Omaha, my Omaha. I have something of a love-hate relationship with my city, which is to say I have strong feelings about it and I always want it to be better than it thinks it can, though the attitude problem or more specifically inferiority complex it suffered from for so long has been largely replaced by a bold new, I-can-do confidence. That metamorphosis is part of what drew me to a documentary some years back that took the measure of Omaha by charting the changing face ofrcityscape since World War II, and what a marked difference a half-century has made. In truth, and as the doc makes clear, the most dramatic changes have only occurred in the last decade or two, when the city poured immense dollars into transforming parts of downtown, the riverfront, midtown, and South Omaha. Left mostly untouched has been North Omaha, where the city’s major revitalization focus is now aimed. The film also deals with one of the city’s biggest missteps – the razing of the Jobbers Canyon warehouse district to appease a corporate fat cat who wanted to put his headquarters there in place of what he called the area’s “big ugly red brick buildings.” Those buildings were historic treasures dating back a century and today they would be home to well-established retail, residential, commercial developments that would be employing people and generating commerce, thus pouring money back into the city’s coffers.
Documentary Considers Omaha’s Changing Face Since World War II
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha’s evolution into a homey yet cosmo metropolis that’s discarded, for better or worse, its gritty industrial-frontier heritage is the subject of a new documentary premiering statewide on the NETV network. Omaha Since World War II — The Changing Face of the City is a UNO Television production and a companion piece to UNO-TV’s popular 1994 If These Walls Could Speak.
What the new film does particularly well is frame the growth of Omaha over the past 60 years within a social, cultural and political context. Instead of settling for a Chamber of Commerce paean to development, the film makes a balanced effort at showing not only the dynamic explosion in Omaha’s ever-expanding boundaries and emerging 21st century cityscape but also some of the real tensions and costs that have come with that change. Using soaring, sweeping aerial footage shot from a helicopter video mount, the film provides insightful glimpses of Omaha’s famous sprawl and, even more tellingly, of the riverfront renaissance that’s remaking the city’s traditional gateway into a stunning new vista. Like the fits-and-starts pace of most Omaha development, major pieces in the Return to the River movement have taken decades to coalesce, but now that the new riverfront is emerging, it’s shaping up as a dramatic statement about the sleek, modern Omaha of the future.
While most of this period has seen real progress, valid concerns are raised about one neglected area and a pattern of disregarding history. For example, the film focuses on the decline of north Omaha in the wake of the devastating 1960s riots there and the equally hurtful severing of that community by the North Freeway several years later. News footage of burning stores and marching civil rights demonstrators, along with residents’ personal anecdotes of urban ruin, reveal a community in upheaval.
The late Preston Love Sr., ex-Omaha educator Wilda Stephenson and Omaha World-Herald photographer Rudy Smith paint vivid pictures of the jumping place that once was North 24th Street and of the despairing symbol it came to represent. As the $1.8 billion in downtown-riverfront revival continues (development dollars spent in the last six years, according to Omaha Chamber of Commerce figures), it’s apparent north Omaha’s been left behind. Unlike South Omaha, which remakes itself every few decades as an immigrant haven and finds new uses for old landmarks like the former stockyards site, North Omaha still searches for a new identity.
The film also examines how city/state leaders sacrificed the nationally historic Jobber’s Canyon district to the whims of corporate giant ConAgra in the 1980s. A man-made canyon of 22 massive, architecturally unique warehouse buildings closely tied to early Omaha’s booming river-rail economy, all but one Jobbers structure — the former McKesson-Robbins Building, now the Greenhouse Apartments — was razed when ConAgra decided the “eye-sore” must go if it was to keep its headquarters downtown. After seeing homegrown Enron uproot to Houston, Omaha caved to ConAgra’s demands rather than lose another Fortune 1000 company. The canyon was an incalculable loss but, as the film makes clear, the resulting corporate campus served as a catalyst for development.
The filmmakers rightly reference Omaha’s penchant for tearing down its history, as in the old post office, the original Woodmen of the World building, the Fontenelle Hotel and the Indian Hills Theater. Spinning the story in all its permutations are, notably, former Omaha city planning directors Alden Aust and Marty Shukert, architect and preservationist George Haecker, historians Harl Dalstrom, Thomas Kuhlman, Bill Pratt and Garneth Peterson, developers Sam and Mark Mercer and entrepreneur Frankie Pane.
The Jobbers Canyon debacle came at a time when downtown was reeling and in danger of being an empty shell. If not for major investments by a few key players. it may never have come back from the mass retail exodus to the suburbs it witnessed in the 1960s and ‘70s. In a real coup, the film features Old Market pioneers Sam and Mark Mercer, who describe the organic growth of this historic district into a cultural oasis — one that’s served as an anchor of stability.
The longest ongoing story of Omaha’s growth is its westward push. The film explains how this has been achieved by a liberal annexation policy that’s added subdivisions and even entire small communities to the tax rolls. The film touches on the fact that, outside a few developments, this sprawl has created a formless, characterless prairie of concrete and glass. The film also alludes to Omaha’s old neighborhoods, but only highlights one, Dundee, as an example of design and lifestyle merging.
