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Posts Tagged ‘Entrepreneurial’

Couple gives plumbing a sexy new turn

May 23, 2014 1 comment

Big Birge Plumbing in Omaha proves anything can be made sexy, even that grimy blue collar labor dedicated to cleaning clogged drains, sewers, pipes, and valves and keeping sinks, baths, toilets, washers, water heaters, and the like working right.  The couple behind the company, Brad and Lallenia Birge, are having a lot of fun with a marketing campaign that plays off their good looks and a whole 1950s-era theme riffing Hollywood movie, television sitcoms, pinups, and  pulp novels.  It’s one part naughty and two parts nice and all around cleverly executed.  Read and see for yourself in my Omaha B2B Magazine story below.

 

 

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Big Birge Plumbing Co.

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Couple gives plumbing a sexy new turn

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in Omaha B2B Magazine
Plumbing has never looked like this.

An Omaha couple is turning heads with online teasers for their Big Birge Plumbing Company and gaining new customers in the process. Brad and Lallenia Birge lend their killer smiles and buff, model good looks to Pop Art-style ads that emphasize primary colors, tongue-in-cheek graphics and sex appeal dynamics.

The company logo features an illustration of Brad’s flexed arm, adorned in a rolled up red and black flannel shirt to expose a bulging bicep. His burly hand grips a red wrench. In a profile pose they stand back to back. He’s dressed in the iconic working man’s garb of THAT shirt, blue jeans and work boots, an oversized wrench dangling from one hand. Lallenia’s attired in a blouse, shorts and heels as she holds a plunger. In some shots she wears a red and white polka dot dress and in others a tight fitting white sweater with a blue or red skirt. In still more poses she clutches a giant wrench or a frying pan in an oven-gloved hand. Her expressions range from mock distress to amour.

In these fanciful turns he’s the strong, dependable man and she’s the woman in need of rescue. The retro campaign echoes vintage television situation comedies, Technicolor romantic movies, comic strips, pulp novels and pinup glossies. It’s Betty Page exotica meets Doris Day-Rock Hudson fantasy meets Li’l Abner-Daisy Mae shtick.

Completing this throwback homage is the tagline: “Honesty, quality, American craftsmanship. Old-fashioned values reborn.” The alter-ego personas are exaggerations of the couple’s real selves but the expressed values are how they live and do business.

“We take it very seriously,” says Brad. “We stay true to what we say we are. I can’t stand bad service. The way you treat somebody is everything. It’s totally how you present yourself. On any job I do I try to make it a positive experience for clients.

“We do have a lot of repeat customers and there’s a reason why – we treat people right. We give people good a price and good service. Our clients become our friends.”

He’s a master licensed plumber with years in the trades. She’s a personal fitness trainer who’s opted to devote more time to their son Wyatt and to the business. Her entrepreneurial skills have proven invaluable. She conceives the marketing herself and executes it with help from his mother and photographer Justin Barnes.

 

 

“She’s turned out to be a really big part of the company,” Brad says of Lallenia. “Without her backing me and giving me feedback and throwing ideas out and putting it into play the business wouldn’t be where it is today. As far as our image, it’s all her.”

Lallenia, who enjoys finding frilly props and playing adult dress-up, says it’s all about finding creative ways to make Big Birge stand out.

“When you see other plumbing ads it’s all guys. I was like, ‘We need a woman’s touch here.’ It’s just fun for us to do our own thing right now and to be ourselves. People think we shell out big bucks for our marketing, but we don’t. As long as we can do it ourselves, we’re going to continue doing it.”

The couple says their business website, bigbirgeplumbing.com, garners high traffic and positive feedback. The same is true for their Facebook page and for YouTube videos they’ve made. Their eye-catching promos extend to T-shirts, yard signs and company vehicles.

Coming soon is Lallenia’s own website, “The Plumber’s Wife.”

“It’s about wives helping their husbands as entrepreneurs,” she says. “I am a plumber’s wife and I’m darn proud of it. I want to keep us strong.”

Call Big Birge for an appointment at 402-575-0102.

 

To code or not to code: New Omaha school offers bootcamp for aspiring web designers

May 23, 2014 1 comment

I am so not a techie.  That doesn’t preclude me from writing an occasional piece about a tech-based venture.  And in that spirit is an Omaha Magazine story I did on a new bootcamp for aspiring web designers called Omaha Code School and its co-founder, Sumeet Jain, who has taken as its model a similar school in his native Calif. he taught at.  He’s very much a part of a growing young entrepreneurial and creative class in Omaha that’s adding a new dynamism to the scene here.

 

 

Cover Photo

Omaha Magazine

 

To code or not to code
New Omaha school offers bootcamp for aspiring web designers

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Omaha Magazine
Entrepreneurial techie Sumeet Jain is poised to fill a gap in the metro’s dot com scene through a for-profit startup he founded last fall with his cousin Rahul Gupta. The pair’s Omaha Code School aims to provide aspiring web developers an immersive bootcamp experience and employers entry-level-capable programmers.

The Calif. natives are partners in their own web development company, Big Wheel Brigade. Gupta rode the dot com wave before coming to Omaha and at his urging Jain followed suit. Since forming the school Gupta’s moved to San Francisco but Jain’s remained in Omaha to run their new educational endeavor in Midtown Crossing.

Thirteen students began the school’s inaugural “intensive” 12-week course Feb. 24. Jain, the lead instructor, promises the May graduates will leave with a hireable skill set for jobs paying an 80K median salary.

The OCS curriculum structure is based on a bootcamp model popular across the country and one Jain’s familiar with after teaching a web development course for General Assembly on the west coast. He says he was skeptical students could go from novices to job-ready in three months until he helped facilitate that happen. The experience convinced him to try it in Omaha, where he says “a frequent complaint of companies is that there’s not enough talent – not enough developers and not enough qualified developers,” adding, “I thought we should have something like this in Omaha, so I came back, put the pieces together and we launched in November.”

It’s an opportunity for Jain to combine his two loves – web development and teaching. He ensures students are trained in relevant, real world programming languages and techniques most colleges and universities ignore.

Interested students must complete an online application that includes a timed coding challenge. While no prior programming experience is required, students must demonstrate an aptitude for the field, namely logic and problem solving.

“The course is for beginners but this isn’t for hobbyists,” says Jain, a self-taught web developer. “This is a class for people who are looking for a career trajectory change and that comes not just at a cost (tuition is $6,000) but with great personal investment and effort. We want to ensure the highest possible caliber of student.”

Jain says it’s no accident the school’s website and application process emphasizes the intensive curriculum, which features individual and collaborative work on real live projects every day.

“It’s really hard to sit and program for 12 hours a day,” he says. “It’s just mentally draining. Keeping that pace up for 12 weeks is a sprint students need to get through. We do our part to hedge against that weariness by holding events that let them let loose and bond and have a break.”

There are field trips to tech-based local companies and guest speakers presenting on special topics. OCS holds a job fair staffed by representatives from companies in its Supporting Employers program.

“We want our students when they graduate to have connections,” Jain says. “Such a big part of any industry is to know people.”

A mentorship program makes area experts available.

“Another commonly cited problem in Omaha is a diffracted membership model,” he says. “If somebody wants to get help there’s no single great place for them to go or no list of people to consult. We’re really excited our mentorship program will create a conduit for people to get help.”

Mentors range from non-tech to tech-savvy wonks. A yoga instructor conducts twice-weekly sessions to help students de-stress and find balance. A corporate recruiter offers job search insights. Web designers school students in collaboration. Software developers troubleshoot problems students confront writing programs.

Jain’s encouraged by the supporting companies on board and he’s proud that membership fees go toward scholarships for underrepresented minorities in what is a white male-dominated field. Each of the three women in the course received a $2,500 scholarship.

He’s also satisfied by the buzz the school’s produced.

“Support has come in a variety of different ways, most fundamentally in the form of curiosity. People want to know about us, they want to know what we’re teaching, they want to know when our next class will be offered (late summer). The interest is there, we won’t have any trouble filling our second class. I’m very confident about that.”

Jain says he’s also confident that “within six months to a year every one of our students who wants a job should be able to get one. That’s going to speak volumes because these students all took a risk on me.
If our students aren’t succeeding there’s really no reason for somebody to trust us again.”

Follow the bootcamp at omahacodeschool.com.

 

 

A Journey in Freelance Writing


For Omaha metro residents, the promotion below is a heads-up regarding a presentation I am making about freelance writing.  It’s free and hopefully not boring.  The presentation is open to anyone.  It’s part of the ongoing North Omaha Summer Arts Festival.  The fest’s website address is at the bottom of this post.  Check it out.

 

 

North Omaha Summer Arts 2011 presents:

A Journey in Freelance Writing

Veteran journalist and author Leo Adam Biga uses his own 27-year career to talk about what life as a freelance writer can look like.

 

Wednesday,  August 10, 6-8pm

Call 402.455.7015 Mon thru Fri, 9am – 4pm for registration

This class is free of charge

 

Topics to be covered include:

•real life experience

•learning your craft

•on the job education/training

•finding a niche

•writing about your interests

•just doing it

•daring to risk different fields & styles of writing

•building a client base

•managing multiple projects

•is there any money in this?

As a contributing writer to newspapers and magazines, he’s had thousands of articles published on a vast array of subjects, many of them arts, culture, sports, and history related. Other clients include for-profit corporations, nonprofit institutions, individuals, and families.

 

At Church Of the Resurrection

3004 Belvedere Boulevard

Omaha, Neb.

http://www.northomahasummerarts.com

Overarching Plan for North Omaha Development Now in Place, Disinvested Community Hopeful Long Promised Change Follows

July 29, 2011 17 comments

North Omaha Village Revitalization Plan and Empowerment Network leaders after 7-0 City Council vote approving plan

 

 

Here’s a cover story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about a plan and a vision that may at last signal the start of significant turnaround for long stagnated North Omaha. To be more precise – Northeast Omaha, where the predominantly African-American community is located and has awaited meaningful change for going on half-a-century. If it doesn’t happen now, then when?

Overarching Plan for North Omaha Development Now in Place, Disinvested Community Hopeful Long Promised Change Follows

©by Leo Adam Biga

As published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Recent adoption of the North Omaha Village Revitalization Plan into the city master plan gives direction and impetus to energizing a stagnated, disinvested area never fully recovered from decades-ago civil disturbance and urban renewal.

Unanimous approval by the Omaha Planning Board and City Council sends a strong signal to public-private funders and developers the plan provides an officially endorsed blueprint for action. What happens next to realize its 30-year vision is up to stakeholders, entrepreneurs, elected officials, movers and shakers.

The Empowerment Network initiated plan, which drew input from residents, business concerns, philanthropists, planning consultants and others, envisions $1.43 billion in redevelopment along key corridors. The initiative puts the Northside in the crosshairs of major transformation as never before.

Some plan contributors and likely implementers recently spoke with The Reader about what this means for a section of the city that’s long awaited significant change.

“One reason it’s important is to show the people who participated, who live in the community, that we’re serious about a North Omaha that is a strong component of the overall city, one that shares in the successes and in the future of the whole city,” says Omaha Planning Director Rick Cunningham.

