Parenting the Second Time Around Holds Challenges and Delights for Senior Kinship Caregiver Theresa Glass Union, Who Always Puts Family First
Parenting the Second Time Around Holds Challenges and Delights for Senior Kinship Caregiver Theresa Glass Union, Who Always Puts Family First
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear as the cover story in the December issue of the New Horizons
After raising three daughters in the 1970s-1980s and nearing retirement in the early 2000s, Theresa Glass Union thought she knew what her later years would look like. Even though still working, she envisioned socializing and traveling with friends and family. When she could finally retire it’d mean free time like she hadn’t known in ages.
The Omaha native had just moved back here after more than 20 years in Calif. She was divorced, eager to start a new life and catch up with old mates and haunts. Then a family crisis erupted and her selfless response led her to join the growing ranks of kinship caregivers raising young children.
Reports indicate that upwards of 6 million children in America live with grandparents identified as the head of household. Nearly half of these children are being raised by someone other than the parents or grandparents. The number of children being parented by non-birth parents has increased 18 percent since 2000, according to a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Some kinship caregivers do it informally, others through the state child welfare-foster care system. Being informed of rights, regulations and benefits takes work.
Theresa is a kinship caregiver to children of a niece who’s long battled drug addiction. The niece is the mother of six children by different fathers, The three oldest variously live with their fathers or their fathers’ people. When the niece got pregnant with each of her three youngest children, now ages 5, 4 and 2, they came to live with Theresa shortly after their births.
It’s not the first time Theresa’s dealt with tough circumstances inside and outside her family. She has a younger sister with a criminal past who happens to be the mother of the niece whose children Theresa is raising. Years spent in social service jobs dealing with clients living on the edge have given Theresa a window into the bad decisions that desperate, addicted persons make and the hard consequences those wrong choices bring.
At age 65 and two-and-a-half decades removed from raising three grown daughters, one of whom is film-television star Gabrielle Union, Theresa’s doing a parenting redux. She never thought she’d be in charge of three pre-school-aged kids again, but she is. She’s since legally adopted the two older siblings, both girls, and is awaiting an adoption ruling on their “baby” brother.
As the babies came to her one by one she found herself knee deep again in diapers and baby bottles, awakened in the middle of the night by crying infants, figuring out formulas and worrying about fevers, sniffles, coughs and tummy aches. Now that the kids are a little older, there’s daycare, pre-school and managing a household of activity.
It’s not what she imagined retirement to be, but how could she not be there for the kids? They were going to be removed from their birth mother and placed in a system not always conducive to happy outcomes. Child welfare officials generally agree that childcare fare better in kinship care settings than in regular foster care.
Kinship caregivers may get involved when the parents are incarcerated, on drugs or deceased. In the case of Theresa, drugs were found in the systems of the two oldest children she’s adopted, Keira and Miyonna. Theresa felt they needed unconditional family love. The girls are doing fine today under the care of Theresa and her brother James Glass. The girls’ brother, Amari, was born drug-free.
With so much stacked against the children to start life, Theresa wasn’t about to turn her back on them. Family is everything to her. She’s the oldest of seven siblings, all raised Catholic – churched and schooled at St. Benedict the Moor, the historic African-American parish in northeast Omaha. It’s where she received all her sacraments, including marrying her ex-husband Sylvester Union.
“The church is central to my family here.”
She graduated from Sacred Heart High School.
She and Union moved to San Francisco during the Summer of Love in 1967 and they returned to Omaha a year later. They both ended up working at Western Electric. Like other black couples then they ran into discriminatory real estate practices that flat out denied them access to many neighborhoods or steered them away from white areas into black sections of North Omaha. Their first home was in northeast Omaha but they eventually moved into a house in the northwest part of the city, where their three daughters went to school.
In the 1970s Theresa, who studied social work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, worked for Omaha nonprofit social service agencies, including CETA (Comprehensive Employment & Training Agency) and GOCA (Greater Omaha Community Action). After a long stint in corporate America she returned to the non-profit field.