Where the film doesn’t fare so well is in offering any real sense for the personality of the city. To be fair, filmmakers B.J. Huchtemann and Carl Milone didn’t intend to do that. Still, it would have been useful to try and take the measure of Omaha beyond its physical landscape. The only hint we get of this is via the many on-camera commentators who weigh in with their perspectives on Omaha’s changing face. And, to producer-director Huchtemann’s and co-producer-editor Milone’s credit, they’ve chosen these interpretive figures well. They’re an eclectic, eloquent, opinionated bunch and, as such, they reflect Omahans’ fierce independence and intelligence, which is at odds with the boring, white bread image the city often engenders. They are the film’s engaging storytellers.
Still, a film about the city’s changing face begs for an analysis of Omaha’s identity crisis. Mention the name, and outsiders draw a blank or recall a creaky remnant from its past or ascribe a boring blandness to it all. That’s before it had any “Wow” features. Now, with its gleaming new facade, Omaha’s poised to spark postcard worthy images in people’s minds. What is Omaha? What do we project to the world? The answers all converge on the riverfront. That’s where Omaha began and that’s where its makeover is unfolding. The monumental, sculptural pedestrian bridge may be the coup de grace. Interestingly, the film explains how much of what’s taking place was envisioned by planners 30 years ago. It’s all come together, in piecemeal fashion, to make the water’s edge development Omaha’s new signature and face.
So, what does it say about us? It speaks to Omahans’ desire to forge ahead and be counted as a premier Midwest city. No mention’s made of Hal Daub, the former mayor whose assertive energy drove Omaha, kicking and screaming, into the big time. He gave Omaha attitude. The film suggests this bold new city is here to stay.
- From the Archives: An Ode to the Omaha Stockyards (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Book Explores University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Rich History (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- In Memory of a Omaha Old Market Original, Fruit and Vegetable Peddler Joe Vitale (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- George Eisenberg’s Love for Omaha’s Old Market Never Grows Old (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Remembering the Virginia Cafe and the Restauranter Family Legacy of Filmmaker Alexander Payne (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A Synergy in North Omaha Harkens a New Arts-Culture District for the City (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Everything Old is Newly Restored Again at Historic Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Where Community, Neighborhood and Representative Democracy Meet (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Jane Fonda Comes Home (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Litniks Unite! The Downtown Omaha Lit Fest Brings Writers, Artists and Readers Together in Celebration of the Written Word (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
My alma mater, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, doesn’t possess the kind of larger-than-life, romantic tradition one associates with elite schools, which it most definitely is not. But in its own humble way the school has accumulated a notable and rich enough history. A modest book about that history was released a few years ago on the eve of UNO turning 100. This article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) more or less reviews the book and its impressionistic look at that school that’s seen much change over its lifetime and long ago left behind the West Dodge High moniker that many once attached to it.
Book Explores University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Rich History
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
With the UNO centennial nearing, a new book by two longtime historians at the university gives readers a primer on the events and persons that have shaped the school over its nearly 100-year existence. The book, simply titled “University of Nebraska at Omaha,” is part of Arcadia Publishing’s “Campus History Series.”
The text for the photo-rich work is mostly by Oliver Pollak, holder of the Martin Chair in History at UNO. He’s taught at the school since 1974. Pollak is the author of two previous books published by Arcadia — “Jewish Life in Omaha and Lincoln” and “Nebraska Courthouses.”
Selecting the 200-some images that illustrate the UNO volume’s 128-pages largely fell to Les Valentine, a UNO graduate (B.A. 1976, M.A. 1980) who has served as the university archivist since 1986. By virtue of his deep knowledge of UNO history and his intimate familiarity with the thousands of images and documents in the Dr. C.C. and Mabel L. Criss Library’s archives, Valentine was able to provide Pollak the context needed to flesh out the narratives and personalities behind the pictures.
Old acquaintances, the authors teamed up for the book in the spring of 2006 when Pollak suggested the idea to Valentine. The project marked the pair’s first collaboration. Pollak queried Arcadia with the proposal, a contract was signed and a December deadline set. The authors say they met the deadline on the dot.
As the subject is so close to them the men found the project a neat fit. “We’ve both been at UNO for years and years and years,” Valentine says, “and we have a good background on the history of the institution.” Pollak notes they have been at UNO for “a third of the lifetime of the school.”
The process of doing the book around normal duties proved relatively painless. “It was fun working with Les,” Pollak says. “We would get together on Saturday mornings and pull tables together on the lower level of the library and spread out these pictures and mess around with the order…what picture should be facing what picture. Les has been working the archives for so long he had stories and newspaper clippings to support the stories.”
Space issues meant only a small fraction of archival materials made the final cut. “It was a selection process,” Pollak says, adding he and Valentine chose from among digital images, prints, slides and negatives. “There was a variety. We managed to get high quality images and I think they got reproduced very well.” Some choices, he says, “are forced by technology and ratios of width to height.” Enough good photos had to be left out that he and Valentine have toyed with the idea of doing a presentation of them. “There’s still some good images out there,” Pollak says. Or, as Valentine put it, “There’s enough to do four or five photo-books, easy.”
Among their favorites to make it in is the cover image of a circa 1971 campus life scene. It pictures a diverse group of students gathered for a concert outside Arts and Sciences Hall — the then-administration building. The columned structure’s familiar cupola towers overhead. Pollak calls the photo “the iconic vision” of UNO. “It’s students spread out on the green, it’s 1971, it’s music, it’s diversity, it’s an urban university, it’s a school on a hill, it’s springtime. It was just a natural.”
