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Rabbi Azriel: Legacy as Social Progressive and Interfaith Champion Secure


 

Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Omaha has been sowing seeds of social justice for a very long time.  My short piece about him for Omaha Magazine comes a few months after he oversaw his reform congregation’s move to a new synagogue building.  The new temple is the first structure on the campus of the TriFaith Initiative, on whose board he serves. When the campus is completed it will be home to the synagogue, a mosque, an Episcopal church, and a tri-faith center.  He’s justifiably proud of how his faithful came together to support and shepherd their part of the tri-faith project through to completion, marking a new chapter in the historic congregation’s life.  He’s excited to fill the new temple with the emotion and energy of all the dynamic services, classes, celebrations, and rituals that go on there.  He’s served the congregation many years and now that he’s announced he’ll be retiring in 2016 he wants to make sure his leadership continues steering a right course until he steps down and a new leader takes over.

 

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Rabbi Azriel: Legacy as Social Progressive and Interfaith Champion Secure

by 

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Rabbi Aryeh Azriel has led Omaha’s reform Jewish congregation, Temple Israel Synagogue, since 1988. Along the way he’s become known for his social justice advocacy and for his efforts building bridges to other faith communities. He’s a board member of the ground-breaking Tri-Faith Initiative that’s bringing the three Abrahamic traditions together on the same campus. Temple Israel represents the Jewish tradition in the endeavor.

After putting his liberal stamp on Omaha, Azriel has signed his last three-year contact. His retirement takes effect in June 2016. This good shepherd wants the best for his flock and successor. Therefore, after he steps down he and his wife, Elyce, (they’re parents to two adult children) will move to Chicago, where they have strong ties, rather than be a distraction here.

“I want to see the congregation continue to thrive with someone else,” he says, “and sometimes there is a challenge when the emeritus rabbi stays in the same city. It’s important to have a rabbi running this congregation without an emeritus rabbi breathing down their neck. There’s definitely a need for me to not only step aside but to move to another place so the new person, whether male or female, has some independence to do things their own way.”

 

 

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When his time at Temple is done he will leave behind some tangible results, starting with the new synagogue building near 132nd and Pacific that opened last summer in the Sterling Ridge mixed-use development. The temple is the first completed element of the Tri-Faith campus being developed there. Azriel has been a driving force for his progressive congregation bearing witness to interfaith acceptance and communion. The temple will soon be joined by a neighboring mosque, a Christian church, and an interfaith center.

The contemporary modern, glass-sheathed new home replaced the previous facility at 70th and Cass that the nearly 800-family congregation outgrew years ago. It marked the first time in his career the native of Israel oversaw a new building project.

“It’s really a once in a lifetime experience,” Azriel says. “Many people in the congregation took part in this process.”

After years planning and praying the consensus is the open, Prairie-style structure is a good thing.

“The feedback on the building from the congregation is amazing,” he says. “We created exactly what we needed.”

The building, bathed in natural light from many windows, includes high tech features, but Azriel says it’s rooted in tradition. For example, leading to the main sanctuary are two facing modular walls—one a memorial bearing the names of members who’ve passed away and the other the stained glass windows that adorned the old sanctuary.

 

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“I think it’s extremely important for any institution that serves people to always have a heart for the institutional memory. There must be a place where a new building will not avoid the past or prevent you from remembering it. This congregation was established in 1871, and so even with a new building we still have to have one eye back in the history. We’ve maybe updated the technology but it’s the same Judaism—the same traditions, the same customs.”

What the temple most needed was more space to accommodate folks at services, receptions, classes, and other events and the much larger synagogue accomplishes this. Beyond the greater numbers that can be served the spacious digs provide more opportunities for interaction.

“This is definitely a communal experience,” he says. “It’s a house of study, a house of gathering and a house of prayer. It’s also a community gathering place for Jews and non-Jews. So it’s not just worship, it’s social justice, it’s adult and youth education, it’s making connections to churches in this area. I’m now creating relationships with some of the churches out here and it will be interesting to grow those relationships and to start something new.”

Just as he hoped, a central community square or commons area has become a focal point for people to hang out.

“We are finding that people are actually lingering because the space is so inviting. They want to stay longer and they like the schmoozing.”

Azriel doesn’t worry much about his legacy.

“It’s definitely not about bricks and mortar, it’s about relationships and hopefully about leaving a good name.”

He knows Temple’s contribution to the Tri-Faith campus represents just one part of an unfolding journey in understanding.

“This piece is done but the other pieces are extremely important too. To be able to create that community is another step. Some steps will be done before I leave and some will be done after I leave, and I’ll come back to see them bear fruit.”

For synagogue details, visit http://www.templeisraelomaha.com. Follow Tri-Faith Initiative news at trifaith.org.

 

KETV President-General Manager Ariel Roblin Leads Effort to Make Historic Burlington Station the ABC Affiliate’s New Home


The woman leading the effort to make the historic Burlington railroad station the new home of Omaha ABC affiliate KETV is Ariel Roblin and my short Omaha Magazine profile of her and of her passion for the project and her work follows.

 

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Ariel Roblin

Building the Burlington Station’s Future

May 8, 2014 by 
Photography by Bill Sitzmann & Leo A Daly
Appearing in Omaha Magazine

Almost as soon as Ariel Roblin became president and general manager of Omaha ratings leader KETV in 2011 she faced the momentous decision of finding a new site for the ABC network affiliate.

This next generation media executive succeeded Sarah Smith at the Hearst Television Inc. station and barely into Roblin’s watchshe was tasked with leading a search made necessary because KETV had outgrown its 27th and Douglas digs. That near downtown facility has been home to the station since it went on the air in 1957. Roblin looked at potential properties all around the metro before fixing on a location that took many by surprise. When she announced last June KETV would move to the historic Burlington Station south of the Old Market it meant the iconic rail depot would be saved after decades of neglect and repurposed for a new use few could
have predicted.

It also marked the first time viewers had likely ever heard of the engaging TV boss, par for the course for a behind-the-scenes administrator who sets the course for the station’s on-air talent and content but who is seen on-camera only weekly for special segments. She used the moment to cast the Burlington decision as a win-win.

“It’s a really special place that means a lot to Omaha, and so it was the right thing to do,” she says. “It was built for the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition to show off Omaha. As a passenger train station it’s where stories and memories were created. It’s this big open space that has so much to say and so much history behind it.

 

 

“I feel KETV is the perfect business to go in there because we’re going to capture those stories.”

Designed by noted Omaha architect Thomas Rogers Kimball, the Burlington was long a fitting neighbor showplace to the adjacent Union Station. Unlike that station, which was turned into a museum many years ago, the Burlington sat unused and uncared for after closing in 1974. What became an albatross and eyesore will need a complete makeover. The $22 million renovation designed by Leo A. Daly architects is well under way. When completed in the summer of 2015 the building will not only house KETV’s operations and 100-plus employees but a dedicated public space charting the history of KETV and the Burlington. This new life for a grand old space is expected to bolster redevelopment in the area and add another anchor along the South 10th Street corridor from North Downtown to the Henry Doorly Zoo.

“In broadcasting we talk a lot about making a difference in the community,” Roblin says, “and this is an opportunity for us to do that in a tangible way.”
She views local TV as a positive agent  for change and she enjoys overseeing what KETV does to impact things.

“I’ve worked in different facets of the business, and I have a great amount of respect for what goes on in every position. There’s intensity and passion in every aspect. I love that I’m able to affect a positive outcome in all aspects. I feel fortunate I’m able to do it.”

The Omaha transplant has followed a managerial track since starting in the industry in the mid-1990s. The Ohio native graduated high school early (age 16) and studied theater and communications at the University of Miami. It was there she met her husband, Ablan Roblin, a theater professional who works on stage and backstage at various Omaha theaters. The couple have two boys, Aiden and Kian. Kian played Tiny Tim to his father’s Bob Cratchit two successive years in the Omaha Community Playhouse production of A Christmas Carol.

Ariel’s own love for theater extends to serving as a board member of the Blue Barn Theatre, whose new building will be near the Burlington.

Her first media job was as a program director at USA Networks’ WAMI-TV in Miami. Her next career stops were in Dayton, Ohio, Honolulu and Redding, Calif. She joined KETV in 2010 as general sales manager. Though Roblin always desired to be a GM she was surprised when it happened at age 35. When she asked Hearst management why they selected her she was told it was because she cared.

She acknowledges, “I put myself into my work. I’m all in.”

Why does she care so much? “This is an opportunity to get to make a difference in people’s lives. You can’t get that wrong. The news consumption here is very strong compared to other markets—it really does matter to people what you do and how you do it in your news.”

Omaha has become home.

“I’ve never lived in a city and loved it as much as Omaha and I’ve lived in a lot of places. I love this town, my family loves this town. It’s got a great balance for life. We find we can do it all here. We appreciate the sports and the arts. The schools are great.

“I feel Omaha is an incredibly inclusive community. Even though I’m not from here I’ve always felt if I was willing to chip in and do some good work for Omaha I was more than welcome. That’s a really special characteristic Omaha has.

“If I ever did leave I would really miss that.”