“It’s important because as the Planning Department this gives us then our marching orders. This is what we then work with with developers to compare their ideas and plans against. It gives people a clear understanding of what the vision is and where they can best take their dollars and invest them.”

 

 

 

 

Omaha Economic Development Corporation president Michael Maroney sees the plan as “absolutely essential” for addressing some sobering realities.

“I’ve been working in this community for over 40 years and over that period of time I’ve heard over and over again from the political leadership of this city, from the corporate-business community, why can’t North Omaha leadership get together and speak with a single voice in terms of what the needs are.

“And this whole effort going back five years in the creation of the Empowerment Network was really in part a response to that, because we recognized we had to start doing things differently.”

The need for a new approach became painfully obvious, he says, in the wake of a 2005 study. It showed that in every quality of life measure constituting a healthy community blacks “were either no better off or worse off compared to the majority community” than they were in 1977, he says.

“That basically said all the good work all of us thought we were doing wasn’t making a difference, not in the overall scheme of things. Something was missing.”

The community action coalition African American Empowerment Network was born.

“We sat around a table and said we’ve got to start working together, we’ve got to start collaborating, we’ve got to start connecting with each other, and bring all our combined talents together,” says Maroney. “That led to this village revitalization visioning we did.”

 

 
Title

 

 

To those who might regard the resulting plan’s price tag as excessive, he says, “We cannot be afraid of reality. Now we’re not saying we’re going to go out and get a $1.43 billion commitment tomorrow. It’s a 30 year process, and it’s not going to come from any one entity or one source or one area. Government has a role in this, the private sector has a role in this, there’s going to be a lot of bank financing in this thing.”

“When $3 billion has been spent in downtown and midtown, what’s a billion dollars for North Omaha to make it a strong resource, a strong player, a big part of the tapestry for a sustainable Omaha?” asks Cunningham.

It’s no exaggeration to say the plan is a put-up or shut-up moment in Omaha history.

Maroney says, “For decades the greater community has said come together and the support will be there. Well, we’ve done that now, and I have to say we’ve had good vibes all along the way from those various entities. But the proof is going to be in the pudding. We now have a very solid process we’ve gone through that creates a long term vision for the community. We’ve done this in a collaborative way that engaged the city and the business and philanthropic community. Now the question becomes, Will you step up to the plate? We’ve got this down, we’ve got it in phases, we’ve got even the first couple projects identified. So we’re moving to that next level and we’ll see if what has been suggested and indicated for years will actually happen.”

 

 

Michael Maroney

 

 

Empowerment Network president Willie Barney says the plan’s “going to take focus and commitment from the community itself,” adding, “New businesses and venues will only be sustainable to the level they’re supported by the people who live here.”

For the area to thrive, says Maroney, “it’s more than just brick and mortar because we know if people don’t feel safe and secure, I don’t care how nice we make it, they’re not going to be there, they’re not going to come.”

Observers agree infrastructure needs like the sewer-separation project must proceed to lay the way for large scale development.

Seventy Five North Revitalization Corp. executive director Othello Meadows says whatever happens next, the Network deserves credit for making North O a priority.

“I’m encouraged by what the Empowerment Network is doing,” he says. “They’ve been consistent, they haven’t let the momentum fizzle out. They’ve been diligent. They’ve put together a really comprehensive plan. Anybody can quibble with aspects of it, but the fact they’ve put this together is a major accomplishment.

“They’ve kept the conversation going long enough to get the attention of the right people and it’s moved to a very concrete step being part of the master plan.”

He’s confident North O has the players it needs to drive the plan to fruition.

“I think there’s far more executors than they’re used to be. There’s more people who are used to being held accountable, to executing and getting things done and who are much less interested in talking about it and much more interested in doing it. That’s the single biggest component of what will make North Omaha successful.”

Another aspect of economic development the plan implicitly addresses is improving work skill readiness and creating more living wage to career job pathways.

“Omaha has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, yet we still have in North Omaha a very high unemployment rate,” says Barney. “We have not really bridged that gap yet. We really haven’t come to grips with job creation and development. I think more so now than ever the business community is alongside us in looking at how to solve this. There are training programs through the Urban League, Heartland Workforce Solutions, Metro Community College that I think will do a more effective job of getting people ready.”

The Chamber of Commerce’s Workforce Solutions partners with local employers, Metro and Goodwill Industries to train skill deficient workers for entry level professional jobs. Meadows, who headed the Omaha Workforce Collaborative, says too many North Omaha residents still have “the steepest of hills to climb” to become proficient.

North Omaha is a much studied, social serviced area suffering disproportionately from poverty, unemployment, underemployment, educational-skill gaps and health problems. As Omaha as a whole has prospered, North O’s languished, cut off from the mainstream of commerce and affluence that ranks the city among the nation’s best places to live. For half a century its predominantly black population has seen their community cast as a crime-ridden danger zone and charitable mission district.

Branded as an undesirable place to live or do business in, major investment has bypassed it. Thus, it lacks goods and services, its population is down, its housing stock deteriorated, its vacant, condemned properties number in the thousands. Added to this is a sparse entrepreneurial class and scarcity of entertainment options-attractions.

 

 

 

 

Planning Director Cunningham says though efforts have “stabilized what was a declining part of town, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of work to do,” adding. “To say we’ve stabilized is not great, but it does give us a platform upon which to move forward.”

“If North Omaha is to be a sustainable community, and that means it really takes care of itself and it doesn’t need to be a welfare community, we have to have a different mind set,” says Maroney. “That does not mean we forsake those in need, but we have to create the atmosphere by which we not only bring back people with higher incomes but we elevate those people within upward. We must create a community that is generating resources that turn around in the community by creating jobs, creating opportunity.”

“The whole idea is to make North Omaha a neighborhood of choice,” says Cunningham. “That not only people who live there now stay, because they can afford to stay, because of new jobs and opportunities, but people who moved away are invited-enticed to move back and people looking for a new place to raise their families move there.”

He says the plan mitigates against gentrification pricing out residents.

“The concept is to not have just one type of housing but a full range of housing types and income levels. I think that’s all through the plan.”

Facilitating mixed income housing projects is what Seventy Five North plans doing. The new nonprofit, in partnership with Purpose Building Communities, is quietly acquiring properties to infuse new life into neighborhoods.

Prospect Hill has recently seen the addition of new “green” homes to its stock of older homes courtesy of a collaborative venture between OEDC, Alliance Building Communities, Holy Name Housing, Wells Fargo Bank and Family Housing Advisory Services. More partnerships like this are needed, says OEDC’s Maroney.

Cunningham says if North Omaha is to be a prime development landscape the same way other parts of the city are, “we need to identify innovative and new ways we can invest. So we’re looking at the economic development tools we have to make it just as easy to develop and reinvest there. We’ve got to do that. We’ve got to utilize the resources of this city.” He says, “A plan like this is a catalyst that begins people thinking about, What if? Why not? and people are doing that already. There are partners (emerging) out there the public doesn’t know about at this point.”

Othello Meadows feels a serious attitude change is necessary.

“One of the things I see a lot is almost this antithetical attitude to people coming into North Omaha to make money,,” he says, “as if it’s almost a bad or exploitive thing, and I don’t understand that. The only way North Omaha grows in a sustainable way is if somebody sees an opportunity to go in there and make some money. That’s how North Omaha gets tied to the rest of the economic prosperity the city has enjoyed.”

 

 

Othello Meadows

 

 

Nurturing more entrepreneurs, says Maroney, “is absolutely key. It’s an area we’re working on. It needs a lot of help. A lot of it is access to credit and capital. A lot of its entrepreneurial development training. That’s critical because as we develop all this brick and mortar we need to have people ready to move in and create businesses and jobs and hopefully make a lot of money.”

The city and Chamber are actively recruiting black businesses outside Nebraska to open operations in North Omaha. Consultant Jim Beatty heads an Atlanta initiative that’s imported one business thus far, All(n)1 Security. He says aggressive, wide net efforts like these are needed to market the revitalization plan to entrepreneurs, philanthropists and developers. “I think we need to present North Omaha as an opportunity for investment, and we need to tell that story, not only locally but nationally,” says Beatty, who chairs the Black History Museum board.

The Chamber’s Ed Cochran, who heads the North Omaha Development Project, says, “There are several ways to grow business in a community. One is to grow it organically
through inspiring entrepreneurs with brand new businesses. Another is to strengthen and grow existing businesses. A third is to import businesses from other locations.” He says North Omaha needs all these approaches.

For too long, says Meadows, the Northside has been treated as a charity case.

“I feel like there’s almost a patriarchal type relationship that always leaves North Omaha in a secondary position. At this point North Omaha doesn’t have the capital, in a lot of ways it doesn’t have the personnel, kind of by way of brain drain, to transition itself organically without outside resources. At this point it needs help from philanthropy and individuals whose hearts are in the right place, who simply want to do the right thing.

“I think the compassion that exists in this city is rare, especially in the philanthropic community, but I think we have to have a little bit more analytical, clinical approach.”

While the adjacent downtown, riverfront and mid-town have bloomed, North O’s seen piecemeal, stop-gap change, with pockets of redevelopment surrounded by neglect.

“Historically what we’ve done, and I’ve been a part of that, is have a scattered gun approach toward development,” Maroney says. “A lot of good things have been done, but they’ve been done in isolation. We need to better coordinate and understand how these things relate to each other, and then how you build on top of those. We’re now trying to take a more deliberative and directed approach toward development.”

 

 

 

 

Backers of the revitalization plan see it as a guide and stimulus to making North O a destination to live, work and recreate in. Among the early focal points is developing 24th and Lake into a heavily trafficked, tourist-friendly arts-culture district.

“In North Omaha one of the real epicenters is 24th and Lake, where you have a really nice combination of history and communal feeling,” says Meadows. “It’s one of the hubs of the community. I think you could make a tremendous splash by focusing on that area. You can’t find somebody who grew up in North Omaha that hasn’t spent a lot of time in that area, whether they got their cut there or they went to church there. So to me it makes sense to start with an area that touches so much of North Omaha.

“If I were a developer I’d start right there. It’s close enough to downtown to draw from a lot of different nodes, which is important.”

Anticipated commercial development would build on existing anchors in strategic areas:

24th and Lake (Bryant Center, Jewell Building, Omaha Star, Family Housing Advisory Services, Blue Lion Centre, Loves Jazz & Arts Center, Omaha Business & Technology Center, Great Plains Black History Museum)

30th and Lake (Salem Baptist Church, Salem Village, Miami Heights, Urban League, Charles Drew Health Center)

Adams Park and the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation

Refinements to 16th and Cuming and the 24th and 30th St. corridors are meant to spur a “seamless transition” from north downtown to North Omaha. Cunningham says “development there would integrate with the downtown and begin to bring the flow of people, goods, enterprise and economic development over into and overlapping with what has been historically the North Side.”