Adding to its weight is the fact the 1938 building was the first structure built on the present north campus.
Valentine likes the background cover image, composed of smiling student faces, documenting a significant aspect of the school’s past. The picture is from a 1951 mill levy election victory party. In the institution’s municipal era, from 1938 to 1968, funding hikes were at the whim of city voters. Often as not, elections went against then-Omaha University. Some students actively campaigned in these elections.
The authors agree the milestone events in UNO’s history, each well documented, are the school’s 1938 move from its original north Omaha site to the current main campus and the move from the municipal model into the NU system. Just as the transition from municipal to state funding opened new horizons, including an expansion program that’s never really stopped, the university’s severing of ties to its Presbyterian Church roots ushered in new growth.
The physical move, Pollak said, was key to OU gaining accreditation by the North Central Association, another major event in the school’s life.
“You can’t live without accreditation. It’s important because it’s sort of like a seal of approval,” Pollak says. “You can’t live without a physical plant that’s attractive, just as you couldn’t live on Presbyterians alone.”He said that the school achieved three major defining goals in the 1930s — to municipalize, relocate and be accredited — amidst the constraints and struggles of the Great Depression “is an accomplishment.”
Change runs through UNO’s history, but the authors say its mission of providing a quality higher ed option to urban, working-class students has remained constant. What may surprise readers? One thing the authors point to is how the school welcomed women and racial minorities long before politically correct to do so.
UNO’s latest sea changes, they say, include the addition of dormitories, the development of the south campus and the embrace of information technology. Pollak says the way the university adapts to its times “is like a breeder-reactor” — putting out an ever exponentially greater return than what it takes in. UNO’s growth, while not always smooth, moves forward.
“Some hiccups, some burps, some setbacks, some waiting a little bit longer than you thought you would want to wait for innovation, and then crafting it in a way that fits Omaha,” he says. “Some people oppose it because it’s state funds, some because ‘they’re coming into my neighborhood,’ but it’s positively relentless.”
Leadership drives change and the figures at the top over this 100 years range from loyal soldier W. Gilbert James to tragic William Sealock to strong Milo Bail to embattled Leland Traywick to visionary Del Weber. The authors say the tenures of UNO presidents/chancellors tend to be placid or stormy. But the heartbeat of a university is its students, faculty and staff and the book is replete with examples of programs, activities, classes and rituals that express this human dimension.
From parades, athletic contests and commencements to groundbreaking ceremonies to visiting dignitaries to student protests to class/team photos to walks in Elmwood Park, it’s all charted. Even life in those awful annexes/Quonset huts.
Valentine says beyond alums, the book should appeal to a wide readership.
“Certainly people in Omaha should enjoy the book. It was their institution, for years and years and years, and in fact it’s still their institution,” he says. “We kind of grew up along with the city in many ways.”
The book is available online at www.arcadiapublishing.com or at fine bookstores.
- A Homage to the Bootstrapper by the Grande Olde Players (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- UNO/OLLAS Resident Expert on Cuban and Latino Matters Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From the Archives: Warren Francke, A Passion for Journalism, Teaching and Life (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Project Improve Aims to Make the Best of a Bad Situation with Illegal Immigrant Detainees (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Gender Equity in Sports Has Come a Long Way, Baby; Activists-Advocates Who Fought for Change See Progress and the Need for More (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
When interviewing an artist there’s always the point where you ask the obvious question, Where do your ideas come from? or What influences does your work draw on? And, of course, the answers are at once right in front of us, because ideas spring from life, and concealed, because ideas also germinate in the imagination and subconscious. And since every artist’s life is individual there are as many variations to those inspirational sources as there are artists. Playwright Carlos Murillo is someone I interviewed many months ago in anticipation of one of his plays being performed at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Our conversation veered into some of the touchstone experiences that help shape who he is and what he writes about.
Playwright Carlos Murillo’s Work Explores Personal Mythmaking
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
Playwright and DePaul University theater professor Carlos Murillo has established a national reputation with such works as Dark Play or Stories for Boys, which UNO Theatre is staging Feb. 23-26 and March 2-5.
The theater world is small. For example, a University of Nebraska at Omaha grad student met Murillo at a Kennedy Center theater festival in Washington, D.C. Aware Murillo’s Dark Play was slated for production by UNO, the student set the wheels in motion for the playwright’s campus visit in January. At UNO Murillo guest taught a class, observed a rehearsal and attended a reading and a discussion of his work.
“It was a really fun experience,” says Murillo, who spoke to El Perico by phone from Chicago.
He enjoys interacting with students and teachers over his work.
“It’s a really cool thing when a group of people you don’t know are engaging with something you’ve created. Making theater is like solving a very complex problem,” he says, adding he likes contributing to the process of unlocking a play’s mysteries. His participation, he says, is “sort of honoring that people are committing to something that’s meaningful to them and that hopefully will have some impact in their training or in their thinking about the world.”
Catching up to productions of his plays “is sort of like visiting your kid after they graduate from college,” he says. “They’re trucking along doing their own thing and you meet up with them every now and then and check in.”
The concepts or issues his work explores become talking points in the classes he teaches. “It keeps the mind in shape and it serves as a great laboratory of ideas,” he says. While he didn’t set out to be an educator, he’s come to embrace the role.