 

 

Collaboration and Diversity Matter to Inclusive Communities: Nonprofit Teaches Tools and Skills for Valuing Human Differences


Lots of organizations are highly reactive when incidents of racial, gender and cultural insensitivity surface but few teach skills and tools for valuing human differences.  One that does is the Omaha nonprofit Inclusive Communities and it’s been doing this kind of work for a long time.  It not only responds to existing problems in businesses and schools, whether offensive language or bullying, but it offers training sessions and workshops yearround that provide people with the skills and tools to defuse situations and to educate others about the value of respecting diversity.  My story about Inclusive Communities for Metro Magazine follows.

Nonprofit teaches tools and skills for valuing human differences

 

Diversity Matters to Inclusive Communities

Beth Riley

 

 

Since its 1938 founding in response to religious and racial bias, Inclusive Communities has embraced human diversity, tolerance and unity. 

The good work of individuals and organizations in promoting equality and inclusivity will be celebrated May 22 at a Humanitarian Dinner featuring guest speaker Robert Edsel, author of The Monuments Men. One of Omaha’s longest-running philanthropic events, the dinner is “paramount for our organization because as our only fundraising event it provides more than 50 percent of our annual operating budget,” says executive director Beth Riley. She adds that it brings together board members, donors, volunteers, staff and community partners “who are very committed, active and engaged” in fulfilling the mission of breaking down barriers.

“People who most often need a voice aren’t represented and that’s where Inclusive Communities steps in and says, ‘We think it’s about all people and not just some people.’ That’s really our mantra we live by,” Riley says. “We work with businesses, schools and in the community to confront prejudice, bigotry and discrimination and we do that through educational programs and advocacy work.

“We provide people the tools to meet others where they are. A lot of times in businesses that means creating positive dialogue skills and diversity and inclusion programs that have a measurable impact, not just to check off a competency. In schools it means creating leadership development programs that take into account all different kinds of students.”

Education and advocacy

Inclusive Communities has worked with major companies and with every high school in the Omaha Public Schools.

The organization is also involved in drafting and advocating legislation that supports inclusion and makes exclusionary practices unlawful.

“The citywide equal employment ordinance is a great example,” Riley says. “We were an active partner with Equal Omaha on that. We’ve taken an active role with Equal Nebraska advocating for a statewide ordinance for protection of folks in the LGBTQ community who don’t have the kind of protection they need. We’re working with members of the state Judiciary Committee on that.”

Riley most readily sees her human relations organization’s impact in young people. At the nonprofit’s residential IncluCity program held at Carol Joy Holling Conference & Retreat Center near Ashland, Neb. delegate students from area schools gather for an immersive experience to learn constructive dialogue and empathy building skills. She says the intense activities stir emotions, change attitudes, promote self-reflection and encourage conversation. It’s so well received that graduates regularly show up at her office volunteering to be camp counselors or applying to be interns. Many graduates go on to lead diversity clubs and social justice awareness activities at their schools.

“Most students who complete the program write on their evaluation they would recommend it to anyone, it’s changed their life and they they want to come back to volunteer.”

Inclusive Communities program associate Emilio Herrera participated in IncluCity as a high school student. He later served as an intern and now he’s on staff while finishing his master’s in social work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

“Our programming had such a transformative effect on him that this has become his life’s work,” Riley says.

Herrera says the experience of Inclusive Communities has made him want “to become a beacon of hope in the Omaha metro area for those who feel misunderstood or misrepresented.”

A safe place

Riley says a Native American student from the Rosebud Reservation in S.D. has been similarly transformed. During a camp exercise called Culture Walk the student chose to identify himself as gay in front of peers, adult supervisors and community observers. He’s since become a diversity advocate in his school, a camp volunteer and the rare Native student pursuing a post-secondary educational path.

“The most gratifying thing to me is to know we’ve created a place where he feels safe and can feel supported in accomplishing all of his dreams,” Riley says. “It’s a meaningful thing to know you can impact a youth in that way. In return he’s created this amazing club within his school where other youth have felt safe coming out and being open about their own sexual orientation and gender identity. He’s also created a multicultural club and other safe spaces for youth in his own school. I’m very proud of what our staff and volunteers have done for him and of all the things he’s giving back to inspire youth.

“That’s the real power.”

Inclusive Communities is anything but abstract or theoretical.

“Our work is very human relations-based and focuses on how people interact with one another,” Riley says. “The conversations we promote are really much deeper than what is someone’s race or ethnicity or religion. We talk about systemic things that tie us together as a society and that make us who we are as a culture.”

Programming is tailored to clients’ needs.

“We get called by a lot of nonprofits and small businesses when they’re looking at starting a diversity and inclusion group,” she says. “The number one reason we get called to work with businesses is they need language and terminology. Businesses have a lot of issues with that. There may be one employee using language considered inflammatory that’s making an entire office or department feel uncomfortable.

“We promote doing daylong workshops where in a safe environment you give people the opportunity to engage in dialogue and learn to have meaningful conversations at work that can defuse situations. So when things do arise and somebody says something perceived as inflammatory by somebody else there is a foundation there for dealing with it. It’s getting everyone on the same page and helping people learn to be allies for one another and for themselves.”

 

 

Youth focused

With students she says the curriculum focuses on teaching youth “how to stand up for themselves and to learn dialogue tools to articulate their own identity and to meaningfully and peacefully resolve conflicts. It’s getting them to understand the difference between dialogue and debate. It’s helping them understand appropriate language skills.” She
says anti-bullying strategies are “a huge piece of what we do – we have an entire section on our website devoted to resources.”

She says her board has laid out a strategic plan to increase youth services and Inclusive Communities is well along in realizing that goal. The organization’s recently extended its reach into schools on the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Reservations in S.D. It’s also now working with schools in Lincoln, Bellevue and Ralston, Neb. and Council Bluffs, Iowa as well as with area private schools, including Omaha Creighton Prep and Duchesne Academy.

“We’ve doubled the size of our youth programming. It’s driven by the public’s need, by schools reaching out and asking for assistance. We’ve been an expert at this programming for a long time and it will always be really important to this organization because every time you impact a youth you get such a return on your investment.”

Last year’s record proceeds from the Humanitarian Dinner made possible increased youth and adult programming, additional staff and relocating to the Community Engagement Center at UNO. Inclusive Communities joins several nonprofits housed at the center, whose mission is to foster collaboration, something Riley’s organization is already well-versed in and is looking to do more of.

Cultivating collaborators and growing partnerships

“Some of our partners include Nebraskans for Civic Reform, Nebraska Appleseed and Greater Omaha Young Professionals. The more we collaborate with others the better opportunity we have for people to learn about the work we do. It’s planting a lot of seeds. That’s what this space is all about,” Riley says of the center. “We had outgrown our previous space and being here is such a great fit for us because of its central location, because many of the students we serve are students at UNO or go on to be students here and because of the opportunity to collaborate with the other nonprofits in the building and with faculty, staff and researchers at the university.

“We think there are great partnership opportunities on campus.”

Meanwhile, Inclusive Communities is launching its Building Blocks of Inclusion series at various businesses and doing a diversity series with Greater Omaha Young Professionals.

Riley says the organization has more capacity to grow and remains “very nimble” responding to emerging needs and issues. She adds Inclusive Communities may be old in years but remains ever relevant with its young staff, vibrant board and passionate volunteers.

Follow its work and get Humanitarian Dinner details at http://www.inclusive-communities.org.

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“Our work is very human relations-based and focuses on how people interact with one another.”

 

Doug McDermott’s Magic Carpet Ride to College Basketball Immortality: The Stuff of Legends and Legacies


NOTE: Now that Doug McDermott’s NBA life has offcially begun as the 11th round pick of the Denver Nuggets, who immediately dealt him to the player’s first choice, the Chicago Bulls, I thought it made sense to repost this feature article I wrote about the CU hoops legend.

As a longtine Creighton basketball fan part of me delighted in the magical season that Doug McDermott and his teammates enjoyed this past season but another part of me despaired because I had no outlet to write about what was happening, at least not for pay.  Then, a couple weeks after the season concluded I was presented the opportunity to write about McDermott and the incredible ride that was his senior season and the singular legacy he established over his four-year career as a Bluejay playing for his father.  The publishers of Hail Varsity magazine, which nornally covers Husker sports, arranged with CU officials to create a commemortative yearbook on the special 2013-2014 season and I was offered the assignment of writing the 120-page book’s profile of McDermott.  I jumped at the chance and that story follows below.  Read much more about McDermott and his teammates in the “Leaving a Legacy” yearbook featuring exhaustive story and photo coverage of this once in a generation player and this historic season to remember.  Order yours today at http://creighton.myshopify.com.  Also available at all Omaha area Barnes & Noble locations.

Commemorative Yearbook “Leaving a Legacy” for 2013-2014 Creighton Basketball Season from the publishers of Hail Varsity, ©cover photo by Eric Francis

 

Doug McDermott’s Magic Carpet Ride to College Basketball Immortality: The Stuff of Legends and Legacies

©By Leo Adam Biga

Read much more about McDermott and his teammates in the Creighton Men’s Basketball Commemorative Yearbook, “Leaving a Legacy,” from the publishers of Hail Varsity magazine. Order yours today at http://creighton.myshopify.com.  Also available at all Omaha area Barnes & Noble locations.

 

Reigning consensus national player of the year Doug McDermott wears his living legend status comfortably. That’s a good thing, too, as his iconic status in college hoops history will likely only grow from here.