The family left here in 1981 for Pleasanton, Calif., where they lived the sun-dappled Southern Calif. suburban life. She worked for Pacific Bell and completed her bachelor’s degree in human relations and organizational behavior at the University of San Francisco. After her divorce she and her brother James Glass returned to Omaha in 2003. A few years passed before Theresa’s troubled niece came for help. At various times the family tried interventions, once even getting the niece into rehab, but each time she fled and resumed her drug habit.
As a former field worker with Douglas County Health and Human Services and as a one-time Child Protection Service Worker with Nebraska Health and Human Services, Theresa’s seen the despair and chaos that result when siblings are separated from each other and extended family. It’s why when her niece kept getting pregnant while hooked on drugs and unable to take care of herself, much less children, Theresa intervened to ensure the kids would go to her.
“Some of the things children said to me when I was a social worker have just stayed with me,” she says.
On one call she visited three young siblings in a foster home.
“I was like the fifth social worker since they’d been brought into the system. The 8-year old boy said, ‘Please don’t take us away, we get fed three times a day here. ‘Well. that told me they’d been staying with some people (before) who weren’t feeding them regularly. Who does that? The foster parent let him walk me around the home and this little boy was just adamant he be with his brothers.”
In another case several siblings were divided up among different foster families.
“One of the siblings got to see her sisters at school but she no longer got to see her brothers, and she asked me, ‘Can I see my brothers?’Her foster parent had made the request but nothing had happened, so I looked into it and found that each sibling had a different social worker and had been placed at a separate time. I got it worked out that the siblings got to visit each other.”
System shortfalls and breakdowns like these were enough to make Theresa bound and determined to arrange in advance with hospital social workers for her to be the foster placement parent for her niece’s three youngest kids. When Keira and Miyonna tested positive for drugs the state, by law, detained them and they were put in Theresa’s care two days after their births. She did the same with their brother. She simply wouldn’t let them fall outside the family or be separated.
“After Keira was born I was already a resident foster placement and I’d already contacted everybody involved to let them know if there was another baby that ends up in the detention system I want to be the foster parent of choice because I didn’t want these kids to go into the system. My idea is that the kids all need to be raised together. They deserve to have their siblings .
“I was working for Child Protective Service, so I knew all the ins and outs of what was going to happen. I knew how many times we were going to have to go to the doctor before the baby’s cleared. I knew that babies wake up in the middle of the night and children with drugs in them can find it more difficult sleeping, eating. I was prepared for all that. It didn’t happen, I was thanking God that Keira’s and Miyonna’s little withdrawal things were just a few days. The biggest problem we had was figuring out formula.”
Daughter Kelly Union, a senior analyst with US Airways, admires her mother’s by-any-means-necessary fortitude.
“My mom always looks for more solutions, other options, different ways to climb a mountain. That determination helps me when I hit a brick wall at work, in my marriage, with my kids. My mom also sees all glasses as half full. There is a positive in everything and we just need to find it. My mom’s best attribute, however, is being strong against all odds—she finds the strength to hold up everything and everyone, including herself despite what she is up against. I get my strength from her.”
The way Theresa sees it she did what she did in order to “preserve the continuity of the children’s lives, so that they know their family members, the cousins, the aunts and uncles, the lineage back, like my grandma Ora Glass and my grandma Myrtle Fisher Davis, and the head of our family today, Aunt Patricia Moss.”
Theresa hails from one of the largest and oldest African-American families in the region, the Bryant-Fishers, whose annual picnic is 95 years strong.
Her bigger-than-life late grandmother, Ora, the longtime matriarch, lived to 110. Ora gained celebrity as a shining example of successful aging, even appearing on Phil Donahue’s show and running her fingers through the host’s hair. In her younger years Ora was a housekeeper and nanny for some of Omaha’s elite families. One packinghouse owner family even brought her out to Calif. to continue her duties when they moved there. She survived the Red Summer of 1919, when blacks were targeted by racists in riots that wreaked havoc from coast to coast, including Omaha and Orange County, Calif..
“My grandmother had a whole lot of stories,” says Theresa.