He adds, “We’re working now with 24th Street and an existing building there housing an historic business to revamp their footprint so that it says this is a front door rather than a back door. We’re also working with Creighton (University) and their plans for 24th and Cuming. That’s an entry portal for them too. They’re a partner in this and they have a vision for what’s happening there, really from 30th to 16th Streets, in creating a Cuming that is not a barrier, not a border, but a strong component of activity.”

 

Rick Cunningham

 

 

 

Asked if it’s vital the first projects find success, Cunningham says. “Absolutely, because that builds momentum. We have to have successes early because it will be easier for the next developer to come in.” Sources indicate government funded projects are likely to launch first to “prime the pump” for private investment to follow.

Sustainability will be critical.

“Each one of those projects, particularly ones in the initial stages, have to be able to stand on their own in the event nothing else happens so that 20 years from now that project will still be there, will still be functioning,” says Maroney. “Not only do we look at what is it going to cost to create that project, but what is it going to take to sustain it over time. We nee to make sure thats built in also.”

Meadows says, “The same kind of rigor, due diligence and economic models that went into determining the feasibility of midtown and downtown development projects needs to take place with each North Omaha project” to ensure their sustainability.

More than anything, Meadows just wants to see change.

“When my friends come to visit from out of town there’s very little positive to show them on the Northside, very little you can point out and say, ‘Wow!’ So I’m glad we potentially have some things to be proud about in our neighborhood, in my community.

“I think North Omaha is really poised. I think residents are getting ready to see actual movement, they’re getting ready to drive down certain streets and see real development, real improvement. I can’t remember when that’s happened here.”

A. Marino Grocery Closes: An Omaha Italian Landmark Calls It Quits

June 22, 2011 6 comments

One of the last of the old line ethnic grocery stores in my hometown of Omaha closed down a few years ago.  The small Italian market is one my family and I shopped at quite a bit. It was the last of its kind, that is among Italian grocers. Truth be told, there are many ethnic grocers in business here today, only the owners are from the new immigrant enclaves of Latin America and Africa and Asia rather than Europe. The owner of the now defunct A. Marino Grocery, Frank Marino, inherited the business from his father. It was a throwback place little changed from back in the old days. My piece about Frank finally deciding to retire and close the place appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).

On this blog you can find more stories by me related to other aspects of Omaha’s Italian-American culture, including ones on the Sons of Italy hall’s pasta feeds and the annual Santa Lucia Festival.

 

 

A. Marino Grocery Closes: An Omaha Italian Landmark Calls It Quits

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader

The final days of A. Marino Grocery at 1716 South 13th Street were akin to a wake. The first week of October saw old friends, neighbors and customers file in to say goodbye to proprietor Frank Marino, 80, whose late Sicilian immigrant father, Andrea, a sheepherder back in Carlentini, opened the Italian store in 1919.

News of the closing leaked out days before the local daily ran a story about the store’s end. As word spread Marino was deluged with business. Lines of cars awaited him when he arrived one morning. Orders poured in. He and his helpers could hardly keep up. Those who hadn’t heard were disappointed by the news. Some wondered aloud where’d they get their sausage from now on.

A Navy veteran of World War II, Marino long talked of retiring but nobody believed him. Still, decades of 50-60 hour weeks take their toll. When he got an attractive offer for the building he took it. The new owner plans to renovate the space into an interior decorating office on the main level and a residence above it.

Folks stopping by for a last visit knew the store’s passing meant the loss of a prized remnant of Omaha’s ethnic past. Housed in a two-story brick structure whose upstairs apartment the family lived in and Marino was born in, the store represented the last of the Italian grocers serving Omaha’s Little Italy. While the neighborhood’s lost most vestiges of its Italian-Czech heritage, time stood still at the small store. Its narrow aisles, vintage fixtures, wood floors, solid counters, ornate display cabinets and antique scales bespoke an earlier era.

It was a living history museum of Old World charms and ways. No sanitary gloves. Meats and cheeses comingled, but regulars figured it just added to the flavor.

An aproned Marino would often be behind the deli case in back, hovering over the butcher’s block to cut, season, grind and encase choice cuts of beef for the popular sausage he made. He sold hundreds of pounds a week. He carried a full line of imported foods. Parmigiano reggiano, romano, provolone, mozzarella and fresh ricotta cheese. Prosciutto, mortadella, salami, capicolla and pepperoni. Various olives — plain or marinated. Meatballs. Homemade ravioli and other stuffed pastas. Canned tomatoes, packaged pastas, assorted peppers, et cetera. At Christmas he sold specialty candies and baccala, a salted cod used in Italian holiday dishes.

 

He’d slice, grate, measure, weigh and bag items himself. Nothing was precut. What few helpers he had were mostly old buddies. Banter between the men and with the customers was part of the experience. Characters abounded.

Marino rang up your purchases on an old-style cash register and engaged you in crackle barrel conversation from behind the massive front counter his father had made to order in 1932. Behind the counter, whose built-in drawers stored 20-pound cases of pasta, he’d light up his trademark pipe and shoot the breeze.

“I love being here and I love being around people,” he said.

It was the same way with his father. The two worked side by side for half-a-century. They had their spats, but the disagreements always blew over. There was, after all, a business to run and people to serve. His papa taught him well.

“It’s service-oriented. You’ve got to hand-wait on everybody,” Marino said.

In some cases he waited on three generations in the same family. He enjoyed the association and interaction. “I’ll miss that. There was a lot of closeness, you know.”

 

That last week people expressed heartache over the closing.

Mary Cavalieri of Omaha shopped there all her life. “It’s really sad,” she said, adding she felt she was losing “a tradition” and “a friend” in the process.

Oakland, Iowa resident Anna D’Angelo was among many who came some distance to shop there. Asked what she’ll miss most, she said, “The sausage and all the Italian specialties, and Frank. He knows everybody by name. He knows what you like. Frank never needs to see my ID. It’s that personal touch you don’t get anymore.”

Omahan Leo Ferzley, an old chum of Marino’s, said, “You hate to see it go, but what do you do? Everybody will miss it. A lot of memories.”

Marino is worried what he’ll do with all his free time. He and his wife plan their first trip to Italy. “That’s all we’ve ever talked about,” he said. One man told him that if the opportunity comes, “whatever you do, don’t pass it up.”

Customers, some whose names he didn’t even know, wished him and his wife well. One wrote a $100 check for the Marinos to treat themselves to a night on the town. As Mary Cavalieri said, “He deserves some retirement time.”

No regrets.

As Marino told someone, “It’s the end of the line. 88 years we’ve been here. Since before I was born. It’s been good to us. But I’m 80-years-old. I think it’s time.” Besides, he said, “I’m wore out.”

Nomad Lounge, An Oasis for Creative Class Nomads

June 21, 2011 6 comments

Nick Hudson is one of several Omaha transplants who have come here from other places in recent years and energized the creative-cultural scene. One of his many ventures in Omaha is Nomad Lounge, which caters to the creative class through a forward-thinking aesthetic and entrepreneurial bent and schedule of events. This Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com) piece gives a flavor for Hudson and why Nomad is an apt name for him and his endeavor. Three spin-off ventures from Nomad that Hudson has a major hand in are Omaha Fashion Week, Omaha Fashion Magazine, and the Halo Institute.  You can find some of my Omaha Fashion Week and Omaha Fashion Magazine writing on this blog.  And look for more stories by me about Nick Hudson and his wife and fellow entrepreneur Brook Hudson.

 

 

 

 

Nomad Lounge, An Oasis for Creative Class Nomads

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com)

Another side of Omaha’s new cosmopolitan face can be found at Nomad Lounge, 1013 Jones St. in the historic Ford Warehouse Building. The chic, high-concept, community-oriented salon captures the creative class trade. Tucked under the Old Market’s 10th St. bridge, Nomad enjoys being a word-of-mouth hideaway in a shout-out culture. No overt signs tout it. The name’s stenciled in small letters in the windows and subtly integrated into the building’s stone and brick face.

The glow from decorative red lights at night are about the only tip-off for the lively goings-on inside. That, and the sounds of pulsating music, clanking glasses and buzzing voices leaking outdoors and the stream of people filing in and out.

Otherwise, you must be in-the-know about this proper gathering spot for sophisticated, well-traveled folks whose interests run to the eclectic. It’s all an expression of majority owner Nick Hudson, a trendy international entrepreneur and world citizen who divides his time between Omaha and France for his primary business, Excelsior Beauty. Nomad is, in fact, Hudson’s nickname and way of life. The Cambridge-educated native Brit landed in Omaha in 2005 in pursuit of a woman. While that whirlwind romance faded he fell in love with the town and stayed on. He’s impressed by what he’s found here.

“I’m blown away by what an amazingly creative, enterprising, interesting community Omaha is,” he said. He opened Excelsior here that same year — also maintaining a Paris office — and then launched his night spot in late 2006.

If you wonder why a beauty-fashion industry maven who’s been everywhere and seen everything would do start-up enterprises in middle America when he could base them in some exotic capital, you must understand that for Hudson the world is flat. Looking for an intersection where like-minded nomads from every direction can engage each other he opted for Omaha’s “great feeling, great energy.”

“We’re all nomadic, were all on this journey,” he said, “but there are times when nomads come together, bringing in different experiences to one central place and sharing ideas in that community. And that’s exactly what it is here. Nomad’s actually about a lifestyle brand and Nomad Lounge is just the event space and play space where that brand comes to life for the experimental things we do.”

He along with partners Charles Hull and Clint! Runge of Archrival, a hot Lincoln, Neb. branding-marketing firm, and Tom Allisma, a noted local architect who’s designed some of Omaha’s cutting-edge bars-eateries, view Nomad as a physical extension of today’s plugged-in, online social networking sites. Their laidback venture for the creative-interactive set is part bar, part art gallery, part live performance space, part small business incubator, part collaborative for facilitating meeting-brainstorming-partnering.

“That whole connecting people, networking piece is really exciting to us because it’s not just being an empty space for events, we’re actually playing an active role in helping the creative community continue to grow,” said Hudson.

 

 

Nick Hudson

 

 

Social entrepreneurship is a major focus. Nomad helps link individuals, groups and businesses together. “It’s a very interesting trend that’s going to be a big buzz word,” Hudson said. “Nomad is a social enterprise. It’s all about investing in and increasing the social capital of the community, creating networks, fostering creativity. My biggest source of passion is helping people achieve their potential.”

“He’s definitely done that for me,” said Nomad general manager-events planner Rachel Richards. “He’s seen my passion in event planning and he’s opened doors I never thought I’d get through.”

The Omaha native was first hired by Hudson to coordinate Nomad’s special events through her Rachel Richards Events business. She’s since come on board as a key staffer. With Hudson’s encouragement she organized Nomad’s inaugural Omaha Fashion Week last winter, a full-blown, first-class model runway show featuring works by dozens of local designers. “That was always a dream of mine,” she said.

Under the Nomad Collective banner, Hudson said, “the number of social entrepreneurs and small enterprises and venture capitalist things that are coming from this space from the networking here is just phenomenal. Increasingly that’s going beyond this space into start-up businesses and all sorts of things.” Nomad, he said, acts as “a greenhouse for ideas and businesses to expand and grow.”

