What follows is a historical narrative I was commissioned to write for the Creighton University College of Businesss. The gist of the assignment was to articulate how the enterpreneurial focus and service to society mission of the college is in alignment with the enterprising and giving natures of the university’s pioneering founders, including businessmen and staunch Catholics Edward and John Creighton and the Jesuits.
Creighton College of Business Anchored in Pioneering Entrepreneurial Spirit and Jesuit Philosophy
©by Leo Adam Biga
Enterprising Spirit Animates the Creighton Story
Creighton University was founded in 1878 thanks to a confluence of figures whose pioneering, entrepreneurial, for-the-greater-good spirit established a caring, comprehensive academic institution on the Great Plains.
As Creighton has grown, so has the city it is situated in, Omaha, Nebraska. The Jesuit school and campus provide an anchor in the north downtown district. Graduates of Creighton’s professional schools and colleges of law, medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, nursing, and business, for example, are recognized leaders in their fields. Creighton is lauded for being a good neighbor and a vital asset to the community.
The university makes contributions to many quality of life areas and some of the most visible are made by the Creighton University Medical Center, which combines teaching, diagnosis, and treatment in a real-life, critical care setting.
Community service is a vital facet of the Creighton experience. Students, faculty, and staff donate time and talent through health care and legal aid clinics. Service-learning efforts address myriad needs at home, around the nation, on Native American reservations, and in the Dominican Republic, where Creighton maintains an Institute for Latin American Concern mission.
Community collaboration and partnerships are other dimensions of Creighton’s outreach. The Werner Institute is a model initiative for negotiation and conflict resolution in the conduct of business, in relationships within and among organizations and communities, in the workplace, and in health care settings.
The Halo Institute is a collaborative that provides incubator space and professional consultation for emerging start-up businesses with a social or bioscience entrepreneurial bent. Halo is located in a complex of buildings in Omaha’s Old Market, a historic district whose warehouses were home to the city’s wholesale produce and outfitting businesses. Creighton University’s founders, brothers Edward and John Creighton, did business out of the very 19th century structure that Halo occupies today.
Creightons Set a Precedent for Being Entrepreneurial and Community-Minded
It is only fitting that the university retain a tangible connection to the Creightons, as the family’s lives and careers embodied the same principles that underscore the institution’s core mission and the way in which it’s carried out.
Edward and John Creighton were business magnates and devout Catholics from the East who settled in Omaha in the years immediately prior to the Civil War. The Creightons amassed a fortune through various business interests and invested significant portions of that wealth into bettering the community through charitable support.
Builder, developer, and visionary Edward Creighton, the older of the two, got in on the ground floor of the burgeoning telegraph and railroad industries. He and his companies played a major role in supplying and constructing the transcontinental lines and rails that grew America’s communication and transportation networks.
Edward’s vast commercial empire was also built on bank, mine, cattle, and land holdings. His many business partners included fellow movers-and-shakers in the development of Omaha and in the settling of the West. Concurrent with Edward’s capitalist impulses was a desire to give back. It had long been his wish to form a Catholic school that prepared young people through a quality, values-based education program. After Edward’s death, his widow Mary Lucretia Creighton, and his younger brother John, a successful entrepreneur in his own right, carried out his wishes by founding Creighton University, which was originally called Creighton College.
Respected for their expertise as educators and for the rigorous morals and ethics-based course of study they administer, the Society of Jesus was given rein over the university. The Jesuits have continued guiding Creighton throughout its existence.
That same early spirit of aspiration, invention, and service is still imbued in Creighton more than a century later. Consistently rated one of the top institutions of higher learning in the Midwest, Creighton is rooted in its Catholic and Jesuit identity and mission of educating the whole person and leaving the world a better place. Creighton graduates are prepared to lead purpose-driven lives and careers.
College of Business Reflects the Creighton Legacy and the Jesuit Tradition
This mission extends to the university’s College of Business, founded in 1920 as the College of Commerce. Guided by the school’s Jesuit heritage, Through its highly respected undergraduate and graduate level programs he College of Business forms leaders who promote justice and use their business knowledge to improve the world.
Michael Jung, Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of Cantera Partners, has used his MBA from Creighton to assist nonprofits develop public-private partnerships aimed at building economic development and sustainability in emerging and Third World nations.
“It is rewarding work, not only financially but from seeing the difference these programs can make in the world,” says Jung. “Some of the work that I have been involved in is feeding children in Afghanistan. We were feeding 75,000 school kids on a daily basis for five years. Just seeing the impact that can have on those children, mothers, families is very rewarding. I like being part of work that is actually making a difference with those not as fortunate as us here in the United States.”
The Creighton College of Business advances values-centered conduct through its courses as well as through its Academic Integrity Policy, Dean’s Honor Roll for Social Responsibility, Executive Partners Program, Anna Tyler Waite Center for Leadership, Leadership Conversations series, and other programs.
The business college is a founding member and active participant in the Greater Omaha Business Ethics Alliance. This partnership with the Omaha Chamber of Commerce and the Better Business Bureau advocates ethics in business.
Creighton MBA graduate Laura Larson is associate director of the Business Ethics Alliance.
“I think Creighton’s Jesuit focus prepared me so well for my job now in the business ethics industry,” says Larson. “I saw a focus in my classes on looking out for each person individually, the good of every person, taking the time to think about how a decision affects all stakeholders involved.
“Values have always been very important to me and acting morally and ethically has always been very important to me. When I came to Creighton and got the opportunity to work with the Business Alliance it really was a dream job to me because I’m making a difference in Omaha organizations every day. I’m bringing knowledge, skills, and resources involving ethics that organizations may not already have. I feel like I have a dream job just because I get to help others. “
Pat Lazure is president of World Interactive Group, an Omaha World-Herald company. He founded a hyper-local Web platform, WikiCity, whose breakout success led the Omaha World-Herald Co. to buy it and bring him into the fold.
Holder of a Creighton MBA, Lazure appreciates the solid foundation he received in ethical business practices during his Creighton graduate studies.
“Business ethics is doing the right thing, sometimes even when it is uncomfortable to do,” Lazure says, “and in my education at Creighton business ethics was just a common ingredient, categorically, in every class I attended. It was just engrained in you. I think a Creighton graduate is conditioned to take that moral compass into their career.
“The Jesuits have always engrained being men and women for others. In a business career especially I think you can fall into a trap of being self serving, of only looking at what can I do to climb that corporate ladder. Or what can I do to promote my own stock. Or how can I cut corners. I think the Jesuit way instills in people a focus of being that man or woman for others, and seeing the broader landscape of things. Perhaps that’s through philanthropy or community service. Whatever it may be, it’s commingling the philanthropic aspects of life with the drive to turn a profit.”
Imagination, Innovation, Integrity Find a Home at Creighton
The College’s Social Entrepreneurship and Bioscience Entrepreneurship programs emphasize business models that feature sustainable new practices and technologies that can positively impact society and community.
Omaha native Sameer Bhatia graduated from medical school in India and then earned his MBA from Creighton’s Bioscience Entrepreneurship Program. That experience led him to the Halo Institute, where his start-up business, Guru Instruments, found a nurturing space. Guru is focused on designing and marketing tools for medical professionals that improve surgical and other procedures, thereby increasing efficiency and reducing costs. Bhatia dreams of automated devices that can serve as “virtual physicians” in patients’ own homes or in nursing homes by feeding data to doctors’ offices to help inform diagnostic or treatment options.