“I do love it.”
There’s also a more practical side to teaching.
“Making a living as a playwright is next to impossible,” he says, “Most of the writers I know either have teaching gigs or write for TV or do other stuff because it’s very difficult to make a living just off of ones playwriting.”
His path has been both traditional and nonconventional.
Born in the U.S to immigrant parents — his mother’s Puerto Rican and his father Colombian — Murillo mostly grew up in Long Island, NY. As a boy he spent three years in South America, where his father was transferred by his employer, Bank of America. Wherever Murillo lived, he was drawn to creative expression.
“As far as writing’s concerned it was something I was always interested in from the time I was a kid. I was always writing poems and short stories and stuff like that. I also had a real passion for theater early on. I acted in a lot of plays in junior high and high school, and those twin passions kind of merged and I became a playwright.”
During a long theater apprenticeship his family encouraged him and still does.
“My parents are remarkably supportive. I’m grateful for that.”
Murillo attended Syracuse University to study acting but dropped out and traveled for a time before returning to New York to work at various theaters. All the while, he continued writing. He learned under several master practitioners, including acclaimed director Robert Woodruff. “He was a huge influence,” says Murillo.
As the Public Theater’s associate literary manager Murillo came into contact with “a parade of extraordinary artists,” adding, “It’s an amazing institution and it was kind of like the best grad school you can imagine.”
Murillo went from self-produced plays in small Manhattan venues to being invited to developmental residencies and his work being widely read and produced.
A consistent theme in his work, he says, is “the idea of personal mythmaking — the stories we tell ourselves or tell to other people about ourselves and the relationship of those stories to the actual reality of who we are.” Dark Play examines what happens when a character spins fictions that have real life consequences.
As a playwright Murillo straddles different worlds and must be a quick study in each, skills he’s well practiced in because of the way he grew up. “While my parents spoke Spanish and English at home my cultural references were rock music, TV and all the pop culture things most Americans have,” he says. “I had the experience of living in South America as well. It’s like having one foot in two different identities.”
He writes about Latino identity in oblique and direct ways. Never Whistle While You’re Pissing is autobiographical about what it means to be Latino in America. A fictional playwright, Javier C., is a recurring character in his plays.
- Video: Latino playwright Nilo Cruz sees each of his plays as a “miracle” (latinalista.com)
For a long time and even today the University of Nebraska at Omaha was best known for its large Bootstrapper program for military personnel. The school is vastly different than it was when the program launched during the Cold War but it’s impact remains. The following story from a half-dozen years ago or more is about an original play written by the Omaha husband and wife team of Mark Manhart and Bonnie Gill that takes a nostalgic look at the program’s beginnings, and those beginnings involved two strong leaders, then-Omaha University president Milo Bail and Strategic Air Command head and hawk of hawks Gen. Curtis LeMay, who some suggest was the inspiration for the character of Gen. Buck Turgidson that George C. Scott plays in Dr. Strangelove. A Midwest academic and a military reactionary may seem to have made strange bedfellows but then again it’s not hard to imagine that two powerful middle-aged white men should come together in right wing solidarity “for the boys.”
A Homage to the Bootstrapper by the Grande Olde Players
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The Grande Olde Players Theatre pays homage to Omaha’s deep military ties with the new play Bootstrappers Christmas, now through December 17. Written by the theater’s Mark Manhart and Bonnie Gill, the nostalgic 1954-set piece tells a fictional story amid the trappings of history. The relationship between then-Omaha University and the former Strategic Air Command in Bellevue, Neb. is at the center of this holiday-themed dramadie.
Early in his stint as commander of the newly formed SAC, Gen. Curtis LeMay, architect of U.S. bombing campaigns in Europe and the Pacific and overseer of the Berlin Airlift, identified the need for a more professional corps of college-educated personnel. After World War II the U.S. Air Force had a glut of officers. Many had some college prior to the service and once “on the line” accrued credits at schools near where they were based, but few ever got their degrees.
LeMay, an American hero whose reactionary, right-wing views later tarnished his reputation, broached Operation Bootstrap with his egg-head friend, the late Milo Bail, then-president of what’s now the University of Nebraska at Omaha. By helping commissioned officers finish their degrees, the program would aid their climb up the ladder as well as better prepare them for post-military life. The idea of men and women “lifting themselves by their bootstraps” gave the program its name.
Bail and fellow UNO officials recognized the school was well-poised to serve military folks by virtue of a large adult education unit and Bachelor of General Studies (BGS) program that allowed nontraditional students to individualized studies in subjects of interest or deficiency. “Omaha University was really the first school in the country to offer” the BGS, said William Utley, former UNO College of Continuing Studies dean. More appealing still, he said, were the “earned life credits” granted officers for experience gained in the field, which cut by a semester their degree track.
The school’s extensive night courses offered yet more flexibility. Besides the cache of this partnership, school officials craved the extra money derived from the higher non-resident tuition bootstrappers paid. Between Offutt’s close proximity and Omaha’s central location, the military could feed students there not just from Offutt but from bases all over the U.S. and the world.
That’s what happened, too, as an influx of mostly Air Force but also Army soldiers and Marines made UNO the nation’s largest on-campus education provider for bootstrappers. Officers rotated in on active duty or TDY. Utley, director of the UNO program, said at its 1960s peak 1,200 to 1,500 “boots” attended school there at any one time. “There were any number of commencement exercises when over half of the graduating class was bootstrappers,” he said.