In her 70s and 80s Ora “reinvented” herself from a very strict, prim and proper lady with politics tending toward the conservative” to loosening up on things like relationships and social issues, notes Theresa. “She told me, ‘I’m losing so many old friends that I have to make new friends and I have to use new opinions and I have to make new decisions.’ She began reaching out and making new friends and gathering new family to her. She started trying different things. She went to political science classes at UNO. She learned ceramics.”
Even when she had to use a walker, Theresa says. Ora maintained her independence, riding the bus downtown for Mass at St Mary Magdalene’s Church, a repast at Bishop’s Cafeteria and taking in all the sights.
Ora was then and is now an inspiration to Theresa. She carries her grandmother’s boundless curiosity, determination and affirmation inside her.
“She always persevered. She said, ‘Whatever you do you always do it to the best of your ability.’ She said, ‘You can always make more family’ and she always did generate more and more family for herself.”
Ora was godmother to Omaha native Cathy Hughes, founder of the Radio One and TV One media empires, and played a big role in the mogul’s early life.
Ageless Ora ended up a resident at the Thomas Fitzgerald Veterans Home (the military service of her late husband Aaron Glass entitled her to stay there) and Theresa says her grandmother “recruited families from St. Vincent dePaul parish to visit residents there. There were a couple of families she adopted. The kids came and they called her grandma and they brought her gifts.”
It’s figures and stories like these that Theresa didn’t want her three new children to miss out on. The family takes great pains to maintain its ties, celebrate its history and record the additions and losses as well as the triumphs and tragedies among their family trees. Help abounds from loved ones she says because “there’s so many of us. There’s like 1,500 of us (dispersed around the country).”
She values the traditions and events that bind them and their rich legacy and she wouldn’t want the children now in her care to be deprived of any of it.
“We’re called the Dozens of Cousins. Yeah, I do take a lot of pride in that. I get that a lot from my aunt Patricia Moss because she wants there to be the continuity. We do have continuity.”
Regarding the big August reunion, when hundreds gather at Levi Carter Park, she says, “I try to always make it. Since coming back home in 2003 I haven’t missed any, and when I was younger it wasn’t an option, you were there. We have the family picnic, we have family birthdays, we have that kind of continuity and I think children need that to grow in their own maturity and emotional strength,” she says. “It can give them that stability. You’re not going to get that from strangers. And knowing at some point there’s going to be questions about who mom is, I have all those baby pictures and all that stuff. I can give them a sense of who she is if she doesn’t care to come around.”
Having a large family around gives Theresa a ready-made support network.
“I have a supportive family around me. I have everybody lined up that’s going to keep this continuity. My brother James wouldn’t say it before that he’s helping raise the kids, but he’s saying it now. My sister and cousins call and make sure I have break times. My granddaughter Chelsea came from Arizona recently to watch the kids so I could have a break time. When my daughter Tracy has breaks from work she comes in and helps out.
“So I have a support system around me and they’re all kin to these children, so they’re never outside of family.”
Kelly Union says even if there wasn’t all that family support her mother would have done the same thing.
“Without a doubt, she would have been that beacon without all of us supporting her. That is her character, that is the legacy she inherited and the legacy she is passing on to all of us. We have all been known to help someone else, even when it isn’t easy or comfortable and that is a direct reflection of her.”
The respite family provides Theresa has proven vital as she’s realized she’s not capable of doing everything like she was the first time she raised kids. She’s much more prone now to ask for help. Another difference between then and now is that her older daughters were spaced out three or four years, whereas the kids she’s raising today are all just a year or two apart.
“My oldest was 4 before I had my second and then my second was 7 before I had my third. It’s a different experience when you can devote your time to the one child at a time. And then by the time I had the second child the oldest child had more of her own things she was doing that she didn’t need me while I was taking care of this other one. And then the two of them did not need me as much when I was taking care of the third one, so every kid got to be like an only child.”
Things stated out different the second time around.
“‘I found I was now taking care of two kids at the same time, so if I’m changing a diaper the other one’s right there fussing and attention grabbing. and boy that’s more wearing on me. The energy for two young ones is just wearing.