Creighton Entrepreneurship Program director Ann York says Bhatia fits the model of a socially conscious entrepreneur who is not only motivated to succeed with products that have a humanitarian utility but who will likely “give back.”
For York there is a clear throughline from what the Creighton brothers did as early social entrepreneurs and the way Creighton University graduates learn to apply social entrepreneurship today. She says the principles and lessons of social entrepreneurship taught at Creighton dovetail with those of the Jesuit tradition and its challenge to students to be stewards of society.
“Given the mission and the values of our university as a Jesuit institution it makes perfect sense that social entrepreneurship would capture the hearts and minds of our students,” says York.
She cannot help but see the connection between the way Edward Creighton conducted business and the way Creighton students and graduates learn to engage with each other and with community.
“The older brother, Edward, was sort of a maverick,” says York, “but he was very into social causes. He was very concerned about Native American rights and education and respecting the integrity of the Native American people. In working on the railroad routes and telegraph lines, negotiations with Native Americans occurred all along the way and he was very concerned about some of the things he saw going on and actually was pretty outspoken about it. He was also an abolitionist, and pretty vocal about that, too. That’s very socially conscious.
“Entrepreneurs are the most socially conscious of all business people. Entrepreneurs who make money often want to give something back to the community that helped them grow and flourish, and the Creightons were very much that type of family.”
York also sees a parallel between the technological pursuits of the Creightons and the university’s bioscience entrepreneurship efforts. Just as that pioneering family helped to advance rapid communication through the telegraph and to further mass
transportation through the railroad, the school’s entrepreneurial success stories are forging new frontiers of their own.
“I think the Creightons would embrace very much what we’re doing in the biosciences,” York says, “because I think they would recognize it as an emerging industry like the ones they were involved and they would see the potential for future entrepreneurs like themselves.”
Nurturing Creatives and Leaders
After experiencing success with its undergraduate Bioscience Entrepreneurship program, Creighton has developed a professional science master’s program in Bioscience Management. College of Business Dean Anthony Hendrickson says the emphasis in this graduate-level program “is really the management of that bioscience innovation process — the research and development.”
The Halo Institute is a supportive proving ground for social and bioscience entrepreneurial business models generated by Creighton students and faculty, although the incubator is open to applicants outside the Creighton community as well.
“The distinguishing thing about our Halo business incubator is that it is tied to our Jesuit mission,” says Hendrickson. “When as a board we look at different businesses the first question we ask ourselves is, ‘Relative to this service or product, what is its impact on society?’ Not its money making potential, but its impact on society. We consider that first and then after addressing whether it’s a good thing for society, we look at its business viability aspects, which is a different orientation. Most business institutions don’t do that because of their secular focus on business viability and profit potential. Most organizations ranking those things wouldn’t necessarily look at that social impact issue first.”
Halo Institute chair Roger Fransecky says participants in the incubator benefit from “the sponsorship, direction, and guidance of a values-based staff, and it’s all a reflection of what Creighton is about as an institution.”
Fransecky has an interesting perspective on the principled way Creighton approaches business precepts. Founder/CEO of the global leadership firm, Apogee Group, he serves on the College of Business advisory board and teaches a special course in personal leadership in the Creighton MBA program.
“I share deeply the values that Creighton espouses,” says Fransecky. “My students are doctors, lawyers, dentists, bankers, accountants, business people, and the common denominator is — they’re in this program not simply to get an MBA, they’re in this program to find work with meaning and to then link that work to the larger values of their lives. I’ve been very touched and moved by these grownups — they’re really smart and they care a lot. The thing that links them together is their aspirations and their values.
“I’ve taught at New York University and UCLA and Princeton and a lot of other places, and these (Creighton) students are very unique in my experience.”
ESPN reporter Paula Lavigne, who does enterprise piece’s for the cable sports network’s investigative “Outside the Lines” series, was a college graduate and working journalist when she decided to enhance her marketable skills. She decided to pursue a master of business administration degree and after considering several graduate schools she opted for Creighton’s MBA program.
“I chose Creighton because it has a wonderful reputation,” says Lavigne. “I appreciated the values it disposes. It was the Creighton faculty that really won me over. It was a wonderful blend of experienced faculty leading a discussion of people from all different backgrounds and engaged in really thought-provoking material.
“I feel like since I’ve gotten my MBA from Creighton I am more confident in my job and in the ideas I come up with. I feel that my MBA has really given me skills as a leader as well as a sense of credibility and business savvy I didn’t have before.”
Lavigne says she struggled with leadership until a breakthrough at Creighton.
“I think one of the most powerful moments from my Creighton experience was a personal leadership class I took. The professor really encouraged us to bring forth a lot of things from our past that were uncomfortable. By doing that it allowed me to see what I had been doing wrong as a leader and what strengths I could pull from to be a better leader going forward. It felt like a very cleansing moment for me.”
She says she learned leadership “is not just about numbers and board meetings, it’s really about people and it’s about your individual skills. This class really helped me come to terms with a lot of that. ” She says she now practices leadership on the job and as a presenter of workshops and training seminars for other reporters.
A Moral Compass
In addition to honing her leadership skills, Paula Lavigne says Creighton’s MBA program gave her a new, healthier perspective of business.
“Before I started the MBA program at Creighton I had a pretty cynical view of business, especially big business not really having much respect for business ethics or morality or social justice. In my view those values really didn’t have a role in the business community. My MBA classes at Creighton taught me that’s not really true. Professors were very good about incorporating that sense of justice, ethics, and morality into business, and really teaching us as students that there is a role for that. It is not just a dog eat dog world.
“I mean there is definitely a role in business to follow a moral compass of sorts and still be successful. I think that really plays into those Jesuit values, and I know that that sense of the Golden Rule is not just for Sunday school, but it’s for the boardroom as well. Our professors instilled in us that you don’t just have to run over everyone, you can respect your competition, you can respect your customers, and at the end of the day you can still profit from the bottom line.”
Creighton business professor and Robert Daugherty Chair in Management Robert Moorman says the College of Business encourages students not to be satisfied with the status quo. He says students are challenged to look beyond merely making a profit or returning a dividend to shareholders by asking questions that go deeper than bottom line numbers. He says students are trained to look at larger considerations; What’s next? What else is there to do? How are you going to use shareholder value to drive changes in the world toward justice, toward the improvement of society for the many?
“It’s that sense of responsibility to take one more step,” says Moorman. “Gathering the knowledge is a necessary important first step. Using the knowledge completes the circle. So I think this is a place where we try to ask the question, How are you going to use the knowledge, what are you going to do with it? Leadership is the method, the lever or the device that links knowledge to the outcomes we wish to see.
“I often say to students, ‘We want you to take ethics classes and really think about the ethics side of it, because we want you to be leaders who influence the world.’”
Moorman says that if students are going to be successful entrepreneurs they must know finance, marketing, strategy, and underlining business principles. Just as they must have a complete grasp of such business models, he says if f they are to be socially responsible entrepreneurs they must know and apply sound ethics. It’s this holistic approach to doing business, he says, that differentiates Creighton’s focus.
