching her on the side. Impressed with his musical acumen, she asked for advice about who could help her with a new CD she had in mind to do fresh takes on American Songbook standards and other tunes across the music spectrum. He suggested himself and that’s how he became artistic producer and arranger for her Let’s Fly. Here is my Omaha Encounter Magazine story on Carrick and her collaboration with Gawf on that CD project. By the way, on this blog you can find my profiles of other Omaha cabret artists, including Camille Metoyer Moten and Anne Marie Kenny.
If the late soul master James Brown was the hardest working man in show business, then singer Mary Carrick is Omaha’s hardest working woman in entertainment.
When the Nebraska Arts Council touring artist isn’t performing her own cabaret act, she’s singing in the Opera Omaha chorus or acting in a musical theater production. She also does special events like the Omaha Press Club Show and Omaha Creative Institute Spring Fling.
In addition to her rehearsals and vocal exercises she attends cabaret workshops. All this comes on top of working a full-time marketing job, being married and raising two small children. Yet she’s made time to create her debut CD, Let’s Fly, with artistic producer and arranger J. Gawf, a pianist whose day job finds him serving as Opera Omaha resident music director and chorus master.
The album, available on iTunes. Amazon.com and CD Baby, showcases Carrick’s big voice, wide range, and eclectic tastes. The 10 tracks about love and desire include the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer standard “Come Rain or Come Shine,” Cole Porter’s “So in Love,” the Hank Williams classic “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” Barry Manilow’s bath-houser “Man Wanted,” and the Jon Mitchell hit “Both Sides Now.” There’s even Leonard Cohen’s edgy “Dance Me to the End of Love.”
The project’s an intriguing collaboration between a versatile singer deeply rooted in the Great American Songbook and a multifaceted musician immersed in opera. Carrick, who can sing anything, has a voice with operatic qualities, and Gawf, who can play anything, is well-versed in popular music. He’s also Carrick’s primary vocal coach and the two have developed an aesthetic kinship and personal friendship.
Gawf has worked with world-class singers and is a great admirer of Carrick’s vocal instrument.
“It’s crystalline clear, it’s shiny, it’s got shimmer,” he says. “She has such a range to go from the high register, which I think is a beautiful part of her voice, to the low register.”
Then there’s what Carrick can do with a song.
“Well, she’s a storyteller, number one,” he says. “She comes from a theater background and she can tell a story like nobody’s business.”
Carrick’s found a niche in cabaret performances that often find her teaming with pianist-vocalist Todd Brooks.
“There’s so much artistic freedom in cabaret,” she says. “There’s really no rules. I can program whatever I want. I can do songs that are traditionally sung by men and make them my own. I can infuse myself and my own experiences into the songs. There’s a very intimate connection with the audience that I love very much. I can talk and tell stories throughout my show. I love that audience-to-singer energy that happens in the room. It’s exhilarating.”
She’s been recognized by the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards and the Theatre Arts Guild for her cabaret shows as well as productions of her own Broadstreet Theatre Company.
When Carrick broached the concept of her album, Gawf wanted in and says the chance of “doing something I’d never done” appealed to him. “Mary gave me free license.”
The songs on “Let’s Fly” have been covered many times by other artists, but Gawf was intentional in taking a new slant.
“I pride myself on not listening to other artists before I tackle something because I don’t want to get preconceived ideas of how something should be. I like to take the song off the page and then re-imagine it. After we got our arrangements together I listened to what other people did to see where ours fit in, and we’ve got some unique things. Half the fun was coming up with what works for us.”
Carrick feels she’s in good hands with Gawf.
“I put my trust completely in him. It’s just been an awesome match. I think we work in tandem really well. He totally gets me. He can tell when I’m not giving as much as I need to. There was one session where he said, ‘I don’t feel like you’re giving you’re all to me,’ and he was right. I know where he’s at, he knows where I’m at. We can sort of feel where we’re going, where things aren’t working.”
Carrick says she most enjoys “the creative process,” and with the CD she’s pleased to have gone to “a real vulnerable place in being completely true to the material. It’s a scary place to go if you really want to be an honest singer, but I think we achieved that .”
For the album Gawf assembled musicians he’s worked with before, including three Omaha mainstays in percussionist J.B. Ferguson, bass player Mark Haar, and accordion player Kate Williams. Jazz pianist Eric Andries joined the ensemble from his home in Baton Rouge, La.
The CD marked the inaugural project for Dreamtree Recording, a new studio operated by Omaha musician and sound engineer extraordinaire Marty Bierman.
The recording sessions became Gawf’s playground to have the musicians try different rhythms and tempos – adding, subtracting, mixing, matching various sounds.
“It was true experimentation all the way around,” he says. “It was fun to be able to do that, to not take it straight from the page and to work with such great instrumentalists.”
