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Nebraska’s Changing Face; UNO’s Changing Face

March 18, 2014 Leave a comment

I wrote the following  feature and sidebar exploring some trends about the changing face of Neb. and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, my alma mater.  Slowly but surely the state and some of its institutions are becoming more diverse.  Some of the changes can be readily seen already, others not so much, but in a few decades they will be more obvious.   It’s a healthy thing that’s happening, though diversity is still taking far too long to be fully felt and lived and embraced in all quarters, but that’s for another story.

 

 

 

 

Nebraska’s Changing Face

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Nebraska’s “Plain Jane” sameness has long extended to its racial makeup. Diversity hasn’t held much truck here. Even when the foreign-born population was at its peak in the state’s first half century, the newcomers were predominantly of European ancestry.

An African-American migration from the Deep South to Omaha in the early 1900s established the city’s black base. Until a new immigration wave in the 1990s brought an influx of Africans and Latinos-Hispanics to greater Neb., the composite face of this Great Plains state was decidedly monotone.

The perception of Flyover Country as a bastion of white farmers has never been completely accurate. The state’s two largest metropolitan areas, for example, have always boasted some heterogeneity. Urban areas like Omaha and urban institutions such as the University of Nebraska at Omaha express more racial-ethnic diversity because of longstanding minority settlement patterns and the university drawing heavily from the metro.

But it is true Neb.’s minority population has always been among the nation’s smallest, which only supported the stereotype.

Finally, though, its minority numbers are going up and its diversity broadening.

Still, if Nebraskans posed for a group portrait as recently as 1980 more than 9 of every 10 would have beeb white. Only 6 percent identified as African-Americans, Latino-Hispanics, Native Americans or Asians.

The lack of diversity extended virtually everywhere. The largest minority group then, blacks, was highly concentrated in Omaha. Despite slow, steady gains blacks still account for only 13 percent of the city’s population and 4 percent of the state’s population.

But as recently announced by UNO researchers, Neb. is changing and with it the face of the state. A group picture taken today would reveal a noticeable difference compared to a quarter century ago, with whites now accounting for 8 of every 10 residents. Indeed, the state’s minority population has more than doubled the past four decades, with by far the largest increase among Latinos-Hispanics, who now comprise the largest minority segment. Latinos-Hispanics are on a linear growth trajectory. They tend to be young and their women of childbearing age.

Minority growth has been even greater in select communities, such as Lexington, where meat processing attracted newcomers.

Celebrated native son filmmaker Alexander Payne’s new movie “Nebraska” – set and shot primarily in the northeast part of the state – accurately portrays a slice of Neb.’s past and present through a large ensemble of characters, all of whom but two are white. The exceptions are both Hispanic. The Oscar-winning writer-director may next make a partly Spanish-language feature about the impact of the immigrant population on Neb.’s towns and cities.

New UNO Center for Public Affairs Research projections posit that by 2050 the state’s portrait will dramatically change as a result of major demographic trends well under way. Within four decades minorities will account for about 40 percent of the entire population. Nearly a quarter of the projected 2050 population of 2.2 million, or some 500,000, will be Latino-Hispanic.

It’s a sea change for a state whose diversity was traditionally confined to a few enclaves of color. Immigration, migration and natural causes are driving this new minority surge.

Everything is relative though. So while CPAR Research Coordinator David Drzod says, “Our diversity will increase,” he adds, “Neb. is one of the less diverse places countrywide and other states are going to become more diverse as well.”

Still, the snapshot of Neb. is changing due to real demographic shifts with significant longterm consequences. Just as the majority white base is holding static or declining, non-whites are proliferating. The results can be seen in the ever more diverse profiles of some communities, neighborhoods, schools and other settings.

Thus, for the first time in Neb. diversity is becoming more lived reality than aspirational goal.

Economic conditions were the main driver for the sharp rise in Latinos-Hispanics migrating here. Plentiful jobs, a low cost of living, coupled with aggressive industry recruitment, lured people to move here from places with comparatively weak economies, high cost of living and job shortages. Neb. grew its Latino-Hispanic base from points of origin in California, Texas. Mexico, Central America and South America, The state also saw its African and Asian populations increase as refugees from Sudan and Bhutan, for example, resettled here.

Drozd says, “People are not coming as directly for new jobs like in the ’90s when the meat processors were expanding and recruiting. We expect to see some regional migration that Neb. has typically seen from smaller locations to more urban locations that tend to have a diverse pool of job opportunities within various industries.”

While migration has slowed from its peak waves it’s expected to continue in fits and starts. Migration, researchers agree is “a wildcard” that can’t be accurately forecast, but Office of Latino and Latin American Studies Research Associate Lissette Aliaga Linares notes an uptick in Latinos-Hispanics from Arizona, which OLLAS Director Lourdes Gouvia attributes to that state’s anti-immigrant policies.

Drozd says Neb.’s minority experience is consistent with some surrounding states and inconsistent with others.

“We are typical of the Great Plains in that we tend to suffer from outmigration especially of young college-aged whites, which is counteracted by in-migration and increase in the minority population groups. On the other hand Neb. is unique in that we are growing faster in some of our metropolitan areas and not holding our population as well as some of the more rural areas.”

 

 

 

 

 

The emergence of more minorities is perhaps most visible in urban inner city public schools, where student enrollment naturally reflects the heavily minority communities these schools serve. Minority enrollment in the Omaha Public Schools stands at 68 percent.

“The diversity of UNO will continue to grow and one only has to look at the demographics in the metro area to understand that traditional middle school and high school students will increasingly be students of color,” says UNO Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs B.J. Reed.

Some outstate school districts are now majority Latino-Hispanic.

The impact of diversity in this small population state that suffers from brain drain cannot be overstated.

“There’s a large part of Neb. that would be having population decline if it were not for minority growth,” says Drozd. “There’s all sorts of implications with respect to aging, the workforce, health care, education. From a gerontology standpoint you have the possibility of seeing a younger, more diverse working-age population caring for a predominantly white non-Hispanic aging population and will there be any issues associated there. With programs like Social Security you’re going to be relying more and more on an immigrant population to support payments for predominantly white people collecting from the program. So there are potentials for tension there and of course political ramifications and all sorts of factors.”

Gouveia, a sociology professor, reminds that “Latinos are going to imitate some trends of the larger population the more urban and educated they become,” adding. “The more women are able to work outside the home fertility rates will drop and the population will begin to age. It’s the life cycle.”

As minorities grow they become a larger sector of the tax and voting base that elected officials and prospective candidates must recognize.

Drozd says communities must adapt, whether offering English-as-a-Second Language programs or multicultural competency classes, in order to best serve minorities and their particular needs.

As more minorities graduate high school educators and employers hope that many of these college-bound grads and working-age young adults will attend school and find jobs in-state.

“As people have become upwardly mobile in Neb.’s past that has led to outmigration out of the state,” says Drozd. “It’s going to be a very policy relevant factor because people born in the early ’90s are now hitting age 18. Even if they choose a Neb. college where are they going to go to work? Will there be jobs and associated positions for them here in the state or will they go out of state?”

Just as preparing students to succeed in school is critical, so is preparing a workforce for today’s service and skilled jobs.

“Let’s make no mistake about this, without immigration Nebraskans may have to rethink how they are going to have a viable economy that produces not only jobs but payrolls that produce taxes from which an aging population will benefit greatly,” says Gouveia. “Without this population there won’t be services this Boomer population and this aspiring mini-global city of Omaha depends on. These are increasingly service economies and that means it’s very important for the economy to increasingly be based on higher pay jobs likely to grow, such as information technology or biotechnology.

“That also means educational institutions need to be able to truly know how to train this generation of children of immigrants. The children may not be immigrants themselves but a large number have immigrant parents who endured very poor, disadvantageous conditions that tend to disadvantage the educational achievement of their children. We have to have multidimensional. multidisciplinary perspectives to understand who this population is. And that goes to our research also.”

She believes minorities will succeed to the extent opportunities allow.

“We haven’t addressed the serious barriers to education that would guarantee that new face of America and of Neb. becomes a face with equal opportunities to participate in the prosperity all of us will want to share.” She says if barriers to upward mobility aren’t removed “it may prevent Neb. from truly harnessing what we call this demographic bonus that’s been gifted to this state. A state that was losing population were it not for minority growth and international migration would be in serious trouble today to have a viable economy and future.”

 

 

 

 

Daniel J. Shipp, UNO associate vice chancellor for student affairs, says schools must find ways to support minority students.

“When combined with the typical struggles of new college students the demographics of race-ethnicity will create even more difficult challenges in both access to and success in college. Not only must we continue to open our doors wider to traditionally under-served student populations but once on campus it is critical for all of us to see their success as a top institutional and community priority.”

UNO Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs Pelema Morrice urges educators and employers to appreciate diversity’s many forms.

“We always focus on racial-ethnic diversity but I think intellectual diversity, geographic diversity, cultural diversity, all those different forms of diversity, really add a lot of value to everyone’s experience. There’s plenty of evidence that the more diverse environment we’re in the more we all have opportunities to learn from each other.

“So I think it’s incredibly important for an institution to be a welcoming and diverse environment where folks can learn from each other at a higher level. I think that adds to the educational experience and it provides students with really good training to go out and be productive citizens and to be successful in the workplace.”

Diversity is also the way of this flatter, interconnected world.

Reed from UNO’s Academic and Student Affairs office, says “Our students will grow up in a much more global environment requiring exposure to difference cultures and different experiences.”

Where diversity often must be programmed, Gouveia is heartened by students’ inherent embrace of it. “About this new Neb. mosaic, one thing I’m particularly hopeful about is the younger generation. I love our new students. From any background they are so much more prepared and so much more ahead of where we are as professors or department chairs or deans in terms of knowing how to do diversity. We are the ones who are often behind them.”

As Neb. becomes more multi-hued, UNO’s Morrice says representative stakeholders should discuss what diversity holds for the state.

“With these new demographics coming forward it means our student base will obviously be more diverse than it is now and that means the outcomes will be more diverse and so we’ll see more diverse workplaces and communities within the state. We’re just a piece of that puzzle but I think it’s a good collective conversation for everyone to have as the state continues to grow and it becomes clear that there will be different faces at the table.”

 

 

 

 

UNO’s Changing Face

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

The same demographic trends on pace to make the United States a minority majority population by 2050 and making Neb. a more racially-ethnically diverse place in the second decade of the new millennium, are increasingly being expressed at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Roughly a quarter of UNO’s 2013-2014 freshman class is minority and just under 20 percent of the school’s entire undergraduate enrollment is minority. Both are record marks for the school. In 2000, for example, UNO’s minority enrollment stood at 9 percent. The minority numbers are even greater among graduate students.

The 11 percent rise in UNO minority enrollment from 2000 until now reflects in large measure the Latino-Hispanic boom that happened in-state from 1980 to 2010, when that segment increased from about 37,000 to 167,000. The Latino-Hispanic population is expected to add another 370,000 residents by 2050, according to UNO’s Center for Public Affairs Research.

As a public institution with a state-wide reach, UNO’s a model for the changing face of Neb. Drawing principally from the Omaha metropolitan area, which as the state’s largest urban center has always been Neb.’s most racially-ethnically diverse spot, UNO is, as expected, one of the most diverse campuses in the University of Nebraska system.

At the University of Nebraska-Kearney minority undergraduate enrollment has nearly doubled since 1995. Today, nearly a quarter of its students are non-white or non-resident alien. Meanwhile, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln reports the most diverse student body in its history. UNL’s  2,328 minority undergrads are about 12 percent of the undergraduate total, a 9 percent increase just from last year. Just as at UNO, the largest minority gains at each school are in the Latino-Hispanic and international students categories,

 

 

 

 

As minorities comprise a growing segment of the state’s mainstream and of its public schools’ enrollment, institutions are tasked with incorporating these populations and responding to their needs.

“The good news for Omaha is that UNO has a proud tradition of supporting minority students through various educational equity and learning community investments such as Goodrich, Project Achieve and the newer Thompson Learning Community,” says UNO Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Daniel J. Shipp. “These programs provide student participants with a network of caring and concerned faculty, staff and peer mentors that help students to succeed and thrive in college. Moving forward, I expect we will continue to build on our national reputation for attracting and supporting the growing numbers of minority students and their families in the Omaha area and beyond.”

“Minority students are an important population but they are only one of an increasing mosaic of diversity at UNO, whether they are military, first generation, students of color or adult learners or transfer students,” says UNO Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs B.J. Reed. “We are working every day to ensure that these students feel welcome at UNO and have the type of support services and environment that will make them want to be want to be here and to be successful. We do this for all our special populations of students. We have programs and learning communities as well as staff specifically directed at helping ease their transition to UNO and success in their academic goals.”

Reed says hiring faculty and staff who reflect the changing face of UNO “is a top priority,” adding, “We have made important strides in diversifying our staff but we lag behind where we want to be here and also with recruiting and retaining a more diverse faculty. We are working on reviewing existing policies and procedures and looking at incentives and support efforts to increase the diversity of faculty and staff to reflect the changing demographics of our student body.”

There’s wide agreement that diversity is a net sum experience for all involved.

“The benefits are substantial,” Reed says. “The workplace is becoming increasingly diverse and employers need and want an increasingly diverse group of employees. We cannot underestimate the shift occurring here. We need to provide a strong educational workforce for employers and UNO must be positioned to do that effectively.”

 

 

 

 

Office of Latino and Latin American Studies Director and Sociology Professor Lourdes Gouveia agrees that educators at UNO and elsewhere must increasingly consider diversity and its impact.