“Everything is kind of tied together that way,” he says. “I think the entrepreneurship major is really about fostering a drive towards innovation that makes a difference for society.”
Hendrickson sees plenty of evidence that Creighton business graduates implement the social consciousness taught in school in their own careers.
“It seems like there’s a number of Creighton grads that embrace this idea of social entrepreneurship, mostly because that’s the ethos from which they spring,” he says.
That ethos is one embodied by the Jesuit philosophy, past and present, and it’s certainly an ethos the Creighton family manifested.
Building on a Foundation of Serving the Greater Good
According to Creighton archivist David Crawford the Creightons were visionaries who saw the need for quality higher education that was broad in scope, yet specialized. The family’s philanthropy made possible the addition of the schools of medicine, law, pharmacy, and significantly, business. He says Creighton University added the then-School of Commerce at a time when there was growing recognition of the need for “scientific training” in business administration.
Whether donating the money to establish Creighton University or providing funds to build out the campus, including St. John’s Church, or financing the creation of professional schools, or supporting St. Joseph Hospital, Crawford says “the Creightons acted out of “a sense of responsibility” to serve their community and faith.
“Through a lot of their charitable works the Creightons took care of a number of voids in Omaha and Nebraska. I think they just saw this as part of giving back to the community.”
Crawford says this outward focus still resonates today with the social justice and community service work that Creighton students, faculty, and staff do in accordance with the school’s Jesuit mission.
“You see a strong sense that that’s what you do here — that’s the norm, and I think that really ties directly back to the Creightons. The commitment to putting a school here was part of a larger commitment. The leadership role of the Creighton family was very much in that mode of noblesse oblige (nobility obliges) — of feeling a responsibility to people in the area,” says Crawford. “There was a sense of, We’ve been blessed, there’s a lot of people in our community who are less fortunate, and we need to take care of them.”
Omaha is well known for its generous business and entrepreneurial sector and Creighton College of Business graduates are among the major players who make community service a priority here and wherever they live.
Laura Larson of the Greater Omaha Business Ethics Alliance credits Creighton University with nurturing a focus on others.
“Something that was really emphasized at Creighton was giving back to the community,” she says. “One way Creighton helped me to grow was that it really gave me the opportunity to make a difference in the MBA program. When I had an idea for a project I’d go to a faculty member to talk about it, and they were completely open to hear what I had to say and they gave me the tools necessary to implement the project. I was able to start a graduate student association and plan the first hooding ceremony for graduate business students.”
“After I was done with my MBA I got involved with a mentoring program in the Omaha area, so I now mentor a group of four to six kids twice a month. Serving others is something I was always very passionate about. It is something that has been instilled in me from a young age and Creighton emphasized it as well as I went through the program. “
Robert Moorman says the example of the Creightons and university graduates giving back demonstrates how trailblazers can assert leadership that goes beyond selfish business interests to serve much wider community and societal interests.
“It’s really about the drive that prompted the Creightons to explore new territories, new business ideas, new endeavors and not stop at perhaps a simple way station and say, I am successful now, that’s good enough, and I’m resting on my laurels. It’s about a very forward leaning entrepreneurial notion,” says Moorman, “and at least being comfortable with accepting the mantle of responsibility that comes with opportunity.
“Responsibility comes with those benefits. Leadership is the way in which influence is exercised. At the end of the day it’s all about exercising influence over the actions and views of other folks, and the Creighton brothers did that, the Creighton wives did that, and that I think is the connection we want to have to that legacy. It’s the what’s next — what else are you going to do now? outlook.”
An Unbroken Chain of Ingenuity and Inspiration
The holistic approach the Creightons modeled has remained a constant at the university and in its business college, whose graduates cultivate a sense of responsibility and concern they carry with them, paying it forward in their personal and professional lives.
“Getting my MBA at Creighton has made me more of a whole person,” says ESPN’s Paula Lavigne. “It has made me a better contributor in the workplace. It has made me a better leader. It has given me opportunities at ESPN and I believe it has opened up my opportunities for the long term as well regardless of what I do.
“One of the things we learned in our leadership classes was the importance of being authentic. You can’t be authentic if you have one face at work and a different one at home and a different face in your spiritual life. You have to make sure the person you are at work is true to the person you are at home because that makes you a better leader. As long as you’re being authentic to yourself, you can be a better person, you can be a better leader with your coworkers, with your supervisors, and the customers that you deal with.”
Balance, congruence, integrity, innovation, integration, service. These qualities have been a hallmark of the Creighton experience since its start. They remain a cornerstone of the values taught there today.
The enterprising and philanthropic spirit of the school’s founders has been taken up year after year, generation after generation by new mavericks animated with the same desire to achieve and lead.
Like the Creightons who began it all, the university continues producing men and women of substance, vision, and conscience who succeed in business and in life not in spite of their compassion and generosity but because of it.
- Creighton University Leads Statewide Initiative to Improve End-of-Life Care (prweb.com)
- Creighton University Launches Online Doctor of Education in Leadership (prweb.com)
- Institute for Latin American Concern at Creighton has Dominican Focus (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Home is Where the Heart Is for Activist Attorney Rita Melgares (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Community Trumps Gang in Fr. Greg Boyle’s Homeboy Model (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Jana Murrell was somewhat of a trendsetter when I did this mini-profile on her in 2005. She was the first Miss Nebraska who was not Caucasian (though she is biracial she identifies as African-American) and she competed with several other women of color in the Miss USA pageant that year. Since then more African-American women have become pageant winners and finalists both here and nationally. She went on to compete in other national pageants, including Miss Earth USA. She was an on-camera television traffic reporter for a time at KETV in Omaha. But all along she was studying for her Ph.D. in physical therapy. She went on to work as Essence Pageant emcee and director of operations. And I just read where she’s newly engaged to be married. She and other women of color have helped redefine standards of beauty in America that are more diverse and inclusive and that’s a good thing. Black is beautiful, baby. So is brown and every other hue.
Jana Murrell: Working Towards a New Standard of Beauty
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
After years of neglect, women of color are fast emerging as new cultural icons of beauty in America. Reigning Miss Nebraska USA Jana Murrell, a 23-year-old African-American from Omaha competing in the Miss USA 2005 pageant being broadcast April 11 by NBC, is part of this barrier-breaking trend. “I think it’s about time,” said Murrell, gesturing in her best spokesmodel way at her North Omaha home. “You know, it’s really hard to change the public’s opinion of beauty from the blond-haired, blue-eyed girl that’s kind of been IT forever. So, for us to be able to make that change is something pretty powerful. I’m glad society’s being more accepting and more open to different kinds of beauty. Beauty’s everywhere.”
Murrell is one of several women of color competing in the 54th annual event, which takes place at the Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore, MD.
Currently on break from her physical therapy doctorate studies at Creighton University, where she was a 2000 Presidential Diversity scholarship recipient, Murrell defies beauty pageant contestant stereotypes in many ways. The product of an interracial family, the mocha-complexioned, 5-foot-11 Murrell, whose blue eyes change to green, gray and blue-green depending on the light, embodies expectation-bending with her fairly exotic look and eclectic resume. A former competitive athlete who teaches step aerobics, Murrell is also a perennial Dean’s List student. She’s equally comfortable rehabbing patients in a set of scrubs to gliding down a runway in a swimsuit or evening gown to working out in sweats to making an elegant public appearance in a smart ensemble. This combination tomboy, girly girl and nerd enjoys how her versatility keeps people guessing. Her biracial makeup is another expression of her multi-dimensional identity.