Carrick says the CD was both “a fascinating” and “massive undertaking” that “organically developed.” Don’t be surprised if she and Gawf re-team for a new project.
Follow the singer at marycarrick.com.
If you’re looking for a pick-me-up story to lift you out of the self=pity blues or doldrums then you’d be hard-pressed to top the story of Aisha Okudi, an Omaha woman who has not let anything stop her, including homelessness, from pursuing her entrepreneurial missionary purpose and dream. This is my new cover story about her for The Reader (www.thereader.com). I did a previous story about Aisha and her path of inspiration and transformation which you can find on this blog.
Aisha’s Adventures: A story of inspiration and transformation; homelessness didn’t stop entrepreneurial missionary Aisha Okudi from pursuing her goals
Her Sha Luminous by Esha Jewelfire line of beauty products serves African missions dream
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Entrepreneurial African missionary Aisha Okudi, 37, laid the foundation for her thriving business and ambitious humanitarian work during a period when she and her children were sometimes homeless. She’d been through worse.
Regardless of how bad things have gotten, she’s remained focused on her mission because she considers her story of transformation a testimony to her faith in a Higher Power she serves for the greater good. The Omaha visionary is proud of how far she’s come with her Sha Luminous line of organic shea butter skin rejuvenation and beauty products. Sha Luminous is available at HyVee supermarkets in six states as well as Akins Natural Food Stores, No Name Nutrition, Jane’s Health Market and select salons. She’s working to get in Whole Foods.
She’s humble about her success because she’s following a plan she feels called to. She views everything about her journey, even the dark side, as a conduit for the missionary work that is her real passion.
The base of her hand-crafted products is butter extracted from the shea nut, a natural plant indigenous to the same rural African provinces she serves. After years helping poor African children by sending supplies and making donations, she visited Niger in 2010 through the auspices of the international NGO, Children in Christ. She made connections with villagers, tribal leaders, fellow missionaries, government representatives and American embassy officials. She purchased a missionary house to accommodate more evangelists.
She says she’s tried getting Omaha churches on board with her work but has been rebuked. She suspects being a woman of little means and not having a church or title explains it. Undaunted, she works closely with CIC Niger national director, Festus Haba, who calls her work “a blessing.” In addition to Niger, where she once considered moving, she also visited Togo on that 2010 trip.
She visited Ghana in 2012. She’s returning to Africa in August, this time to Mali. With the help of Haba and CIC she’ll explore growing her business there to create import-export streams. At one time she weighed developing holistic herbal health clinics in West Africa.
“I want to create job opportunities for people because this business is about helping people who come out of poverty just like me.”
She wants more Africans enjoying the fruits of the shea nut grown there by employing locals in its production and sale and by making her products affordable so more locals can enjoy their health benefits.
It’s a far cry from the self-centered, destructive path she was on from the early-1990s through 2004. Growing up in Omaha and Des Moines she long headed for a hard fall. Her family often moved. Finances were always tight. She was a head-strong girl who didn’t listen to her restless mother and alcoholic father. She got in trouble at school.
“There were issues at home. I was always told no coming up and I got sick of hearing that. I felt I was a burden, so I was like, ‘I’m going to get out and get my own stuff.'”
At 15 she left home and began stripping. A year later she got pregnant. She gave birth to the first of her four children at 17.
“I found myself moving around a lot. I really didn’t know what stability was. I never had stability, whether having a stable home or just being stable, period, in life. I was young and doing my thing. My dad walked in the club where I was stripping. My sister told on me.”
The ensuing confrontation only drew her and her parents farther apart.
“I was trying to live that life. I wanted to have whatever I wanted to have. I danced, I sold my body and I made lots of money from it. I did it for about 12 years. I wanted to have it all, but it was not the right way.”
She got caught up in the alcohol, drug abuse and theft that accompany life on the streets.
“I was in and out of prison a lot. I used to steal to make money.”
In 1997 she served time in the Douglas Country Correctional Center for theft by receiving stolen property.
In 2004 she was crying in an Iowa jail cell after her second Operating While Intoxicated offense. Her arrest came after she left the strip club where she performed, bombed out of her head.
“I had to get drunk so I could let these men touch me all night,” says Okudi, who drove her car atop a railroad embankment, straddling the tracks, poised to head for a drop-off that led straight into a river.
That night in jail a decade ago is when it all came to a head. “I just sat there and I thought about my kids and what I just did,” she says. She felt sure she’d messed up one too many times and was going to lose her children and any chance of salvaging her life, “I was crying out and begging to God. I had begged before but this time it was a beg of mercy. I was at my bottom. I surrendered fully.”