Nomad encourages interplay. Massive cottonwood posts segment the gridded space into 15 semi-private cabanas whose leather chairs and sofas and built-in wood benches seat 8 to 20 guests. Velvet curtains drape the cabanas. It’s all conducive to relaxation and conversation. Two tiny galleries display works by local artists.

There’s a small stage and dance floor. The muted, well-stocked bar features international drink menus. Video screens and audio speakers hang here and there, adding techno touches that contrast with the worn wood floors, the rough-hewn brick walls and the exposed pipes, vents and tubes in the open rafters overhead. It all makes for an Old World meets New World mystique done over in earth tones.

Hudson embraces Nomad’s flexibility as it constantly evolves, reinventing itself. In accommodating everything from birthdays/bachelorettes to release/launch parties to big sit-down dinners to more intimate, casual gatherings to social enterprise fairs and presenting everything from sculptures and paintings to live bands and theater shows to video projection, it’s  liable to look different every time you visit. Whatever the occasion, art, design, music and fashion are in vogue and celebrated.

Dressed-up or dressed-down, you’re in synch with Nomad’s positive, chic vibe.

“It’s this whole thing about being premium without being pretentious,” said Hudson. “Nomad is stylish, it’s trendy, it’s great quality. All our drinks are very carefully selected. But it’s still made affordable.”

In addition to staging five annual premiere events bearing the Nomad brand, the venue hosts another 90-100 events a year. Richards offers design ideas to organizations using the space and matches groups with artists and other creative types to help make doings more dynamic, more stand-alone, more happening.

 

 

 

 

Clearly, Nomad targets the Facebook generation but not exclusively. Indeed, Hudson and Richards say part of Nomad’s charm is the wide age range it attracts, from 20-somethings to middle-agers and beyond.

Nomad fits into the mosaic of the Old Market, where the heart of the creative community lives and works and where a diverse crowd mixes. Within a block of Nomad are The Kaneko, the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, the Blue Barn Theatre and any number of galleries, artist studios, fine restaurants and posh shops. Nomad’s a port of call in the Market’s rich cultural scene.

“It’s such a great creative community. We want to help make our little contribution to that and keep building on all the great things going on,” said Hudson.

Besides being a destination for urban adventurers looking to do social networking or conducting business or celebrating a special occasion or just hanging out, Nomad’s a site for charitable fundraisers. Hudson and Richards want to do more of what he calls “positive interventions” with nonprofits like Siena/Francis House. Last year Nomad approached the shelter with the idea for Concrete Conscience, which placed cameras in the hands of dozens of homeless clients for them to document their lives. Professional photographers lent assistance. The resulting images were displayed and sold, with proceeds going to Siena/Francis.

New, on Wednesday nights, is Nomad University, which allows guests to learn crafts from experts, whether mixing cocktails or DJing or practically anything else. It’s a chance for instructors to market their skills and for students to try new things, all consistent with a philosophy Hudson and Richards ascribe to that characterizes the Nomad experience: Do what you love and do it with passion.

Big Mama’s Keeps It Real, A Soul Food Sanctuary in Omaha: As Seen on ‘Diners, Drive-ins and Dives’

June 11, 2011 1 comment

Thanks to the Tyler Perry franchise of popular movies and plays and the character Madea he plays and to the Martin Lawrence series of films, the term Big Mama has come into the mainstream lexicon. This is no doubt part of the appeal behind a soul food eatery and catering operation in Omaha, Big Mama’s, that has enjoyed breakout success since I profiled its namesake owner, Patricia Barron, soon after her place opened. The breakfast and lunch crowds there are steady, the catering orders high, and in the past few years she’s seen her business featured in a slew of newspapers and magazines, then by the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, and more recently by another national cable food show. But I think what people really respond to is the story of her preserving her family’s heritage and recipes through her cooking. The deep current of passion that she and her daughters, who help run the place, have for family and community and tradition is expressed in all the framed pictures hanging there, so many that it’s practically a retrospective of African-American Omaha history. Those pictures, combined with the homey arts and crafts touches adorning the former cafeteria she converted into Big Mama’s, create a warm atmosphere that complements the down home meals she serves. All that, plus the fact that she pined to open her own restaurant for decades while raising her family and working in the corporate world, makes hers one of those magnificent obsession stories fulfilled that I love telling.

 

 

 

 

Big Mama’s Keeps It Real, A Soul Food Sanctuary in Omaha: As Seen on ‘Diners, Drive-ins and Dives’

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader

In some African American families tradition demands the matriarch be called Big Mama. That’s true with Patricia Barron’s family. The 60-something Omahan never cared for the “countrified” term, which her late maternal grandmother Lillie Johnson earned. But when Barron’s grandkids began calling her that sobriquet it became, she said, “the name that was stuck on me.”

Barron proudly carries on the name in her soul food place, Big Mama’s Kitchen & Catering. Located on the Turning Point youth services campus at 45th and Bedford, former site of the Nebraska School for the Deaf, Big Mama’s opened Dec. 10 serving breakfast and lunch. Barron, along with daughters Delena and Gladys and friend, “adopted daughter and chief cook” Valerie, are prepping for a Jan. 15 grand opening, when dinner service should be up and running, too.

For some 30 years Barron operated a catering business from her home. Last August she began a popular soul food dinner at her church, North Side Christian Center. An eatery was a long-held dream. More than once she put her dream on hold to climb the corporate ladder and raise her kids. Stymied in her search for a small business loan and a facility, she stayed the course. That’s typical of Barron and her husband, Earnest Wallace. When the couple and their five daughters moved into their Benson home they endured eggings and racial slurs. They didn’t budge. Now, with the help of volunteers whose work, she said, “has warmed my heart,” she’s converted a kitchen/cafeteria into Big Mama’s. Leopard-pattern oil cloths and flower-filled vases adorn the tables. Earth tone decor warms what could otherwise be a cold space. A display case features her signature desserts.

Barron’s right where she’s supposed to be. “I think I was born to do this. I love to cook. I can be ever so tired but once I get in the kitchen it’s like a rush of energy and I’m ready to go,” she said. “Now it’s time for me to do my second career — what I really wanted to do.”

Aptly, she’s found a home for Big Mama’s on a campus filled with ministries that inspire hope. “We like it here,” she said, “and we’re just pleased to be a part of all that’s going on.” In its own way she sees Big Mama’s as a ministry that rekindles a time when North O was one big clique and families came together over dinner.

“I want to bring people back to the table,” she said.

Anymore, authentic soul food’s hard to find here. She reconnects some folks to their roots and introduces others to the cuisine for the first time. As she likes to explain, soul food’s been handed down through the generations. It’s tradition.

“In our neighborhood we used to hear the term ‘eating high off the hog,’ and that derived,” she said, “from when the master got the best cuts and the slaves were left with scraps. We took those scraps and made delicacies out of them. Made entire meals out of them. That’s really what it is.”

 

 

 

Soul food’s slow-cooked goodness is also a byproduct of slave times. “You worked in the fields 10-12 hours and you had to come home to something to eat, and so your food had to be slow-cooked all day long,” she said. Fresh, savory ingredients cooked for hours at low temps make for succulent eats.

More than the Big Mama name, Barron carries on “Miss Lillie’s” way with soul food. Sundays Lillie put out a spread fit for a wedding banquet. After church the whole family gathered to indulge at her 34th and Bedford home in an area called Plum Nelly. With your chicken, ribs, catfish or gumbo — on holidays there was a choice of entrees — you got greens, chitlins, rice, beans, mac and cheese, cornbread, biscuits and desserts like sweet potato cheesecake and fried pies filled with prune or apricot. All made from scratch, memory and love on a wood-burning stove.

As a girl Barron spent summers with Big Mama, under whose apron a young Patricia learned to cook, propped up on a wooden soda pop case. Later, Barron took it upon herself to preserve grandma’s best dishes. Derived in part from oral history and observation, these dishes form the core of Barron’s menu at Big Mama’s.

 

 

 

 

With your breakfast staples — omelets, casseroles, french toast, pancakes, bacon and eggs — you can get grits or biscuits. Lunch is skimpy on soul food for now with its catfish sandwich, fried shrimp, trio of burgers — including an Afro burger — pizza bread and taco salad. Sides range from greens to cornbread to sweet potato pudding. For dessert there’s pound cake, sweet potato cheesecake, tea cakes and fried pies. Try the sweet raspberry ice tea. Prices are a bit high but not bad.

Big Mama’s enormous, varied catering menu offers hundreds of dishes, half of which are traditional soul food, the other half home-cooked favorites, with some gourmet thrown in. There’s ribs, roasts, chops, oven fried chicken and greens made every which way. A shopping cart is soon coming to her web site — bigmamaskitchen.com.

But will enough folks wend their way to her digs on the institutional, fenced-in grounds? Situated in an old, red-brick structure, Big Mama’s is in Building A at 3223 No. 45th Street. Banners and signs direct you there. Nothing fancy or chic — just real. Clean, too. Barron and crew make you feel welcome with their warm smiles and greetings. Don’t be surprised if Big Mama herself sidles right up beside you.

Open for breakfast and lunch, Monday-Saturday, 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Call 455-6262.

Dick Holland Responds to Far Reaching Needs in Omaha

June 4, 2011 5 comments

Dick Holland is the proverbial fat cat with a heart of gold. The avuncular Omaha philanthropist has been a major player on the local philanthropic scene for a few decades now. He was already a highly successful advertising executive when he heeded Warren Buffett’s advice and invested in Berkshire Hathaway. Holland and his late wife Mary became part of that circle of local investors who could trace their incredible wealth to that fateful decision to ride the Buffett-Berkshire snowball that made millionaires out of dozens of ordinary investors. Unlike some donors who prefer to remain silent, Holland is not shy about expressing his opinions about most anything. This classic liberal makes no bones about where he stands on social issues, and you have to give him credit – he really does put his money where his mouth is. The causes that he and Mary put their energies and dollars behind have helped shape the social, cultural, aesthetic landscape in Omaha.

 

 

Holland Performing Arts Center

 

 

Dick Holland Responds to Far Reaching Needs in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

When it comes to big time philanthropy in Omaha, a few individuals and organizations stand out. Richard Holland has become synonymous with king-sized generosity through the Holland Foundation he and his late wife Mary started.

If the 88 year-old retired advertising executive is not making some large financial gift he’s being feted for his achievements or contributions. In April he was honored in Washington, D.C. with the Horatio Alger Award “for his personal and professional success despite humble and challenging beginnings.” While his success is indisputable, how much adversity he faced is debatable. Closer to home Holland was presented the Grace Abbott Award by the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation “for his work in creating positive change for children through community.” No one questions his devotion to helping children and families, causes that legendary social worker Grace Abbott of Nebraska championed.

Several area buildings bear the Holland name in recognition of gifts the couple made, including the Holland Performing Arts Center in downtown Omaha and the Child Saving Institute in midtown. Mary was a CSI volunteer and benefactor. Her passion for its mission of improving the lives of at-risk children was shared by Dick once he saw for himself the pains that staff and volunteers go to in “restoring” broken children.