“We have to educate our professionals and student populations in ways that allow them to be skilled about global issues and diversity and to have multicultural competencies as the world is very connected,” she says. “But also we need to address structural barriers that may prevent Neb. from truly harnessing what we call this demographic bonus that has been gifted to this state. A state that was losing population if not for minority growth and international migration would be in serious trouble today to have a viable economy and a future.”

Author Joy Castro Writes Close to Her Heart in Two New Books

November 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Joy Castro is a writer to be reckoned with.  I’ve had the pleasure now of interviewing her twice and I trust more interviews will follow in the future.  Her work is widely recognized.  And while she has until recently published memoirs and personal essays she’s now established herself as a mystery writer with her debut novel, Hell or High Water.  That book may be turned into a movie.  I finally had the pleasure of meeting Joy (our interviews have been by phone) when she generously attended a talk and reading I gave at Indigo Bridge Books in Lincoln, Neb. for my new Alexander Payne book.  She even bought three copies.  What a sweet thing to do for someone of her stature.  It’s a lesson in how we fellow writers need to support each other.

 

 

Joy Castro and her smash debut mystery novel, Hell or High Water

 

 

Author Joy Castro Writes Close to Her Heart in Two New Books

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico

 

University of Nebraska-Lincoln associate professor of English Joy Castro made her mark as a short story writerand essayist before her acclaimed 2005 memoir The Truth Book: Escaping a Childhood of Abuse Among the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Now she’s being hailed for her debut novel, Hell or High Water, set in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. Mystery author superstar Dennis Lehane (Mystic River) calls it “a terrific thriller.

Her new book of personal essays, Island of Bones is “getting some really nice press,” she says, adding, “The book critic Rigoberto Gonzalez, who writes for the El Paso Times and is part of the National Book Critics Circle, wrote a really nice review.” Island of Bones takes up where The Truth Book left off.

Castro often lectures and writes about her Cuban-American heritage and journey through poverty into academia and stability.

“Much of my work focuses on bringing attention to economic injustice as well as racism and sexism. I’m lucky and grateful to be someone who has made it out of poverty, abuse and voicelessness – to a position where I have a voice. It’s an important responsibility. My own published fiction, nonfiction and poetry all concern issues of poverty and I make a point of teaching literature by poor people in the university classroom.”

Castro shares much in common with her novel’s protagonist, Nola, a female Cuban-American reporter from a poor background. Just as Castro once sought to keep her own roots secret, so does Nola. Just as Castro explored abuse, Nola investigates sexual predators.

“Nola comes from the projects. She’s trying to pass among her colleagues and friends. She doesn’t want anybody to pity her and she doesn’t really want it to be known at all. So she’s struggling to sort of keep up with the Joneses while dealing with the after-effects of her difficult past, all while researching this creepy story.”

Hell or High Water’s been optioned as a film-television drama and Castro’s writing a sequel with Nola as the main character again.

She says, “The two artists associated with the project right now are both really fantastic Latina actresses – Zoe Saldana and Gina Rodriguez. And I’m really excited about having a mystery series with a Latino protagonist.”

Now that Castro’s own story is out there, she’s over any sense of shame.

“When you’re hiding something, the feeling you have is a tremendous anxiety that revealing it will destroy you or someone else,” she says. “After you’ve had a little practice at disclosing, you realize it’s not quite that life-or-death a situation.”

Writing The Truth Book and Island of Bones proved cathartic.

“Laying it all out in book form, I came to respect the difficulty of what I’d had to navigate. In some ways, my journey was as challenging as moving from one country, one culture to another. All the new customs have to be learned.

“For the most part, I earned and climbed my way out of trauma and poverty by myself. My family was too shattered, scattered and dysfunctional to support anyone. I’ve been on my own since I was 16. There were counselors who helped me change, sure, and thank goodness, but I paid for them, and I did the emotional work. No one stepped in and said, ‘Here, let me lighten the load.’ That’s the hard truth of it. No one’s going to do it for you, no one’s going to hold your hand.

“But the important thing to remember is that it’s your life and if you want to change it you have to put in the hours and the labor and the love. Your life is worth it, you’re worth it. Even in the bleakest of circumstances, it’s worth doing, and it’s possible.”

 

 

Joy Castro and Amelia Montes for release of Island of Bones at Indigo Bridge Books, ©labloga.blogspot.com

 

 

Her interest in Spanish-speaking cultures and identities infuses her work.

“Latinidad is hugely important to me, and it is definitely connected with class and gender. Because of the great wave of well-to-do Cuban immigrants who came to the USA when Fidel Castro took power, many people assume all Cuban-Americans are wealthy and right-leaning. That wasn’t the case for my family, who had been in Key West since the 1800s and were working-class and lefty-liberal.”

Island of Bones explores that little-known history.

“My father experienced racism and police abuse in Miami in the 1950s, after which he tried very hard to assimilate and be ‘American’ in ways ultimately painful for him and for us.”

Her father, a conch diver as a boy, moved north as a young man seeking adventure and a wider life.  As The Keys became an expensive resort playground that priced old-line residents out, some family relatives were forced to leave.

Her father committed suicide in 2002. One of her essays deals with the aftermath.

“For my brother Tony and me, our father’s life is a cautionary tale about the costs of shame and of trying to erase who you are. We raised our children to be proud of their heritage. My son is fluent in Spanish, for example, which my father refused to speak at home.”

What it means to be Latina and the roles Latinas play are also primary concerns.

“I’m glad to say things are changing. But despite many advances in women’s rights, Latinas are often pushed, even today, to put men first, to have babies, to love the church without question, to be submissive and obedient to authority. It took me a long time to crawl out from under the expectations I was raised with.”

View more about the author’s work at joycastro.com.

Never Give Up: The Budge Porter Story Comes Home

November 1, 2012 Leave a comment

Here is what I hope you find to be a touching and inspiring piece about Budge Porter, a one-time Husker football player left paralyzed after tackling a teammate in a spring practice but despite overwhelming physical challenges his friendly demeanor and positive outlook on life have never left him.  Recently, Budge, his wife, and their two children were the beneficiaries of a campaign to raise funds for a totally barrier-free home that will accommodate Budge and his special needs without looking in the least institutional.  That customized adaptive, accesssible home is nearly complete and the Porters are very close to moving in and enjoying it.  Led by local builder Brad Brown, the Budge Porter Project is entirely dependent on donations, of which there have been many, and now Budge hopes he can help others similarly afflicted like him find the resources they need to ease the burdens in their lives.  My story is in the Nov/Dec 2012 issue of Omaha Magazine.

 

 

Budge Porter, omaha.com

 

 

 

Never Give Up: The Budge Porter Story Comes Home

©by Leo Adam Biga

In the Nov/Dec issue of Omaha Magazine

 

Budge Porter lost many physical capabilities when he broke his neck tackling a teammate in a 1976 Husker football practice. The catastrophic injury left him a quadriplegic confined to a wheelchair.

What he’s never lost is determination and, remarkably, a positive outlook. It’s what helped him build a successful stockbroker career, woo and marry his college sweetheart and start a family when many doubted he could do those things. He and his wife Diane are parents to three children.

His will has continued carrying him through recent setbacks.

“Every step of our lives we’ve been told this can’t be done,” says Budge. “We have the character between the two of us, working together with great friends and family, to beat all those odds…”

Disappointments are not foreign to us,” Diane says. “There were many hopeless feelings and times of despair through all this, but I think so often what’s saved us is that you get to the point where you’re either going to laugh or cry and we’ve chosen always to laugh. You kind of know in your heart of hearts it’s always going to work out and it always does. It’s like you’ve got to throw it up to God or whatever and just say, ‘Whatever happens, it’s going to work out and we will survive.’”

That indefatigable spirit is what’s motivated friends and well-wishers to build a completely barrier-free home for this never-say-die warrior and his family. The non-profit Budge Porter Project is a volunteer, donation-fueled effort led by Omaha home designer-builder Brad Brown, whose Archistructure has supervised construction of the pottery barn or rustic ranch style home at 13522 Corby Street.

“Budge has got this captivating spirit about him,” says Brown. “You look at a person who’s been dealt what some feel is a bad hand and you might expect they’d get bitter. If anything Budge has turned it around and looks at life as every day is a blessing and an opportunity. I don”t think it started off that way but it’s led him to a sense of inner peace.

“He’s a very open and caring person. When you’re around him you feel like a breath of fresh air.”

The 1,900-plus square foot home includes an elevator, a therapy pool, a tracking-lift system, ramps and various features built at wheelchair level and wherever possible, subtle and aesthetically pleasing. Those are big-ticket items the Porters could never afford themselves, but donations in excess of $120,000 have purchased them.

Subcontractors and suppliers have given time and materials. Consolidated Kitchens and Fireplaces owner Sam Marchese donated all the cabinets and countertops. He also co-signed Porter’s home loan and hosted an August 15 fundraiser.

Steve Reeder gifted the lot.

Accepting help doesn’t come easy for Porter, who hails from a long line of orchard and farm owners. They’re a tough, independent lot. His father and grandfather both played at Nebraska. When Budge and brother Scott carried on the football legacy there, the school had its first and only three generation athletic family.

 

Budge and family at the foundation of his new home, netnewsnebraska.tumblr.com

 

 

 

“He feels somewhat embarrassed and undeserving,” says Brown, “because he’s always made it on his own. I told him, ‘This is a hand-up, not a hand-out and it’s something these guys are tickled to give back.’ It makes us all feel so good.”

To customize the home to Budge’s specific needs Brown had to ask personal questions and view Budge in intimate situations. Diane says Kent Pavelka’s public relations company made a video documenting what Budge contends with daily.

“I looked at Kent and Sam and Brad and they were all crying,” says Diane. “They didn’t realize what the simple act of getting in and out of bed is for Budge. He’s so good about downplaying all the stuff that goes with his injury and he doesn’t want people feeling sorry for him. But I’ve often said if people really knew what it takes to be him every day it’d be very hard to keep positive because it’s exhausting. A lesser man would not handle it as well as he has.”

The experience gave Brown a deeper appreciation for Budge’s “courage” and bonded the two men even more.

“We were really good friends but we’re definitely brothers now,” says Budge.

The Porters have always managed dealing with the challenges of paralysis but then Budge lost big in the 2000 stock market crash, which also cost him many clients similarly hard hit. Osteoporosis forced him to retire in his mid-50s and go on disability.

A stretch of the Papio Creek behind the family’s previous home eroded, causing such severe damage to the property the home’s value plummeted. Health scares resulted in long, expensive hospitalizations. Finally, Budge swallowed his pride and filed for bankruptcy. The family gave up their home. Getting a loan and finding a new place to live proved daunting.

It seemed like more than one family could bear.

“I don’t like to make excuses,” Budge says.

He’s heartened by how others have responded to their plight.

“We’ll never be able to repay all these people other than just to tell them we’re forever grateful. We’re rich beyond compare with friends. We intend to be good stewards of these benefits.”

Budge views the home as “a legacy” for Diane and the kids when he’s gone.

He hopes to inspire and assist others through the Budge Porter Project.

“I would love to see us form a foundation to raise future monies to help others in need along these same lines. There’s a lot of people far worse off than us and we feel for them and pray for them and we just hope they’re as fortunate someday to have the type of friends we’re blessed with to give them a hand.”

Donations may be made at http://www.budgeporter.bbnow.org.

Norman Krivosha’s Life in Law

August 10, 2012 2 comments

 

I rarely do stories involving any aspect of law or justice and if I do it’s generally a profile like the following one I did a few years ago for the Jewish Press on Norman Krivosha, who at one time served as chief justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court.  As you might expect from someone who has enjoyed a distinguished career on the bench and as an attorney Krivosha is a thoughtful, well-spoken individual.  He’s well aware how fortunate he is to have found a profession and vocation that has engaged him for so long.  He’s one of those blessed persons who proves that attitude can be everything. He’s definitely of the glass half-full fraternity.

 

 

 

Norman Krivosha

 

 

 

Norman Krivosha’s Life in Law

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

 

Norman Krivosha’s life is a classic case of the adage that behind every great man is a woman. The noted attorney and one time Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice and corporate counsel may not have been any of those things if the Detroit, Mich. native had not met a certain woman at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln when he arrived as a brash but undisciplined undergrad in the early 1950s.

Krivosha came to UNL at the urging of a cousin who taught microbiology there. The professor saw his cousin’s potential. The young Krivosha was bright. He’d done well at a select college prepatory public school in Detroit. He’d shown industry as a top notch sales clerk for the Mary Jane Shoe Store. He’d displayed an avid interest in politics, handing out pamphlets on the street for a cousin running for public office.

Only when Krivosha got to Lincoln — having never been further west than Chicago  – he was the proverbial big city boy let loose in the sticks.

“I had to get out a map to see where Nebraska was. I vividly recall walking downtown the first Sunday I was there and I was the only person on the street. It was such a great transition for me coming from Detroit, but a very valuable one.”

Studying was not a priority. The former Helene Sherman changed all that. The studious young woman from a tradition-rich Lincoln family eventually became Mrs. Helene Krivosha, but long before marrying him she got him on track.

“The truth of the matter is had I not met my wife Helene when I did I would probably have retired as the general manager of the Mary Jane Shoe Store in Miami, Fla.” said Krivosha, who with his wife retired to Naples. Fla. three years ago.

“When I got to the university I was not very interested in worrying about studies.