Playing for Creighton’s mid-major program in the Missouri Valley Conference kept him off the national radar his first three years, though insiders knew he was special. With CU’s move to the Big East in 2013-2014, where the Bluejays exceeded expectations and McDermott’s dominant play made headlines, he became a marquee name. With all of college basketball’s eyes trained on him, his monster senior year and steady climb up the NCAA’s career statistical charts was documented across every media platform. Virtually every week he passed a legend on the all-time scoring list. His 26.7 scoring average led the nation. He led CU to a third straight NCAA Tournament appearance and Top 25 ranking. Interview, autograph and picture requests flooded him at home and on the road. In Omaha he was the headliner for the greatest show in town that set attendance records.

Showing a grace and poise beyond his 22 years, he took it all in stride and became a Golden Boy symbol for the best in student-athletes.

“The most impressive thing is how he’s handled everything,” says Creighton Athletic Director Bruce Rasmussen. “He’s been humble, he’s been very mature, he’s been enthusiastic. He didn’t expect to be treated any differently than any of the non-scholarship players.”

Despite attaining the kind of stardom reserved for only a select few of the game’s greats, Rasmussen says “it didn’t change” McDermott. “It never affected him. You never had to worry about how he represented himself, this program, the university, the community. He would be the poster child for any university, not just any athletics department but any university for how you want your students represented. He’s the winner of the national Senior Class Award, which doesn’t just look at your athletic accomplishments but your community service and academics.”

Teammate Grant Gibbs says, “He’s a throwback in many aspects – in his game, in his personality, being a four-year player, committing to a program, seeing through the goals he set out to accomplish when he got here. That’s a great model for college basketball. It’s refreshing.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

McDermott shrugs if off, saying he’s simply tried to do the right thing. It hasn’t always been easy.

“I’ve just tried to embrace every single moment. I’ve tried not to let it get to me but I’ve had some bad days where I didn’t want to sign autographs or take pictures. But at the same time I remembered being that kid who went up to certain guys for signatures and pictures and if they weren’t cool about it it stuck with me. You get frustrated with the attention, especially if you take a loss. There’s been times when I’ve had to take a step back and calm down and realize how special this really is and this is why I came back – for stuff like this.”

Rasmussen says McDermott will be remembered as much for his high character as for his high scoring numbers.

Greg McDermott, who coached his son all four years at CU, agrees, saying, “I’m far more proud of how he handled his success off the floor than of the success he’s had on the floor because those characteristics of understanding how to treat people and the need to be humble and to credit those around you for your success are traits that will take him a long ways in life. Doug’s blessed with the ability to do that and he’s done it with a smile on his face. He understands this university and community has given a lot to him. A lot of people have done many things so he could have this opportunity and I think he recognizes the need to give back to that and I’m very proud of the way he’s done that.

“I will use him as an example for the rest of my coaching career on how to handle success.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once “discovered” last season. the press found McDermott a bright antidote to the one-and-done trend prevalent today. He’s the rare star player who put off the NBA to complete college, a decision that proved fortuitous the way his storybook final campaign unfolded.

After the 2012-2013 season he says he was 75 percent certain he’d declare for the NBA until a talk with former Jays great Kyle Korver, changed his mind. “He said you can’t put a price tag on that senior year. That stuck with me and from there on I felt it was best to come back. I’m so glad I did because this last year was probably the best this city has ever seen Creighton basketball. The fans had a chance to be part of something really special. We’ve got the new logo, the new brand. I feel like so many more people know about us now. The Big East definitely helped.”

He’s satisfied, too, he struck a blow for players finishing college.

‘Obviously some of these kids are good enough to leave after one year or two years. Maybe they need it financially. But I just feel it’s really good for college basketball to see a good player for four years. It really doesn’t get much better than that. I feel like that’s when college basketball has been at its best.”

In his case, staying meant intersecting with basketball history. The attention that came his way dwarfed anything in the annals of CU athletics and achieved the Gold Standard when Sports Illustrated put him on the cover of its March 12 issue in a homage to the classic 1977 cover featuring McDermott’s boyhood idol Larry Bird.

Calling McDermott “college basketball’s best kept secret”, SI laid out how no one, not even his dad, expected him to be an elite college player, much less the most decorated in recent memory. As one of only a handful of three-time consensus 1st Team All Americans he put up numbers few have ever posted. His 3,150 career points are the fifth-most in NCAA history. Over four years he averaged 21.7 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, making just under 46 percent of his 3-point tries and 83 percent of his free throws.

 

 

 

 

 

Being a multiple All-American may not happen again with so many top players leaving college early for the pros. He may be the last four-year college great. What most resonated with him about coming back was having one more go-round with his buddies, the guys who set the table for him, especially his fellow seniors, and with his father.

“Relationships are everything, especially on this team,” Doug says. “We all get along so well. Grant Gibbs I’ve known since I was a kid. He was an iowa guy two years older than me. I always looked up to him. I thought he was the coolest thing ever.”

Gibbs’ unexpected return for a medical hardship 6th year saw McDermott give up his scholarship for his teamate.

Another teammate, Jahenns Manigat, hailed from north of the border.

“I remember on signing day talking on the phone with Jahenns, a Canadian kid no one had ever heard of, and him saying, ‘I look forward to winning multiple championships with you.’”

The pair roomed together on campus for three years.

McDermott’s other senior running mate, Ethan Wragge was already at CU when Doug got there. The two competed for the same spot.

“He obviously didn’t want to see a coach’s kid come in at the same position but he never showed one ounce of frustration because of that. He’s probably the best teammate I’ve ever had.”

Wragge recalls the first time the two matched up.

“I’m a year older and I’m like, ‘I’m not going to let this little freshman score on me,’ and he starts throwing up this stuff and he hits the rim, hits the rim and the ball keeps going in. ‘Maybe he’s just getting lucky,’ I thought.’ But he kept doing it and doing it until it didn’t seem like luck.”

Manigat marvels how four distinct paths crossed to make their magical run possible.

“Four years ago this group wasn’t necessarily meant to be together. All the stars kind of aligned for us to go on this incredible journey. I was committed to another school before de-committing and coming here. Doug was supposed to go to Northern Iowa, Grant was still at Gonzaga and Ethan was a freshman here under Coach (Dana) Altman. Coach Altman leaves – domino effect. Just to see how it all came together and how one little thing could have destroyed this entire journey we’ve been on is special and something I’ll remember fondly for sure.”

McDermott enjoyed the journey so much he wanted to extend it and do it in the big-time glare of the Big East

“I wanted to do it all for Creighton. I think a goal of any player and coach is to want to make the place better than when we first got there and I think that’s what we did.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No one saw it coming. In 2010 all the meta analysis missed on McDermott. At Ames (iowa) High School he played in the long shadow of top recruit Harrison Barnes, who went on to play two years at North Carolina before heading to the NBA. Those Ames teams won back-to-back state titles with McDermott as the 6th man his junior season and as the high scoring sidekick his senior season.

“Having very little expectations, I didn’t see this coming,” McDermott says. “I didn’t come into college with a lot of hype or expectations. I just kind of came in with a chip on my shoulder. No one really knew who I was and just assumed I was on the team because I was the coach’s kid. I used that as motivation to get better”

It wasn’t as if no one recognized he had talent. He possessed good range on his jumper, an uncanny craftiness around the basket and a motor that kept him in constant motion But a rail thin frame, a lack of athleticism and the absence of any intermediate game did not project into being a major conference prospect. No one could have guessed he’d be a lock for future enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame or a likely NBA lottery pick.

Grant Gibbs recalls McDermott not making much of an impression.

“Doug and I played together at a showcase event. I was a junior, he was a freshman. He was just a quiet kid, really skinny, had some skill but probably wasn’t even projected as a D-I player at that point. When I was at Gonzaga he came to our prospects camp. We spent a weekend and he had gotten a lot better. He still wasn’t at the point where Gonzaga or anybody like that was going to offer him a scholarship.”

McDermott’s emergence as a legit D-! player and then some is all tied to his development, which everyone credits to a fierce work ethic. Gibbs witnessed it but didn’t fully appreciate it in the moment.

“When you’re engulfed in it and you’re a part of it every day you take for granted everything he was able to accomplish. Day in and day out he came with that workmanship mentality and all those days added up and that’s how people become great at wherever they do.”

Greg McDermott says of his son. “He’s invested a lot in this game and the results speak for themselves.”

“It’s so satisfying,” says Doug. “I remember all those long walks from my dorm to the gym. If I couldn’t sleep I’d throw on my backpack and walk to the gym at 11 or 12. It was always a pain in the butt to get in and find balls to shoot with and having the lights shut off on you. It just puts it all in perspective – all those moments of going through the grind. I wish I could go back right now because I didn’t realize how cool it was trying to get better every single night.”

His work ethic first kicked into high gear when he played with Harrison Barnes, whom he describes as “the best worker I’ve ever been around,” adding, “Ever since playing with him it was so easy to go to the gym and get better because I saw how much it was paying off for him, so I really followed his lead once I got to Creighton.”

Rasmussen says McDermott’s a model for doing what it takes.