Alumni officials estimate 13,000-plus active duty military personnel attended UNO from the early ‘50s to the ‘80s.
Utley said UNO prided itself on being responsive to officers’ needs and interests by “developing” a system to stay in “constant communication” with them, no matter where their assignments took them. He said both active and prospective students received “counseling and advising” services to facilitate their education.
The presence of so many boots changed the dynamic of the school, especially in those early years, when it was a small, financially strapped municipal university, not yet a part of the University of Nebraska system.
“The Bootstrap Program was a major factor for several years in keeping the university afloat with the revenue” it generated, Utley said. “It was a very important element in the survival of the university during that period, when the university was really hard up.”
UNO Alumni Association President Emeritus Jim Leslie said bootstrappers were “a tremendous boon” to UNO’s finances. For a while, he said, UNO enjoyed a near monopoly in serving the bootstrap population. “It was a big deal,” he said. “For a while we claimed we were second only to West Point in the number of general officers that had graduated from our institution.” Some were stars like Johnnie Wilson, a four-star general. Other schools eventually cut in on the action.
Utley said the infusion of so many “highly motivated” students changed the academic culture at UNO. “They were a very serious group. Very good students,” said Leslie, who had boots as classmates there in the early ‘60s. “They were here to gain an education and most of them were older and more mature. Professors loved those guys because they asked the best questions.”
“A lot of students viewed them as ‘curve busters’ who made it harder to compete in the classroom or set a higher standard in the classroom. And no faculty member is going to complain about that,” said retired UNO professor Warren Francke, who had his share of boots. “And its true in general they were solid students because they were all business. They were there to do well in the classes.
“I thought they were certainly an asset. There were times when probably the undergraduates had a legitimate complaint that maybe they dominated things so much. But mostly,” Francke said, the boots “added a dimension to what” otherwise “was a commuter campus without a lot of people who had been all over the world…I thought their addition was sort of a valuable thing to have.”
While Bootstrappers Christmas is a slight, sentimental romp filled with a mix of ‘50s-era rock and traditional Christmas music, writer-director Mark Manhart does anchor the story in the real symbiosis between UNO and Offutt. The flamboyant Curtis LeMay and the non-nonsense Milo Bail are characters. The plot revolves around a boot who befriends a Cold War widow coed and other students in remodeling the campus Snack Shack in time for putting on a holiday show. The fun is tinged with the sadness of separation and loss, but hope prevails.
The play’s also about making new starts, something the bootstrap program epitomized. Ex-Air Force pilot Jim Hughes spoke for many boots when he said, “The university was the first milestone in my growth with the Air Force and I attribute any success and all successes I’ve had to that little development. I owe a debt of gratitude to the university…It introduced me to education oriented to my needs.”
The Iowa native and current Magnolia, Ark. resident said his general education degree catapulted him “up the ladder.” In 1973 he retired from active duty as a decorated colonel. He earned the Bronze Star, four distinguished Flying Crosses and five Airmedals. He received two Purple Hearts for injuries suffered as a POW.
NOTE: Operation Bootstrap supplanted Operation Midnight Oil. In 2002 the Air Force replaced the Bootstrap Program with the Educational Leave of Absence Program (ELA), although many in the service still refer to it by its old name.
When I studied journalism at the University of Nebraska at Omaha there were three professors in my major area of concentration who stood out: the late Bob Reilly for his warm personality and engaging storytelling; the late Todd Simon for his brilliant analytical mind; and Warren Francke for his passion in teaching us about the rich history of the Fourth Estate. I was an odd bird of a student because my rampant insecurities kept me from really ever getting to know any of my fellow J students. The only prof I got somewhat close to was Reilly, which was no great feat because he was welcoming to all. Simon probably most stimulated my sensibilities, though his intellect intimidated me. Francke is someone I wanted to know better and sought more affirmation from, but I don’t think I gave him much to work with. After graduating college and pursuing my career I remained friendly with Reilly, who became a mentor of mine. I doubt if I would have stuck it out as a freelancer those early years without his encouragement. After college I never had any contact again with Simon, who just passed away in early 2012. Francke is someone I likely would not have encountered again if not for the fact that he and I both became contributing writers to the same alternative news weekly, The Reader. He’s a fine writer and human being and I am proud to call him a colleague. Like his good departed friend and colleague Bob Reilly, he too has had encouraging words for him that I greatly appreciate. When I did the following New Horizons profile on Francke about a dozen years ago he was just as I remembered him from UNO – a vital presence excited by his craft as teacher and journalist. I can happily report that he is still that vital presence today. I hope to have his energy and engagement 20 years from now.
From the Archives: Warren Francke, A Passion for Journalism, Teaching and Life
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
When University of Nebraska at Omaha communications professor Warren Francke gets a certain misty, far-off gaze in his eyes, chances are he’s lost in another Rocky Mountain reverie. As a veteran Colorado summer dweller, he can’t help but daydream about hiking where the wild flowers bloom or waking to the warm golden glow of the morning sun glinting off snowy peaks or filling his lungs with the cool crisp ether of pure mountain air or sitting under a canopy of stars from atop a tall ridge at night.
Perhaps he even conjures his long-awaited rendezvous with a bear on some remote mountain trail.