But I met her and I’d go over to the library to take her for coffee and she’d say, ‘Well, we can go at 10 o’clock.’ And I’d say, ‘It’s 7 now — what do I do for three hours?’ She’d say, ‘Bring some books.’ So I started studying. Then I started taking some classes she was in so I could see her during the day. And before I knew it I got a Regent’s Scholarship and I was on my way to law school.”

There would be more mentors in his life. Before any of these guided him, however, his immigrant parents, neither of whom completed high school, stressed the importance of education to their only child. His mother was a homemaker and his father one in a long line of dry cleaners.

“Neither of them were well-educated.” Krivosha said. “Both of them were terribly literate. Going to college in my neighborhood was not a common sort of thing to do but my parents were determined that I should. We always talked about me going.”

The dutiful son attended Wayne University in Detroit but didn’t exactly buckle down. Between going to school by day and working for the post office at night, he said, “I was running with my friends.” That’s when he took up his egghead cousin’s offer to live with him in Lincoln and go to school there.

Krivosha carried his family’s hopes and dreams for a better life and finally aplied himself. With the help of Helene, some veteran lawyers and an ambitious newcomer to the political scene, Krivosha enjoyed a fast ride up the political-legal ladder. He readily acknowledges the aid he received along the way.

“I’m a great believer that nobody gets where they get on their own. That they all have help. Quite frankly, I resent when people seem to want to take claim for having made it ‘on their own.’”

From a macro perspective, he knows the opportunities given him resulted from the sacrifices and generosity of folks, some of whom he’ll never meet. He views his achievements as the return on an investment that others made in him.

“I did what I did because somebody in Scottsbluff, Nebraska got up at 4 o’clock in the morning and milked cows and paid his taxes so I could get a Regent Scholarship to go to law school. That’s what helped me become a lawyer and be successful.”

He believes fate has played a part in it all.

 

University of Nebraska

 

“Things work out the way they’re supposed to,” he said. “I was supposed to go to law school, I was supposed to be a lawyer, and that’s where I wound up.”

Funny thing is, he initially only studied law “because some friends were going to law school and that just seemed like something to do.” At some point law became more than a way to pass the time.

“I did well in law school. I finished high in my class. I started clerking in my second year in law school with a firm I ultimately became senior partner of.”

It was soon apparent he’d found his niche.

“I immediately enjoyed it. For me, law has always been a challenge — the ability to seek to analyze a situation, to design a solution. The practice of law was just something I loved to do. I never got up a single morning in my life not looking forward going to work.”

Past tense notwithstanding, he still practices law. This marks his 50th year in the profession. He cut his legal teeth with twin lawyers Herman and Joe Ginsburg in their Lincoln, Neb. firm. Krivosha had already clerked there three years by the time he finished law school. He became a lawyer with the firm as soon as he was admitted to the bar.

He said Herman Ginsburg “was extremely influential in my career. He was one of the best lawyers in the state if not the country — a fine, wonderful trial lawyer. He taught me a great deal.”

The Ginsburgs operated a general practice.

“In the late ‘50s-early ‘60s in Lincoln, Nebraska lawyers were probably what today would be described as country lawyers,” he said. “That is, we did everything. We did a great deal of trial litigation for other lawyers outstate who did not frequently go to court. We represented corporations, we probated estates, we did adoptions, we did divorces, we did personal injury cases. We did anything that came into the office. Our office was in Lincoln but we really practiced all over the state.”

That heavy, diverse case load made a good training ground.

“I think what it did was it made me a better lawyer and certainly made me a better judge ultimately because I had had all that experience.”

As a comparison of just how different his experience was from young lawyers starting out today, he used his daughter Terri Krivosha-Herring as an example.

“My oldest daughter is a lawyer in Minneapolis. A very fine, wonderful lawyer whose practice is limited to mergers and acquisitions. She’s great in her field but I don’t think lawyers today have the same broad background we used to have.”

Terri’s married to Rabbi Hayim Herring. Krivosha’s younger daughter, Rhonda Hauser, is married to lawyer Adam Hauser. “In our family you must either be a lawyer or marry a lawyer,” Krivosha joked. “If you’re smart you marry a lawyer, if you’re not so smart you become a lawyer.”

The Ginsburgs brought on a third partner, brother-in-law Hyman Rosenberg, before Krivosha became a partner with his name on the window. All the while he honed his legal skills he pursued a parallel interest in politics. His law partner Joe Ginsburg was active in Nebraska Democratic politics for years and became a political mentor.

“He sort of led me into it and it was sort of a natural for me. I’d been involved in Democratic politics all of my life and certainly all of my adult life in Lincoln. I was Lancaster Democratic Party County Chairman for a number of years. And I was state vice chairman. I was an alternate delegate for the 1968 National Democratic Convention in Chicago, although I never did wind up going. I was (Nebraska) campaign manager for Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson’s presidential bid.”

He also managed Clair Callan’s only successful Congressional bid — a rare instance of a Democrat being elected from the Republican stronghold 1st District.

Political engagement was another way Krivosha hoped to make a difference.

“I cared. I believed Democrats were providing the answers to the country’s needs. Being involved in Democratic politics was a way of trying to make things better. I was never interested myself in holding public office but in helping others.”

Krivosha’s political stock in the state grew when he befriended a newcomer to the arena named Jim Exon, a future governor and U.S. senator.

“I nominated him as national committee man at the state Democratic convention in Hastings (in the early ‘60s), and that was really sort of the beginning of his political career,” said Krivosha.

Exon was elected Nebraska governor in ‘71 and asked Krivosha to join his inner circle.

“When he became governor he asked me to come be his general counsel,” Krivosha explained. “I didn’t want to leave the practice. And so I made an agreement with him that I would be his general counsel at no pay and I would come to the capitol every morning, maybe till one-two o’clock, do whatever he needed done, and then I would go downtown and practice law for the rest of the day and evening. I did that for four years.

“And during all that time we (his firm) agreed not to take cases involving the state.”

No conflict of interest that way.

“I had really sort of gotten used to that because in 1969 I was loaned by my firm to be City Attorney of the City of Lincoln, and I did that for 20 months.”

By the time Krivosha’s general counsel duties for the governor ended his next entree into state government presented itself when then-Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul White “unexpectedly resigned” in 1978. Krivosha inquired if Exon would be OK if he submitted his name for the seat, which for the first time was to be appointed rather than elected.

Exon gave his blessing and Krivosha said just to avoid any hint of impropriety he didn’t speak with the governor from that moment until after he got the nod.

“There were 16 of us whose names were submitted and Jim (Exon) had an incredible way of advising you you’d been appointed. He sent a letter to everyone who had not been appointed, but you, telling them who had been appointed and thanking them for applying,” Krivosha recounted.

“I was in Judge Dale Fahrnbruch’s court on a Friday morning about to start trying a lawsuit before him. He and I had both been candidates for chief justice. He was opening his mail on the bench as we were getting ready to begin the case and he stopped suddenly and said, ‘I think we better take a recess.’ He called me into his chambers and said, ‘I suppose you’re not going to want to try your case today.’”

Krivosha didn’t know what the judge meant. It was left up to Fahrnbruch to inform him he was the state’s new chief justice. “That’s how I found put,” Krivosha said. He made it to the highest judicial seat without prior bench experience.

“Not unheard of,” he said. “You have to also remember I was the first appointed chief justice (of Nebraska). Up until then all the members of the Court had been elected and we had just recently changed to the merit selection system. It’s probably more common to have people come from the District Court to the Supreme Court, but not unheard of. There were people elected before and certainly there were people appointed later who had not been judges before.”

Not only was he serving his first judgeship on the state supreme court, he was perhaps the youngest member of that august and senior body.

“Some of the members of the court called me ‘Sonny,’ which they were entitled to. I mean, I was 44 years-old and some of them were in their 60s. But they were wonderful. It was a great experience.”

He’d argued many cases before the Nebraska Supreme Court prior to his appointment. After leaving the bench he argued cases before the court again, but only after all the members he’d served with had retired. from the court. While admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court he never argued before it.

He said his becoming chief justice was dependent on three key factors.

“You have to work very hard in law school and graduate at or near the top of your class. You then have to spend the next 20 years as a lawyer gaining a reputation of being a fine lawyer. And you need to become a close friend of a governor. And if you can’t do all of them, you must at least do the last one.

“The fact of the matter is I guess I can honestly say I did all three. I graduated well in my class, I think I had a reputation of being a good lawyer, and I was a close friend of Jim Exon.”

 

Jim Exon, ©ebay.com

 

 

 

What made he and Exon click?

“We were both committed Democrats. We both felt the same way about things. I think we got along so well because we shared the same views about family, about ethics, about integrity,” Krivosha said. “He would never ask you to do anything you’d be embarrassed to tell your mother…He always did what was ethically and morally right even if it wasn’t politically right, but for him it always turned out to be politically right.

“Jim Exon in my view was one of the world‘s greatest public figures.”

Krivosha was Exon’s last appointment before he left to serve in the U.S. Senate in 1979. For Krivosha, serving on the bench was another facet of a rich legal career.

“I’ve been a practitioner, I’ve been a trial lawyer, I’ve taught, I’ve been a judge and I’ve been a corporate counsel. All of it was satisfying. I enjoyed very much the collegiality with my colleagues on the bench. I disagreed with them occasionally but nonetheless had a very close relationship with them.”

A fellow Nebraska Supreme Court justice, Judge Nick Caporale, was a classmate of Krivosha’s at UNL and remains a good friend.

Being a judge suited Krivosha.

“I enjoyed looking at the cases, trying to conclude an appropriate legal answer, but even more than that I guess as executive head of the judicial branch of government I enjoyed the administration of the court system.”

He introduced some innovations.

“We made some changes along the way,” he said, “many of which still exist today. We did away with the municipal courts in Lincoln and Omaha — merging them into the County Court system. This was a more efficient way at a financial savings. We instituted type-written briefs in the Supreme Court — doing away with printing the briefs — which certainly was a savings to litigants.”

He also instituted measures to ease the volume of cases heard.

“There was no Court of Appeals then, so the Supreme Court was a court as a matter of right. You could appeal to the Nebraska Supreme Court from Small Claims Court and we had to take the case,” he said. “So we appointed two district judges and we sat in divisions of five instead of a court of seven, which the statute allowed, in an effort to try to cut down the number of cases and to handle the volume in a more expeditious way.”

While presiding on the bench he wrote more than 600 opinions, meaning he decided far too many cases to single out just a few. Besides, he said, “once I finished a case I finished it. It’s done, it’s done. I didn’t have any second thoughts once I decided a case.”

He does take satisfaction, however, in knowing some of his dissents ultimately became the law. He was the lone dissenter when the court ruled a landowner with a ranch bisecting two states could not transfer water from Nebraska to Colorado to feed his cattle.

“I dissented on the basis it interfered with interstate commerce — that he had a perfect right to do that — and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed. It was reversed based on my dissent”

He said it’s unusual the highest court in the land opted to hear this water rights case in the first place since the Nebraska Supreme Court is usually the last word.

He served eight years as Chief Justice, stepping down in 1987.

“I did not leave because of any unhappiness. I delighted in being Chief Justice. I was 53 years old, about to turn 54, and somebody made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

 

Nebraska Supreme Court

 

 

 

Bankers Life Nebraska in Lincoln hired him as senior vice president, administration, and chief counsel and when the company became Ameritas Life Insurance Company he was executive vice president, secretary and corporate general counsel. He later worked as general counsel for Kutak Rock.

He retired a couple years ago.

Reviewing his long legal career is not something that occupies much of his time.

“It’s not my style to look back,” he said.

Still, he said, “I’ve been fortunate enough to do almost everything a lawyer can do.” All his years trying and hearing cases did not sour him on the system but rather reaffirmed his faith in it.

“I’m just more convinced it’s as good a system as I always believed it to be. I believe that courts by and large do a good job. There are exceptions. The law is an art, it is not a science, and therefore the answer you get depends on the question you see. The job of the lawyer, for instance, is not to convince the court what the law is but to convince the court what the question is. Once that happens the answer becomes obvious.”

These days he does a bit of arbitration work and sometimes litigates cases. Mostly, though, he serves as an expert witness in insurance fraud suits. His keen political mind is attuned to the presidential race. He reads The New York Times and watches the Sunday public affairs programs. Barack Obama’s chances excite him.

“Obviously as a Democrat I’m a great believer that we need to move in a different direction,” he said.

Is he ever tempted to return to the bench?

“No…Remember, I never look back.”

For Love of Art and Cinema, Danny Lee Ladely Follows His Muse

July 8, 2012 2 comments

When I wrote the following article in the early 2000s the alternative cinema landscape in Nebraska was very different than it is today.  The profile subject of the story, Danny Lee Ladely, headed the only dedicated art cinema in the state, what was then called the Mary Riepma Ross Film Theater but which came to be known as the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center , located in Lincoln, Neb. At roughly twice the size of Lincoln, Omaha had no such venue.  Neither could one be found anywhere else in the state.  That’s changed with the addition of Film Streams in Omaha, where Rachel Jacobson is the metro’s equivalent to Ladely in running and programming a full fledged art cinema complete with screenings of the best in contemporary film, along with repertory programs, visiting filmmakers, Q&As, and panel discussions.  The Omaha Film Festival has added another dimension to the film scene.  And there have been concerted efforts to restore long abandoned neighborhood and small town theaters.  This is all familiar territory for me, as I used to be a film programmer in Omaha and I appreciate any attempts to engage and energize the cinema culture here.  Ladely was way out in front of anyone in Nebraska in nurturing an alternative film culture and what he’s accomplished with the Ross in Lincoln is remarkable, including the new facility he got built courtesy of the cinema’s major patroness and namesake, Mary Riepma Ross.   My piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared as the facility was under construction.  It’s been operational for years now and now that Film Streams in Omaha has provided a comparable venue in Omaha, the area’s once rather stark art cinema landscape has turned bountiful.  It took the vision and will of Ladely and Jacobson (who’s profiled on this blog) to make it happen.