“There’s been a lot written about what he’s accomplished. I don’t know if there’s been enough written about why Doug has accomplished things virtually no college basketball player has. Doug was always willing to do what others were unwilling to do and he did it with enthusiasm. He’s a great example for all of us. Doug approached practice every day not with the attitude, I’ll get through practice, but I’ll use practice to find out what I need to work on to improve and then go on my own and work on it. Practice was a minimum job description.

“It wasn’t just he gave a great effort the day before big games or gave a great effort every day, he gave a great effort every drill and he was locked in and focused to get better where he was weak. You would think in athletics you would see more of that and the reality is Doug is unique in his accomplishments because he’s unique in his approach.”

Doug says, “I knew I had the drive, I really did. I’m always trying to work on my all-around game but each summer I definitely added something new I wasn’t able to do the year before. It took about a whole summer to perfect those, to have the coaches feel comfortable with me doing that stuff. A lot of credit goes to our coaching staff because they worked with me so hard every day.”

He’s perhaps fondest of his “Dirk Fadeaway,” a step back jumper, ala Dirk Nowitzki’s, refined over time.

“That’s become a pretty much signature move of mine. I did it a little bit my sophomore and junior years but this year it was almost one of my go-tos. Some of these Big East guys were a little bigger so you couldn’t really body ‘em down in the post. I had to find other ways to get my shot off against them.”

His progress grew as his confidence grew.

“I realized how good a scorer I could become on the Bahamas trip we took as a team before my sophomore year. Gregory (former CU post Echenique) wasn’t with us, he was playing with his Venezuelan team, and I scored 25 a game. That’s when I started to realize I could do this with this team. That they might need me to be a little more aggressive. And that sophomore year I averaged 22 (up from 15 as a frosh) and from there I averaged about 23 and this year 26.

His experiences with Team USA over two summers also helped him polish skills and build confidence. Last summer in Vegas he was among a select group of college kids invited to play with NBAers.

“It helped my confidence out like none other just because I played against some of the best players in the world. It felt right. I wasn’t trying to do too much or too little, I was just playing my game and I happened to fit in a lot more than I thought I would. I think I kind of turned some eyes there. That was huge coming into my senior year.”

“I just think that took him to a whole other level,” says his dad. “I think in the back of his mind he always wondered, How well will I stack up when I actually play against NBA players.”

Those opportunities also exposed Doug to more great coaching. “Being around those great minds really helps you going forward,” says McDermott, who acknowledges he draws insights from many sources.

Doug’s not one to define is legacy, so let Rasmussen articulate it.

“It’s his passion for what he does, There are people who are stronger, who are bigger, who jump higher, who run faster, but his intelligence in the game and his basketball instincts are off the charts. His skill level is very good and that isn’t something that comes naturally, that comes from repetition.”

As Doug prepares for the next chapter of his life, his father’s sure his son will once again do what he must in order to succeed.

“I think there will be a process with Doug in the NBA game of where do I fit and what do I have to add to my game so I can maximize this opportunity. Is it being better around the rim? Is it my in-between game? Do I need to become an even better 3-point shooter? He’ll figure that out early in his career and build upon what he already has.”

Doug has no doubt he’ll adapt as necessary.

“I’ve added something new to my game every year. I think it’s time to add something new again. Defensively I can maybe be a little more aggressive. I don’t have to worry about getting fouls because at Creighton I had to be on the floor as much as possible for my team. My ball-handling could use some work. A lot of it will be just fitting into a different role.”

Whatever happens with him in the NBA, his deep affection for Creighton will remain.

“Deep down I never want to leave this place. I’ve developed so much love for this place.”

But move on he must, so sit back and watch the legend grow.

 

 

 

UNO resident folk hero Dana Elsasser’s softball run coming to an end: Hard-throwing pitcher to leave legacy of overcoming obstacles

April 28, 2014 Leave a comment

No sooner did my profile of University of Nebraska at Omaha softball ace Dana Elsasser get posted and published than she went out and threw three straight shutouts, including a no-hitter, and she’ll go for a fourth in her final home appearance on Wednesday, April 30. Her great run as a collegiate pitcher is fast coming to an end and one has to wonder what might have been if UNO has remained Division II instead of transitioning to Division I during her career.  To what heights might she had lead the Mavericks?  The transition cost her and her teammates any chance to play in the postseason.  The move also made it difficult for UNO to schedule a full slate of regular season games.  All of that meant she made many fewer appearances than she would have otherwise.  On top of that, upon entering the program she largely had to sit her freshman year behind two returning All-America pitchers.  That cost her even more chances.  If she’d had those added opportunities her career stats, which are outstanding as is, would be even more impressive.  But that’s all beside the point because what makes her folk hero in my mind is how she seemingly came out of nowhere to become the face of a storied program and how she made herself into a great player despire all kinds of challenges that’s she never looked at as obstacles.

 

 

 

UNO resident folk hero Dana Elsasser’s softball run coming to an end

Hard-throwing pitcher to leave legacy of overcoming obstacles

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

The University of Nebraska at Omaha has a veritable folk-hero in its midst in hard-throwing senior softball ace Dana Elsasser, who’s overcame serious challenges to become a pitching phenom. With her near legendary career fast nearing its end, fans have only a few chances left to catch her in action.

In her No. 1 pitcher role she’ill get the ball at least twice in this weekend’s (April 25-26) three-game home series against Summit League foe IUPUI. She enters the circle for the final time at home versus Drake on April 30. UNO, with an RPI in the 60s, concludes its season May 2-3 at Western Illinois. The team’s guaranteed to finish with a winning record and Elsasser should climb UNO’s career pitching charts.

Entering Tuesday’s doubleheader versus North Dakota she was 21-7 on the year and 65-24 in her career with a lifetime ERA of 1.44.

Though soon exhausting her eligibility, her legend’s sure to grow as a foundational figure in UNO’s transition from Division II to D-I.

Her departure’s coming too soon for head coach Jeanne Scarpello. She’s been enamored with Elsasser’s ability and character since first laying eyes on her in 2010.

“From day one you could tell she’s a different kid – just the drive and what she wanted to do and what she wanted to be. She’s never going to back down from a challenge. She gives 100 percent and expects the rest of us to do the same. She pushes us to be better.”

Scarpello’s admiration only grew upon learning the obstacles Elsasser faced en route to becoming a winner.

“She does have quite a story,” the coach says.

Born “a premie” in San Antonio, Texas to a teenage mother, Dana started life in foster care. After raising kids of their own Rick and Barb Elsasser of Hershey, Neb. were looking to adopt and the white couple got matched with Dana, an African-American, when she was a week old. She became the only black resident of Hershey until the Elsassers adopted more children of color.

Dana was an athletic prodigy, proving a natural at seemingly whatever she tried, including softball, basketball, volleyball and track.

“Dana’s balance, hand-eye coordination and kinesthetic sense have always been exceptional,” says her father, a principal and coach who worked with her on her fundamentals. especially her pitching mechanics. “Every time she was shown a new skill she would master it quickly. She has always hated to lose but she used to become discouraged easily when her team was behind and that affected her play. Experience in athletics has given her the tenacity to fight through disappointment. Her UNO coaches deserve a great deal of credit for instilling a fierce competitive spirit.”

 

 

 

 

Just as she was turning heads athletically as a teen she developed scoliosis, a severe curvature of the spine. She underwent fusion surgery at the Mayo Clinic. Pieces of her hip bone were fused to her spine with “rods, nuts and bolts to keep everything intact,” Dana says.

“The scoliosis thing was scary. Dana faced it all with great courage and determination,” Rick says.

Once cleared to resume athletics she and her dad left the hospital and drove around until they found a ball diamond and began playing catch.

“I was a little scared I wouldn’t be able to pitch again but I recovered relatively quickly from the back thing and it just gave me fuel to get stronger because I had to work two times as hard to get where other people were. I just did as much as I could. I ran a lot, I did sprints. I was in the weight room. I got really strong. I think strengthening my body is what helped me be prepared for college,” says Dana, who’s known to workout on game days and on off days following games.

“I feel I need to do to get in the mood of It’s go time. Otherwise, I feel tired and sluggish and just not ready to go.”

After opting to specialize in softball her pitching took off under her dad’s tutelage. Her high school didn’t field a team, She made a name for herself out west playing summers with the North Platte Sensations.

Typical of the upbeat Elsasser, she takes in stride everything that’s been put in front of her.

“Honestly, when I was growing up I really didn’t see much of the adversity I overcame as a disadvantage. I haven’t thought of it as things that set me back. When I tell people my story they’re like, ‘Wasn’t it weird being the only black person in town?’ I never thought of it like that. My parents did a really good job of just making things normal for me.”

Rick Elsasser says Dana has an innate sbility to adapt and persevere.

“Dana has always had tremendous resolve. I remember when she was about 5 or 6 years old, I spent about 15 minutes showing her how to shoot a basketball and then left her to practice. I went back outside about two hours later and found her still shooting. I had to make her stop and eat.”

Scarpello long ago gave up trying to get Elsasser to ease off. The coach still smiles at nearly missing on this model student-athlete who outworks everyone. After all, Dana was a-best-kept secret in the sticks, where her exploits four-hours away fell on deaf ears here.

Scarpello first heard of her via a letter Dana wrote her while a senior in high school. Dana mentioned she was (then) 5-foot-4 and threw 65. Scarpello didn’t buy it. She’d never heard of someone so short throwing so hard. It took corroboration from two coaches before she decided to see this little dynamo for herself.