He’s been hooked on Colorado’s high country life since the early 1970s, when summers first found him hauling his family out west, into the Estes Park region of the Rockies, where they grew enchanted by the languid pace and natural beauty of those rarefied heights and eventually extended their two-week vacations there into months-long visits.
Francke and his late wife of 31 years, Sue, adored life in those far upper reaches. When she died of a heart attack in 1991 he, son Chris, and daughter Cara scattered her ashes in a place she loved. Now, he shares the towering landscapes with his second wife, Carol, who suffered the loss of a longtime spouse. After meeting and surviving what Francke calls “the human comedy that is dating after 30 years,” he and Carol married in 1994. After years renting in the Estes Park area the Francke family finally have a cabin of their own — in the Tahosa Valley, a half-mile north of the town of Allenspark. Situated at 8,500 feet elevation, on a lot dotted with tall ponderosa pines and small aspens, the cabin looks out on Mt. Meeker to the west and the lush valley below. The couple drive their jeep to secluded spots and make cross-country jaunts on foot to favorite hideaways.
When not sampling the great outdoors he reads books (preferring mystery novels), writes features for the Estes Park Trail-Gazette and pens articles for various professional journals and reference volumes.
Since joining the UNO faculty in 1966, he’s always remained a working journalist. You may remember him best as a a reporter-columnist with the Omaha Sun Newspapers in the 1960s and 1970s and as that curmudgeon media critic Watching the Watchdogs on WOWT-TV in the 1980s. These days you can find Francke-penned theater reviews in the Council Bluffs Nonpareil. At UNO he teaches Literary Journalism and History of Mass Communication courses as well as a graduate seminar. He feels writing and teaching give him the best of both worlds.
“I love to write. It helps my teaching and it helps fill some creative need I have. For my entire 34 years of teaching I’ve had the good fortune to also do the kind of journalism I enjoy most. I haven’t had to do the routine, mundane, grinding work of daily journalism. I do stories I like to do and I teach classes I enjoy teaching,” he said from his modest Fairacres home, his two faithful old dogs (“the ancient ones”) lolling nearby on the floor.
“As I approach retirement it’s a source of great enjoyment to me to find that I enjoy writing as much or more than ever. If I had had to give up writing to be a teacher I don’t know that I would have, but I didn’t have to. There’s an enormous variety to teaching, especially if you mix it with journalism, and when you get good results it’s wonderful.”
A past Excellence in Teaching Award winner at UNO, he’s seen many former students achieve high success, including Omaha World-Herald executive editor Larry King and Merrill Lynch executive vice president for communications Paul Critchlow. Among his most memorable years as an instructor came in 1975, when, as part of UNO’s Overseas Program, he taught seven months at Ramstein Air Force Base in West Germany. His wife and children were there for the duration and together they toured the festive wine country and traveled to prime European getaways. “We had a great time. We bought a Volkswagon and ran all over Europe,” he said.
Last fall Francke, 62, took a sabbatical from UNO to hole up in his cabin and begin writing the centennial history of Omaha’s Dundee Presbyterian Church, where he worships. He will take a leave of absence next fall and head for his cabin to complete the project, one he’s excited about because it combines his thirst for history with his love for a good yarn. It also means returning to his mountain retreat in time to hear the trumpeting echo of mating elk.
His research into old newspaper clippings, church bulletins and meeting notes is uncovering a rich tapestry of church history that coincides with Dundee’s growth and the founding of nearby Omaha University as well as early links with the Buffett and Fonda families.
“You’re talking about a church being formed at the turn-of-the-century in a little village called Dundee, fifteen years before it was annexed by Omaha. You read what you think might be dry records of meetings of church elders, trustees and ladies aid members, but as you learn to know these people you can’t help but have an enormous admiration for them,” he said. “You become so immersed in the life of this church and of these people that when you turn a page and you find someone — who’s been a real pillar and force for good — has died, you feel a personal loss.
“You really come to share the experience of building a church with them. These people become great heroes and heroines to you. It’s very rewarding to bring the lives of these people back to life, so the people in the church now can know who came before them and what they did. It provides a wonderful way to understand the story of a church and a neighborhood.”
Serving the greater good has been a sort of family inheritance. His late father, Ted, hailed from a German Lutheran family that produced an unbroken line of ministers dating back to the 1600s. His father studied for the ministry but was never ordained. If his father hadn’t broken tradition, Francke himself might have been a preacher. He thought about it. As things turned out he’s followed a similar calling as a writer — giving voice to
people and their stories — and as a teacher — helping young people find their way. “Sure, teaching is a form of ministry to me. There’s a real common ground there,” he said.
His zeal for a finely-crafted story or well-turned phrase shines through whenever he reads aloud his students’ work. Then, his eyes grow wide and voice gains inflection as if the Holy Spirit itself has moved him. “My students turn in stories from life experiences that are so powerful.”
In that way things have of coming full circle, Francke led a church-centered life as a youth, then, in the contrary ‘60s, drifted away from organized religion — exploring Zen Buddhism — before eventually returning to the fold and even being ordained an elder. Ancestral currents run deep.