 

 

Danny Lee Ladely in Telluride

 

 

For Love of Art and Cinema, Danny Lee Ladely Follows His Muse 

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 
With his braided pony tail, arrowhead-pattern shirt, blue jeans, boots and Stetson hat, Nebraska film guru Dan Lee Ladely looks like a holdover from the 1960s, when the Gordon, Neb. native was in fact an anti-war demonstrator in college. During his undergrad days at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he earned a degree in English lit between showing films for the student council, he once led a takeover of the campus ROTC building. These days the 50-something Ladely is an activist for the aesthetic, educational and entertainment value of the moving image and more and more his cinema dreams loom large on the horizon.

As construction proceeds on the new Mary Riepma Ross Film Theater (MRRFT) at 13th and P Streets in Lincoln, the new home for the nationally recognized alternative film program Ladely’s overseen since 1973, he daily watches his dreams taking shape from the temporary office he and his small staff occupy a block away. Once the theater opens in early 2003 he plans an ambitious exhibition schedule that will give cinephiles access to see American independent, first-run foreign and classic films the way they’re meant to be seen and opportunities to meet emerging and established filmmakers. Two auditoriums, equipped for film, digital and video projection, will provide flexible exhibition space to show a large, diverse menu of feature, documentary and short films as well as video art pieces. Plans call for the theater’s Great Plains Film Festival, a celebration of regional indie film which Ladely inaugurated, to continue unreeling there every other year.

The new theater will replace the auditorium the program exhibited in at the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, located within a block of the new site.

The MRRFT is an anomaly. Where art houses and alternative film series have failed in more populous Omaha, Ladely’s program has survived 30 years in Lincoln of all places and now, in the midst of a recession, is embarking on a new building program.

It is a stunning accomplishment, especially in the capitol of such a conservative state, because the pitfalls to success in the art film market are legion. Among the obstacles to running any art house in today’s environment are: the tight economy; the fact that indie films regularly play at commercial cineplexes; and the encroaching presence of cable television, video-DVD and the Internet, media formats that feature much of the same kind of fare art houses used to be the exclusive outlet for.

Now, a film buff outfitted with a home theater system can select from the market’s glut of viewing choices and, in effect, be his or her own film programmer. In addition to this competition, Ladely’s program faces additional constraints in the form of: budget cuts, as his theater is partly subsidized by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where it is a department within the College of Fine and Performing Arts; the whims of private and public contributors it depends on for the bulk of its funding; and ever higher operating costs. All of which might lead one to wonder if this is the right time to build a new theater?

“There still is a place and a need for this program and I think people will respond,” a reflective and soft-spoken Ladely said. “I think people will come out, at least at the beginning out of curiosity, in pretty good numbers. The new building is going to do one thing for us. We were sort of hidden in the Sheldon Art Gallery. I think being in an art museum kind of put some people off and now that we won’t be there we have the possibility of a whole new audience.”

The mission of the theater, which he said he “sort of created out of thin air” over the years, has always been “to provide an alternative venue for true commercial cinema and to bring films here that wouldn’t get shown here otherwise.”

 

 

 

 

He said the proliferation of art films on cable and video/DVD has made it “harder and harder” to stay true to that vision. But the one thing MRRFT can still provide is a state-of-the-art space where you can watch these films in the manner in which they were meant to be seen, namely, a theater. He said regardless of how elaborate one’s home theater system is, “it’s still not the same” as the real thing. “No matter what happens in the future there’s always going to be a place for the film theater because film is really still a social event. Even though you’re there in the dark, there’s an audience and the audience reacts and that’s part of the experience. It’s totally different when you’re home alone.” Plus, there’s the dearth of alternative film exhibition in Nebraska, where except for the Dundee Theater, art houses have come and gone, the most recent being the short-lived Brandeis Art Cinema.

As Ladely points out, “There isn’t any other alternative place in this whole area right now where you can see these films.”

Much of what Ladely envisions has already been done from its old site in the currently closed Sheldon Art Gallery, where a major renovation under way has put a halt to the film program’s exhibition schedule until the new theater is completed. For years the program has been the state’s best and most consistent venue for presenting what used to be called underground cinema and the people who make it.

Where many like programs in Omaha once thrived but eventually folded, including those of the New Cinema Cooperative, the Joslyn Art Museum and the UNO Student Programming Organization, Ladely’s has continued uninterrupted for 30 years. How? Part of the answer lies in the fact the Lincoln program has enjoyed a measure of institutional support unknown elsewhere in this state owing to the legacy of the man who formed it and hired Ladely to run it, Sheldon’s director emeritus Norman Gesky, and to Ladely’s own passion for creating something of world-class stature. Ladely also had hands-on experience running two theaters in his native Gordon. Long a step-child of the Sheldon, where the MRRFT eventually lost favor under the man who succeeded Gesky as director, George Neubert, who cut the exhibition schedule and made life uneasy for Ladely, the theater is now poised to have its own stand-alone facility and identity.

And then there’s the one factor separating the theater from its imitators — Mary Riepma Ross. The retired New York lawyer is not only the theater’s namesake but its most ardent patron, biggest contributor and tenacious protector. A former UNL undergraduate student who fell in love with the movies as a young girl living in Lincoln, she was serving on the University Foundation board of trustees in the 1970s when then-chancellor Durwood “Woody” Varner put her in touch with the Sheldon’s Geske, a fellow film buff just beginning to shape plans for a full-fledged film program. She bought into Geske’s vision and, according to Ladely, “pledged she would support the program, which she’s obviously done. She started very early on sending us financial donations.”

In 1990, with the then Sheldon Film Theater struggling financially after a round of state budget cuts and slowly but surely being squeezed into oblivion by a director (Neubert) unfriendly toward the program, Ladely sent her a letter outlining his bold dream for a new theater space that would give the program a solid, independent foundation for survival and growth. It was just an idea. Ladely didn’t even ask for money. Amazingly, her response was to donate 3.5 million dollars in an irrevocable trust, a giant windfall for an arts organization of any size anywhere, but a truly extraordinary and unprecedented commitment for a film series in the Midwest. The Sheldon Film Theater quickly became the Mary Riepma Ross Film Theater.

Ladely, who has a portrait of his benefactress hanging in his office, said, “She’s actually the perfect patron. She has really impeccable tastes in film and she loves the kind of films we show. She sees them in New York and often writes to me and sends in articles about films she’s seen and makes recommendations to me. And very often they’re films we’re considering and we end up showing.”

 

 

Ladely with the portrait of Mary Riepma Ross

 

 

In the new space Ladely anticipates reviving some activities he was forced to abandon during leaner times, such as film retrospectives, artist showcases and screening seven nights a week. In the past he has brought to Lincoln prominent filmmakers and actors with local ties, including Joan Micklin Silver, Peter Fonda and  John Beasley. And now for the first time the theater will sell concessions, including popcorn, a new revenue stream he’s counting on to help defray expenses. He would also like to resume the theater’s long dormant touring film exhibition program and to share programs with other organizations, such as a film series it cooperatively presented with the Joslyn a few years ago.

There’s even more Ladely would like to do, but he admits all his plans are ultimately “contingent upon whether or not we can come up with enough money to keep the program going.” That’s why Ladely is using this down time while the MRRFT marquee is blank to write grants and solicit funds. Even if successful in securing enough money for the new theater’s operating budget, he is left with the nagging realization that attendance just isn’t what it used to be for documentaries by Emile De Antonio, Ricky Leacock, Albert Maysles and D.A. Pennebaker (all of whom appeared at the old theater at one time or another) or for Hollywood classics or for the best emerging cinema from places like Iran.

Even in its fattest years, he said, “if the university hadn’t been paying all the utilities…we couldn’t have survived as a stand-alone theater in a market this size.” That, and the fact the theater is about to come out of the shadows and expand in every way, has made for “sleepless nights” for Ladely, who is left “wondering how we’re going to do it.”

But, if nothing else, Ladely is an evangelist for film. He has a way of making you see the stars in his eyes when he discusses the kind of cinema he sees at the Telluride and Sundance festivals and that makes him compelled to share it with audiences here.

“I’m really interested in what’s going on now. What’s coming out. What’s the next big thing. Who’s doing what. I’m always interested in new filmmakers. And I’m very interested in what’s happening locally. One of the major things we’ll be doing in the small theater is have an open screening night where local filmmakers show their films. We’ll be able to show them in almost any format.” He said he keeps tabs on the local filmmaking scene and expects more new filmmakers to surface as technology makes moviemaking, especially the digital variety, more accessible and affordable, “That’s going to be very exciting — to see what comes out of that.”

Despite shrinking attendance for things like politically-charged documentaries, he will continue programming quality cinema regardless of how little box office potential it has, because that is part of what an alternative film series is all about, particularly one allied with a university.

“We have to balance this out between showing stuff that’s very esoteric and very important, even if there’s just one person in the audience, and showing stuff that’s more popular and generates a bigger audience. Just like there are classes that are real popular and classes that aren’t popular but are really important and you have to have, there are some kinds of films people don’t want to see but it’s absolutely important that, for example, film students see them in order to get a well-rounded education. The university has these burgeoning film studies and new media programs and I think our program definitely serves a need for those students.” Reality also dictates the theater at least break even, which means Ladely must show slightly more mainstream fare or at least indie cinema with a strong buzz behind it in the hope that better box office returns offset losses incurred on more obscure selections.

The Man Behind the Voice of Husker Football at Memorial Stadium

June 20, 2012 1 comment

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

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

 

 

The Man Behind the Voice of Husker Football at Memorial Stadium

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gender Equity in Sports Has Come a Long Way, Baby; Title IX Activists-Advocates Who Fought for Change See Much Progress and the Need for More

June 11, 2012 2 comments

Title IX.   This often contentious  1972 federal education act is getting more attention then usual these days because the media is taking a reflective look back on the impact it’s had over its 40 year lifespan.  I’m doing the same with this article, which will soon appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com).  Because I reside in Omaha, Neb. and The Reader is an Omaha news weekly my story looks at the implications of Title IX and the context that brought it into being from a local perspective, though I certainly address the nationwide effect the legislation’s had.  The real interest for me in doing this story was to try and impress upong readers of a certain age that what is easily taken for granted today in terms of the ubiquitious presence of girls and women’s athletics obscures the fact that things were quite different not so very long ago.  Younger readers may be surprised to learn that schools, colleges, and universities had to be compelled to cease discrimination on the basis of sex and to give females the same opportunties as males.  What seems natural and common sense today wasn’t viewed in that light just a few decades ago.  I end my story with a rhetorical question asked by one of my sources, former coach and athletic director Don Leahy, who said, “Why was it ever different?”  My story attempts in a small way to explain why and to describe what the journey for women trying to gain equal opportunity in sports looked like.

©competenetwork.com

 

 

Gender Equity in Sports Has Come a Long Way, Baby; Title IX Activists-Advocates Who Fought for Change See Much Progress and the Need for More

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Participants in girls and women’s sports today should be forgiven if they take for granted the bounty of athletic scholarships, competitive opportunities, training facilities and playing venues afforded them.

After all, they’ve never known anything else.

Their predecessors from two generations ago or more, however, faced a much leaner landscape. One where athletic scholarships were unheard of or totaled hundreds, not thousands of dollars. A handful of games once comprised a season. Facilities-venues were shared, borrowed or makeshift.

Until 1972 federal Title IX legislation banned discrimination on the basis of sex, educational institutions offered nothing resembling today’s well-funded athletic programs for females. Schools devoted a fraction of the resources, if anything at all, to girls and women’s sports that they earmarked for boys and men’s sports.

Second class citizen treatment prevailed.

Nebraska women’s basketball coach Connie Yori made her mark at Creighton University, where she played and coached at some 11 different “home” sites because the program didn’t have its own dedicated facility.

“We were gypsies in some ways. We just had to figure out places to play,” she says, adding, “That wasn’t that long ago either.”

Connie Yori, ©huskers.com

 

 

The gulf between then and are now is vast.

“I mean everything was different,” she says. “The way we traveled – the coaches and student athletes were driving the vans to the games. We as coaches had to regularly clean the facilities we practiced in. That was the norm, there wasn’t anyone else to do it. There’s countless examples. Opportunities to play, scholarship money, modes of travel, recruiting budgets, operations budgets, staff salaries, you name it, it’s escalated. But college men’s athletics has escalated too, so it’s not just the women.

“When I played college basketball there would maybe be 50 to 100 fans in the stands and now I’m coaching games where there’s sell-outs and ticket scalping is going on, and who would have thought that?”

Creighton, Nebraska and UNO have their own women’s hoops and volleyball facilities.

“That’s just kind of what’s happened across the board in women’s athletics in that institutions are more committed to equity, and as well they should be,” says Yori.

Gaps remain. Salaries for women coaches lag behind those for men. And where men routinely coach female athletes, it’s rare that women coach male athletes.

Still, things are far advanced from when women’s athletics got dismissed or marginalized and the very notion of female student-athletes was anathema to all but a few enlightened administrators and athletics officials.