Scarpello and pitching coach Cory Petermann drove to Hastings expecting to see Elsasser pitch in a game only to have it forfeited when the opposing club didn’t show. The coaches had Dana warm up with her father for a private audition. Rick had caught his daughter countless times in the yard of their home sitting on a bucket as she threw from a make-do mound. This was different. The stakes were higher, though that didn’t register with Dana until reminded of it.

“I was really nervous but actually I don’t think I even realized how important it was when they were watching me – that if I do good I’m going to have college paid for,” Dana says. “When I started out I wasn’t throwing my hardest. My dad told me, ‘Get it together, this is your time right here to do it.” Then I knew it was a big deal.’”

With a radar gun trained on her she consistently clocked 65 and Scarpello had seen enough to be convinced.

Rising to the occasion is something Scarpello and Co. have come to rely on from Elsasser, who acknowledges she thrives in such situations.

“I like it when I’m in pressure spots and everyone is looking to me. I just like how my team puts their trust in me and it just motivates me to do better. I like being in charge in that moment.”

 

 

 

 

Five years since discovering her, Elsasser will leave UNO as one of the storied program’s best pitchers. She’s proven herself against elite competition despite being lightly recruited and not looking the part of a mound master with her lithe frame and diminutive stature. Her long limbs, strong core and compact delivery allow her to average 68 miles an hour on her “go-to” pitch, the drop-ball. She’s hit 70. Her effortless appearing motion, honed over thousands of hours, makes it appear she’s not throwing as hard as she is.

Armed with her heater, a change-up and a rise-ball, plus pin-point control, she has enough stuff to hold her own with the best.

“She is a go-right-at-you kind of kid. She’s not a strikeout pitcher, though she’s getting a lot more strike outs this year, but she really just lets batters put the ball in play and lets the defense work behind her,” Scarpello says. “And she’s a great defender as a pitcher.”

Last year Elsasser one-hit perennial Big 12 power Oklahoma State iand three weeks ago she beat Big 10 heavyweight and in-state rival Nebraska 3-2 in Lincoln. She calls the victory over NU “the greatest moment I’ve ever had.” The win followed UNO coming up short against the Huskers several times and redeemed a 10-0 drubbing at their hands earlier this year that Elsasser blamed on herself.

“I means everything to me. I got that win for my dad. That was our goal when I made my commitment to UNO – beat the Huskers. I told myself I’m not going to let them make a fool of me on the mound again.”

Per usual, her folks were there to cheer her on and as always she heard her dad’s voice above everyone else.

“I could him during that game yelling at me from the stands. I looked up there and I saw him jumping around. It was really emotional.”

Scarpello says Elsasser has shown she “can play with the big dogs,” adding, “She could be playing at any of those programs.”

Elsasser says she and her teammates are often underestimated and use their underdog status as fuel to prove they belong.

“We always hear, ‘Who’s this Omaha team that keeps winning? Who are these people?’ But we know we’re capable of getting it done.”

Overturning doubters seems hard-wired in Elsasser.

She would have been UNO’s ace as a true freshman if not for two returning All-America pitchers. She made the most of her limited opportunities, going 10-1. Her pitching mates got most of the starts based on experience, not talent. She also struggled with illegal pitches due to a habit of lifting her foot off the mound during her delivery. She corrected the problem over the summer and prior to the following season Scarpello handed her “the torch to carry the program.” Elsasser ran with it to become “our identity” but she first had to make a tough decision. UNO went D-I, initiating a transition period that made it ineligible for the postseason. Scarpello gave her players permission to transfer and she feared Elsasser might move on.

“She knew she would not to get to play for championships and that’s what she came here to do,” Scarpello says, “and I knew that bothered her because she wanted to make a mark. We’ve tried in various ways to give her some great opportunities, to challenge her, so she could make her mark and have no regrets she stayed here. Those games against top teams have become a measuring stick for her and for us.”

Elsasser’s sure of her legacy as a program builder but she can’t imagine life without softball.

“What I’m going to miss the most is the relationships and being in the circle. The field feels like home to me. If I come to practice in a bad mood I always leave in a good mood. These girls are my best friends, we do everything together. We’re just like a big family. It’s kind of unsettling to know I won’t have that type of bond and closeness I’ve been used to every day for four years.”

Everyone says she’d make a great coach. “She’s a real student of the game,” says Scarpello, adding, “I’d hire her in a heartbeat.”

“Coaching could be my career,” says Elsasser. She”ll be coaching a younger sister this summer who’s showing great promise as, you guessed it, a pitcher. Clearly, this legacy has legs.

Expect Plenty of Booms at Louder Than a Bomb Youth Poetry Festival Finals; Friendly Tournament Makes Expressing Deepest Feelings Safe

April 17, 2014 Leave a comment

Boom!   That’s the sound of another slam poem being thrown down.  If you haven’t seen a youth slam poetry bout before than do yourself a favor and check it out.  No better time to start then at tonight’s (April 17) team finals of the Louder Than a Bomb Great Plains Youth Poetry Festival at the Holland Performing Arts Center.  What follows is my Reader story on the festival and the culture surrounding it.

 

 

Expect Plenty of Booms at Louder Than a Bomb Youth Poetry Festival Finals

Friendly Tournament Makes Expressing Deepest Feelings Safe

BY LEO ADAM BIGA

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the hybrid realm of slam poetry, where free verse, theater, oral storytelling and forensics converge to make a verbal gumbo, personal expression rules.

Impassioned teen anguish stirs the pot to create a heady brew during the Louder Than a Bomb (LTAB) Great Plains Youth Poetry Festival. After weeks of competition, the team finals throw down April 17 at 7 p.m. at the Holland Performing Arts Center.

Teams competing in the finals are: Millard South, Lincoln North Star, defending champion Lincoln High and Waverly.

Individual finals take place April 26 in Lincoln.

The events are free but donations are accepted.

On the heels of nurturing the local adult slam poetry community and inspired by LTAB Chicago, the Nebraska Writers Collective (NWC) launched its youth festival in 2012. In that short span the fest’s found a niche at area schools, growing from 12 to 19 to 32 participating teams.

NWC director Matt Mason, who’s led Neb.’s team at the National Poetry Slam, says as more schools have gotten involved from urban and rural locations the work’s broadened.

“You have so many different people and voices and experiences. There is such a diversity of subject matter. You go to a bout and you see four high schools putting up teams, all with different experiences. Some have certain styles, some are kind of all over the place.

“You get poems talking about things in the news today as well as poems about dating, spurned love, successful love, conflicts, being bullied, racism, sexism. You get the universal themes brought in and wrapped up in very personal stories.”

Omaha Central High English teacher Deron Larson, who sponsors the Eagles’ LTAB team, says the work isn’t just about releasing angst or speaking to hard things.

A couple members on our team have gone out of their way to make people laugh,” he says. “At a recent bout one poet waxed poetic about her collection of socks. There’s a full gamut of things they write about.”

Diversity also shows up in the teams’ composition, where gays and straights, jocks and geeks, are respresented.

“It’s fantastic to see how these teams of very different students come together” to collaborate and communicate, Mason says.

Paid teaching artists hired by the Collective serve as coaches. Sponsoring classroom teachers recruit and facilitate and in some cases co-coach.

World champion adult slammer Chris August from Baltimore, Md. is NWC’s first resident teaching artist. He’s come to appreciate what makes the area poetry scene so vital and LTAB a hit here.

“The Omaha and Lincoln scenes have always been open and embracing and are among the places that put the most energy into fostering their youth poetry scenes. When I think about what an art form like slam poetry can bring to young people, the word I immediately think of is ‘permission.’ Twenty years ago I was a weird, artsy teenage boy in a rural high school with virtually no diversity. Back then, the idea of a safe and empowering outlet for voices of any kind speaking on any truth at all would have seemed impossible.”

Mason says, “I think this is a great outlet for anybody, especially for teenagers, to process what they’re going through and to give voice to it. They’re permitted to have a venue to get this across rather than just bottling it up and dealing with it.

“It’s about teaching these folks to write and to get this performance experience and to be comfortable in front of people and to vocalize what they’re feeling.”

Everyone associated with LTAB hails the supportive environment at practices and bouts. At the “friendly tournament” poets celebrate other poets, even those on opposing teams. The safe space created by LTAB is particularly important because students often expose their most intimate, vulnerable selves in the work.

Mason says the slam form lets students articulate personal issues weighing on them, including gender and sexual identity issues.

“It is maybe this more than any other element that allows slam poetry to so lovingly respond to a need so present among so many young people,” says August.

NWC education director Andrew Ek says the Collective has done “a lot of deliberate work making sure our students feel like their stories, ideas and experiences are being honored,” adding. “A lot of that involves letting them read and not getting in the way of that process.”

“It’s a very positive space,” says Bellevue West 10th grader Ari Di Bernardo, a first-year participant. “No one feels like an outcast because that’s not what LTAB is about. It’s about connecting through this very beautiful thing we do. For me it’s the feeling of belonging. Like I finally have a safe place to just open up and give up all the feelings I’d been harboring. I can be honest. I’m not afraid to say what I need to now.”