“What I like best, which I think actually could help me at Miss USA, is that you can’t tell what I am. A lot of people come up and ask me, ‘What are you?’ And I like that. I like being different looking,” Murrell said. “I like that our society is becoming so mixed and integrated and such a melting pot that sometimes you can’t tell what people are anymore. And when you can’t tell what they are, you can’t label them. They’re just people. Now, beauty is just beauty. Not black or white…”
However, she said she still runs up against old attitudes that beg the question, “’What’s it like being a black Miss Nebraska?’” And I’m like, ‘Why don’t you ask me what it’s like being me?’ Or, ‘Why do I have to be the black Miss Nebraska? Why can’t I be Miss Nebraska?’” Good point.
The North High graduate entered her first Miss Nebraska USA pageant only a few years ago. She finished as first-runnerup twice, before winning the crown and sash in Norfolk, Neb. last fall. Always looking for new ways to challenge herself, she views the pageant thing as an opportunity to improve herself and to test the fashion/entertainment waters. She’s “dabbled” in modeling. An agent once urged her to go to New York, but her mother nixed that. School came first. With her long-term professional track charted — Murrell plans working with patients suffering from neurological disorders — she has the security of a career awaiting her. But with a year off from school to fulfill her title’s goodwill obligations, she hopes Miss USA provides a forum for being seen and discovered.
“If I meet the people I would like to meet and get the chances I would like to get,” she said, “then this is the time I can really pursue that and see what happens. It’s kind of like my last chance to really go for that.”
Speaking from Baltimore on the eve of Miss USA, Murrell was prepping for a telecast number in the “little red” Tadashi dress contestants wear. She said the many pre-pageant activities make for 16-hour days. There are meet-and-greet events, photo shoots, tapings, fittings, fashion shows, rehearsals. “It’s fast-paced, go-go-go. You don’t get a lot of sleep. But it’s a lot of fun. I’m still feeling really prepared and ready and confident. And I still feel like I might do it,” she said. Win, or finish high, she means. No Miss Nebraska has ever won and the last semi-finalist from here was in 1980. Whatever happens, she’ll have plenty of family on hand, including her parents. “I’ll have quite a little cheering section.”
She’s struck up a few friendships with contestants. Away from the cameras, she said, the vibe among the women “is like a big slumber party.” Besides meeting some Baltimore Ravens players for a staged game of flag football, she hasn’t hooked-up with any big names or door-opener types yet. Hobnobbing with The Donald, as in pageant principal Donald Trump, is sure to be a highlight as will be pressing-the-flesh with celebrity judge Sugar Ray Leonard. Even if someone doesn’t make her an offer she can’t refuse, Murrell can take solace in the fact “we’re the pageant that’s still on TV,” referring to the rival Miss America pageant’s relative decline.
Fascinating profile subjects abound everywhere I turn. Often times though I feel constrained to impart just how compelling a person’s story is by the limited space editors grant me. The subject of this of this profile, Taylor Keen, is a case in point. The 500 to 600 words allotted me to tell his story can only provide a hint of the complexity and nuance that attend his life and career journey. It’s a delightful writing challenge to be sure. All I can hope is that I leave you the reader with an engaging glimpse of the man and a thirst to know more.
Entrepreneur, Strategist and Nation Builder Taylor Keen
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in Omaha Magazine
As the son of prominent, college-educated Native American parents who found success in and out of traditional circles, Creighton University‘s Taylor Keen says he grew up with the expectation “you had to walk in both worlds.”
He hails from northeast Oklahoma, where his late attorney father, Ralph F. Keen, was a conservative big wheel in Cherokee nation politics. His liberal Omaha Indian mother, Octa Keen, is a veteran nursing professional. He credits her for his being well-versed in traditional dances, songs and prayer ceremonies.
He successfully navigates “dual worlds” at Creighton as director of the Native American Center and as executive director of the Halo Institute, a business incubator. He’s also managing partner of his own consulting firm. Talon Strategy, which provides clients competitive intelligence and strategic facilitation solutions.
Off-campus, he maintains ceremonial duties as a member of the Omaha Hethuska Warriors. He previously did economic development consulting for the Omaha and Cherokee nations and served a stint on the Cherokee National Council.
He joined Creighton in 2008 in the wake of a tribal political controversy that pitted him against fellow Cherokee nation elected leaders. The issue involved the descendants of slaves held by the Cherokee in earlier times. Keen, who had eyes on becoming chief, says he “committed political suicide” when he took an unpopular stance and advocated these descendants enjoy the same rights as all native Cherokees.
It wasn’t the first time Keen survived personal upset. When his parents divorced he and his siblings bounced back and forth between Oklahoma and Omaha. With deep roots in each place, Keen calls both home.
Even from his earliest dealings with the outside world he says he was always aware “I was very different from other people,” adding, “That was a crucial life lesson. Identity for all of us as human beings is where it begins and ends.” He says his own “strong sense of identity” has helped him thrive.
He graduated from Millard North and ventured east to attend a private boarding school in Massachusetts to improve his chances of getting into an Ivy League institution. His plan worked when Dartmouth accepted him. He also studied at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Business School. A paper he wrote attracted the attention of Metropolitan Fiber Systems, a spin-off of Peter Kiewit and Sons. “I was hired as a graduate intern at a very exciting time, working for all these powerful executives at a fresh young startup. I was hooked,” he says. “I returned the next summer and they sent me overseas.”
Swept up in the dot com-technology-telecom boom, he tried his hand at his own online business and though he says “it failed miserably,” he adds, “I learned a ton. I think all entrepreneurs learn more from their mistakes than from their successes.
My class at Harvard Business School, whether we like it or not, will be forever remembered as the dot com class. I believe 80 percent of us at least had some association with dot coms.”
Encouraged in the belief that his true calling lay in teaching, he’s found the right fit at Creighton. There he combines two of his favorite things by easing the path of Natives in higher education and by helping emerging businesses prepare themselves for angel investors .
“Creighton’s been very good to me,” he says. “It has very much let me play towards my passions and my strengths.”
Here is a story I did in 1996 in the flood of refugees coming to America from war-ravaged Bosnia and Serbia. I tell the story of two families from Saravejo whose lives were turned upside down when the city fell under siege. Rusmir and Hari stayed behind to fight, as their wives and children narrowly escaped, eventually to the West. The men were eventually reunited with their families and ended up starting new lives in America. In my hometown of Omaha no less. I came across this story when I learned about a music and dance performance that a local choreographer organized as a way of commemorating the experience of these Bosnian refugees. The cathartic performance served as a bridge between the war that changed everything and the peace they had to flee their homeland to find.