In that proto-feminist era the so-called “weaker sex” was discouraged from athletics. Girls and women were considered too delicate to play certain, read: male, sports. Besides, it wasn’t feminine or ladylike to compete. Schools routinely said they could not justify women’s programs because they’d never pay for themselves. Consequently, the idea of giving females the same chances as males was met with paternalistic, patronizing objections. This despite the fact virtually all men’s programs lose money and only survive thanks to donations and to subsidies from student fees and revenue producing major sports.

Former Creighton softball coach Mary Higgins bought the rationale until realizing the contradiction

“I just remember thinking, ‘Well of course we don’t have women’s athletics, we can’t make any money, no one will come.’ And then it was like the light went on – ‘Well, wait a minute, the baseball team doesn’t make any money, they don’t have any people in the stands, then how come they have it and we don’t?’”

Mary Higgins

 

 

When people like Higgins began questioning tired old assumptions and asking for their fair share of amenities there was push back, including from men’s coaches protecting their turf.

“Well, you start with the fact that people don’t like change, period,” says former University of Nebraska at Omaha chancellor Del Weber.

With institutional support virtually nonexistent at the collegiate level, the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women evolved into the main national governing-sanctioning body. Meanwhile, the NCAA actively ignored, then opposed inroads made by women. When school presidents and NCAA officials saw the hand writing on the wall and, some argue, the profits to be made from championship events, women’s athletics fell under the NCAA’s aegis in the early 1980s.

The real impetus for change may simply have been demographic. As women became the majority population, more entered college. Today, women account for the majority enrollment at Creighton and UNO.

Where the benefits of athletic competition (improved self-esteem,  leadership skills development, higher graduation rates, et cetera) were once anecdotal, they eventually became measurable.

As far as defining moments, says Higgins, “the linchpin for our programs to grow was getting scholarships. Once we had scholarships we could go get the players.” That’s when the real gains occurred.

“The AIAW got things launched and then I think we got more sophisticated with the NCAA and a lot more money became available. It was a positive thing for growth but that was a painful transition.”

UNO associate athletic director Connie Claussen began women’s athletics there in 1969 as volunteer softball coach. She soon added volleyball and basketball. “I didn’t ask anyone, I just did it,” she recalls. All three sports shared the same set of uniforms. The teams practiced and played in a quonset hut. The equipment room was the trunk of her car. There was no budget, only donations scrounged from sympathetic boosters. Similar limitations applied at Creighton. Nebraska enjoyed a decided facilities advantage. For a time small schools could hang with big schools as everyone started from scratch and had no scholarships available.

 Connie Claussen, in center back row

 

 

Even after Title IX passed, says Claussen “it took several years for it really to have an effect on most athletic programs,” and then only with some prodding. In the case of UNO the Chancellor’s and Mayor’s Commissions on the Status of Women brought pressure. Even the U.S. Office of Civil Rights got involved at the behest of parents Mary Ellen Drickey and Howard Rudloff.

“What sticks out in my mind is that in our old gym they had hours set aside for when the women could come in,” says Higgins. “You think about that now and it just sounds ludicrous but that’s just what it was. The women could come in I believe Sunday and Wednesday nights because God forbid they sweat or show any effort.”

Peru State College basketball coach Maurtice Ivy excelled at the high school, collegiate and pro levels but when she was learning the game as a youth in the 1970s there was no exposure to girls or women’s hoops.

“I didn’t really see women playing, and so the person I watched play and I kind of emulated my game after was Dr. J.”

Mauritce Ivy getting her Husker jersey retired, ©huskers.com

 

 

As an Omaha youth Ivy and other inner city girls developed their skills as Hawkettes, the state’s first select basketball team run by the late Forrest Roper. Richard Nared’s Midwest Striders track program impacted generations of girls, including Ivy and her younger sister Mallery, who set several state records. The sisters’ father was among the first local coaches to offer girls the opportunity to play football.

Fastpitch whiz Ron Osborn organized a statewide club softball association as a forum for girls to play in and as a showcase to convince schools they should start their own softball teams.

Today, girls club teams are everywhere.

Grassroots pioneers worked independently of Title IX to bring about change. Ivy thinks of them and graduates like herself as “soldiers” in the women’s athletics movement.

But there’s no mistaking Title IX, whose enforcement has been upheld in countless legal findings, is the bedrock equal opportunity protection upon which girls and women’s athletics rests. By compelling schools receiving federal assistance to uphold gender equity it’s propelled the explosion of women going to college and the exponential growth of girls and women’s athletics. It’s meant a dramatic increase in the infrastructures supporting female student-athletes and a proportionate increase in the number of participants.

“You went from nothing to everything,” is how former UNO and Creighton athletic director and now UNO associate athletic director Don Leahy describes its impact.

Don Leahy

 

 

“To me, it standardized and normalized athletics,” says Higgins. “Now it’s just expected.”

Institutions found not complying with Title IX are forced to take corrective action under penalty of court-ordered monetary damages.

Nebraska’s been a battleground for some notable Title IX actions, including a 1995 lawsuit brought by Naomi Friston against the Minden Public School District for scheduling girls games at off times compared to boys’ games. Creighton University graduate Kristen Galles, who successfully represented the Friston case, is now one of the nation’s leading Title IX and gender equity attorneys.

Some school districts, colleges, universities and states were more progressive than others early on. For example, where Iowa embraced girls high school athletics decades before Title IX neighboring Nebraska dragged its feet.

Yori, an Iowa girls athletics legend, says, “I feel like I grew up in almost the perfect place during my era to be a female athlete because Iowa was ahead of its time in regards to the support of girls athletics.” She says the late Iowa Girls Athletics Association president, E. Wayne Cooley, “found ways to place girl athletes on a pedestal.”

Not so much in Nebraska.

“When I crossed the river from Iowa to Nebraska during the early 1980s,” Yori says, “I saw a really different climate for girls athletics here. There was definitely a difference in the commitment level. I mean, there just weren’t opportunities. It’s been great to see how much progress we’ve made in Nebraska and now the two states are on level playing fields in my mind.”

At the collegiate level some Nebraska institutions did take the lead, including John F. Kennedy College in Wahoo and Midland University in Fremont, both of which built dominant women’s athletic programs in the ’70s. Recently retired Midland basketball coach Joanne Bracker was an inaugural member of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

Under Claussen UNO won the 1975 AIAW Women’s College World Series, one of several national titles won by UNO women’s teams. Claussen and CU’s Higgins helped grow college softball, serving on AIAW and NCAA committees and leading their respective schools in hosting more than a dozen CWS championships, which Higgins says was “huge” in legitimizing women’s sports here and beyond.

The late Omaha Softball Association guru Carl Kelly and College World Series Inc. chairman Jack Diesing Sr., along with corporate donors, helped sponsor the women’s tournament.

The start of the 1980s saw NU women’s sports emerge. The volleyball program began its run of excellence under Terry Pettit. Gary Pepin’s track program shined with superstar Merlene Ottey. Angela Beck’s basketball program reached new heights with Maurtice Ivy. NU softball began making noise.

©sportsandentertainmentlawblog.com

 

 

By the early ’90s, a full complement of women’s sports was in place wherever you looked, whether big public schools like NU, smaller private schools like CU or then-Division II UNO.

None of it would have happened without activists pressing the cause of female student athletes. Along the way Title IX and its supporters met resistance, including court challenges.

“I think there’s a lot of women and men who made a huge difference for the young women of this generation,” says Yori. “Connie Claussen and Mary Higgins were very much advocates for change. There were a lot of battles fought – in offices, in meeting rooms, and even legally in courtrooms. There were people that got fired for voicing their opinions and became the sacrificial lambs because of that. There were a lot of people who didn’t want change and didn’t want to give women the opportunity they are now being given.

“You know, we still need to fight for it, but there’s not such a gap as there was.”

Higgins says the trailblazers of modern women’s athletics were “people who just had a burning passion to make this happen. It consumed me,  I know it consumed my colleagues. It’s like, ‘We’ll do whatever it takes. We’ll figure it out, we’ll find a way.”

Parents played roles, too, as coaches, administrators, boosters.

“I do think dads and their concern for their daughters had a major impact, and that was absolutely the case at Creighton,” says Higgins. “It wasn’t Title IX telling Creighton they had to do it. Title IX was happening at the same time but our then-assistant athletic director, the late Dan Offenburger, kind of led the charge. He coached our very first softball team. He didn’t have time to do it, we didn’t have any money, we didn’t even have a shoestring. But he got it going because it was the right thing to do. Plus, he had three daughters and he was motivated to create opportunities for them.

“I’m sure there are stories like that all over.”

As near as UNO, where Don Leahy says he supported women’s athletics not only because “I thought it had to be done” but because “I had a daughter who played sports.” There were also a wife and mother to answer to at home.

Leahy says the coaches he worked with at UNO and Creighton “fought diligently for their programs but at the same time they maintained a common sense that made it possible for this thing to develop. We talked and we gradually worked through these things and I think that made a big difference.”

“This stuff did not come easy,” says Del Weber, who approved the early road map for women’s athletics at UNO laid out by Leahy and Claussen and the gender equity program that they and former athletic director Bob Danenhauer devised.

Ramping up meant serious dollars. Leahy says when it became clear accommodating women’s athletics was a new reality “the first thing that came up was – how are we going to pay for this?”

Bruce Rasmussen

 

 

Current Creighton athletic director Bruce Rasmussen, who coached CU’s women’s basketball team, recalls, “We didn’t have enough resources to properly compete just with our mens’ programs and now we had the burden of essentially doubling our athletic department. It was, ‘How do we balance what we can do with what we should do?’ And there was a lot of stress across the country. Women’s athletics completely changed the dynamics of universities and how were they going to support a full athletic department. So there was a lot of tension and trauma going on.”

“And funding it is not just a matter of we’re going to give them x number of dollars,” says Rasmussen, “but it’s facilities, it’s staffing, it’s scholarships, recruiting, traveling, equipment…”

At Creighton as anywhere, says Rasmussen, “we’re asked to provide not only an athletic program but also to be fiscally responsible as a department and as a program. So when it comes to asking for more money, especially when you’re running at a deficit, there’s certainly friction. I think factions of the faculty felt every dollar that went to athletics was a dollar out of their pocket.”

By the ’90s, girls and women’s sports were a given. By the 2000s, they’re as much a part of the culture as boys and men’s sports. Some professional women’s sports leagues flourish. Icons have even emerged: Pat Summit, Lisa Leslie, Florence Griffith-Joyner, the Williams sisters, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Brittney Griner.

“To turn that around was a seismic shift,” says Higgins.

“In a short time things really have come a long way,” says Claussen, who hastens to add, “But it took a long time to get” the opportunity.

Once spare media coverage has increased to the point that it’s commonplace if still a trickle of what males get.

“Hopefully we’ll continue getting more and more and that’s where the NCAA plays a big part in getting those television contracts,” says Claussen. “All that’s going to help increase the interest.”

The sustainability of athletic programs is an increasingly difficult proposition for schools struggling to keep pace with peers in a competitive arena of ever rising costs.

“At some point women’s athletics has to generate enough money to pay for itself because until it does we’re not going to get where we need to be,” says Rasmussen. “In men’s basketball we wouldn’t have the budget or spend the money on salaries we do if weren’t generating that, and we’ve got to move to the point where on the women’s side we’re generating realistic revenues. And the key to that is having generations of females who played sports, understand the value of sports and are willing to make a commitment to those sports.

“We don’t exist as an athletic department without people making a commitment to us.”

Creighton’s state-of-the-art athletic center and arena for volleyball and women’s basketball resulted from multi-million dollar gifts by donors Wayne and Eileen Ryan and David Sokol. Rasmussen says having coached women’s sports helps him effectively make the case for them when he asks for support.

In 1986 Claussen inaugurated the UNO Women’s Walk, now the Claussen-Leahy Run/Walk, which has raised $4 million-plus for women’s athletics.

NU’s men’s and women programs have some of the best facilities in the U.S. thanks to mega donations.

The strong sisterhood of girls and women’s sports that exists today is built on decades of sacrifice and perseverance. Ivy wants her athletes to know the history. It’s why she says she tells them about “who paved some of the way and the different struggles people had to endure so that we can have.” Yori does the same with her players because she wants them to know “where we come from as a sport.”

“There were groundbreakers and pioneers before us who made a huge impact on the opportunities young people have today,” Yori says. “Women of previous generations were not given opportunities and so it’s neat to see when they are given opportunities how much they can take advantage of that.”

“Why was it ever different?” asked Leahy.  Why indeed.

One Peach of a Pitcher: Peaches James Leaves Enduring Legacy in the Circle as a Nebraska Softball Legend

April 10, 2012 2 comments

I earlier posted a 2004 story about black women athletes of distinction in Nebraska, and that reminded me of another story I did that year on Peaches James, a hard-throwing softball pitcher whose dominance in the circle helped establish a dynasty at Papillion-La Vista High School and helped lead the University of Nebraska softball program to great success, though short of its ultimate goal of winning the women’s College World Series.  James was a good to very good college pitcher her first three years in Lincoln but elevated her game her senior season to become nothing short of great as she earned all sorts of team, conference, and national accolades.  My story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) just as her collegiate career came to an end and just as she looked forward to playing professionally.  Her pro career didn’t amount to much, but today she’s a fastpitch instructor with an elite sports academy in Illinois.