“It’s uplifting to have everybody there have your back,” says Council Bluffs Abraham Lincoln senior Francisco Franco. “The feeling is just warmth and good vibes. It is a competition but everybody’s there to support you, nobody’s there to put you down. Of course, there’s scores but it’s your words, your poems, so you can listen to the scores or believe in yourself. I choose to go up there and to have as much fun as I can.”

“It’s good to be in a competitive environment where everybody roots for everybody instead of against everybody,” says Franco’s teammate, Chanel Zarate.

Matt Mason says it’s not just the high energy, communal love-in that gives LTAB a following but the work itself.

“Yeah, people are yelling and cheering for poets, but the poems are also interesting, funny, beautifully put together. It exceeds your expectations of teen poetry. These kids are smart, creative. It would not surprise me if a lot of these poems get published in magazines or eventually books.”

Central High teacher Deron Larson is impressed by how much work his students put into making poems as powerful as they can be, doing draft after draft, all under the guidance of teaching artist Greg Harries.

“They become invested in words in a way I don’t get to observe every day in the classroom. They make a commitment that goes beyond doing homework a teacher assigns. They make their own homework and just conquer it and take it 10 steps beyond where they thought they were going to go.

“The mentoring poets that duck into my classroom and share their love for words really touch the students in a way I can’t do. As much as I love words there’s a process over the course of the year where they get tired of hearing the same thing I have to say. If a 20something comes in they’re much closer to my students’ experience. The message carries differently and then the students just run with it.”

Larson’s pleased slam poetry has found a footing in schools but he’s not sure it would benefit from being a formal academic program.

“If we put it into a curriculum it almost feels like we might change it an elemental way. As an after school club and extra that definitely deserves our support it feels like it might work better. If we try to write it into lessons I think there’s a possibility we might kill something that’s so vibrant right now.”

NWC artists also work with youth at a Lincoln juvenile detention center. Audio recordings of these youths’ poems will play at the finals to allow “their voices to be heard,” Mason says.

For festival details, visit ltabomaha.org.

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

April 2, 2014 1 comment

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

 

 

Cover Photo

New Horizons Newspaper

 

 

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I appreciated that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That was very memorable.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kelly values many Omaha attributes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Mike Kelly

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Back in the day before computers

 

 

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

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

Kelly timidly accepted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did the experience of writing about it impact him?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His devoted readers would surely miss him, too.

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

 

 

 

Drive-By Delight: House forever tied to Alexander Payne’s ‘About Schmidt’ is just home to its residents


Alexander Payne’s cinematic imprint on his hometown and homestate is by now well documented.  With four of his six features made here he’s covered a wide swath of the city and the state.  When a few months ago I got the assignment to do a piece about the family that resides in a house that posed as the home to Jack Nicholson’s character of Warren Schmidt in the Payne film About Schmidt I have to admit I didn’t entirely understand the point, especially in a year dominated by the buzz around the writer-director’s latest film, Nebraska.  But then I got to thinking how Payne’s films have created these artifacts of where he’s filmed, many of which are actual locations that people do business in and live in and interact with every day.  Thus, the following story for Omaha Magazine about the family that lives in the Schmidt house.

 

 

 

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The About Schmidt house

 

Drive-By Delight
House forever tied to Alexander Payne’s ‘About Schmidt’ is just home to its residents

©by Leo Adam Biga
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

 

Alexander Payne’s new Oscar-nominated film Nebraska is stirring the pot in his home state the way his last film made here, About Schmidt, did in 2002.

That earlier project’s superstar lead, Jack Nicholson, naturally dominated media coverage. Nicholson’s character, the dour Warren Schmidt, lived in the Dundee home at 5402 Izard St. Bess Ogborn owned the house during filming, but the Jill and Mike Bydalek family moved into the home in mid-2003.

“Even years after the movie people would drive by really slow,” says Jill. “Tour buses would pull up. There were people getting out and taking pictures.”

“Every time Payne has a successful movie there’ll be people that show an interest in the house,” says Mike, who practices technology law for Kutak Rock. “The guy has a following. Random people visiting Omaha will, on their way to the airport, detour and drive by.”

The couple, whose children Grace and Jack grew up there, fully expects the same to happen should Nebraska fare well come Oscar time.

“And it’s not just here, it’s a half dozen other places around town,” Mike says, referring to the favorite Midtown spots the filmmaker made part of his Omaha trilogy (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt).

In a city with few degrees of separation, the Bydaleks claim a connection to another Omaha Payne house. Grace attended a nearby home daycare that served as the residence of the family friend Matthew Broderick’s character hits on in Election.

But because it’s so closely associated with Nicholson’s potent cinema legacy, few other Omaha movie locations have the iconic pull as does the Izard Street house. To capitalize on this intrigue the Omaha YWCA (now the Women’s Center for Advancement) held a Home for the Holidays fundraiser at the three-story, red brick Colonial constructed in 1923.

A largely untouched interior made it the right fit when the filmmaker, location manager John Latenser V, and production designer Jane Stewart scouted it.”We’d searched for the ‘Schmidt House’ for quite some time,” says Latenser, who comes from a long line of architects that designed enduring Omaha public structures. “We knew we wanted Warren Schmidt to live in the Dundee neighborhood. We had scouted nearly 50 houses there, but nearly every one had updated-upgraded interiors. We were looking for a house that had not been updated.”

He says as soon as the team entered the home and saw its vintage wallpaper and original kitchen they knew they’d found the one.

“It was that perfect.”

 

 

 

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Jill and Mike Bydalek

 

 

Bess Ogborn’s daughter, Susan Ogborn, president and CEO of the Food Bank of the Heartland, was there for much of the shoot. She says her family “thoroughly enjoyed the experience” of their house becoming a movie artifact. Her folks moved there in 1964. After the death of her father in 1967, her widowed mother hung onto the place.

“Mother redecorated it in 1971, and other than basic maintenance, that was the way the filmmakers found it. But she would want you to know they moved her furniture out and used set furniture, and that her house was never that dirty or gloomy as it was in the movie. I don’t think she regretted letting them use her home at all. Seeing the house in the film didn’t seem strange, but walking through that set was very odd.”

The Bydaleks removed the wallpaper, redid the kitchen, and made many more renovations while retaining the five-bedroom home’s original integrity.

“It’s a great house,” says Mike. “It’s just as simple as can be, and that’s kind of nice.”

“They don’t make these houses anymore,” says Julie.

The Bydaleks know it will always link them to a slice of pop culture.

“It’s kind of fun to say we live in the About Schmidt house,” says Mike.

As things worked out, the Bydaleks’ daughter, Grace, 18, became the family’s own resident movie star. Acting on stage since childhood, she’s done voice-over work for animated television series, and she portrayed the title role in the Omaha-made film For Love of Amy (2009). During a Carnegie Mellon (Pittsburgh) theater camp, she says she used the Schmidt tie “as my fun fact during my dorm floor ice-breaker,” adding, “People were impressed a girl from Omaha would have a connection with the movies.”

As for Jack, 15, he says “it’s cool as a movie buff to live in a house made famous” by a popular film and its legendary star.

 

 

Happiness is as Happiness Does – ICAN Women’s Leadership Conference gets Busy framing Happiness and how to apply it to Business


If getting your happiness on is a priority, there’s no shortage of strategies and disciplines for finding it in self-help books, videos, CDs and the like.  My story here for Omaha’s Metro Magazine focuses on a women’s conference devoted to the theme of happiness – what is it, how to achieve it and sustain it and the difference it can make in people’s work lives and in the bottomlines of organizations and businesses.

 

 

 

 

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Happiness is as Happiness Does – ICAN Women’s Leadership Conference gets Busy framing Happiness and how to apply it to Business

©BY LEO ADAM BIGA

Now appearing in Omaha’s Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)

 

Happy is as happy does.

As organizations get ever leaner-meaner trying to maximize profits, happiness may seem a strange value to cultivate. But experts like Shawn Achor, whose consulting firm Good Think Inc. applies positive psychology findings to help clients achieve happier, more effective work experiences, say their research shows the happy quotient is a lead indicator of business performance and employee satisfaction.

Happiness may just be the antidote for the lagging productivity and job dissatisfaction plaguing America. Lack of happiness may explain why so many workers rely on controlled substances to relieve stress, enhance mood and boost energy. Philosophers and artists have waxed about happiness as a desired state of being for centuries in treatises, songs, poems. It’s even written into the U.S. Declaration of Independence as an unalienable right to be pursued.

Achor’s study of belief systems and attitudes has led him to develop a kind of happiness index that equates its attainment with realizing human potential. His easily digestible analysis has made him a best selling author and popular TED presenter. His “The Happiness Advantage” lecture, which airs on PBS, is much in demand.

He’s hardly alone today in framing happiness. Books, films, seminars and classes try unlocking its metrics. This hunger for bliss is part of a growing self-reflective movement that finds many folks, including business professionals, taking stock of what really matters and putting into practice habits that promote happiness as a pathway to success.

All this interests Mary Prefontaine, whose journey for enlightenment and fulfillment aligns with her work as president and CEO of the Institute for Career Advancement Needs (ICAN). Her Omaha-based nonprofit is all about “inspiring leaders and transforming organizations,” so she pays attention to what’s affecting businesses. Noting that studies of happiness were trending up, she and her team made Happiness, Bending the Bottom Line, the theme of this year’s ICAN Women’s Leadership Conference.