Born and raised in Council Bluffs, Francke and his sister Rhoda grew up in a hilltop home above the Missouri River. Their father was a study in contrasts. The former top athlete was a physically-imposing man who worked as a manual laborer, even doing custodial work at the church the family attended, yet delighted in displaying his classical education by reciting Shakespeare. A bound set of the Bard’s works (which the son inherited) was kept in the family’s home, along with antique ancestral bibles dating back to the 17th century. During some hard times his parents sold the bibles to raise much-needed cash.
While Francke’s late mother Lydia, who hailed from hearty Iowa farm stock, never got past the 8th grade she was an avid reader who encouraged her children’s education.
“She was remarkably good at always taking us to the library and to Joslyn Art Museum,” Francke said. “I had a library card as early as you could get one. I read all the Paul Bunyan books. I read every book by John R. Tunis, who wrote a wonderful series about sports.”
His introduction to journalism came by way of a neighboring family, the Zimmermans, whose father, Reid, and oldest son, Earl, worked as aWorld-Herald editor and reporter, respectively. Francke often joined his boyhood chum, Ken Zimmerman, on weekend visits with the boy’s father to the Herald offices in downtown Omaha.
“While Ken’s dad was reading galley proofs or doing something else in his office, we’d run around the World-Herald, sliding down the brass pole in the press room or visiting different parts of that plant. Having newspaper people as neighbors did have great significance in my life. I got the idea a newspaper was an interesting place to work.”
He succumbed to the reporting bug at Abraham Lincoln High School, parlaying his interest in athletics (He collected autographs of sports idols, including Iowa’s own fireball pitching phenom Bob Feller.) as sports editor for the school paper, Echoes. Even as a novice newsman he got a kick out of being thrust into the action and reporting about it.
“I loved it. That experience epitomized the enjoyment of journalism, which is being in the middle of things people are interested in and then writing about them and participating in them. It’s the fact that you have the opportunity to experience a rich array of life and then get to make use of that experience by articulating it.”
With his reporting appetite whetted, he applied and was hired as a copy boy (copy messenger) at the World-Herald in the spring of 1954.
“It was an easy step from being sports editor in high school to going to work for the World-Herald within a couple weeks after I graduated. By that next fall I was doing something I had already done – covering prep sports. All it really boiled down to at age 17 or 18 is somebody paying you to go to the games you went to all the time anyway.”
The paper’s many strong personalities made an impression on him. Quiet but firm Don Lee, the venerable sports editor, was “always after you to ‘trim it down, trim it down.’” He recalls Fred Ware, “the fire-breathing managing editor,” was always “railing against somebody like Lou Gerdes, the distinguished city editor, shouting, ‘That damn Gerdes,’ and as a copy boy I’d just say, ‘Yes, Mr. Ware,’ and stand there. I can remember one morning it was pretty quiet in the newsroom when suddenly there was a horrendous clap of thunder outside and without even looking up Ralph Smith, who worked on the rewrite desk, said, ‘Good morning, Mr. Ware.’”
Despite his boss’s intimidating presence, Francke said, “There isn’t any question who the main influence on my writing was — it was Fred Ware. He talked about making a story sing. He wrote a style-book for the World-Herald and along with Strunk’s Elements of Style with the introduction by E.B. White and its emphasis on strong verbs and all that kind of thing, Ware’s emphasis on making a story sing had a profound influence on me. I took it seriously. Some of the best things I’ve written are influenced by a real strong sense of the flow and rhythm of language. If I could make a story a work of poetry I did. I think Ware started that in me.”
A gentler influence was the late, beloved sports writer Wally Provost.
“The writer at the World-Herald who was my hero was Wally Provost. Wally did everything I think a writer should do. He was a wonderful, graceful writer, but he also had a conscience and a sense of justice. Wally was the first person at the paper, as far as I know, to write seriously about racial injustice. His was a very effective, quiet voice on issues that mattered.”
In 1958 Francke left the paper to be a full-time staffer at his hometown daily, the Nonpareil. As a roving, Tom Allan-like reporter he covered all aspects of Southwest Iowa life. By the time he joined the staff of Omaha’s weekly Sun Newspapers in 1964, he was dabbling in the freer, livelier New Journalism, whose open literary narrative approach was a bold departure from the rigid, classic journalistic form. Provost, a devotee of the old-school, ribbed him about the new style’s descriptive excesses.
“I can remember running into Wally and him teasing me by saying, ‘Well, are you going to write about what kind of tie I’m wearing?’”
But for Francke, whose work grew out of his deep love for and intensive study of literature and drama (he has a master’s degree in English from UNO), the new wave of writing was no laughing matter.
“There’s no question I tried to change journalism. When Tom Wolfe and the New Journalists came along I was already doing the things they were talking about and I was enjoying doing that. I had the freedom at the Sun to do it. That’s why working there was such a terrific experience. I couldn’t have done that at the World-Herald, which traditionally has not been a place where a writer could work with creative freedom. The Sun was a place where I could experiment. My students every week write things better than I have written, but I attempted at least to be out on the edge.”
Even today he tries not settling for humdrum work. “I’m very unsatisfied when I write what I consider a routine review.”
He credits a friend, noted Omaha author and former UNO colleague Robert Reilly, for pushing him. “There’s no question working alongside Bob Reilly was important to me.” Another key figure for him was the late Ralph Wardle, former UNO English chairman. “A great writer and teacher.”