War and Peace, Bosnian Refugees Purge War’s Horror’s in Song and Dance that Make Plea for Peace
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The forum for this unusual intersection of cultures was the finale of an October 25-26 Omaha Modern Dance Collective concert. The closing piece, “Day of Forgiveness,” featured a melting pot of dancers and musicians, but most poignantly, local Bosnian refugees performing as a five-piece band
The work incorporated vigorous Bosnian folk dances and songs symbolizing the relative harmony in Bosnia before the war and the healing so sorely needed there now. Ironically, a dance whose context was an ethnic war, joined Croats, Muslims and Serbs in a unifying celebration.
The refugees are among a growing, diverse Bosnian colony that has sprung up in Omaha since 1993. They say the Bosnia they knew was free of ethnic and religious strife until Serb nationalism began rearing its ugly head. Many are natives of Sarajevo, where they enjoyed an upscale, Western European lifestyle. Since escaping the carnage to start over in America, they’ve forged a tranquil Little Sarajevo in Omaha.
“Bosnia was like a small United States, where many different cultures, many different religions lived together,” says the band’s lead vocalist and guitarist, Rusmir Hadzisulejmanovic, 41, formerly a marketing manager with a Sarajevo publishing firm. Today, he works as a handy man and attends Metropolitan Community College. “We prepared a good life in our country. We had nice jobs. We made good money. But somebody from outside tried to destroy that. And we lost everything in one day.”
Fellow refugee and musician Muharem “Hari” Sakic, 39, a friend of Rusmir’s from before the war, was an import-export executive and now works odd jobs while attending Metro. Hari says, “In Sarajevo we never cared what religion you were. And none of us care about that now. It doesn’t matter. We only care what kind of person you are.”
Both men are Muslim. Rusmir’s wife is Serb; Hari’s, Croation-Catholic. They say mixed marriages such as theirs were typical.
The two men fought side-by-side defending their beloved Sarajevo, the besieged Bosnian capital devastated by Serb aggressors. Talking with Rusmir and Hari today, surrounded by loved ones in their safe, comfortable southwest Omaha apartments, it’s hard to imagine them as fierce soldiers engaged in a life and death struggle with forces who outnumbered and outgunned them. But then Rusmir passes around snapshots of he and Hari in camouflage fatigues, armed to the teeth, outside the burned-out shell of a train station. A later photo shows Rusmir, usually a burly 240 pounds, looking pale, drawn and shrunken from the near-starvation war diet.
War Hits Home
Although Serbia invaded Croatia by late 1990, beginning the pattern of pogroms and atrocities it repeated elsewhere in the former Yugoslav Republic, most Bosnians never suspected the conflict would affect them. But it did, beginning, shockingly and viciously at noon, April 4, 1992, when Serb artillery units dug in atop the hills overlooking Saravejo launched an unprovoked, indiscriminate attack on the city’s homes, streets and businesses.
Rusmir was eating lunch in a cafeteria when the first explosions rocked the city. He was trapped there until morning. “I saw many, many damaged houses and cars and dead people in the streets. It was the first time in my life I saw something like that,” he recalls. It was the start of a three-year siege that killed thousands of civilians and soldiers.
At the family’s apartment he found his wife Zorana, 39, and their children Ida and Igor, then ages 8 and 2, respectively, unharmed, but “very scared.” He immediately set about finding a safe way out for them. Escape was essential, since Ida suffers from a serious kidney disease requiring frequent medical treatment, and his family’s Muslim surname made them targets for invading Serbs. As for himself, he had no choice but to stay – and fight.
The roads and fields leading out of town were killing zones, manned by roaming Serb militia. Air service was disrupted. With the help of Jewish friends he finally got his family approved for a flight to Belgrade, Serbia several days later. On the day of departure Zorana and the kids boarded a bus for the tense ride to the Serbian-held airport. As it was too dangerous to be seen together, Rusmir followed behind in a car.
The scene at the airport was chaotic. Hundreds of people milled about the tarmac, frantic not to be left behind. When a mad dash for the plane began, Zorana, carrying Igor in one arm, felt Ida being pulled away by the surging crowd. She grabbed hold of her daughter and hung on until they were aboard.
From a distance Rusmir watched the plane lift off safely, carrying his family to an uncertain fate. It was the last flight out for many months. Three-and-a-half years passed before he saw his family again.
While in Belgrade, Zorana and the kids stayed at a hotel. Zorana made Ida promise (Igor was too young) never to say their Muslim name aloud, but only her Serb maiden name, Vojnovic. Zorana says she felt “shame” at denying her true identity and “guilty” for what some Serbs were doing to Muslims. “It was very hard.”
“You had to say some Serb name to save your life,” notes Hari, whose family took similar precautions. Like Rusmir and Zorana, Hari and his wife Marina were desperate to get their daughter Lana out, as she has a kidney condition similar to Ida’s. Marina and Sakic’s kids eventually fled to Croatia.
In Belgrade Zorana often confronted Serb enmity, such as when a hospital denied Ida treatment fate learning her real name. From Belgrade, they fled to norther Croatia, staying with relatives and friends.
Life in Croatia had a semblance of normality until Croat-Muslim hostilities erupted. Then Zorana was denied work and Ida expelled from school and refused care. A human rights organization did fly Zorana and the kids to London, where her brother lived, but they were denied residency and returned to Croatia. Growing more desperate, she pleaded her family’s case at every embassy, to no avail.
With few resources and options left she heard about the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a humanitarian agency offering visas based on medical need. After her first entreaties were rejected she went to IOM’s offices “every morning for three months,” before finally getting the visa that eventually brought them to Omaha in October, 1993. Zorana was among the first group of Bosnian and Croatian refugees to arrive here.
Omaha – A New Home, A New Life
Why Omaha? Dr. Linda Ford, a local physician affiliated with IOM, was matched with the family as a medical caseworker and mentor. Zorana says Ford was her “main moral support” when she first arrived. “She showed me how to live on my own. She was a great help.”
Ford arranged for the family to live at the home of Dr. Dan Halm and at her urging Zorana, an attorney in Saravejo, earned a para-legal degree at UNO while working part-time jobs. Zorana now works full-time at Mutual of Omaha. Ford says the contacts Zorana made here as a result of her own refugee experience have aided other Bosnians in settling here, including Rusmir’s sister and brother-in-law. Since moving her family to the Woodcreek Apartments, Zorana has guided 12 other refugee families there.
Barbarism, Heroism and Sacrifice
Meanwhile, Rusmir, who as a young man served in the Yugoslav equivalent of the CIA, had joined Hari and others in mobilizing the local Bosnian Army, It was a civilian army comprised of Muslims, Croats and Serbs, They lacked even the most basic supplies. Uniforms were improvised from sleeping bags. Many soldiers fought in athletic shoes. Shelling and sniper fire continued day and night. The streets and outlying areas were a grim no-man’s land. The only respite was an occasional cease-fire or relief convoy.
As the siege progressed conditions worsened. Rusmir’s and Hari’s homes were destroyed. But life went on. “In war it’s not possible to keep a normal life, but we tried,” says Rusmir. For example, school-age kids who remained behind still attended classes, and Hari’s wife Marina gave birth to their son, Adi, on May 22, 1992.
“At that time the situation was terrible, especially for babies. No food, no water, no electricity , no nothing,” Hari recalls.
Somehow, they hung on. Marina and their two children got out as part of a Red Cross convoy that fall.
Hari and Rusmir fought in a special unit that took them behind enemy lines to wreak havoc, do reconnaissance, collect intelligence and capture prisoners. Miraculously, neither was wounded.