“We plan the conference around what seems to be relevant in our work, in business, in people’s hearts and there’s a social conversation going on about happiness and what it means,” she says. “The work of ICAN is built around that holistic model of self-examination of body, mind, spirit, emotions. So what if we are accountable to all of that and the choices we make?. Does that make us more happy? And how do we define that? How do we distill our lives to get clear enough to understand what it means to me to be happy at the most fundamental level?. How do I shed my attachments to things in order to get there?

“Some research shows that people who are givers are happier.”

The April 9 all-day event at the CenturyLink Center is presenting panels and speakers to synthesize the latest thinking on happiness and to perhaps answer questions about this ephemeral, elusive thing.

Getting happy
In setting the conference agenda Prefontaine says she and her team asked, “Is happiness a glib thing or a real thing? Is this just a made-up human condition that isn’t even actually plausible? What does it really mean and how do we actually know we have it?”

The consensus holds happiness is not something that happens to us, rather it’s something we manifest as an intention or choice or attitude that informs how we apprehend the world and act in it.

“Looking at happiness as a choice rather than just happenstance intrigued us. We really began to look at it from the perspective of self first and then the impact it might have in everything around you. We’re interested in this idea of raising human consciousness. That’s what the work of ICAN is all about. At the conference we’re examining this idea that happiness is a choice.

“One of the great points of intersection to decide on this theme was looking at Shawn Achor’s meta analysis of happiness as it relates to the workplace, and the life of a business and the human talent associated with that business., That took us into how does having happy employees with a sense of well-being affect productivity, innovation, teamwork and the bottom-line. Well, the research shows it has a huge impact in a positive way.”

It seems happiness has little to do with the things in our lives.

“What’s interesting and what I’m most excited about is that in most instances research says those who have encountered the most adversity in their lives are also some of the happiest individuals.”

She’s seen this phenomenon on trips to Kenya, Tanzania, Singapore, Thailand and China.

“I see a lot of happy people with nothing. We have much to learn from them. In Buddhism you’re actually invited to stand in a place of suffering, without attachments, and come to peace with what really is. But we’re not living in a society that thinks that’s a good idea,. We place no value on that. Some research states if you have certain things in place you’re more likely to be happy. Here in the West many of us have stable shelter, food, employment. In other parts of the world that would make many people happy. Yet in this nation of plenty we’re increasingly dependent on pharmaceuticals to treat depression.”

Spreading happiness
Prefontaine says the conference is a vehicle for holding a forum about happiness and its ability to bend the bottom line. She’s excited by the prospect of 2,100 expected attendees who can potentially make their work environments more attuned to individual and collective well-being.

“The research is saying happy employees are more engaged and productive and therefore more effective and innovative and that happiness really can bend the bottom-line in an upward trajectory. In that case, how do you as an employee affect it and as an employer what’s your accountability? How accountable and aware are companies to this idea? I think it’s about a company being aware that health – good diet, exercise and sleep – makes for a much healthier, happier life and a more satisfied, productive employee.”

She says some mavericks are taking the lead.

“Certain business leaders today are paying attention to the well-being, happiness and engagement level of their employees, so much so they are encouraging nurturing practices that allow for rest, mindful meditation, sleep and wellness at the core of every part of being, knowing that will help employees deliver more to the company.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breakout sessions will feature speakers exploring specific themes:

Achor – “The Happiness Advantage at Home and Work”
Stacey Flower – “Maximizing Opportunities: One Person, One Moment”
Amy Dorn Kopelan – “Your Life is Always an Interview”
Jo Miller – “Take Charge of Your Career Trajectory”
Ishita Gupta – “Get the Confidence to Be Yourself”

ICAN faculty will conduct a “Live Your Voice: Values-Based Leadership” session and Omaha Yoga Path founder Mark Watson will lead a session on “Mindfulness and Meditation, Simple Ways to Manage Your Stress.”

In addition to Achor, two other keynoters will share their spin on becoming empowered in uncertain times: CBS news personality Norah O’Donnell and global economist Sherry Cooper.

A panel will discuss the STEM gap that finds more women in the workplace than ever before but females lagging far behind males in science, technology, engineering and math studies and careers.

Whatever your path to bliss and success, Prefontaine says the conference has it covered. Setting the tone the day before is a special public screening of the documentary Happy, which explores notions of happiness around the world. It shows at 6:30 p.m. on April 8 in the CenturyLink Grand Ballroom. Admission to the film is $9 and all screening proceeds benefit the ICAN Education Scholarship Fund.

Prefontaine says the conference offers a full immersion in the power of leadership and positive thinking. “I think I’m most excited about bringing a conversation to our community about happiness being a choice.”

For the conference schedule and registration details, visit http://www.icanglobal.net.

Shawn Achor Resets the Happiness Formula
Popular Psychiatrist to keynote ICAN conference

ICAN conference keynote speaker Shawn Achor, a leading positive psychologist, has become a happiness guru after years immersing himself in what makes people tick.

“I studied Christian and Buddhist ethics at Harvard Divinity School to explore how our beliefs change our actions,” he says. “This is exactly what I do in positive psychology now. Since then I’ve traveled to over 50 countries researching and speaking at over a third of the Fortune 100 companies and with schools worldwide. I became fascinated by the idea we are not just our genes and our environment, but that we can choose happiness.”

As a teacher he repeatedly saw students fall short of happiness when they expected it as a birthright or reward.

“In my 12 years at Harvard I saw students who thought the success of getting into a good college would make them happy, but 80 percent report work debilitating depression at some point over the next four years. I saw the same things out at companies. Even as success rose, happiness flatlined. It turns out we had the formula wrong. Success is a moving target. As soon as we hit a goal our brain changes the goalpost of what success looks like. If you hit your sales target, we raise your sales target. If you make more money, you’re surrounded by others who make even more money.

“But flip around the formula and it actually works. Raising optimism and deepening social connection raises every business and educational outcome. My TED talk has over 6 million views, which feels surreal, but is yet another indication that we are living through the beginning of a revolution where people recognize that the greatest competitive advantage in the modern economy is a positive and engaged brain.”

He found happiness to be an internal construct we build as we grow.

“In my work we define happiness as the joy you feel striving toward your potential. This changed the way I pursued happiness. Many researchers try to separate which is better a happy life or a meaningful one. That is impossible. Happiness cannot be sustained without meaning. Pleasure is short-lived, but joy is something you can experience in the ups and downs of life. And we only feel it on the way to our potential, so growth as a human being is crucial.”

He says most of us have been programmed by societal tenets to follow the wrong formula for happiness and success.

“We think if we work harder we’ll be more successful and happier. It’s a broken formula. The human brain is actually designed to work better when it is positive, rather than negative, neutral or stressed.”

Nurturing ourselves and our passions, combined with serving the needs of others, are surer ways to bliss than slavishly working to get ahead.

When all is said and done, he says some simple but profound differences separate happy people from unhappy people.

“The happiest people can delay pleasure but they do not delay happiness. And they realize happiness requires a work ethic. Only by creating positive habits like writing down gratitudes, journaling about positive experiences, meditation and writing positive emails to people in our social support group can we create sustained and quantifiable positive change.”

Achor’s keynote talk is at 9:15 a.m. He will lead a breakout session at 10 a.m.

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“In my work we define happiness as the joy you feel striving toward your potential.”
~ SHAWN ACHOR

Gravitas – Gravity Center for Contemplative Activism Founders Christopher and Phileena Heuertz Create Place of Healing for Healers


The more I look around the more I appreciate just how many interesting stories are available to me right in my hometown of Omaha, Neb. if I just open my eyes and my heart to what’s here.  As I expand my vision, I see more than I did before.  There’s also a law of attraction thing going on whereby as my personal spiritual journey ramps up more and more stories of people’s own spiritual journeys and personal transformations present themselves to me.  One such story is that of  Gravity, A Center for Contemplative Activism, which I’ve posted here.  This feature for Omaha’s Metro Magazine is really a profile of the married couple behind the center, Christopher and Phileena Heuertz, and a chronicle of the serious traveling they’ve done – physically, emotionally and spiritually – to arrive at the place of healing they operate for fellow healers like themselves.

 

 

 

 

 

Christopher and Phileena Heuertz

 

 

Gravitas
Gravity Center for Contemplative Activism Founders Christopher and Phileena Heuertz Create Place of Healing for Healers

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)

 

After serving the poorest of the poor, an Omaha couple now helps heal fellow healers

Omaha is a world away from the slums of Calcutta, the killing fields of Sierra Leone or the red light districts of South America. But the human pain found there is never far from the hearts and minds of a spiritually enlightened local couple who worked among the suffering in these and similarly challenged places for nearly two decades.

Christopher and Phileena Heuertz are 40-something-year-olds who’ve devoted much of their adult lives to social justice activism with the poorest of the poor, all the while led by the scripture admonition “faith without works is dead.” Growing up – he’s from Omaha and she’s from Indiana – each had powerful do-the-right-thing examples of radical hospitality in their own lives. His parents took in foster care kids in crisis and adopted two at-risk children. Later, his folks founded and ran a local agency to help resettle Sudanese refugees. Her father is a Protestant pastor and the senior chaplain for the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department.