“When I first got Keira and Miyonna I was working, so I got to take them to day care. But I could not keep my mind going well enough during the day to do a social work job. I could not keep up and my caseload was falling farther and farther behind. I even asked for more training, but I just couldn’t manage it. I thought I was super lady but my energy level is not the same as it was, trust me.”
The two girls don’t need quite the attention they did before, which is good because their little brother needs it now.
“We got through that and Keira and Miyonna started doing real good together. I even have them sleeping together in a big double bed. They sleep all night.”
In terms of parenting, she says she’s learned to “let some things go” that she would have stressed over before. For example she doesn’t worry whether the kids’ clothes or hair or bedrooms are perfect. “You do the best with what you have and you gotta innovate,” she says.
Her adult daughters may be the best gauge for what kind of mother Theresa is. The oldest, Kelly, wrote in an email:
“My mother was always the “you can do it”, “give it a try” type of parent. She supported all our whims—Girl Scouts, musical instruments, sports, school plays, dance class. Whatever struck our fancy at the moment, she backed our efforts. No is not a big word in her vocabulary. Not that she was a permissive parent who let us get away with things. But more in the way that she was willing to let us try and learn our own likes, dislikes, pleasure and pain first hand.
“My mom was never really a yelling, scolding type of mom and that worked well for us. Life lessons taught with logic, love and support goes a long way to shaping a child the right way.”
Kelly doesn’t see any marked difference in her how mom parents now than before.
“No, the core is very much the same. My mom is home more with them but the attention, the opportunities, the lessons are all still the same.”
Theresa would like for the children’s birth mother to be involved in their lives but thus far she says her niece has shown little interest. In fact, Theresa’s lost most contact with her niece, whose exact whereabouts she’s unsure of.
“She actually did visitation with Miyonna for the first three weeks of her life and then she back slid all the way and did a disappearance act. We didn’t know where she was.”
The instability and unreliability of the mother were huge factors in Theresa taking charge and getting the kids in a safe home surrounded by family. She says she never wanted to have happen to these children what she’s seen happen to others, such as when kids age out of the system never having been reunited with family, much less visited by them. With their biological mother out of the picture, Theresa saw no option but to step up.
“It’s hard to forge your own identity when your identity has been connected with state administrators,” she says of foster children.
It’s not the first time she’s taken in loved ones in need. When her uncle Joe Glass lived in a Milwaukee nursing home and was going to be transferred to a veterans home near the Canadian border, far from any family, Theresa and her brother James brought him to Omaha.
Growing up, she saw the example of her family take in childhood friend Cathy Hughes when Cathy’s musician mother Helen Jones Woods was on the road. Hughes said growing up she and Theresa thought they were “blood sisters.”
Theresa’s three birth daughters have embraced her returning to parenting young kids again all these years later. She says they’ve all accepted and bonded with their new siblings and go out of their way in spoiling them. “They don’t want for anything,” she says of her little ones.
Kelly speaks for her sisters when she says they all admire and support their mother in assuming this new responsibility at her age but that it doesn’t surprise them.
“That is just my mom. I don’t think she thought of it as parenting at her age, she just saw a need and filled it. Age really didn’t play into it, although she did discuss it with us because doing the right thing would impact all of us. My mom always does the ‘right thing,’ and right doesn’t mean easy and she accepts that whenever she takes on a task, a role, a responsibility.
“My grandmother raised her and this is what my grandmother did and would have done if she was alive. Her opting to raise the kids did not surprise any of us in the least. It is the one characteristic both my parents had and handed down to us: Do what you can, when you can and share of yourself, your home, your belongings and your wealth (regardless of how much money you have or don’t have). It’s the right thing to do to help someone else, especially family.”
Kelly and her sister Gabrielle have each assumed similar super-nurturing roles as their mother. Kelly, who has three children of her own, has acted as a surrogate mom to athletes coached by her husband. Gabrielle is now the adult female figure in the home of her equally famous boyfriend, NBA superstar Dwyane Wade, whose two sons and a nephew live with him in Miami.