To her relief the judge didn’t give her prison time at her sentencing hearing. “I told the judge, ‘I will never do this.’ He said, ‘If I ever see you in my courtroom again it will be the last time.’ I burnt my strip clothes when I got out, and I didn’t turn back. I got myself into treatment.” She’d been in treatment before but “this time,” she says, “it was serious, it wasn’t a game. I enrolled in school.”
Ten years later she has her own business and a higher calling and, she says, “I’m so proud that I write the judge and tell him how I’m doing.” Okudi’s learned how to live a healthy lifestyle and not surround herself with negative influences and enablers.
Her life has turned many more times yet since getting straight and sober. In 2006 she seemingly found her soulmate in George Okudi, an ordained Ugandan minister and award-winning gospel artist. They began a new life in Washington DC and had two children together. Then she discovered he was still married to another woman in Africa. The couple is separated, awaiting a divorce.
She’s learned to forgive, but she’s only human. “Even though I’ve grown sometimes it feels like, When is it going to end? But to much is given, much is required. You’ve just gotta consistently stay on track. No matter what it is, stay focused.”
Even as recently as 2012 and 2013 there were tests and setbacks, including bouts of homelessness. The difference then and now is that when adversity strikes she doesn’t get too high or too low, she doesn’t feel entitled to act out. She claims she experienced an epiphany in which God spoke to her and set her on her Esha Jewelfire mission.
“When I had that vision and dream I was pregnant with my youngest son. I was living with my grandmother. I was newly separated from my husband. I said to my grandmother, ‘I don’t know if I’m going crazy or what, but the Lord said I will build like King Solomon and go and help my people in Africa.'”
Since childhood this Africaphile has expressed a desire to help alleviate poverty overseas. Her visit to Niger and the overwhelming reception she received confirmed she’s meant to serve there.
“It was immediate. I was able to blend in wherever I went. I know that’s where my calling is. I cook African, my children are African, my friends are African. It’s just a natural thing for me.”
She even speaks some native dialects.
She’s long made a habit of sending clothes and other needed items to Africa. But a call to build was something else again.
“Where am I going to get the money from to help these people in Africa?” she asked her grandma. “I didn’t know.”
Then by accident or fate or divine providence a friend introduced her to shea butter, an oil used in countless bath and beauty products. “And that’s how the idea for my business came up,” Okudi says.
Shea is gritty in its natural state and only transforms with love. Sound familiar? “I researched it and found that it moisturizes, it cleanses, it refreshens, it heals, it brightens, it just makes you shine. It’s naturally rich in vitamins A, E and F. So I figured out what I needed to do with it.”
Her experiments led to lightly fragranced shea butter-based products, including lotions, creams and scrubs. She began marketing them.
She gets raw shea in big blocks she breaks down by chopping and melting. She incorporates into her products natural oats and grains as well as fruit and herb oils to lend pleasing textures and scents. The fresh fruit and herbs are pressed by hand. Nothing’s processed. “All this stuff comes from God’s green earth — oils, spices, herbs, organic cane sugar,” she says. Nothing’s written down either. “I have it all in my head. I know every ingredient in everything I make. Everything is made fresh to order and customized. Everything is hand-packaged, too.”
Selling at trade shows, house parties, off the Internet, the small business “started really growing and taking off for me,” she says. With her products now in chain stores, she contracts workers to act as sales demo reps where her products are carried. She also has a contract with a hand-mass manufacturing firm in Nashville, Tenn. She’s in discussions with a majo beauty products manufacturer-distributor.
She says besides her line being “bomb diggity,” retailers and customers alike respond to “the mission purpose behind it,” adding, “It’s purposeful, its meaningful, there’s life to my company.”
Her business has been based at various sites, including the Omaha Small Business Network. Production’s unfolded in her mother’s kitchen, in a friend’s attic, in her house, wherever she can find usable space. “My business is simple, it doesn’t really need a big plant or office.”
Having a store of her own though was a dream. A few years ago “an angel” came into her life in the form of Robert Wolsmann, who within short order of meeting Okudi wrote her a check for $10,000 – as a loan – to help her open her own shop.
Wolsmann is not in the habit of lending such amounts to near total strangers but something in Okudi struck him. Besides, he says, “I could see she needed help. She showed me what she made and I was so impressed I presented her with that money. I couldn’t resist investing.”
“He’s an awesome person,” Aisha says of Wolsmann. “We’ve become great friends.”
She says her dynamic personality attracts people to her. She feels what Wolsmann did is evidence “things work in mysterious ways – you don’t know what’s going to happen, you’ve just got to be prepared.”
Her Organically Sweet Shea Butter Body Butter Store opened in 2010. The labor of love proved star-crossed when after two months her landlord evicted her. Okudi’s opened and closed two more stores to pursue new opportunities .