“I was many times in a very dangerous position,” says Rusmir. “I know how to use a gun and a knife. That helped me to survive. I’m lucky, you know? I survived.”
Two of his best friends did not – Dragan Postic and Zelicko Filipovic.
Rusmir witnessed acts of barbarism, heroism and sacrifice, An artillery shell landed amidst a group of school kids during recess, killing and maiming dozens. “That was very awful.” In the heat of battle, a comrade jumped on an enemy tank and dropped hand grenades inside the open turret, killing himself and the tank’s crew. Despite overwhelming odds and losses the city held. “We stopped them…we survived,” Rusmir says.
By the time a United States-brokered and NATO-enforced peace halted the war in 1995, Rusmir, who’d stayed gallantly (“Stubbornly,”says Zorana) on to protect his homeland and care for his ill father, felt very alone. Except for his father, there was nothing left – no home, no job, no family, no future. Hari was gone, too, escaping on 1994 on foot via a tunnel dug under the Saravejo airport, and then over the mountains into Croatia, where after a long search he was reunited with his family.
The Sakics emigrated here in January, 1995.
Music – Celebration and Mourning
Every refugee has a story. The Bosnians’ story is of suddenly being cast as warriors and wanderers in an ethnically-cleansed netherworld where borders and names suddenly meant the difference between freedom or imprisonment, between living or dying.
It all happened before – to their parents and grandparents in World War II. It’s a story burned in their memories and hearts and told in stirring words, music and dance.
Their music inspired choreographer Josie Metal-Corbin to create “Day of Forgiveness.” The professor of dance at the University of Nebraska at Omaha first heard the music when a former student and Bosnian emigre brought the band to her class. They played about 10 minutes and right away I knew I had to do something with this music,” Metal-Corbin recalls. “I was very taken by it, I’m part Italian and part Slovak, and this music really spoke to me. It’s very passionate.”
After months of working with the musicians and UNO’s resident dance troupe she directs, the Moving Company, Metal-Corbin grew close to the refugees and their families, particularly Rusmir, Zorana and their children, now ages 12 and 6. Zorana acted as the project’s interpreter and cultural guide.
During the Creighton concert, which marked the dance’s premiere, Rusmir and the other, all-male musicians exuberantly accompanied the rousing dance from a rear corner of the stage.
Rusmir, who grew up singing and playing the romantic tunes that accompanied the dance, says, “I feel the songs in my heart, in my soul, in my blood.” Song and dance are a big part of Bosnian celebrations, which can last from evening through dawn.
A Gypsy song – “Djurdjevdan” (“Day of the Flowers”) – was chosen by Metal-Corbin to give the dance its thematic design. The song, like the dance she adapted from it, tells of a holiday when people go to a river to cleanse themselves with water and flowers as an act of atonement and plea for forgiveness. According to Rusmir, the song and dance reflect Bosnians’ forgiving nature.
“What is very hard about the war is that we lost so many friends. We lost neighbors. We lost family members. And for what? Really for nothing. We tried to keep Bosnia in Bosnian borders. But I can forgive,” Rusmir says, “because my wife and kids are alive. My father is alive. It’s time for forgiveness, for one reason – the war must stop, always, I cannot live with hate. My people are not like that. You can kick me, you can beat me…I will always find a reason to forgive you. That is the Bosnian soul.”
Hari, though, cannot so easily let go of the memory of Marina and their two children barely escaping a direct artillery hit on their Sarajevo apartment. “Forgive, yes, but forget, no,” he says. “I must try never to forget.” Even now, the whine of a siren and the clap of thunder are nervous reminders of incoming artillery rounds. “That is the kind of sound you can never forget,” Hari says.
He still wakes up in a cold sweat at the thought of the three-finger sign used by Chetnik Serbs in carrying out their terror campaigns. “When they started to use that sign,” he says, “the poison came. It meant. ‘You are not with us.’ Then the killing started.”
As a haunting reminder of what the dance was about, an enlarged news photo in the background pictured the tearful reunion of a Bosnian refugee family. The image had special meaning for Rusmir and Hari, who had only recently reunited with their own families. For them, the dance was their own personal commemoration of loss, celebration of survival, offering of thanks and granting of forgiveness.
Adding further resonance, virtually the entire local Bosnian refugee colony attended out of a deep communal sense of pride in their rich culture, one they’re eager to share with the wider Omaha community they’ve felt so welcomed by.
Zorana was there. “I was real proud, but at the same time I was kind of sad,” she says. “It was the music of our country – but in a different country. I was real touched when I saw Americans feel the same we do. I wanted to cry.”
Zorana, whose journey with her children across the war-torn region took a year before she found safe passage to America, adds that forgiveness must never come at the price of wisdom. “I would not let anybody to that to us again. Yo can trick us one time, but just one time.”
Yes, these Bosnians, are remarkably free of bitterness, but they do feel betrayed by the European community’s delayed, timid intervention. Zorana says, “You cannot wait so long and be so passive. You cannot say, ‘Oh, this is not my war. I don’t want to be bothered – they’re not killing me.’ Because tomorrow they may come to your house and try to kill you.” Hari says, “All the time we waited for a miracle.”
Rusmir decries the Serbs’ targeting of civilians. Hari hopes “world justice catches the war criminals, so that they will never sleep good again.”
With the aid of Neb.Republican U.S. House of Representatives member John Christensen Rusmir finally got permission to immigrate and was reunited with his family last November. Once here there were many adjustments to make. Igor didn’t remember him. Ida was slow to warm to a father she hadn’t seen for so long. Rusmir spoke no English. The family barely got by. But in classic immigrant tradition they’ve adapted and now call Omaha – a city they’d never heard of before – their home.
“It is hard. But step by step, day by day, we make connections, we make new friends we make a good life, too. We feel like Bosnian pioneers in Omaha and Nebraska,” says Rusmir, who hopes to start a construction business with Hari.
The Bosnians like America and feel sure they’ll thrive here. Their children already have, with many earning top grades in school. Ida and Lana are both healthy and doing fine. The Bosnians are deeply grateful to America, which Hari calls “a dream country” for its warm reception.
Hari says, “In America I can once again live like a normal person. There’s no fear that somebody will knock on my door and ask, ‘Who are you?’ and say, ‘You’re guilty.’ We are safe here. Many Americans have helped to give us a chance. Thanks America. We are sure that we will be a success.”
Zorana downplays their heroic struggle, saying, “You need to go on if you think ou have some tomorrow. You need to believe in yourself. Then nothing is impossible.”
America is, after all, the land of opportunity.
“You give me a chance to be equal,” she says. “To work. To be a citizen. I wanted my children to be Bosnian, but now I want them to be American. Here, you can be proud of your last name. You don’t have to feel ashamed.”