The couple made sharing their wealth, specifically giving back to their hometown, a major priority through the establishment of their foundation in 1997. Since Mary’s death in 2006 Dick, as he goes by, has continued using the foundation’s sizable assets, $60 million today and expected to be much more when he’s gone, to support a wide range of educational, art, health, human service and community projects.

True to his social justice leanings, Holland is a mover and shaker in Building Bright Futures. The birth-through-college education initiative provides an infrastructure of tutoring, mentoring, career advice and scholarship support for disadvantaged youth.

Like many mega donors he prefers deflecting publicity from himself to the organizations he supports. He makes some notable exceptions to that rule, however. For one thing, he vociferously advocates people of means like himself give for the greater good. For another, he believes in speaking his mind about issues he cares about and isn’t afraid to ruffle feathers along the way, even if those feathers belong to a political kingpin.

Just last March Holland took the occasion of accepting the NEBRASKAlander Award from Gov. Dave Heineman to criticize a stance by the conservative Republican leader.  Heineman publicly opposes renewal of government-funded prenatal services for low income immigrant women in America illegally. Holland, who supports the care, used the evening’s platform to editorialize.

“No one should be denied prenatal care in Nebraska,” he bluntly told the black tie audience and the governor. His comments were viewed as ungracious or inappropriate by some and as a strategic use of the bully pulpit by others.

Consistent with his Depression-era roots, Holland is not rigidly bound by the constraints of political correctness and so he doesn’t mince words or tip-toe around controversy when he talks. Neither does he hide his political allegiance.

“I’m a liberal Democrat and I underline that,” said Holland, a Unitarian who also prides himself on his free-thinking ethos.

 

 

Dick Holland

 

 

He recently sat down for an interview at his home, where he readily shared his frank, colorful, unparsed, unapologetic impressions on the state of America in this prolonged recession. Critics may say someone as rich as Holland can afford to be opinionated because he’s already made his fortune and therefore nothing short of a mismanaged investment portfolio can hurt his standing. Besides, dozens of organizations and institutions rely on his goodwill and they’re not about to object to his pronouncements.

Those who know him understand that Holland’s just being himself when he says it like it is, or at least the way he sees it. Most would concede he’s earned the right to say his piece because unlike some fat cats, he worked for a living. His proverbial ship came in only after he’d launched a highly successful business. It was after that he followed his gut and his head and became an early Berkshire Hathaway investor. The millions he accrued made him a Player, but he first made a name for himself as a partner in one of Omaha’s premier advertising agencies, Holland, Dreves and Reilly, which later merged with a Lincoln agency to become Swanson, Rollheiser, Holland, Inc.

All along the way, from young-man-in-a-hurry to middle-aged entrepreneur to mature tycoon, he’s been speaking his mind, only when you carry the clout and bankroll he does, and make the kind of donations he makes, people are more apt to listen.

The Omaha Central High graduate came from an enterprising family. His father Lewis Holland emigrated to the States from London, by way of Canada, where a summer working the wheat fields convinced him his hands were better suited for illustration than harvesting. Lewis settled in Omaha and rose to advertising director for Orchard and Wilhelm Furniture. He later opened his own ad agency, where Dick eventually joined him and succeeded him.

Before Dick became a bona fide Mad Man in the ad game, he began studies at Omaha University. Then the Second World War intervened and after seeing service in the chemical corps he returned home to finish school, with no plans other than to make it in business and study art. Indeed, he was all set to go to New York when he met Mary. Their courtship kept him here, where he found the ad world fed his creative, intellectual, entrepreneurial instincts. He built Holland, Dreves, Reilly into the second biggest agency in the state, behind only Bozell and Jacobs.

He was certainly a well-connected, self-made man, but by no means rich. That is until he started investing with fellow Central High grad Warren Buffett, who is 10 years his junior. Much like Buffett, he’s careful about where he invests and donates his money. When Holland sees a problem or a need he can help with, he does his homework before committing any funds.

“I’m not throwing money at it,” he said, adding that the best thing about giving is getting “results.” He said, “It’s always great to have ideas but somehow or other somebody has to pay, and pay big, in order to get something done.”

The socially-conscious Holland is keenly aware that in these financially unstable times the gap between the haves and have-nots has only widened, something he finds unforgivable in what is held out to be a land of plenty for all

“What has happened in the United States over the past 40 years has been to make a helluva lot of people poor and less wealthy and to make a few people much richer, and we’ve done that by taxation, by trade policies, by not controlling health insurance costs,” he said. “We increased poverty during this period by at least 35 or 40 percent, but the worst thing that’s happened is the middle class itself, which was coming along after World War II very well, suddenly starting making no gain, particularly when inflation’s  taken into account.”

He said the great promise of the middle class, that repository of the American Dream, has actually lost ground. The prospects of poor folks attaining middle class status and the-home-with-a-white-picket-fence dream that goes along with it seems unreachable for many given the gulf between minimum wage earnings and home mortgage rates

“It’s almost ridiculous,” he said. “We might as well say we’ve screwed ‘em. I mean, it’s a really sad thing because this country is supposed to be a liberal democracy. The general idea is to provide an equal opportunity and life for almost everyone you possibly can. It sure as hell isn’t having huge groups of impoverished people going to prison and posing all kinds of social problems. All these things should be brought under control by education. It is not supposed to be a South American republic with wealth at the top and a whole vast lower class at the bottom, and we’re headed in that direction unless we make some serious changes in the way we approach this subject.”

When Holland considers the deregulated environment that led to unchecked corporate greed, the Wall Street bust, the home mortgage collapse and the shrinking safety net for the disadvantaged, he sees a recipe for disaster.

“We began to deregulate everything, thinking that regulations made things worse and deregulation would make everything better, and the truth is there are a lot of things that need to be regulated, including human behavior in the marketplace,” he said. “We just ignored that. In fact, it’s almost like saying our social system is every man for himself, and that’s crazy. It’s not every man for himself, we’re interdependent on one another on everything we do. This whole thing is wrong. We’re beginning to see we have to make some changes, but the changes I’ve seen so far are not nearly as drastic as I think they should be.

“I guess I sound like a doomsday guy, but I really believe unless we correct some of these things the United States risks its future.”

The health care reform debate brought into stark relief for Holland how far apart Americans are on basic remedies to cure social ills.

“Why can’t we get together more on this?” he asked rhetorically. “I have a hunch that part of it is misunderstanding, a growing ignorance among a large body of the populace, not recognizing just exactly what has happened. Talking about health care reform, poor people or middle class people objecting to it don’t seem to understand all the benefits they’re going to gain from it, they’re worried their health care won’t be as good as it was when it’ll be just as good,”

He said health care reform will help the self-employed and small business employees get the coverage they need but couldn’t afford before and will allow persons with preexisting conditions to qualify without being denied. Someone who will benefit from reform is right under his own roof.

“I have a helper who looks after the house. She has a preexisting condition. I pay her insurance, and it’s just over $1,300 a month,” an amount the woman couldn’t possibly afford on her own. “It’s absolutely wrong,” he said.He said the ever rising cost of health care under a present system of excess and waste drains the nation of vital resources that could be applied elsewhere.

“There’s no question in my mind that a nation as wealthy as the United States having to pay 17 percent of its gross national product for health care versus every other advanced country in the world sticking around 10 or 11 is just leaving several hundred billion dollars on the table that should be available for education, which at the primary level is in terrible shape.”Education has become the main focus of Holland’s philanthropy. Years ago he began seeing the adverse effects of inadequate education. He and Mary became involved in two local programs, Winners Circle and All Our Kids, that assist underachieving schools and students in at-risk neighborhoods. The couple saw the difference that extra resources make in getting kids to do better academically.

 

 

Dick Holland with his late wife, Mary

 

 

He views education as the key to addressing many of the endemic problems impacting America’s inner cities, including Omaha’s. He wasn’t surprised by what a 2007 Omaha World-Herald series revealed in terms of African-American disparity. Blacks here experience some of the worst poverty in the nation and lag far behind the majority population in employment and education. He said he and other local philanthropists, such as Susan Buffett, were already looking into the issue and formulating Building Bright Futures as a means to close ever widening achievement gaps.

“I think one of the things we don’t really understand really well about cause is the effect of abject poverty,” said Holland. “Most people who have a decent life don’t understand that having no money, no transportation, not having an adequate diet or health care or stimulating opportunities for children in a very poor family is a straight line to prison and social problems. Those children, more than half of them, enter kindergarten not ready at all, with limited vocabularies of 400 words when they should have 1,200 to 1,500, and you can just go from there and it just all goes down hill.”

He said those critical of the job teachers do miss the point that too many kids enter school not ready to learn.

“That’s not because a bunch of teachers are dumb, that’s because there’s a bunch of kids that have not been looked after properly from the beginning. You can blame teachers until the cows come home, but I just say to you, How is a teacher going to teach a child who is that far behind? It’s almost impossible, and that’s the first great neglect. If we had been doing that differently, we would avoid an awful lot of this. In fact, we’d avoid most of it.”

When students enter school unprepared to learn, he said, there’s little that can be done.

“After they get into the grades, there again, there’s no family, no money, no reading, no looking after, no stimulation, no going places, and the net result is the child goes from 1st through 4th grade not catching up and instead starting to diminish. By the 7th and 8th grades they find out they can’t hack it and they get awfully damn tired of being regarded as dumb, and the net effect of that is dropping out.

“It’s as plain as the nose on your face this is what goes on and this is what we don’t do anything about. It’s a tragedy and one of the great national disasters.”

Things get more complicated for children who enter the foster care or juvenile justice systems. Teen pregnancy and truancy add more challenges. The entrenched gang activity and gun violence in Omaha, he said, has at its source poverty, broken homes, school drop outs, lack of job skills and few sustainable employment options.

He said the fact the majority of Omaha Public Schools students come from households whose income is so low they qualify for the free/reduced lunch program indicates how widespread the problem is. “When a child has to have a free lunch all you can say is something is terribly wrong,” he said.

To those who would indict an entire school district he points out OPS students attending schools in middle and upper middle class neighborhoods do as well or better than students in the Westside and Millard districts. He said the real disparity exists between students from affluent environments and those from impoverished environments.

“The way I sometimes put it to people is, ‘The kids make the school.’ It’s a funny thing how we don’t understand this. It’s very obvious to me,” he said, that on average children from “reasonable affluence” do better than children from poverty. He said Winners Circle and All Our Kids, two programs under the Building Bright Futures umbrella, are full of success stories, as is another effort he and Bright Futures endorses, Educare. Through these and other programs Bright Futures is very intentional in putting in place the support students need from early childhood on.

“We’re going to have a thousand kids this year in early childhood programs. We have organizations that are working in something like 12 or 14 schools. We’ve got five hundred volunteers of all kinds. And we actually have cases. From the very beginning it’s been shown that if we get a hold of a child, even after this bad beginning, and mentor him properly we can get him higher up in the education scale.  In All Our Kids we have 40 kids in college, 50 that have graduated, several with master’s degrees, and every one of those kids was a kid at risk. So we know what to do if we work hard enough on it. What we have to overcome is the kid who doesn’t think he’s so hot. At home an impoverished child often gets put down, diminishing his ego. We have to overcome that, and that’s one of the things we really try to do.”