NOTE: While this story was not officially a part of my extensive 2004-2005 series on Omaha black sports legends, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, it appeared just before the start of that series, and so I count it in the mix.  You can find most of the installments in that series on this blog, and I’ll soon be adding the remaining installments.

Peaches James doing her thing for the Huskers/©newsroom.unl.edu

 

 

One Peach of a Pitcher: Peaches James Leaves Enduring Legacy in the Circle as a Nebraska Softball Legend

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Nebraska softball pitching whiz Peaches James is the epitome of cool on the diamond between her tight braids, sleek shades, silver bling-bling adorned ears and silky smooth delivery of blazing rise balls. She strides the circle with the calm confidence you expect from the ace of the staff. Intense, yet loose, and in complete command out there.

The record-setting James is among the latest African-American athletes from Omaha who’ve made an enduring contribution to the area’s fat sports heritage. But she’s done it in a sport that, at the collegiate level, has had traditionally few black faces.

It’s no coincidence the Top 15 Lady Huskers enjoyed their finest season in a long time in what was their ace’s best year. NU wrapped up the regular season Big 12 title with a pair of one-run wins pitched by James over Texas A & M in early May. Two weekends ago, she got on a roll in the Big 12 tourney. She pitched a 2-1 complete game victory over Texas that saw her strike out 13 Longhorns and then topped that with a perfect game 7-0 win over Oklahoma. On May 15, she was in the circle for a 10-1 win over Baylor and later that same day she threw a 1-0 shutout, with 16 strikeouts, against Missouri to clinch the Huskers’ tourney title. With her four-game performance, she added conference tourney MVP to her Big 12 Pitcher of the Year honors. Then, she led her Huskers to the NCAA Region 5 championship round, posting a 6-0, 12-strikeout win over Leigh and bracketing two wins over Creighton amid a 2-0 loss to top-seed California. NU was eliminated Sunday with another 2-0 loss to the Bears — falling two wins short of the College World Series.

Even with her NU career ended, Peaches has already secured more softball in her future. Last December, she was a second round pick in the inaugural senior draft of the newly formed National Pro Fastpitch league, the latest attempt to market women’s softball. Selected by the Houston Thunder, now known as the Texas Thunder, James will be competing this summer with a who’s-who roster of former college and Olympic stars. NCAA rules prohibited her from negotiating and signing a contract until the season ended. Now that it has, she’s eager to get started. “I’m really excited,” she said. “It will be great competition.”

Then there’s a possible try for the 2008 USA Olympic team. Just like the pros, making the Olympic squad would require taking her game to “a whole different level,” she said. “When you have pitchers like Lisa Fernandez and Jenny Finch, they’re your top, elite athletes. To compete at that level you’ve got to be at the top of your game every game.” Can she? “I’d like to think so.” Cool. Peachy keen.

History repeated itself with James. She was a solid, at times smothering, starting pitcher her first two years of prep ball before going off into the stratosphere her senior season, when she shut down and almost always shut out her foes. Similarly, for NU, she established herself as an outstanding performer her freshman, sophomore and junior seasons, pitching well enough to earn first-team All-Big 12 honors all three years and first-team All-Midwest Region as a junior. Entering the 2004 season, she’d already been on the national Softball Player of the Year watch list and an invitee to the Olympic training center and she ranked among NU’s all-time leaders in wins, shutouts, strikeouts and innings pitched.

 

 

 

 

But, just like she did before, she ratcheted her game up another notch or two for her swan song, lowering her ERA by nearly half her career average, to 0.70, throwing her second collegiate no-hitter and setting NU single season records for most shutouts (18) and strikeouts (more than 300). Her 37 wins (versus 9 losses) are among the program’s best single season totals. She’s also first in career strikeouts (with more than 900) and second in career wins (98).

“I do see a lot of mirroring from her high school career,” Revelle said. “It seemed like every year in high school she made strides and then she made a leap her senior year. And I feel the same thing in this senior year for her. She’s had a great career for us but this is definitely her signature season.”

James explains her senior success this time around to having been there before. “I think what’s helped me is the experience I’ve gained from my freshman year in college to my senior year now. It’s about building confidence. It’s getting comfortable being out there and playing with your teammates. It’s building trust. It’s all those mental things that make you a better player.”

She first started developing a name for herself at Papillion-La Vista High School, whose dynasty of a softball program she helped maintain. Her prep career came in the middle of the school’s record nine straight state championships, a run of excellence unequaled in Nebraska prep history. But what James did her senior season elevated her and her team’s dominance to new heights. Almost literally unhittable the entire 1999-2000 campaign, she posted a remarkable 0.04 earned run average. In the space of that same season, she pitched 11 no-hitters, including five perfect games. It was the culmination of an unparalled two-year run in which she set about a dozen state records, including marks for most consecutive: wins (31); shut-outs (19); shut-out innings (162 1/3) and no earned runs allowed (257 2/3).

Her brilliance is all the more remarkable given that only six years earlier Mike Govig, her future prep coach, saw her at an indoor clinic where her wild throws soared up to the ceiling while her mother patiently sat on a bucket waiting, in vain, to catch one of those errant tosses. “I did not get it (pitching) right away. Balls would be flying everywhere,” James said. Govig recalls thinking the girl was hopeless.

What he didn’t know then was the size of her heart and strength of her will. With a lot of hard work, James made herself a pitcher the Monarchs rode to titles her sophomore year on. Her progress into a consummate hurler was so advanced that at a summer Topeka, Kansas tournament prior to her senior year she threw seven games in one day, winning six, en route to capping team title-tourney MVP honors.

“The title game got over at two o’clock in the morning, and her last inning was probably her strongest inning of the whole day,” Govig said. “You talk about a workhorse. The legend grew.”

 

 

 

 

Her dominance and endurance carried through her senior season. As her reputation grew, Govig said frustrated batters often got themselves out. “People were not able to step in the box with a whole lot of confidence. Half the battle was already won. They’d already lost…You could see it their body language.”

James also blossomed into a fine athlete. She competed in volleyball and track. On the diamond, she displayed versatility by playing second base her freshman year and posing the Monarchs best base stealing threat all four years. Govig rates her as one of the best athletes he’s ever coached, while NU head softball coach Rhonda Revelle flat out says, “I’ve not coached a better all-around athlete in this program. She’s physically powerful. She has so many tools.” James holds the best all-sport vertical jump in NU women’s athletics history at 30.5 inches.

The coaches say there’s never been another home-grown softball pitcher who’s carried her dominance from high school into college as James has. “She definitely stands alone,” Govig said. “She’s set the bar very high.”

The work ethic it took to come so far, so quickly, was instilled in James by her parents and coaches, whose preachings about the importance of practice she faithfully followed. “As I got older I had enough discipline to go pitch on my own or go work out on my own,” she said. “It’s like I wanted to do it on my own because I wanted to get better and I wanted to get good.”

Govig, who’s followed James career at NU, said the right-hander has it all. “Some pitchers might just be dominant with a rise ball, but she can throw a drop, a curve, a rise, a change. She can get you out in a bunch of different ways. Her ball movement is very extraordinary.”

Embracing the role of every day starter didn’t come easily for the placid James, whose magnanimous personality made it hard for her to stand out. “It was hard for me at first when we’d play and then I’d find out I was pitching again the next day and the other pitchers were not getting the ball, because I am the type of person that wants everybody to succeed,” she said. Her survival-of-the-fittest showing in Topeka went a long way towards changing her attitude. “Before that I would never have thought I’d be able to pitch and win that many games in one day,” she said. “I guess when you’re put in that situation and you’re put to the test, you really find out what you’re made of and you find out what you can and what you can’t do. It defines who you are and if you’re going to be tough enough to step up to a challenge and succeed at it. I got to where if my coaches said, ‘You’re pitching today,’ then I got in that mindset and that’s the only thing I could worry about if I was going to do my best for the team.”

Despite a solid start to her college career — when she posted 16-7, 22-9 and 23-13 records her first three years — James lacked the fire top pitchers need. “I was like a nice competitor, you know. I would compete, but I wasn’t like gritting my teeth in a I-will-not-lose kind of way. My teammates would always say I was too nice out there. You can be nice off the field, but when you’re on the field that’s the time you need to compete fiercely. And I think I’ve grown more into that to where I’m like: For me to lose, you’re going to have to beat me…I’m not going to beat myself and I’m not going to give into you…you’re going to have to be better than me. Yeah, I think that’s more the demeanor I do have now, and it’s really helped.”

Coach Revelle noticed. “I’ve used the term warrior for Peaches this year,” she said, “as I really think she’s taken on a warrior’s mentality, where she’s virtually unfazed by what goes on around he and just sticks to her game plan.” That nonplussed attitude extended to those times racial slurs were directed her way and to the strange looks she got as one of college softball’s few black pitchers.

Her strong, poised presence in the circle sent a clear message. “Ever since I’ve been a pitcher I’ve known you have to set the tone out there and have that presence,” she said. “You’re like an automatic leader being a pitcher. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown more into being a leader out there. I have to set the tone for the rest of my teammates because how I act and how I respond and how I am on the mound is how they’re going to act and respond.”

She also formed a tight relationship with her regular battery mate, catcher Brittney Yolo. “My catcher and our coaches have talked a lot about going two against one. That it’s not just me out there going against the batter, it’s me and my catcher going against that batter. And that, mentally, has helped a lot because I don’t feel like I have to do it myself. I have someone back there that’s going to help me. Especially with her behind the plate, I feel like I do own the batter and I do own part of that batter’s box, and they’re going to have to beat both of us.”

If the Huskers were to go all the way, James would have been the horse her team rode. Prior to the regional, she felt fully capable of carrying the load. “Oh, definitely. I will not be satisfied until the season’s over and we’ve been to the tournament,” she said. “We haven’t been there since my sophomore year, so that’s definitely a goal of mine, and the only way to get there is to keep working and to keep getting better. I can’t be content with anything.”  Her coach, too, envisioned Peaches bringing the team all the way home. “She’s been a thoroughbred for us, and we can ride her until the last out of the College World Series, if we make it that far. I think she’s strong enough mentally and physically to endure that,” Revelle said before the start of the regional.

After coming up short, James simply said, “It’s hard.” Although not hit hard by California in the regional losses that ended NU’s season, James, who threw nearly 40 innings in two days, said, “I think physically I wasn’t at my sharpest but…I was giving whatever I had.” Revelle said it’s that kind of gutsy effort that made working with James “a tremendous ride for this coach,” adding: “I’ve never had a pitcher trust me so much. She is a tremendous athlete in her own right, but when you can trust the pitches that are being called and work together like that…Well, if I never have that again, I know I’ve had it once.”

This Peach of a Pitcher is finished at NU, but her legend will long live on there.

 

 

Peaches James at her graduation ceremony
Peaches James and NU coach Rhonda Revelle at the jersey retirement ceremony held in James’ honor

Cuba’s Illogical Temple the Subject of a Student Academy Award-Winning Film

January 14, 2012 2 comments

A fine Student Academy Award-winning documentary made several years ago by University of Nebraska-Lincoln students, Cuba: The Illogical Temple, is the focus of this story for The Reader (www.thereader.com).  If you get a chance to see the film on your local educational television or public access channels, I highly recommend it.

 

 

 

 

Cuba’s Illogical Temple the Subject of a Student Academy Award-Winning Film

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The illogical nature of Cuba is explored in a Student Academy Award-winning documentary made by area student journalists whose reporting odyssey there reveals a people in love with their country despite its oppression. The risk of practicing independent journalism in Cuba is dramatically discovered by the students, who find some sources are government spies and one reporter profiled is among many dissidents later jailed.

The documentary is the result of an ambitious in-depth reporting project that sent about a dozen University of Nebraska-Lincoln student journalists to Miami and Cuba last year. The film offers a micro-macro view of the small island nation that’s loomed so large in U.S. politics and in Cuban exiles’ hearts and minds. The reporting team conducted more than 180 interviews with a cross-section of laborers, journalists, politicos and business leaders for the honored film, Cuba: The Illogical Temple, and a Pulitzer-nominated magazine, Cuba: An Elusive Truth. The film also won the national Eric Sevareid Award.

The film is the first UNL entry to win an award in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ national competition. The hour-long film by Lindsey (Kealy) Gill and David Pittock is a complex meditation on the rich dichotomy of the last Communist hold-out in the Western Hemisphere. About the award-winning film, Gill said, “I guess I’m most proud of the sheer magnitude of what we took on in reporting on such an amazing, strange country.” She and Pittock were in the Los Angeles area last week for film industry-related activities culminating in the Student Oscar ceremonies on Sunday, June 13 at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. That night, the pair learned their film won a bronze medal in the documentary category and a corresponding cash prize of $2,000. The silver and gold medals (with cash prizes of $3,000 and $5,000) went to filmmakers from the University of California-Berkeley.

An award can create buzz in the industry. Already, such major film companies as Lion’s Gate and First Run Features have expressed interest in seeing the film. Gill and Pittock hope it’s selected to play a major festival, where it could get picked up for theatrical/video release. Some PBS stations have already acquired it.

As the Cuba project’s only broadcast majors, Gill and Pittock were its designated filmmakers. They collaborated in producing, directing, shooting, editing and writing the film. Gill, a UNL grad, is now a KMTV Channel 3 associate news producer, while UNL grad student Pittock is finishing up his master’s. Both want filmmaking in their future. “Travel the world and make documentaries. That would probably be my dream job. I love the fact it combines filmmaking and journalism,” Gill said.

“This experience makes me want to do more. To see the world and to document people, their lives and their personal stories. I would love to work on a narrative film. It’s opened up a lot of doors,” Pittock said.