- A Long Way from Home (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Mladic could face two trials for alleged Bosnian war crimes (cnn.com)
- Serbia alert over Mladic protests (bbc.co.uk)
- Bosnia tensions live on despite Mladic capture (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Key dates and events in the Bosnia war (zokstersomething.wordpress.com)
- No closure (bbc.co.uk)
I saw in the paper one weekend that someone I profiled a couple years ago passed away. Sam Cooper was a Douglas County Court judge in Nebraska. I believe my late mother, Gemma Pietramale, was a classmate of his at now defunct Mason Elementary School in Omaha. He was Jewish, my mom Italian, and the school a veritable melting pot of European ethnicities. A diminutive man in terms of height, his stature in local judiciary circles ranked high, as much for his fair, gentle manner as for his legal acumen. When I met with he and his wife it was clear to see he was on the fragile side physically, but his mind and spirit were sharp, and his abiding love for America and its freedom was evident in the way he spoke almost reverently about the opportunities this nation provide his immigrant family. My story on Cooper originally appeared in the Jewish Press, and I offer it here as a remembrance of this kind little man with a big heart.
Sam Cooper’s Freedom Road
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
Retired Douglas County Court Judge Samuel V. Cooper’s immigrant parents always told him anything is possible in America. They were living proof. Sam, too. Like them, he came from “the old country,” and like they did he’s taken what America’s offered and made the most of it.
His success as a lawyer, as a Democratic Party operative and as a judge fulfilled the family’s dream of becoming productive American citizens. His life became the embodiment of the Great American Ideal he once wrote a prize-winning essay about. None of it would have happened without his family having the courage of their convictions and leaving totalitarian Europe for freedom in the United States.
He said his father, Martin Cooper, made his way here after escaping the turmoil of war-torn Europe. Martin (Mayer) was a Russian Army conscript in World War I and was taken prisoner by the Austrian-Hungarian Army. Once released, he yearned to follow his brother Harry to America. Harry ended up in Omaha, where he built his own successful construction company. His Cooper Construction Co. built the old Beth Israel and Beth El Synagogue buildings.
But before Martin made the leap he first settled in Chelm, Poland. That fateful move led to him meeting his future wife, Ida (Chaya), who operated a candy store. The couple married and began a family. Their two oldest children, Jack and Sam, were born in Chelm.
Memories of Chelm are still with Cooper. How, for instance, his family lived in an apartment complex with a central courtyard that contained a common well from which residents drew water.
Cooper said his father could no longer ignore the itch to find something better and, so, in 1924 he embarked on a new start for the family by going on ahead of them to America. In classic immigrant tradition he planned to establish himself in some trade and then send for his wife and kids to join him. No one could have imagined how long it would take for the family to be reunited.
Martin worked for a time with his brother in the construction company but found his niche in the grocery business, said Cooper. One of the stores Cooper’s father worked for was Tuchman Brothers. With $500 his father saved, Cooper said, the enterprising man opened his own grocery store at 21st and St. Mary’s Avenue. By 1929, nearly six years after leaving his family in Poland, Cooper’s father finally saved enough to buy passage for his wife and two sons.
The image of saying goodbye to friends and schoolmates at the seder he attended is still fresh in Cooper’s mind. He recalls sailing on the S.S. Leviathan, in steerage, and arriving in New York. After a few days there a train took him, Jack and their mother to Omaha. He recalls nobody was at Union Station to meet them. A taxi took them to the address Martin had sent. The reunited family was the subject of stories and photos in the Omaha World-Herald and the Omaha Bee News.
If they had stayed in Poland just a few more years they might well have become victims of the Holocaust. Family that remained behind were never heard from again.
Sam was 8 when he arrived in Omaha. He and his family lived in back of the store.
His parents had little formal education, he said, but were quite literate and well-informed. He said his “very well read” father “read The Forward religiously. The radio, of course, had news about world events and he was very up on that.” As his father “felt his foreignness,” he said his dad took pains to improve his English and thereby better assimilate. Growing up, Cooper worked in his father’s store.
He said his mother was “a simple woman” who had small aspirations for him — desiring only that he find some stable work, perhaps a store of his own. She spoke of nothing high falutin, such as the law. Besides, where would the money come from to study a profession in college?
Cooper was a good student at Mason Grade School, where he received special help with his English language skills. He got so proficient so fast he became editor of a mimeographed school newspaper. The oratory abilities that would help make him a lawyer and, later, a judge, found him serving as MC during the dedication for a school addition. But it was at Central High School where he really shined. Active in speech and debate, his coach encouraged Cooper to enter a national essay contest conducted by the Ladies Auxiliary of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
His entry, entitled “The Benefits of Democracy,” swept local, regional and national honors, earning Cooper a $1,000 grand prize that he used to pay his way through Omaha University. He wrote the essay at a pivotal, anxious time in world history. It was 1940. Nazi Germany was on the march. Great Britain was under siege. The entire world would soon be at war. Most agonizingly for Cooper, Jews were being persecuted back in the country of his birth.
In a fervid paean to his adopted homeland, the young patriot expressed his love for America and its democratic ideals, contrasting the freedom he and his family enjoyed here with the tyranny they would have otherwise faced abroad.
“Democracy to me is not something abstract and far off. It is with me at home, on the street, at school…It is like the very air I breathe. We do not have to sit on a special bench, nor wear a certain type of clothing…None of us need fear that somebody will report us to a storm trooper. We can read any book, newspaper or magazine that is published and they are not censored. We can go to sleep at night and be assured that we will not be awakened and be dumped across a border. We can awake in the morning and hear footsteps and know it is the milkman, not the gestapo.”
Clearly, for Cooper, the unfolding tragedy in Europe was not an abstract or remote problem. Although his parents were not political, he said they, too, followed what happened. He said his father “did get involved with some of the newly arrived people. They met like on Saturdays and discussed things — the news especially. He also helped a lot of refugees after the Holocaust to get settled.”
Economics intrigued Cooper while at Omaha U. but the practical side of him ruled the field out when, he said, he discovered “you can’t make a living at it.” His studies were soon disrupted by the war. Drafted in the Army in 1943 he ended up in the Quartermaster Corps, serving in England and Belgium. After Germany’s defeat in early 1945 he and fellow servicemen were on a ship that sailed through the Panama Canal to the Philippines. They were en route to the South Pacific to supply troops for the planned invasion of Japan. When the atomic bombs were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world’s bloodiest war finally came to an end. A few months later Cooper headed home.
Inspired by a friend from his youth who became a lawyer Cooper used the GI Bill of Rights to study law at Creighton University, where he completed an accelerated program that saw him get his degree in two years. This Jew delighted in the Jesuit rigor he found at Creighton.
“I enjoyed the intellectual atmosphere. Most of the professors would stir up something in your mind.”
To this day he feels indebted to the framers of the GI Bill for giving him the opportunity to complete his higher education and enter a profession that became his career. He takes offense to any suggestion that, for example, the Social Security Act was the greatest legislation ever passed. “The GI Bill is a little bit above that,” he’ll tell you.
Upon passing the bar Cooper first practiced law with Joe Friedenberg. As the courts’ Referee in Bankruptcy Friedenberg appointed the young attorney Trustee, which meant Cooper dealt with creditors and collected assets from those filing bankruptcy, netting him $5 for each case he cleared. He applied his fee toward his office rental. Later, attorney Loyal Kaplan tabbed Cooper to join him in a practice dealing with interstate and intrastate commerce applications for truckers’ routes.
Cooper next joined Jack Mayer for “a whopping sum of $50 a month and office space.” He certainly wasn’t getting rich in law. Indeed, he was barely getting by. Things were tight, especially after he married the former Judith Steinhorn of Dallas, Texas and the couple started a family. Things weren’t much more lucrative after he, Norm Denenberg and Ed Mullery formed their own law firm.