Mary Holland recognized there must be a continuum of support in place all through a student’s development. Dick said that’s why she encouraged the merger between Winners Circle, whose focus is on elementary school students, and All Our Kids, whose focus is on junior high and high school students.

 

 

 

 

“We’re trying to take those kids all the way through the 11th grade, taking them every where and teaching them what college requires, what businesses are like, exposing them to the world,” he said. “Bright Futures is not a five or six year program, it’s a 15-year program. It’s gotta be done like that.”

The idea is to get kids on the right track and keep them there. Getting kids to believe in themselves is a big part of it. “If you don’t have a lot of self-confidence you don’t try things, and we try to overcome that. With some kids it works. Some find out, I’m better than I thought, I can do that.”

The goal is qualifying students for college and their attaining a higher education degree. Towards that end, Bright Futures works with students from 12th grade through college.

“We follow you there,” said Holland. “We’ve set up things in universities to help people. We’re still trying to bring it all together. It’s an effort to refresh, restore, make them understand what they have to achieve in order to do anything in life.”

Enough funding is in place that cost is not an issue for Bright Futures students.

“We have adequate scholarship money for thousands, we don’t even have to worry about that, and yet we don’t have enough people to take them that qualify. Just because you graduate from high school doesn’t mean you’re ready for college. Sometimes I think they (schools) get ‘em out of high school just to get ‘em out of high school.”

Holland has a better appreciation than most for the barriers that make all this difficult in practice. He and Mary mentored some young people through All Our Kids and they experienced first-hand how things that most of us take for granted can be stumbling blocks for others. He recounted the time he and Mary mentored a young single mother. Things started out promisingly enough but then a familiar pattern set in that unraveled the whole scenario. He said the young woman got a job, her employer liked her and her performance, but she stopped coming to work and she got fired. The same thing happened at another job. And then another. Each time, he said, the challenge of affording child care, getting health problems addressed and finding reliable transportation sabotaged both the young mother’s and the Hollands’ best efforts.

“She couldn’t hold a job, and we gave up,” he said. It’s not something he’s proud of, but he’s honest about the frustration these situations can produce. Other mentoring experiences ended more positively but still highlighted the challenges people face.

“You find out an awful lot about how tough this is because they don’t have the same kind of get up and go confidence like my daughters, who think that nothing is beyond them. You try to instill that, and when you see a little bit of it happening it’s worth the price of admission.”

He acknowledges that despite government cutbacks there’s still plenty of public aid to help catch people who fall through the cracks. But he feels strongly that a different emphasis is required — one that helps people become self-sufficient contributors.

“We have all kinds of government programs designed to grab these people as they fall off the cliff. The failure is to raise them so they can climb cliffs. There’s no question in my mind sooner or later it’s going to be a major government project. It has to be.”

Policies also need to change in terms of guaranteeing people a living wage, he said.

“Let me give you an idea of how we look at things,” said Holland. “We had a $2 (hourly) minimum wage in 1975 and that was adequate to get people out of poverty, it really was. But since the ‘80s the minimum wage has not kept pace with the cost of living and inflation. It’s kept people in poverty. The Congress of the United States, Republicans and Democrats alike, failed to really go after that. They failed to understand it.”

He said despite the minimum wage having increased to $7.25 in Nebraska and higher in other states, “it ought to be $10 or $11” to give families a chance of not just getting by but getting ahead. “We’re not looking at this problem the right way, we’re just creating it. There’s a dismissal of the problem by people that don’t have it.”

Similarly, he said early childhood programs must be learning centers not babysitting or recreational centers, that address the entire needs of children.

“We have a fractional help system. Somebody helps them after school, somebody sets up a club, somebody sets up something else over here. Some of those after school things make you feel better, they’re fun to go to, they’ve got cookies, but that doesn’t focus on their actual intellectual needs. There’s a lot of that that goes on.”

Holland calls for systemic change that comprehensively affects lives.

“I’m more and more positive it’s going to take a revolution. We’re going to have to stop what we’re doing and start doing something along the lines I’ve talked about. At various times there’s been various suggestions about poverty, but one thing that will help alleviate poverty a helluva lot is money, there’s no getting around it. If it takes 5 or 10 percent of the gross national product it will be a benefit over time because once you have a little money you begin to be able to do a few things, and then you begin to learn a few things, and your children do the same.”

A model approach in his eyes is Educare’s holistic early childhood education. “We’re (surrogate) parents there, that’s what we are,” he said, “and the people that bring their children there know what’s happening, they know that suddenly the whole world is opening for that child. When those kids enter kindergarten they’re ready, they’ve got these big vocabularies. We know it can be done, but we also know the price.”

To those who might balk at the $12,000-$13,000 annual cost of caring for a child in a state-of-the-art center, he said it’s but a fraction of what it costs to incarcerate someone or to navigate someone through the justice system or the foster care system.

Agree or disagree with him, you can be sure Dick Holland will continue putting his money where his mouth is and where his heart is.

Community and Coffee at Omaha’s Perk Avenue Cafe

June 4, 2011 8 comments

It’s fun to do stories that try to place an establishment, in this case a cafe, with a neighborhood, in this case a near downtown urban swath on the edge of of rebirth and oblivion. The Perk Avenue Cafe in Omaha opened as a humanitarian mission and community building experiment for activist owners John and Jennifer Cleveland and it was my pleasure to try and convey that within the context of the couple’s own personal experiences and beliefs as born-again Christians. They minister to the neighborhood through the food and coffee they serve, the cozy gathering spot they create, and the warm welcome they extend to everyone who comes in.  The story appeared in the Omaha City Weekly, a newspaper that is no more.  To be honest, I’m not sure the cafe is still open.

 

 

Community and Coffee at Omaha’s Perk Avenue Cafe

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha City Weekly

Perk Avenue Cafe fits the road-less-traveled crowd coursing Park Avenue, an off-the-beaten-track artery linking immigrant south Omaha with transitional midtown with mainstream downtown. From its modest 1107 Park Avenue digs in a mixed use district ranging from stately old homes to shoddy rentals and open air drug-sex deals to revitalization efforts, the cafe’s that rare spot where urban families, adventurers and fringe dwellers all feel welcome. Beyond its free-trade coffee, made-from-scratch pies and home-style breakfast-lunch menu, Perk’s real mission is as a community center — an extension of proprietors John and Jennifer Cleveland’s well-practiced beliefs.

Neighborhood activists residing in the area, the married couple opened Perk Avenue in the fall of 2003. The brick building was home to a vending business before sitting vacant. The property, like other nearby lots, was plagued by addicts and prostitutes. Veterans of missionary work abroad and social service work in Omaha, the couple bought the site and then surveyed neighbors about what should be done with it. When the consensus said it should be made-over into a community gathering spot, the husband and wife team renovated it for that purpose.

By day, Perk Avenue is the prototypical laidback coffeehouse/diner whose counter-hugging patrons warm up over coffee and conversation. The Clevelands, a mellow combo whether dishing out their low-priced food or their well-articulated social advocacy, are a main attraction along with their four chatty children. “Our children are a big part of this,” Jennifer said.

 

 

 

 

Tim Siragusa, an actor and waiter who walks to Perk Avenue for his “pre-yoga double-shot of espresso” said, “I’ve just been charmed by the owners. John and Jennifer brought a nice communal space into this part of town that wasn’t here before. And I think one of the things that keeps neighborhoods vital is a coffee shop. A place where everybody can come in the morning and get their coffee and chat over the paper. And their delightful children have no problem speaking with the customers.” Or joining in with artists who variously perform music and give readings there. For an Omaha Public Library Program, Siragusa read Farenhite 451 at the Perk.

With time, the couple’s vision for Perk Avenue has broadened. For example, on some nights the Clevelands, in concert with Mosaic Community Development, hold Spanish and English classes as “a bridge builder” to bring together the neighborhood’s disparate peoples.

On Friday nights, the joint jumps to live music by folk musicians or grunge bands. Other nights, it becomes a venue for parties and receptions. The commercial kitchen is an incubator for food entrepreneurs like Bob and Mary Brown, who use the premises to sling up half the cafe’s menu in addition to their own catering business dishes. Whether hosting meetings of the Ford Birthsite Neighborhood Association, which John Cleveland has headed, or reaching out to street denizens, the couple use the Perk Avenue as a base for their “holistic approach” in addressing the social, economic, political and spiritual concerns of an area Cleveland said is “on the edge — it could go either way.”

Being change agents is an intensely personal thing for the couple, born-again Christians whose own lives bear witness to the transforming power of faith and love. The product of a broken home, John was “a self-styled Satanist” and “chief sinner” waging a one-man war against God before his conversion in 1986 at Trinity Lutheran Church in Omaha. He describes being taken into the fold as an “adoption,” adding, “It was a family, it was a place of purpose and belonging.”

“I hated God, and that He could somehow reach into my heart and make that kind of life change in me,” said Cleveland, “it made me believe there was nobody on this planet beyond His reach or His help. I felt a real deep conviction and compulsion, and a real called mission, to do something.”

He met Jennifer there. After attending bible college together they made an early 1990s Christ in the City International missionary tour — first, to Costa Rica to learn Spanish, and then to Medellin, Colombia to work. Arriving in drug warlord Pablo Escobar’s last year in power, the couple started their family in the poor, violent land, where John ran a program training Colombian youth to help orphans, drug addicts and AIDS victims. It was a fulfilling but trying experience.

“It was hard on our family. There were bombings and kidnappings. Like a war zone. My second day there, a 10-year old prostitute approached me. She didn’t want my help. Nothing they taught in bible school prepared me for that. It was like hell on earth for some. We were in constant danger. It was terrifying at times,” he said.

John recalled one hairy confrontation with armed guerrillas. “We were coming back from the coast with a team of Colombians. We had a ton of people in the Toyota car I was driving. We pulled into this military checkpoint and we knew something was wrong because there was nobody there. It was a ghost town. So, we kept going and at the crest of the next hill we were stopped by two guerrillas. Apparently they’d come down out of the hills and done an operation and were now retreating. This one came up to my window and started asking questions. What had we seen? Where were we going? Who were we with? Where were we from? His questions started getting more specific to my being an American.”

This was in a time and place, Cleveland said, when if it was assumed “you had any value, they would kidnap you and hold you for ransom. Well, we’re at that point when, all of a sudden, the guy can’t talk. He’s choking on his words. The other guy is freaking out because it’s taking too long. They’re exposed. And the guy who can’t talk finally gets so mad he just waves us off, like, Get out of here. So, we tear off and everybody in the car is like, Oh, my God, it’s a miracle. On the other hand, I’m hyperventilating, going, I just about died — God, what were you thinking?”

Of their time in Colombia, he said, “We were so young. Freshly married. A new family. There were a lot of things we should have done differently, but that’s OK. We made it through and learned a lot from it.” Once back in Omaha, John tried working in the for-profit arena, but was “miserable.” He said, “I love people and I felt we could apply some of the principles of community development we learned in a foreign land to what we do here locally.” He joined the local office of Christ for the City, heading a program for Lutheran Family Services called Strong Urban Neighborhoods. He now works at Turning Point, a youth-centered organization.