The film explores Cuba from many perspectives, including that of rank and file Cuban nationals and government officials, Cuban exiles, U.S. officials and the students themselves. For most of the students, who studied the country’s history and culture prior to the trip, this was their first time in a nation with a state controlled media and where the penalty for crossing the party line can be grave.

The oppressive Castro regime is an ever-present character in the film. The high risk run by reporters daring to tell the truth is personally brought home when one of two independent journalists profiled turns out to be a spy. Upon their return home, the students discover the man posing as a journalist works for the government and is responsible for denouncing the other reporter as part of a large roundup of dissidents that occured after the UNL group left. The reporter who was betrayed by his supposed colleague is now serving a jail term of 20-plus years.

“That came as a huge shock,” said Gill. “It was appalling. Heartbreaking really, because the journalist now imprisoned was such a nice man. We were in his home. When we see people like him being persecuted for what we do on a daily basis, it’s sad. We take our freedom of speech so much for granted here.” Fellow student journalist Jill Zeman says in the film, “It was always in the back of my mind…if I use this person’s name or face, they could be thrown in jail. For once, I could see how my journalism would affect one person’s life. That’s a lot of pressure to have.”

Following their return, the students also uncover they were targets of Cuba’s insidious disinformation-agitprop campaign. Gill says in the film, “We thought we were getting the truth in Cuba and most of the time we did, but it was frustrating when we got back and found out that some people had outright lied to us. Even government officials. We knew the higher up government officials were feeding us a line. They told us a lot of the things they probably thought we wanted to hear.”

Much of the film focuses on Cuba’s stark contrasts. In one sequence, Cuban exile Felix Dominguez, now living in Norfolk, Neb., tells of the harrowing journey he made by boat in fleeing dictatorship for democracy. He saw many others who did not make it. His story is contrasted with that of his daughter, Jenny, whom he left behind. Now a single mother, Jenny lives in relative Havana squalor but fiercely defends her nation and lauds the free education and health care it provides. However, the film asserts nothing is really free in Cuba, where wages are so low that nearly everybody works scama, hustles or the black market on the side.

Despite crushing poverty, strict food rationing and pervasive material shortages made worse by the long-standing U.S. trade embargo, the film shows Cubans’ spirit and passion in their celebrations, warmth and wry wit. Then there’s the hypocrisy of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro criticizing the inequities of capitalism while welcoming North American-European tourist trade whose dollars create a cruel class system of tourist and non-tourist workers.

Everyday Cubans are seen and heard guardedly telling American visitors the harsh facts of life. The face of a disenchanted government worker is blurred to protect his identity. The palpable fear of speaking one’s mind is embodied in one man who, looking into the camera, says in hushed tones, “Your tourist guide was right behind you. Maybe I’m telling you things he don’t want you to know.”

The “guide” is among the functionaries assigned the Americans in restricting them to the official red carpet itinerary, complete with its press conferences and photo ops. Despite pressures to tow the line, Pittock says he and others managed to “go off and do our own thing” — interviewing people in the streets or in private homes.

The comments of an artist identified only as Gregorio inspire the film’s title and theme. “Cuba is an illogical temple,” he says. “You have to be Cuban to see it. It doesn’t make any sense, but I love my country.” Project participant Matthew Hansen, now a Lincoln Journal-Star reporter, says in the film that to grasp Cuba is “to be able to see the illogical temple. Things can be bad in a place… poor…its people oppressed. But that guy Gregorio still loved Cuba. He didn’t want to leave. He wouldn’t leave. In a sense, that’s illogical. Well, it’s not supposed to make sense. It’s about something deeper than logic or reason. It’s about loving Cuba.”

Timeless Fashion Illustrator Mary Mitchell: Her Work Illustrating Three Decades of Style Now Subject of New Book and Exhibition

January 7, 2012 5 comments

Fashion illustrator Mary Mitchell of Omaha is about to enjoy the kind of rediscovery few artists rarely experience in their own lifetime.  Selections from Mitchell’s 1,000-plus fashion illustrations, an archive that sublimely represents decades of style, are the subject of a forthcoming book and exhibition that will expose her work to a vast new audience.  No less a fashion icon than famed designer Oscar de la Renta has high praise for her work in the foreword to the book, Drawn to Fashion: Illustrating Three Decades of Style by Mary Mitchell.   The soon to be published book explores her work in words and images and is a complement to the same titled exhibition opening the end of January and continuing through the spring at the Durham Museum in Omaha.  My story below, which will appear in the February edition of the New Horizons newspaper, charts her rich life and career.  The story also reveals how her illustrations may have never been rediscovered if not for the discerning eye and persistent follow through of her friends Anne Marie Kenny and Mary Joichm.  You can see more of Mitchell’s work and order the book at http://www.drawntofashion.com.  A short video about Mitchell on the Drawn to Fashion website is narrated by Oscar-winner Alexander Payne, a family friend from the Greek-American community they share in common in Omaha. Clearly, Mary and her husband John Mitchell have made many good friends and it’s only fitting that her work of a lifetime is finally getting its just due on a stage large enough to encompass her immense talent.

NOTE: My profile of the aforementioned Anne Marie Kenny, a cabaret singer and entrepreneur, can be found on this blog, where you can also find my extensive work covering Alexander Payne.  Mary Mitchell’s reemergence as a fashion illustrator comes as the Omaha fashion scene is enjoying its own renaissance, and my stories about that burgeoning scene and its all-the-rage Omaha Fashion Week can also be found here.

 

 

Mary Mitchell in her studio, @photo Jim Scholz

 

 

Timeless Fashion Illustrator Mary Mitchell: Her Work Illustrating Three Decades of Style Now Subject of New Book and Exhibition

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to be published in the New Horizons

 

Fashion illustration revived

Just as good art is timeless, so are the artists who make it.

Born in Buffalo, New York, fashion illustrator Mary Mitchell has seen art movements come and go through the years, but quality work, no matter what it is called or when it is en vogue, endures.

Much to her surprise, finely articulated fashion illustrations she made in the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s are finding new admirers inside and outside the world of design. Friends and experts alike appreciate how Mitchell’s work stands the test of time while offering revealing glimpses into the lost art of fashion illustration she practiced.

She worked as an in-house illustrator for an elite Omaha clothing store, “The Nebraska,” for four years. She then decided to become a freelance illustrator, which found her illustrating men’s, women’s, and children’s fashions for several leading Omaha stores. Her illustrations appeared in the Omaha World-Herald, the Sun Newspapers, the Lincoln Journal-Star and various suburban papers and local magazines.

When there was no longer a demand for fashion illustration, she moved onto other things. Her originals – meticulously rendered, carefully preserved black and white fashion illustrations – no longer had a use and so she put them away in her studio at home. Untouched. Unseen. Forgotten.

That all changed in 2010 when, suddenly, Mary found her work from that period the subject of renewed interest. It happened this way:

Two good friends visited Mary and her husband, John Mitchell, in Longboat Key, Florida, where the couple reside half the year. When guests Anne Marie Kenny and Mary Jochim asked Mary what she used to do for a living the artist showed a portfolio of her work. Kenny and Jochim were instantly captivated by Mitchell’s handiwork. The guests were so impressed that en route home they conceived the idea for an exhibition. The women formed an organizing committee and after many meetings and much planning, the right venue for the exhibition was found at the Durham Museum.

The resulting exhibition and book, Drawn to Fashion: Illustrating Three Decades of Style by Mary Mitchell, marks the first time and most certainly not the last that the artist’s work will be exhibited. The show opens January 28 and runs through May 27. Omaha-based Standard Printing Company designed and printed the book. The University of Nebraska Press is distributing it.

What so captured her friends’ fancy?

For starters, Kenny appreciates “the intricate detail and attitude, crafted in a superb drawing technique,” “the graceful lines” and “the exquisite flair” that run through Mary’s work. She adds, “The exhibit and new book devoted exclusively to her fashion illustration demonstrate her unique expression of a genre that is awesome to behold, highly collectable, and more relevant today than ever.”

Jochim, too, is struck by “the intricate strokes, down to the individual hairs in a fur coat, a herringbone weave, or the sparkle in a glittering evening jacket.” She said Mitchell “breathes life into the illustrations. The models in her drawings seem to all have a story to tell which makes you curious.”

Fashion designer icon Oscar de la Renta writes in his foreword to Drawn to Fashion: “Mary is a true artist, elegant and masterful. Her illustrations have enriched the experience of fashion in our time, and brought joy to the mind’s eye.”

Academics sing her praises as well.

Dr. Barbara Trout, a professorat the University of Nebraska Lincoln’s Department of Textiles, Clothing and Design, which is contributing original garments for the exhibition, said Mitchell’s work “marked technical excellence through the fine articulation of garment details. Her ability to mimic the hand of the fabric, its distinct structure, and the projected movement allowed the consumer to envision themselves in those garments…Mary’s fine examples of illustration are truly a benchmark of their time.”

“Mary Mitchell’s fashion drawings reveal the confident hand of the experienced illustrator, one who brings to her work an editor’s ability to subtract and to refine, and an artist’s to enhance and to glamorize,” said Michael James, chair and Ardis James professor in the UNL Department of Textiles, Clothing and Design.

 

 

©Mary Mitchell

 

 

The rediscovery of Mitchell’s stunning cache of some 1,000 illustrations not only prompted the book and accompanying exhibition, it inspired the artist herself to create new fashion illustrations for the first time in years.

“I thought I probably would never have done any more fashion illustrations if it were not for Anne Marie Kenny and Mary Jochim. They showed so much interest in my work, it inspired me to start drawing in color, since all my work previously was in black and white to be printed in local papers,” said Mitchell.

Her new work now graces the book and the exhibit displays alongside her older work. She makes the new illustrations not for any client or acclaim, but purely for her own enjoyment and pleasure.

She throws herself into the work, creating without the burden of client restrictions or project deadlines.

“I get so excited about this that now I go down to my studio and work for hours to create another piece of art.”

She’s experimenting with other mediums, such as acrylic paints and watercolors, to draw fashions. Perhaps most pleasing of all, she feels she hasn’t lost her artistic touch. Her eye for detail, sharp as ever.

One should not assume Mitchell halted her creative life after the fashion illustration market dried up in the 1980s when clients and publishers abandoned hand-drawn illustrations for photographs.

No, her artistic sensibility and creativity infuse everything she does. It always has. It is revealed in the tasteful way she decorates her contemporary home, in how her hair is styled just so, in the stylish clothes she wears.

She is, as Jochim puts it, “a natural beauty” whose “graciousness and glamour” seem effortless.

Kenny said, “Mary lives and breathes art in every aspect of her life – her beautiful home, her elegant manner, her exquisite fashion illustrations, her glamorous style. Mary brings beauty to all that she touches.”

When fashion illustration was no longer a career option, Mitchell found other avenues of expression to feed her creativity, She became vice president of an advertising agency called Young & Mitchell, where she continued her graphic art. During this time she designed billboards, posters, and stationery logos, she called on clients, she made presentations, created television story boards and camera cards, wrote copy, and created advertising campaigns.

Her husband had bought several radio stations in Omaha and throughout Nebraska. The station general managers began asking Mary to create logos and to handle advertising for them. She then became a hands-on vice president with Mitchell Broadcasting Company. She created logos, designed all magazine and newspaper layouts, and bus signs for the stations, and handled creative projects for station promotions and concerts.

She seamlessly went from the intimacy of fashion illustration to the, by comparison, epic scale of signs and billboards.

“It was a different style of art needed for commercial advertising. I used to draw intricate, delicate drawings and now I was doing big, bold designs. Of course, that’s not fashion, it’s advertising, but it’s all a matter of design.

“It was a lot of fun. The people that worked in that environment each had their own personality – the DJs, the sales people, the managers.”

The passion of this accomplished woman would not be denied , certainly not suppressed. It is a trait she displayed early on growing up in Buffalo, New York as the only child of Greek immigrant parents, John and Irene Kafasis.

 

 

©Mary Mitchell

 

 

Where it all began

Born Mary Kafasis, she inherited determination from her folks, who ventured to America from Siatista in northern Greece. Her father arrived in the States at age 16 with $11 in his pocket. After a succession of menial jobs he worked on the railroad as part of a track maintenance crew. The work paid well enough but was miserable, backbreaking labor.

Her father and a buddy of his saved up enough to buy a candy shop. Greek-Americans up and down the East Coast and all around the U.S. used confectionaries and restaurants as their entree to the American Dream. She said her father was pushing 30 and still single when he wrote his parents asking that they find a suitable bride for him in the Old Country.

“My mom was from the same village in Greece as my dad. They married and he brought her back to the States, and she worked very hard with him in their candy store,” said Mary.

When Mary was about age 8 she spent an idyllic three months in Greece with her mother, visiting the village in which her mother was born and raised.

“It’s a beautiful little village surrounded by mountains. We stayed with my grandmother and I met all my aunts and uncles and I had fun playing with all my cousins. It was a lovely time.”

The small family carved out a nice middle class life for themselves. “My parents did well, but they worked long hours and very hard.”

Everything revolved around the family business located in South Buffalo. The family lived upstairs of the shop.

“My mom would hand dip chocolate candies, such as nut and fruit clusters. Dad would make homemade ice cream and sponge taffy. For Easter and Valentine’s Day they would make candy bunnies, baskets, and hearts and fill them with delicious chocolates and decorate them with colorful flowers and ribbons. My job was to fill the baskets and Valentine’s hearts with the chocolates.”