“Entrepreneurs go where they have to go to get things done.”
Evictions from two rental homes found to be uninhabitable took their toll. “I asked God, “What is going on? Why does this keep happening to me?’ I didn’t have nowhere to go. I was seeing myself back living from place to place like I’ve always been, still trying to take care of my kids and do my business.” Stripping’s fast money lured her back for a short time. She and her kids stayed at the transitional housing program, Restored Hope, but when things didn’t work out there they went back to couch surfing before finding stability at the Salvation Army Shelter.
“It kept me focused on my mission. I’ve been called to be that missionary, so I’m not so upset anymore about why I’ve been bounced around or why things have happened the way they have. There’s a way bigger purpose. If you just be really humble and wait and be patient to see what God’s doing, He’ll turn things around.”
It’s why she no longer dwells on the past or worries about what she doesn’t have right now.
“Nothing matters when it comes to material things. The only thing that matters to me is my health and just doing what I know is right in my heart to do. Even though I lived the way I lived, basically homeless, I realized I am very blessed and I remained grateful.
“God only gives you what you can handle. He obviously knew I was equipped to do it. You just do it, but there’s preparation to everything. Nothing goes to waste. Everything I’ve been through I’ve actually used as a powerful testimony to either encourage someone else or to inspire myself to move forward.”
For the past year she’s earned enough money to find stable living in her own downtown condo.
Often asked to share her story before church congregations and community groups, her message is simple:
“To persevere, period. I don’t care what your situation is you’ve got to keep going. The world doesn’t stop, time doesn’t stop, problems never cease. You have to go through them. I go through my trials and tribulations and I never ask God to remove me out of them because it builds character, strength and perseverance for you to move on. I always tell people, ‘Don’t stop, just keep going.’ The fight is not easy, the fight ain’t no joke, it’s a war, it’s a battle. You’ve got to put full armor on and fight. God don’t have punks in his army.
“You’ve got to be a soldier for everything you put hour hands to.”
She’s aware her success amid myriad struggles inspires others.
“It reminds me who I am and that when I don’t think people are watching me they are. I’ve always been a happy, giving, loving person. Even when going through something, I pick myself up. Even my father said, ‘If you can be changed from where you came from, I know there’s a God.’ Now, he’s stopped drinking. He’s reborn.”
She realizes her own rebirth may be hard for some to swallow. “People who knew me in my past might say, ‘Oh no, not Aisha, with what she used to do?'” She acknowledges she couldn’t transform without help.
“When I got the call to start my business to support the Africa missions I had no business training or education, I just did it. I’ve learned as much as I can from experts and entrepreneurs who’ve already been there and done it. I’ve seen what not to do and what to do. I’ve learned to listen more, to be more patient, to look at all options instead of just what I know, because it’s not about what I know it’s about what I need to know. This has been a very humbling and hard faith thing for me.”
In 2011 she graduated from Creighton University’s Financial Success Program for low income single mothers.
“I learned how to be very resourceful working within my means, how to budget and how to cut out unnecessary costs.”
She was introduced to EcoScents owner Chad Kampschneider, who became a mentor and ended up picking up her product line.
After being accepted to tape an episode of Shark Tank she decided to pass on the opportunity rather than risk gaining partners who would wrest control of her vision.
“I’ve gotten this far with my mission and purpose and I don’t want to get detoured on another path. I figure one day I’ll be a shark myself helping people grow their businesses and realize their dreams. If I continue to follow the path I’ve been following I’ll get there. I see myself global helping in poverty areas through my company.”
She’s determined to complete her mission.
“I just get up knowing I gotta do what I gotta do, and I live one day at a time. I don’t let my financial and emotional path haunt me. There’s nothing you can do but do what you need to do every day and be a part of hope. Too many people are hopeless. There’s no light in them. I’m not about that, I’m about life and living to the fullest and being happy with what I have and where I’m at because I know greatness will come some day for me. I’m a very favored woman in all things I do.
“I haven’t been at a standstill. I’ve come a long way and I continue to grow. I’m still transforming, I’m still moving forward. I still reach out for help in areas I need help in.”
She suspects she’s always had it in her to be the “apostolic entrepreneur” she brands herself today. “Sometimes you don’t discover it until things happen to you. I think I had it but I didn’t embrace it then. I heard so much negative in my life coming up that it turned me away…I said, ‘I’ll show you,’ and I made wrong decisions. What the devil meant for bad, God turned it for good.
“I’m a natural born hustler but I hustle in the right way now.”
This month Okudi will be at select Walmarts and No-Frills stores seeking donations for her African missions.
For more about her products, visit her Facebook page, Sha-Luminous-by-Esha-Jewelfire.
One of Aisha’s many different looks