The Clevelands were drawn to the area bounded by Park Avenue, the Ford Birthsite and Field Club for “its cultural diversity.” Immigrants from Latin America and Africa settle there for its affordable housing.

 

 

 

 

Plus, John said, “We wanted to use our Spanish. We felt a real affection for the Hispanic community. And we wanted to live in a community we felt we could contribute to, and this neighborhood was perfect. My big emphasis in ministry has always been community development. Getting community ownership, finding community solutions to problems and sustainable solutions locally.” And “breaking down barriers,” like in the language classes offered at Perk Avenue that help diffuse differences. Participants range from immigrants trying to master English to city inspectors and landlords needing to communicate with Spanish-speaking business owners and tenants to teachers from nearby Liberty Elementary School, where three of the couple’s kids attend, looking to breach the divide with newcomer pupils. In the process, he said, “perceptions  change and dialogues start, and I don’t know where else that would happen.”

With so much diversity intersecting the area, Cleveland wants Perk Avenue viewed as a safe haven for everyone, even the late night street walkers he shoos away but also assists when they appear battered or cold or disoriented. “We want a place where people from Field Club can rub shoulders with people from down here and where everybody thinks it’s theirs. We’ve tried to make this a melting pot.”

On a recent morning, customers included a middle-aged contractor, a thirtysomething Hispanic laborer, a senior couple, actor Tim Siragusa and young artist Leslie Iwai, who discussed bible passages with companion Jonathan Starkey. Iwai welcomes what the Clevelands are doing. “I think it’s a light in a dark place. It brings order to a location that’s had a lot of oppression. It’s establishing something here — like grass growing through a crack in the sidewalk. We didn’t need another bar.” Starkey agreed, adding, “It’s good to see a healthy establishment.”

Cleveland said the neighborhood seems to be turning the corner. He’s helped lead efforts to combat dealers, addicts, pimps and hookers. “It’s frustrating, because you want to extend help and you want to see life change, but in the meantime I’ll settle for relocation. There’s a sense of righteous indignation of — you know what? — this has got to stop. There’s enough people in this neighborhood who are to that point that it’s starting to make a difference.” He’s also encouraged by a new development that’s renovating a former illicit drug-sex den into Boston row houses.

The couple hope Perk remains a community resource long after they’re gone. “It’s not ours. It’s not about us. It’s about the destiny of this neighborhood. It’s just a matter of time, I believe, before people start owning it. There’s great potential here,” Jennifer said.

Life is a Cabaret, the Anne-Marie Kenny Story: From Omaha to Paris to Prague and Back to Omaha, with Love

May 28, 2011 5 comments

My writing brand focus is “telling stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions” and the following New Horizons profile I wrote about cabaret singer Anne Marie Kenny is an almost perfect match of writer and subject. She is a multi-talented woman whose love of music and adventure has driven much of her life. She is one of those bright spirits I feel drawn to, and I think you will too reading her story.  She comes from a long line of Omaha women who have made careers as cabaret or torch or big band singers – from Anna Mae Winburn to Julie Wilson to Richetta Wilson to Camille Metoyer Moten to Karrin Allyson.  These chanteuses all share in common at art and craft of interpreting a song.  Indeed, they all feel a kinship with one another, and Kenny is quick to acknowledge that she adores Julie Wilson’s work.  Much like Wilson had to once take an extended leave from the performing world she loves so, Kenny did as well.  My story charts some of the ups and downs,  twists and turns, and various adventures of her life in and out of music.

 Anne-Marie Kenny

 

 

Life is a Cabaret, the Anne Marie Kenny Story: From Omaha to Paris to Prague and Back to Omaha, with Love

©by Leo Adam Biga

As appeared in the New Horizons

 

“What good is sitting alone in your room? Come hear the music play. Life is a cabaret old chum, come to the cabaret…”

Singer Anne-Marie Kenny’s life is a cabaret alright. The story of how she left Omaha to follow her dream in Paris is storybook stuff. It only gets better when you learn she came back home to find true love in dashing advertising executive, John Bull. Then she left for Paris again, only this time with her man. The two lived an enchanted life as expatriates abroad. She sang, he painted…

But then like the tragic-romantic songs this chanteuse sings in clubs and concert halls, their fortunes changed. They struggled financially and then John fell ill. She gave up music to go into business, reinventing herself as an entrepreneur in the newly liberated Czech Republic. Just as her company took off and a new life dawned in Prague, John’s condition worsened. He later died.

That was 15 years ago. Since then Kenny’s reinvented herself again. She remarried, though this second union didn’t last long. She has no children of her own but is involved in the lives of her step-children.

After selling her company she resettled in Omaha, now the base for her intercultural consulting and training business. She’s fluent in French, Italian and Czech, Along the way she earned a master’s degree in organizational leadership from the College of Saint Mary..

Today, this vivacious world citizen, businesswoman, vocal coach, choir leader and cabaret singer still lives her performing dream. She looks forward to whatever life holds, certain she’s prepared to take the bitter with the sweet.

Growing up, Kenny’s musical family met tragedy when her father, attorney Dan Kenny, drowned at 35. While on a fishing trip with buddies his motorboat capsized. Everyone ended up in the chilly waters that fateful day. He was a good swimmer but between the cold, the heavy clothing he wore and his head likely hitting the motor, he didn’t survive.

Anne was not quite 3. She, her four older sisters, a brother and their mother, Veronica Janda Kenny, were on their own. Until the initial shock wore off, their Field Club home, usually filled with the sound of music, was silent except for weeping.

“My father played instruments, saxophone, a little bit of piano. My mother played the piano. My father had a great singing voice, so did my mother. They loved music — it was a big part of their lives,” said Kenny.

All the kids took piano lessons.

Soon, music took its rightful place again in the Kenny home, serving as healing therapy for the still grieving Irish (her father’s side) and Czech (her mother’s side) clan.

“I think the music redeemed whatever loss we had.”

This was the mid-1950s, long before professional counseling became de rigueur for children touched by trauma.

“In those days, no, you just forged ahead,” Kenny said. “I think the music was a godsend for us. I don’t know what we would have done if we had not had it. I think life might have been a little bit harder, but music was our outlet, and we harmonized.”

When old enough, Anne joined her sisters in the four-part harmony group, the Kenny Sisters. They performed at Show Wagons, service clubs, receptions and various other events. All her siblings have remained musical into adulthood.

Not all was peaches and cream. Anne’s mother, formerly a traditional stay-at-home mom, suddenly had to be the breadwinner.

“I can look back now and I realize what an amazing mother we had because she made sure she provided for us, there was no thought of welfare or anything for Mom,” said Kenny. “She had to go to work and she found a way. She worked hard. She started as a secretary in my dad’s old law firm.

“Then she moved to Creighton University, in the career placement office. Even though I’m sure we had very little money, we always looked good because Mother sewed all of our clothes. She made sure we had a parochial education.”

Anne attended St. Peter Elementary and Mercy High Shool.

Everyone pitched in to make ends meet. Mother Kenny made sure of it.

“She made us start working at a very early age, so that we helped with the finances,” recalls Anne, who with her sisters worked at St. James Orphanage. “I remember having to go get a work permit at age 13 or 14 to be a child care worker. I would pick up babies and feed them three nights a week.”

Meanwhile, Anne blossomed into a beauty with an angelic voice and a fetching personality. She couldn’t go to a party without being prevailed upon to sing. Her late ’60s repertoire included folksongs, Beatles hits, show tunes, et cetera.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I was in high school, all I know is that everybody loved my music. I could play the guitar, I could sing, I could play the piano a little bit. I got the leads in the plays — the musicals, even the nonmusicals.

“When my mother asked me what I wanted to be, I said I wanted to be an actress, so I was thinking along those lines in those early days. And singing is acting, because you’re selling a song, you’re becoming the character of whatever the song is.”

It would be a few years yet before Anne became a polished vocalist but right from the start she understood the importance of breathing heart and soul into a song and winning over an audience.

“I learned early on, when I first started singing professionally at 21, that you have to lose yourself in the song, and that’s what you do when you’re acting. You have to lose the nerves, you have to lose the everybody’s-looking-at-me mentality and get into the music, interpret that music, let it take you away.”

That expressiveness, she said, only comes “after you do your homework and learn the words and learn the song, and learn some technique and how to deliver it.” It only comes, she said, “after you have really concentrated on studying it.”

One of Kenny’s musical idols is fellow Omaha native Julie Wilson, the legendary singer. Wilson’s a revered figure in New York City cabaret circles and is still going strong at 86. Kenny said no one does cabaret better than Wilson.

“Julie is a master at that. She really sells the song. You’ve heard that Rodgers and Hammerstein song a hundred times, yet you hear Julie Wilson sing it and it’s like you’ve never heard it before. It’s her phrasing and the color and tone she brings to it. And her diction is impeccable. I am a huge fan of Julie Wilson.”

 

 

Julie Wilson

 

 

She said unlike some singers who bore after awhile, Wilson holds you spellbound.

“Never do you feel you want it to get over. You’re hoping there’s another verse. She’s completely into it. I would say I am too when I sing but I don’t know if I get it across as well as Julie.”

Kenny said while Wilson’s voice is limited in range now, age has also ripened it. “She delivers it with such intensity and emotion,” said Kenny. “She just has it.”

All this insight was was still ahead of Kenny in 1973. Music then was an avocation, not a career. She tried office work for a time, but felt her creative impulses stymied.

“I knew it wasn’t for me, and that’s when I decided to move from Omaha. I was 21, I couldn’t figure out where I wanted to go, I just knew I needed to spread my wings.”

“Put down the knitting, the book and the broom, time for a holiday…”

In truth, Kenny knew exactly where she was headed: France. She studied French  in school and became a Francophile. At 18 she made her first trip to Europe, to then-West Germany, where a sister and her military husband lived. Even though Anne didn’t make it to Paris that time, she said, “That trip did tell me I’m coming back to Europe and I always knew someday I was getting to France.”

That day came sooner than expected when she finally threw caution to the wind and booked passage there.

“It was just welling up in me and I still feel this way today — I cannot not do my art. If I don’t, I’m not healthy.”

Still, the idea of going off to Paris alone was daunting. Yes, she was adventurous but also insecure enough that she kept her plans secret. She was even too timid to tell herself she was pursuing a singing career.

“I didn’t dare tell anybody I was going to Paris. I didn’t know anyone there, I didn’t know anything, except I knew some French. So I sold my little Volkswagen Beetle, all my possessions. I knew I couldn’t tell anybody who would naysay. I’ve held that principle all my life — don’t talk about any big plans to anybody who cant help you or isn’t going to be encouraging. I knew my mother would talk me out of it, but I was old enough to do this, so I did.”

She found a great deal and made the voyage on a luxurious Italian oceanliner.

“That was an education in itself —  this Omaha girl on a ship,” she said.