By the time the couple met at a small liberal arts Christian college in Kentucky Chis had already done service work on a Navajo reservation, in Cabrini Green Chicago and in South India and Southeast Asia. In love with him and their shared commitment to serve others, Phileena joined him overseas.

The many hard things they witnessed brought them to a crucible of faith that now has them dedicated to nurturing the spirits of people whose human service vocations align with their own.

A new path
In 2012 they founded the Omaha-based Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism. Officed in the Mastercraft Building in North Downtown, where kindred spirit creatives, entrepreneurs and social justice warriors (at Siena/Francis House) are their neighbors, the center is the arm for their new outreach focus. The couple’s new mission finds them leading prayer sits and pilgrimages and giving retreats and spiritual direction in support of people like themselves committed to humanitarian work. The Heuertzes know first-hand how draining that work can be and therefore how vital it is to have a discipline or method or sanctuary in order to get refreshed.

Chris says, “We’re trying to create this sort of pit stop for the activist soul to catch their breath, to be refueled, to find practices that will help sustain their vocations and journeys.”

Many of the practices are contemplative in nature, meaning they emphasize silent prayer, meditation and reflection which nurtures self-awareness or consciousness. Centering prayer is one such practice.

Gravity does some of this work right at its spacious office, such as the weekly prayer sits and spiritual direction. and holds retreats at the St. Benedict Center in Schuyler, Neb. and around the country. The husband and wife team leads pilgrimages to historic sacred spots around the world (Assisi, Italy) and to historic social justice locales around the world (Rwanda). In the U.S. pilgrmmage has focused on “21st Century Freedom Rides” revisiting civil rights sites in the South. The couple also does workshops and makes presentations for communities, churches and universities across the nation.

“Gravity is for people who care about their spirituality and want to make the world a better place,” says Phileena, who completed her certification as a spiritual director. “Since Gravity opened its doors we’re finding that people from all different walks of life are coming. Even if they’re not in formal social justice work many of these people want to make the world a better place and they’re doing that in their way through their unique vocation.”

The couple came to start Gravity after reaching a point where they needed their own reset. They intentionally took time off to minister to themselves, along the way finding some spiritual practices they found beneficial for their own peace of mind and spiritual growth and that they now share with others.

After years working in the trenches with the destitute, the desperate and the dying they took a sabbatical in 2007. For part of their time away from the fray they made a famed pilgrimage in Spain, the Camino de Santiago, that saw them walk almost 800 kilometers (500 miles) across southern France and northern Spain on a 33-day trek. There, under the stars, unplugged from modem life, they discovered some essential truths.

“Every night on the Camino we’d stop at a convent or monastery or pilgrim house,” says Chris. “For 1,100 years these folks have practiced hospitality. You’re so exhausted after walking 25 or 30 kilometers, carrying everything in your pack, and then these folks welcome you in, saying, ‘Here’s a hot meal, here’s the shower, you can wash your clothes, we’ll make you breakfast in the morning and send you on your way.’ And it just always refreshed our spirits, our souls, our bodies, and that’s what we want to do through the center. We want to offer these little glimpses of hope and tools of nourishment for the activist soul to keep going, to keep fighting for a better world and not give up.”

During that same sabbatical period the Heuertzes received a fellowship from the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina.

“They hosted us,” says Chris,”and we found it such a great place for reflecting deeply on very difficult things in the world with a very diverse group of people.”

These experiences of taking time out for solitude, reflection, community and rejuvenation set this always searching couple on a new path, this time not directly tending to the suffering but to those who serve the suffering. Thus, their new mission is healing the healers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taking stock

In all the time Phileena and Chris served the oppressed, the exploited, the hungry, the sick and the dying, surrounded by a sea of want and hopelessness, they saw many of their colleagues lose their bearings.

“We worked all over the world and saw pretty messed up stuff and we saw a lot of great people burn out and walk away from their beliefs or faith or communities or vocations,” says Chris.

The couple came close to their own personal breaking points.

He says, “What we experienced in 19 years of really grassroots, gritty, on-the-streets, in-the-neighborhoods difficult work was that we gave a lot of ourselves. We saw lots and lots of terrible things that started to weigh on us. The work that we did impacted us and we absorbed a lot of that. What we saw in our own lives, in our own health and bodies, in our marriage were things that were hurt, that were wounded.

“It did take some emotional, spiritual, physical toll on us.”

While they were still wrapped up in that work though it was hard for them to see that damage. Only after being back home – Chris headed the North American office of Word Made Flesh from here – could they grasp just how much trauma they’d stuffed. There were the tragic figures at the Mother Teresa-founded House for the Dying, the maimed victims of the Blood Diamonds War, the Latina and Asian women recovering from being trafficked in the sex trade.

Phileena says the burden of it all came to a head for her one day.

“Back home a friend asked me after listening to what we had experienced, ‘Do you ever doubt the goodness of God?’ Immediately it was like a dam broke loose and the emotions took over and I just wept and wept and said, ‘Yes, I doubt the goodness of God.’ What I realize now is that in all my work social justice work up until that point I was operating in terms of finding someone to blame, someone who’s responsible for the state of the world and the suffering and injustice that is there.

“And certainly some of us are responsible and we need to take responsibility for our actions. But in Freetown, Sierra Leone everywhere I looked I found the person to blame was also victimized and so then I had nowhere to turn except to blame God for the state of the world and for the condition of my friends.

“I was in a crisis of faith.”

Just when things seemed bleakest a ray of hope shone through in the person of Father Thomas Keating, a Cistercian monk and priest who is a leading proponent of the Christian contemplative prayer movement.

“Keating came to Omaha to speak at Creighton University and he introduced us to the contemplative tradition and centering prayer,” says Phileena. “That was really a lifesaver for me. It was immediate grace. There was a way for me to just be with the terrible suffering and trauma of the world, the human brutality, the questions, the doubts. There’s a way for me to be with my anger towards God and my questions and doubts about my faith. There’s a way to live faith without having all the answers.

“The answers I grew up with in church in mid-America were not connecting with the real problems of the world. Keating was just so helpful in providing a way for me to stay connected to faith, to God in a way that would allow me to deepen and grow.”

It should be no surprise then that Keating, the author of several books and the founder of the St. Benedict’s monastery in Snowmass, Colo., where he resides and teaches, is a founding board member of Gravity.

Keating’s oft-professed lesson that a test of faith is an opportunity for growth resonated with the couple.

“Keating teaches that if we stay on the spiritual journey long enough we’ll come to the point where the practices that have sustained us in our faith journey fall short, they no longer nourish us, and when that happens it can be completely disorienting,” says Phileena, who went through this dark night of the soul herself. “A lot of people walk away from their faith at that point but Keating says it’s actually an invitation to go deeper.”

She and Chris chose to plunge the depths.

The contemplative way and paying it forward
“What we found is there’s a real difference between faith and certainty,” she says..”Faith is being able find yourself being held by something bigger and greater than you and not having all these answers. Doubt can be contained within our faith. Certainty is the opposite of faith. I think a lot of spiritual or religious people put a lot of bank in our certainty, but that’s actually a barrier to faith. Certainity can be a disguise for pride and superiority and thinking we have all the answers and have figured it all out and can figure God out. But faith is something that carries us. It’s a grace that helps us to be a part of the mystery of life and God and any goodness that is in us and that can flow through us to heal and transform the world.

“It really gave us an understanding for what we had witnessed in Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity in South India. Mother never talked about this but we saw in her this pure model of contemplative activism, where people were dying at her doorstep and she was disciplined to see that they were taken care of but also to see that she and the Missionaries of Charity would take regular time out to meditate and pray. They had these regular rhythms of withdrawal and engagement and getting connected to a source that is greater than them.”

Reflecting on their own and others’ service experiences, Chris says he and Phillena concluded that many “folks in social justice actually take better care of someone else than they do themselves,” adding, “Where’s the integrity in that? If we don’t really know how to love ourselves how well can we really love someone else? We also saw folks who had really beautiful compelling vocations were sometimes being very unpleasant, grumpy people. We did see a lot of people burn out and a lot of people perpetually teetering on the edge of burn out.”

He says he and his wife resolved they and their fellow social justice workers “don’t have to do this at our expense, we don’t have to do this in a way that ends poorly for us or that ends with people walking away from their work, their faith, their beliefs, their community.” That’s where Gravity comes in. “The idea is we want to accompany or journey with folks in this formation of helping ground our social engagement in a deep contemplative spirituality.”

They’re guided in their new mission by the wisdom and example of figures as diverse as Keating, Father Richard Rohr and Thomas Merton, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Phileena says the monastic teachings of Keating, Rohr and Merton “have done a lot to bring contemplative spirituality out from the monastery and into the secular world. We’re a part of the next generation who are making it even more accessible and demystifying it. I think a big part of what we’re offering is accessibility to mysticism or contemplative spirituality. At the retreats the demystifying comes by practicing together and talking about our experiences.”

Gravity is a resource center whose programs, activities, books and videos help fulfill the mission statement tagline: “…do good better.” Both Chris and Phileena are published authors on matters of faith and spirituality.

The spiritual experiences that led them to Gravity, including all the insights gleaned from their teachers, colleagues, friends and role models, is their way of carrying the message.

Visit http://gravitycenter.com for a schedule of upcoming retreats and programs and links to materials.

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