“I think we took any type of law business we could get, including divorces, filings for bankruptcy, drunk driving cases,” Cooper said.
He first entered politics in the mid-1950s. His abiding love for the democratic process and current events led him into that rarefied sphere.
“I got interested in politics,” is how he simply puts it.
Helping spur his interest were his struggles making ends meet as a lawyer. “I had time on my hands,” he said. “The law practice wasn’t going that great…” The opportunity was there to give back to America and he chose to take it.
“In the early years I ran for the original City Charter Convention that we’re operating under now in Omaha,” he said. “There must have been about 75 candidates running for 15 positions. The idea was to write up a modern charter. We met several times. We hired an expert that had done it in other places.
“One of the features, by the way, we placed in the charter was a provision requiring the mayor to appoint a review committee at least once every 10 years to assess if any alterations were needed in the charter. And I got appointed to two subsequent Omaha Charter Study Conventions.”
The first time around, in the ‘50s, he said, “I guess I was one of the younger members of the convention.” By his second time around, in the mid-’60s, he was a veteran politico who’d done his share of canvassing and campaigning.
“I worked for the Democratic Party on behalf of Adlai Stevenson, who was sort of a hero of mine. He sounded so well in his oratory.”
Cooper beat the bushes on voter registration drives and getting people out to vote for the Democratic ticket. Twice Stevenson opposed Dwight Eisenhower in the presidential general election and twice he lost. The egg head couldn’t defeat the war hero. Cooper said the dichotomy of the candidates then reminds him of the current presidential race that pits an intellectual dove in Democrat Barack Obama against a war hero hawk in Republican John McCain.
Election nights particularly appealed to Cooper. Whether his candidate won or lost, it was the culmination of the democratic process in action. Besides, he said, he enjoyed the party atmosphere on those electric nights full of anticipation and excitement. The hopes and efforts of weeks of work came to a head.
Omaha lawyer and political boss Bernie Boyle introduced Cooper to then-Nebraska Governor Ralph Brooks, who was responsible for Cooper becoming further entrenched in the political apparatus when he appointed the up-and-comer Douglas County Election Commissioner. “That was a fun job,” Cooper said. Again, he most fondly recalls the election night buzz that prevailed as ballot boxes came in and the results tallied. His wife made things homey by bringing in pans of baked chicken and all the fixings to tide Sam and his staff over as they worked into the wee hours.
Asked what he thinks of the ballot irregularities that have surfaced in recent U.S. general elections. he said, “We didn’t have any of those problems” under his watch at city hall. The controversy attending the disputed Florida results did not happen when Cooper presided over a recount here. When illness forced incumbent John Rosenblatt to retire in ‘61, the mayoral race came down to a dead heat between Jim Green and James Dworak. Green lost by a slim margin — a few hundred votes, Cooper recalled. The law required a recount. Cooper oversaw the process and he said the result “came pretty close to that same number.” End of story.
Cooper’s calm, cool demeanor and professionalism in that potentially volatile situation would become his trademark.
In 1964 Cooper once again took a leadership position within his party by serving as Douglas County Democratic Party Chairman, an experience he termed “great.” He said that year’s state convention “was one of the finest conventions we’ve seen here.” President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated the year before and as a memorial Cooper had printed “a sort of farewell” salute with photos and sayings of the slain leader of the free world.
By the fall of ‘68 the nation was reeling from the assassinations of three more leaders who inspired hope — Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Civil unrest plagued many big cities. Anti-war protests mounted. Amid this incendiary backdrop the rancorous Democratic National Convention unfolded in Chicago, where youth demonstrators were brutally dispersed by city boss Mayor Richard Daley’s thug police force outside the convention hall.
Cooper was there as an alternate delegate — not in the melee on the streets but inside the contentious, smoke-filled convention that finally nominated Hubert Humphrey. Chicago wasn’t his first national convention but it was his most memorable. While he didn’t witness any overt violence with his own eyes he said the wire mesh covering the windows of the bus that transported him and fellow delegates from the hotel to the hall was a stark symbol of the discord.
“We didn’t see much of the demonstrations going on,” he said. “We heard about it. Speakers talked about it.”
Reform legislation in the Nebraska Unicameral aimed at modernizing the county court system resulted in Cooper throwing his hat in the ring with other lawyers vying for a spot on the bench. Cooper won election in ’72 and later was retained. He said James Moylan was “very helpful in my election.”
Wearing the judge’s robe seemed a good fit for Cooper.
“When the opportunity came along,” he said, “it looked like steady money coming in and I thought I’d like the position. People said I had the temperament for it, and I think I did. I’d listen to both sides fairly and try to do the right thing in the case.
Did he enjoy the position as much as he thought he might? “Yes, very much so,” he said, adding he liked “the contact with lawyers and the contact with cases themselves.”
The country court’s “high volume” docket kept things humming. “I mean, we didn’t shy away from cases,” he said. “We had multiple jurisdictions. We had to get things done, which we did. We all kept busy. We had to be there at a certain time to start the court and to process the cases. On the other hand, we usually got through by 4:30 or something like that.”
He liked the variety of cases he presided over — from criminal to civil to probate matters. Another judgeship, perhaps in a higher court, never interested him. After 32 years on the bench he retired in 2005.
If his years on the bench taught him anything, he said, it’s that “it’s far more important to be fair than to be tough. It’s important not to lose patience, to listen and to give everybody a fair hearing.”
He still keeps his hand in the law by volunteering as a mediator with the Douglas County Prosecutor’s Office. In a non-binding atmosphere he meets with parties embroiled in legal disputes to discuss their case, putting his skills for communication and deliberation to work, sometimes getting the two sides to settle out of court or to drop the matter all together.
One of his four children, son Justin Cooper, followed him into the profession. “It’s nice to have another lawyer in the family,” the proud papa said.
Some time ago Sam Cooper wrote down reflections about his life. The gratitude he expressed in middle-age is of a man who’s never grown cynical or bitter about the state of the nation that he loves:
“In looking back over those years I consider myself a very lucky person. Lucky to have missed the Holocaust in Poland. Lucky to have come to America, a country of great opportunity, a country that has been very good to me. Lucky to have missed being injured or killed in my Army years. Lucky to have been educated as a lawyer under the GI Bill…Lucky to have become a judge, to have a loving wife, a happy marriage and four children who have grown into exceptional and successful adults and parents, and 11 grandchildren of whom I’m very proud to be my offspring.”
The man he’s become is very much what he imagined as a boy, when he wrote these words as a salute to the democratic ideals that offered him the opportunity to be whatever he wanted to be:
“Democracy is much more than the declaration of independence, the constitution and our laws…It is beyond paper and ink. There is something about the American people that continually seeks freedom. Perhaps it is our heritage and principles. Perhaps it is the ideals that have so long been embedded in our hearts. Perhaps it is the realization that men can live together in peace and happiness. Whatever it is I am glad I might take part in these benefits…I hope I can find my place in this American democracy.”
Sam Cooper found his place all right — as a dedicated public servant and defender of liberty and justice for all. At age 86 he lives the promise of America every day.
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