Summers and after school found her working in the shop. She began as a dishwasher before she was entrusted to wait on customers. Her penchant for drawing surfaced early on.

“I remember when I was little I would get a pad, colored pencils or crayons or paints and start drawing figures and designing dresses. That’s when I decided I wanted to be an artist. My mom was so encouraging. She also had me take piano and dancing lessons.”

Mary went to great lengths to pursue her art passion. “I was required to attend South Park High School. It didn’t have an art program, so after my freshman year I wanted to transfer to another school outside my district, clear on the other side of town – Bennett High School. It was renowned for its excellent art program. My girlfriend Shirley Fritz and I went to City Hall and obtained special permission to attend Bennett High. We really felt strong about it.”

Going to that far-off school meant waking up earlier and coming home much later. The extra time and effort were worth it, she said.  “My art teacher at Bennett was phenomenal. She had a great gift of teaching and got me involved in several national contests. I won national awards in poster design and an award from Hallmark cards for my design of a greeting card. I also designed the covers of two school year books.”

Then tragedy struck. Just two months before Mary’s high school graduation her mother died. “She had been ill for a long time and in the hospital. She was only 39.” Losing her mother at 17 was a terrible blow for the only child.

“I was scheduled to go to Syracuse University, but my dad would not let me go. He insisted I go to secretarial school instead of art school. He said, ‘You’re a woman, you’re going to get married, what do you need to go to art school for?’ It was an (Old World) Greek mentality. I know if my mother were there, she would have insisted I go to college and art school.

“He also said he would not pay for my tuition to college or art school. Luckily, my mother left a savings account in my name, so I used that for my tuition, and of course lived at home with my dad.”

She decided to attend the University of Buffalo in conjunction with the Albright Art School and graduated as a fashion illustrator. Her original intent was to be a magazine illustrator, but she was advised against that male-dominated field and steered into fashion illustration.

 

 

©Mary Mitchell

 

 

“One of the courses I took was life drawing, which teaches you the structure of the body’s bones and muscles. It’s very important to have that if you’re going to do fashion figures, to get the proportions and movements right, and to know how clothing is draped on the body.”

She learned, too, how elements like light and shadow “make a big difference” when sketching different fabrics and textures.

“After graduating I took my portfolio to all the department stores in Buffalo, where I kept running into resistance: ‘Do you have experience?’ ‘No, I just graduated.’ ‘Well, call me when you get experience.’

“So after several months of job hunting I took a job as a sign painter for the display department at a Flint & Kent department store, knowing that the fashion illustrator was pregnant and would be leaving in a few months. Lo and behold, they called me when she left and I got my first job as a fashion illustrator. I was in Seventh Heaven.”

 

 

©Mary Mitchell

 

 

New directions

Then John came into her life. They met as delegates at a Cleveland, Ohio convention of the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association, a service organization closely allied with the Greek Orthodox Church. Like her parents, John’s mother and father were from Greece, only from Athens. His family’s name, Mitsopoulos, was Americanized by his dad to Mitchell. His folks settled first in Kansas City before moving to the south central Nebraska town of Kearney.

John was a recent Georgetown University law graduate with an eye on practicing law in Kearney and plans for pursuing a political career. He wooed Mary from afar, the two got engaged, and in 1951 they married in Buffalo before starting a new life together in Kearney. Leaving home was bittersweet for Mary.

“Kearney in those days was a town of only 13,000, with no opportunities for me to work as an artist. With no family or friends, it was very difficult. So I decided to go back to school (at then-Kearney State Teachers College). I took two years of French, English literature, and psychology and during that time I would venture into the art department and talk to the art teachers. They said they needed more teachers and asked if I would join the faculty. I finally said yes and started teaching Art 101 and Art Appreciation.

“I was asked to design brochures for the college and I was also commissioned to redesign the interior of the student union.”

More interior design jobs followed in later years. Finally getting to apply her craft made her feel “a little better” about the move West.

While in Kearney Mary gave birth to her and John’s only child, John Charles Mitchell II, who is now a gastrointestinal physician in Omaha and married to M. Kathleen Mitchell of Red Cloud, Neb. They have two grown children, John Bernard Mitchell and Emily Suzanne Mitchell.

Meanwhile, her husband’s law practice flourished and his political career took off. He became state Democratic party chairman in the 1960s. It was a heady time.

“We got involved in local, state, and national politics. We got to meet Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy. When JFK came to Kearney for a political event we met him with our young son and he held Johnny. We met both Teddy and Bobby Kennedy. John was very close to Hubert Humphrey. It was a very busy and exciting time.”

 

 

©Mary Mitchell

©Mary Mitchell

©Mary Mitchell

Mary Mitchell’s halcyon fashion illustration days

Mary pined to work full-time and to have her own professional identity. John, by the way, “supported anything I wanted to do,” she said. The opportunity to fulfill her creative hunger finally came when the family moved to Omaha in 1968. Scouring the classifieds she saw an ad that read, “Fashion illustrator wanted, Nebraska Clothing.” A venerable clothing store then, “The Nebraska” was renowned for its quality brand name selections. She called, made an appointment to interview for the job, and got hired on the spot.

She enjoyed her four years with “The Nebraska” very much, but she reached a point where becoming a freelance artist made sense. She resigned from Nebraska Clothing in December 1971 and went into business for herself, calling her boutique design firm Mary Mitchell Studio. “Freelancing,” she said, “was the best career thing I did. It was a little scary at first, but people started calling me to design their ads and illustrate their garments. It was so wonderful to be independent and to work at my own pace. Each year kept getting better.”

Her client roster grew to include: TOPPs of Omaha; Goldstein Chapman; Herzbergs; Zoobs; Natelson’s; Parsow’s; Wolf Bros.; I. Eugene’s Shoes; Hitching Post; Crandell’s; The Wardrobe for Men, Backstage, Ltd.

 Being your own boss required discipline, which she has in good measure. With no one looking over her shoulder, she had to be a reliable arbiter of her own work.

“My general attitude is, whenever I sit down to create an ad or drawing I will try my best to achieve the attributes of the client’s business. I want it done as perfectly as possible.”

Creating a finished advertisement for a newspaper or magazine is a several step process. It begins with the client deciding the size of the ad, which determines its cost. Then the layout is made, the drawing of the garment is executed, and the ad copy written. Whether a suit, a dress, or a pair of shoes, there are usually instructions that go along with it. For instance, a client might want an 18 year-old look for one item and a 30 year-old look for another. A Girl-Next-Door vibe here, a sophisticated image there. A relaxed stance in one ad, a formal posture in another.

“The article was given to me to sketch and I created the look of the individual it would appeal to,” she said.

When doing fashion illustration ads, there is always a space limitation to work within, based on column inches. And, of course, there are always deadlines.

Once the parameters of the job were known, Mitchell arrayed the tools of her trade: pencils, pens, brushes, inks, paints, drawing paper. Her job then became animating the apparel and the figure wearing it to accentuate the fashion.

She started with a rough layout.

“There were two methods of drawing for reproduction at that time,” she said. “One used a fluorographic solution mixed with India ink to obtain various shades of gray and painting with a fine brush or drawing with a pen. The other used a No. 935 pencil to draw on textured paper to obtain various shades of gray to black. Different techniques produced different effects.

“If you have a dress with lace on it, you used a very fine quill pen, with a fine point. The way you handle the light and shade for materials and patterns depends on the amount of wash you use with your brush, dark to light.”

By mixing more water with a wash and by adjusting her brush stroke she approximated velvet, taffeta, fur or leather.

It’s all in the details, particularly in black and white.  “The more you show the detail the better the garment looks. You try to approximate the article as close as possible.”

Depicting the essence of a garment requires great skill.

“The skilled fashion illustrator must be able to reduce the architecture of a garment to its essentials while amplifying its hedonic appeal. This is no small task when the means she has to do this are a few marks of pencil or pen or brush on paper. She must interpret the designer’s stylistic signature, but to be convincing she must render with her own authoritative style,” said UNL’s Michael James.

The dynamic sense of flow or movement in Mitchell’s work, then and now, is intentional. “I don’t want it just to be a static figure, I want it to be active.” Besides, to show off the clothes in their best light, she said, “you’re not going to draw the body straight forward, you’re going to give it movement.”

A file of fashion magazines offer her ideas to extrapolate from. Perhaps a certain facial type or expression that catches her attention. Or the way a model’s hair blows in the wind. Or the way a hand is gestured.

“Fashion illustration figures are always elongated,” she said. “We were taught that the human figure is eight heads high but illustrative figures should be nine heads high or tall because that gives a more dramatic and elegant look.”

When she did fashion illustration for her livelihood she made a habit of studying fashion ads. “I certainly admired the Sunday New York Times fashion ads and those in the Chicago and L.A. papers as well.” Staying abreast of the latest trends meant she frequented local fashion shows. “I modeled, too, for some of the stores that I did ads for when I was thinner and younger,” said the still petite Mitchell.

As a freelancer she not only completed the artwork but the entire layout and the copy as well. All of it a very tactile, labor, and time intensive process.

“I would do the layout, then draw the article, type the copy, give it to a typesetter, and order certain fonts, and when I got it back I would cut it out with an X-acto knife and paste it up with rubber cement. It was the only way it was done then – no computers.”

From there, it went to the printer, and the next time Mitchell saw it, it was in print.

Then the industry changed and the services of commercial fashion illustrators like herself became expendable.

“Instead of retailers hiring a graphic artist to draw their clothes or their shoes or whatever, they began taking photographs. It was less expensive. And so they no longer used fashion illustrations. Not even in big cities like Chicago and New York.

“I would say it became a lost art.”

 

 

©Mary Mitchell

 

 

Reinventing herself

The timeless beauty and the scarcity of commercial fashion illustrations explain why they are collectible artworks today and featured in fashion books and on fashion blogs. The Fashion Illustration Gallery in London is devoted entirely to the work of master fashion illustrators .

Denied her fashion illustration outlet, she continued designing in a new guise as vice president and art director of Young & Mitchell Advertising and as vice president of Mitchell Broadcasting.

Mary said she and John sold their Nebraska stations, which included Sweet 98 and KKAR,, just “as the big boys started coming in, like Clear Channel,” adding, “We sold them at the right time.”

Another whole segment of her design work is interior design. John and Mary became part owners of Le Versaille restaurant and ran that for several years. They decided to change the decor and Mary redesigned it from a red velvet and mirrored interior to a black, green, silver, and white decor with large photographs of French vineyards.  She also designed the Blue Fox restaurant. She executed the concept and theme for the Golden Apple of Love Restaurant.

“It was incredible,” she said of these all-encompassing projects and the large canvas they gave her to work on.

Her home is another epic canvas she has poured her passion into.

“It’s indeed a pleasure to create your own space,” she said, referring to her chic residence that reflects her “contemporary” design palette. “I like clean lines and not a lot of frills. Basically black and white with some beautiful colors.”

 

 

©photo Jim Scholz

 

 

A well-designed life comes full circle

She and John have traveled to Greece several times. They took their son there when he was 11. The couple have remained close to their Greek heritage in other ways, too. They are longtime members of Omaha’s Greek Orthodox Church.

“I do speak Greek on occasion, and with my Greek friends, and so does my husband. We cook Greek foods for special occasions, as does my son and his family.”

After the sale of the radio stations in 2000, her life proceeded like that of many retirees, as she divided her days between travel, shopping, decorating, and spending time with John and Kathleen and their two grandchildren, John B. and Emily. She never expected the work she did way back when to be the focus of an exhibition and a book.

When still active as a fashion illustrator, it never crossed her mind to exhibit her work, she said, because commercial art was generally not considered museum or gallery worthy. That attitude has turned around in recent years. She is very much aware that the graphic art form she specialized in is making “a comeback” with young and old alike.

She has a collection of fashion illustration books and has her heart set on one day visiting London’s Fashion Illustration Gallery.

“I’d love to see it.”

Her illustrations might never have seen the light of day again if Anne Marie Kenny and Mary Jochim had not persevered and shown so much interest to exhibit them. Mary Mitchell is flattered by all the interest in this art form from so long ago.

There would be no exhibition or book if she had not preserved the original illustrations. She held onto enough that her personal collection numbers about 1,000 illustrations. It adds up to a life’s work.

The way she had carefully mounted the illustrations on framed and covered poster board panels and in portfolio books indicates the importance they have always held for her. Just as there was nothing haphazard in the way she created the works, she took great pains in preserving them for posterity.

Still, the illustrations would likely have remained tucked away in her home studio if not for the unexpected series of events that led to the book and exhibition.

Now, these valuable artworks and artifacts have a second life and Mary Mitchell suddenly finds herself the subject of renewed interest.

Harper’s Bazaar editor Glenda Bailey writes, “I love that Mary Mitchell brought such a high caliber of artistry to the local level. I was in fashion school in London in the 1980s, but when I look at the work of Mary drew for the women of Omaha at that time, her level of detail puts me right into the moment. To the casual viewer, Mary’s work appears effortless. But when you look more closely you see the precision and intention behind each brushstroke. She elevates each drawing to a tactile experience. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a Mary Mitchell illustration is worth a thousand rustles of silk and crisp snaps of tweed.”

Mary never expected such a fuss, but she welcomes it. The timelessness of Mary Mitchell and her art now resonate with old and new audiences. The rediscovery of her work should ensure it lasts for generations to come.

To view more of Mary’s art and to buy her book, visit www.drawntofashion.com.   For details on the Durham exhibition, visit www.durhammuseum.org.

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