She disembarked in Marseilles, where she caught a train bound for Paris. En route, she said, a French passenger asked what her plans were, “and I don’t know why but I said, ‘I’m a singer, I’m going to sing,’ and that’s the first time I admitted that to myself. I remember being surprised to hear that come out of my mouth.”

Once in Paris the romance and reality of the City of Light set in.

“When I first moved there by myself I didn’t know a soul, but the minute I hit Paris I felt like I was home. Paris is about beauty and art all around you. That’s how I see it.”

That electric energy aside, there was still the matter of supporting herself.

“I only had like $2,000 to my name to last me — I had to start earning money. I did get a job as an au pair, so I at least had a secure place to live, and the family was just wonderful. It was a great job. I’m still friends with these people today.”

But how does an unknown young American break into the Paris music scene? In Kenny’s case, by pluck and luck.

“I put this sign up at a place called the Centra Americain that read, ‘Singer looking for musicians.’ I don’t know how I had the guts to do this by the way. And lo and behold a couple days later a phone call — this deep resonant voice on the other end. The person spoke French but I could tell it wasn’t a Frenchman. He was a guitarist named Carlos. He’d worked with a lot of singers.”

It was attraction at first sight. He, the tall, dark Argentine virtuoso. She, the lithe, lovely American song stylist.

“We didn’t even talk much. He started playing, and he just played with such purity and exactness. He’s the best guitarist I have ever heard. Anything I knew, he knew. We were very good together musically. After we had about 10-12 songs under our belt, he said, ‘I think we’re ready to perform in the streets.’ I said, ‘No way,’ but he talked me into it.

“He felt we should go to the Champs Elysees, the busiest street in Paris. We had crowds all around us listening. I passed a long glove. We made pretty good money.”

 

 

 

 

Her first big break happened only days later when a talent scout discovered them.

“Somebody came along from ORTF radio and asked if we would come for an audition, and we did, and we got a job on the radio.”

She and Carlos appeared on the popular Le Petit Conservatoire de Mireille, a showcase for emerging talents.

“The French loved the show,” said Kenny. “We were on almost every week, and we got paid — not a whole lot,  but enough to get me ‘off the streets’ so to speak.”

The duo also appeared on the show’s television spinoff. More offers poured in.

“It got me an agent, who was also a songwriter. He wrote songs that kind of fit my voice. He got me gigs in theaters around Paris.”

All this after being in Paris only weeks. She chalks it up as “meant to be,” adding, “I just think things do fall into place, and if they don’t maybe they’re not meant to be.” Plus, she sad, “I was determined.”

She and her Argentine dream boat were more than musical partners, they were lovers. But their romance and collaboration didn’t last. Se la vie, as the French say.

After a year living her dream, she ran short of funds. After all, singing is at best sporadic work. Besides, it was time to return home.

“No use permitting some prophet of doom, to wipe every smile away, come hear the music play…”

Kenny took her first formal voice lessons from teachers Diana Morrison and Mary Fitzsimmons Massie. After she performed Edith Piaf and Jaques Brel songs at an Omaha Alliance Francaise concert, the late Morrison offered to work with her.

“She got me started in a whole new world of learning the technique of singing,” said Kenny. “Now, before that, I had a good natural voice, but she got me into classical music. I must say I love it. But I love the Great American Songbook, too. With good technique you should be able to do it all, you should be able to sing operatic but then when you sing a pop song not sing it in the operatic style, but switch those gears.

“I don’t think there’s many people who have a cache of different voices to use.”

With training, she said, she’s learned to “try on different voices” to suit the song, the mood, the venue, the audience. Therefore, she can project, in a belting voice, in all the registers, but can also “pull it way back” to a soft, intimate purr. She likes leading off her opening set with a “wow” song, then throttling down a few notches, before closing with her favorite, “La vie en rose,” or saving that emotional number for her encore.

She’s further honed her instrument in master classes at Juilliard, Peabody and Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris. She’s fluent in the full French and Italian repertoire.

It was the late ’70s in the Old Market when Kenny became a hot item singing at M’s Pub, V Mertz and the French Cafe. Meanwhile, she’d met her future husband, John, socially. He was a Mad Man ad whiz from Chicago come to work at Bozell and Jacobs. His big account was Mutual of Omaha. Sparks flew when the two met and their mutual attraction developed into a full-blown courtship.

“Every time I performed, he was there. He clearly was interested in me.”

They married in 1980, honeymooning — where else? — in France.

Back in the States she sometimes traveled with him cross-country as he made syndication deals for Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Then one day he surprised her by announcing he’d quit his job and they were moving to Paris.

“We had talked about one day wouldn’t that be wonderful. He wanted to live his dream too — of painting. Talk about a risk taker. But it was a shared dream. So off we went to live our dream.”

They started their new life together in Paris in 1983.

“We lived the life. We were two artists in Paris. It was a beautiful life. We had a lot of fun, contact with other artists. We had musical parties. I would sing at his art shows, He was always so supportive of my music.

“We just blended so well. I heard life, he saw life. We would go places and he would notice things I would never even see. Likewise, I’d pick up on other things.”

The couple lived in an idyllic setting, too, in an apartment on the Iie Saint-Louis, an island in the River Sienne, right in the heart of Paris.

Whenever she visits Paris that’s where she heads — to that arrondissement or district where she still knows the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, as well as all the neighborhood cafe proprietors.

Her next big leap as a singer came under the formidable vocal coach Janine Reiss, who’s worked with world class artists Maria Callas, Luciana Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. Kenny knew it was a long shot that Reiss would take her on as a student but she no sooner phrased a few verses at an informal audition then Reiss agreed.

“I was shocked.”

 

 

Janine Reiss

 

 

They worked intensively together and are friends to this day.

“She was meticulous, you could not get by with anything,” said Kenny, who appreciates how much Reiss pushed her to improve, saying, “She took me deeper into my art.”

The student-teacher relationship “is way more than just the singing,” said Kenny. “Invariably you need to talk about what is this song saying and where do you find that emotion within yourself. It’s like method acting. You end up having very intimate conversations. You need to be very vulnerable with your teacher, and Janine would share as much about herself.”

Kenny applied her finely honed technique and artistry at some posh venues, such as the Oak Room at the Paris Ritz Hotel. “Probably one of my favorite gigs of all time,” she said, “They treated me so well and they’re real connoisseurs. Sophisticated.”

 

 

 

 

She found time, too, for the part of Miss Moneypenny in three feature films shot on the Riviera and principal roles in plays and operettas.

“Come taste the wine, come hear the band, come blow your horn, start celebrating…”

Life was grand, and then the bottom fell out. The American dollar took a dive and the unsteady income from her singing and John’s painting no longer allowed them to live in the manner to which they’d become accustomed. It meant downsizing and moving to the South of France, where things were less expensive.

“I sang a lot in the South of France, but they weren’t the same opportunities I had in Paris,” she said, “so I wasn’t as happy.”

When John fell ill, things became even harder.

Then something straight out of one of the sentimental songs she sings occurred. It was late fall 1989 and the Iron Curtain was falling in Eastern Europe. The Velvet Revolution in the Czech Republic was capturing people’s hearts and imagination. The new president, Vaclav Havel, a poet and playwright once imprisoned for his dissident views, took office in a bloodless regime change from communist to democratic rule.

Watching on TV Kenny was enthralled by the charismatic Havel, a fellow artist, at the head of this movement. She was moved too by his writings.

“He was the moral voice of the people,” she said. “If you read anything he’s written you would be inspired, too. He’s the Nelson Mandela of the former Soviet bloc countries.”

Amid the nationalistic fervor, she took new pride in her Czech heritage.

“I’m half Czech, so I felt extra connected. I hoped to go one day.”

Caught up in the spirit of it all, she did something rash.

“That was one of those moments when I think I had too much champagne,” she said. “We had just seen on TV the celebrations in the street and I went over to the piano and I wrote some English words for the Czech people to Jacques Brel’s song “If We Only Have Love” and I sent them to President Havel with a congratulatory note that said how moved we were to watch this happen.

“And by gosh I got a letter back on behalf of President Havel inviting me to sing that song at the Reduta Jazz Club.”

That Prague club is a national landmark and playing it is considered a high honor, so naturally she accepted the offer. Her performance there marked the beginning of her own Czech Spring, as she witnessed first-hand the opportunities being afforded by the country’s new found freedom. With John sick and the couple needing a stable income, she began looking at making a major life-career change.

“I knew we had to do something and I was ready to make a break with music.”

With the Wild Wild East wide open to economic development, Kenny learned that companies struggled finding enough employable talent. That’s when she hatched the idea of a training and staffing firm. There was little competition at the time.

“Everything was new, laws were changing and it was the best time to go in. It was just a great place to be. I was very inspired there. I also realized I would have to throw myself completely into it if I was going to start this business.”

But could she really walk away from music to become a CEO? It’s then that she recalled a meeting with her idol, Julie Wilson, years earlier at New York’s Algonquin Hotel. Kenny was there to see Wilson perform. The two had never met.

“Julie walked into the room and I was alone sitting at one of those wonderful round booths, and as she came by I said, ‘By the way, I’m from Omaha and I’m a singer, too, and I’m so excited to hear you.’ Julie said, ‘Do you have time for dinner afterwards?’ ‘Why, yes,” I stumbled. ‘Good, I’ll catch you after the show.’ And we just had a great talk over dinner.”

As Kenny weighed her options in Prague years later she thought back to something Wilson told her that night — how this queen of the stage and the cabaret set had to quit when her marriage failed and she needed to attend to her trouble-prone sons in Omaha.

“She told me right out there came a time in her career she had to stop and give up what she loved doing the most to work a regular job to support her kids. I was so touched by her story. I thought, That’s what I have to do, I have to give up music. And it wasn’t a huge hardship. I’d been doing it professionally 20 years. But it was different.”

Kenny said she also identified with and took solace in something else Wilson told her: that once an artist, always an artist, “even if life takes you away from it.” And as Wilson proved, you can always go back to it. It’s never too late.

All of Kenny’s deliberation was rewarded when her company flourished, becoming Easter Europe’s go-to staffing and training service for multinationals.

“I knew I could do it. I just wont accept failure. Once you stand up at the Oak Room of the Paris Ritz Hotel and sing to that clientele, you can sell yourself.”

She ended up living 10 years in Prague.

Just as Julie Wilson resumed her singing career, Kenny’s performing again. She works gigs in Omaha, in Florida, in the South of France, all around her busy business schedule. Her intercultural work is ever more in demand in this flat world, digital age, global economy, where cross-cultural competency is vital.

She also enjoys passing on her expertise to vocal performance students she trains at her Dundee home. A new passion is leading the Siena Francis House Singers, a spirited choral group comprised of that shelter’s homeless residents.

Kenny looks forward to whatever new adventures await.

“I don’t know what my future is, but I don’t expect it to be any less exciting than what my life has been so far.”

There is one dream she pines to fulfill:  “I would love to do a cabaret show with Julie Wilson. The two of us back in Omaha. I just know we’d pack ‘em in.”

“Start by admitting, from cradle to tomb, isn’t that long a stay, life is a cabaret old chum, only a cabaret old chum, and I love a cabaret!”

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