Francke’s 1968 Sun profile on his celebrated Omaha U. classmate, Peter Fonda, displays how he pushed the envelope then. Fonda, who’d been banished to his famous father’s hometown by older sister Jane to get his head straight, had become a youth movie icon via his starring role in the Roger Corman exploitation biker flick, The Wild Angels (Easy Rider was yet to come). Francke’s piece reflects on the unrebel-like Fonda he knew. A
sweet awkward guy haunted by a messy childhood and distant father. Smitten by first love (with Carol Robinson). Desperate to find acceptance.
Francke cleverly frames Fonda’s college life in dramatic, playwright terms, an apt approach for describing someone whose life was an open book and who hailed from one of America’s preeminent acting families: “Act I, Scene I — Freshman girl hears the son of Henry Fonda is a classmate. She asks a circle of respected elders, fraternity men all…‘What’s Peter Fonda really like? ‘A real phony.’
“Scene II — A girl named Judy dates Peter and writes an English 112 composition about a boy who will always walk alone.
“Scene III — Peter and Carol walk together down Administration Building halls. They’re going to class…they’re not holding hands.
“Act II, Scene I — Christmas 1958. Peter takes Carol to New York. Lauren Bacall throws a cocktail party. Carol meets Jane and Henry.
“Scene II — Sorority leaders call Carol aside. They’ve heard bad reports about her and Peter.
“Scene III — It’s spring…on the campus. Peter’s there…Sad, grieving. What’s wrong? Carol did him wrong. ‘Oh, well,’ he sighed. ‘I guess it can’t be April forever.’”
Francke knew Fonda as a fellow contributor to the student paper, The Gateway, and to the literary publication Francke edited, The Grain of Sand. They also shared a mutual interest in the burgeoning Cool Scene, with its rebellious Beat writers and anti-Establishment musical icons. The pair weren’t above playing their affected rebel image to the hilt — like the time they convinced a KMTV news crew they were radical campus beatniks.
“We didn’t really cut it as bona fide beatniks. We were both full-time students. I held a night reporting job at the Nonpareil. But we’d both read Jack Kerouac. We could talk the talk. We ended up on the 10 p.m. news.”
Once Fonda left Omaha for eventual success on Broadway and in Hollywood, Francke lost touch with him. He’s always had it in the back of his mind to “drive up to his ranch in Montana someday” to kick over old times.
Speaking of old times, Francke misses the vital alternative forum for ideas the Sun offered under publisher Stan Lipsey, managing editor Paul Williams and owner Warren Buffett. With the paper’s folding in 1983, he said Omaha lost “a second voice” it has yet to replace.
“Our constitution is based on the idea of letting truth and falsehood fight it out in the free marketplace of ideas. The marketplace is not so free when you just have one major voice. The Sun took on the important, controversial issues that were being ignored and did a first-class, quality job that won them many national awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting on Boys Town’s finances. None of the alternative publications that followed have had quite the strength of the Sun.”
The paper stopped publishing when, as Francke puts it, “it could no longer compete with certain advertising and business practices of the World-Herald,” which led to a lawsuit settled out of court.
Francke’s fervent but well-reasoned opinions on media and culture are the culmination of his many years as a journalism professional, student, teacher and observer. He holds a Ph.D. in mass communication from the University of Minnesota. His scholarly work on various facets of the media have earned him a national reputation. He recently contributed a biographical overview on James Gordon Bennett, a key early journalist, to Oxford University Press for a mammoth reference work it is publishing.
Watchdogs was Francke’s last major public forum for wading in on media topics. He credits then WOWT news director Steve Murphy with allowing him free reign. “There was no one else in the country doing media coverage and media criticism on television like I was, where I was not only free to criticize the station I was reporting on but to praise people on the other stations. I criticized the World-Herald more than any other entity, but I often said how much better it covered something than television.”
He fears his Herald bashing caused a backlash in terms of lost opportunities for him and his students: “Their top management deeply resented my criticism. It created a lot of tension. There’s a certain price to pay for…taking on the biggest power in town.” While Watchdogs ended its run in 1990, it was not due to any chilling effect. Instead, he simply felt he’d said enough after more than 300 commentaries.
The ever feisty Francke has hardly kept silent. He bemoans what he perceives to be the World-Herald editorial page’s move from “a moderate conservative position” to “The Right,” and categorizes its treatment of the President as “malice.” He is still asked to comment on current media events, as when KFAB sought his appraisal of Barbara Walters’ Monica interview, which he said regrettably only “satisfied our low curiosity.” He looked with dismay at “the sanctifying” of Joe DiMaggio upon his passing, noting the hype still paled next to how Princess Di’s legend grew “beyond all reasonable bounds.”
But where he used to crave always being “in the mix” of news events – putting his wry spin on things, he no longer minds “being away from the battle for months at a time” in that “other world” that is his mountain sanctuary. Yes, it’s a sure sign his Colorado conversion is complete.
“We lead such a simple life out there. When we go back in the summer for the first church service and the choir begins to sing, ‘There’s Something By the Mountain,’ I have a very hard time not getting teary-eyed because these things come to combine in a tapestry of meaning about the experiences you’ve had there and the way in the mountains you feel closer to the grandeur of creation.”
Despite the strong pull Colorado exerts, he has no intention of taking up year-round residence there. “No. I like life in Omaha. I don’t like missing the opening of the theater season in the fall. I would miss not being here for UNO and Nebraska football. I would miss my friends.”
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