Theresa’s justifiably proud of her three grown children, each a successful, independent woman in her own right. Kelly’s a corporate executive. Tracy’s a facilities coordinator at Arizona State University and Gabrielle’s the movie star. Just as she feels she well prepared her older girls for life she hopes to do the same for their young siblings.
“I got my three grown daughters there healthy and educated and then they had to travel it on themselves. Hopefully I can do this another time and the three young ones will be healthy and educated and they’ll be able to move on and enjoy their lives. Nobody has to be famous but you have to be able enjoy and sustain your life. I think my girls have done really well and I hope the next ones do, too.
“This time it’s a different experience and we’re working it out.”
She says most of her parenting the first time happened in the suburbs compared to the inner city, where she, her brother and the kids live today. She’s struck by the stark difference between the two environments and their impact on children.
Gun violence and street gangs were foreign to west Omaha and Pleasanton but the northeast Omaha she’s come back to is rife with criminal activity. Where Pleasanton lacked for no amenities North Omaha has major gaps.
“It’s interesting that this neighborhood doesn’t have the things that we had when we were young. The (black) population has been dispersed throughout the city. Things you take for granted, conveniences you have right there in the suburbs, are not so readily available in the inner city. It’s a lack of resources, lack of everything right in this neighborhood for raising children. So I had to start looking for the village (the proverbial village that helps raise a child). My village is right here. I have Kellom School and I have Educare.”
Gabrielle says the way her mother intentionally seeks out educational and cultural opportunities for the young kids she’s raising now reminds her of how she did the same thing when she and her sisters were coming up. She says her mom’s always been about expanding children’s minds through enriching experiences.
Theresa says the dearth of programs for young kids in northeast Omaha “is what prompted me to join the board of the Bryant Center Association – so we could add things (like recreation activities and counseling services).”
The nonprofit association operates the Bryant Center, a community oasis at 24th and Grant Streets that aims to improve the lives of youth, young adults and seniors. Administrators are looking to expand programming. Theresa recently prevailed upon Cathy Hughes to co-chair the association’s capital fundraising campaign.
In the final analysis Theresa doesn’t consider rearing young children at her age as anything heroic or out of the ordinary. It all comes back to family and doing the right thing. “I don’t call it being a saint,” she says. “You always take care of your own.”
She wants others to know they can do what she’s doing. An aunt or a grandmother or another relation can be the parent when Mom and Dad cannot.
“It is a doable process, especially in Omaha, because there is other help available. There are families out there that could do this with their own because there is support for you in the community. Sometimes you have to really search for it depending on what your needs are. But even if there’s a problem where the natural parents aren’t available to participate, you can raise the children so they are still a part of a family.”
Helping navigate the experience is ENOA’s Grandparent Resource Center. It offers free monthly support group meetings, crisis phone intervention, transportation assistance, access to legal advice and referrals to other services and programs. Participants need only be age 55 or above.
Center coordinator Debra Scott, who is raising her granddaughter, says caregivers need to know they don’t have to do it alone. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” she says. “I’m learning I can’t be everything to everybody, I need to ask for help and that’s where this program comes in.”
Call 402-444-6536, ext. 297 to inquire how the center may be able to help you or a senior caregiver you know.
- Agencies work to unite foster, biological parents (miamiherald.com)
- Wanted: Parents willing to take in children (newsherald.com)
- SPITZ: From foster to forever family (metrowestdailynews.com)
- Gabrielle Union Takes Serious Turn in BET Drama ‘Being Mary Jane’ and PBS Documentary ‘Half the Sky’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Kinship Celebration Brings Together Community in Support of National Adoption Awareness Month (virtual-strategy.com)
Family. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them. For the Bryant-Fisher extended family, who call home base Omaha, Neb. but have members scattered all over the nation, they keep things tight with a annual family reunion. Big deal, right? Well, before you dismiss their get-together as routine, consider that this is a really big family, as in more than 2,200 direct descendants of family reunion founder Emma Early Bryant Fisher, by last count. Their Second Sunday in August reunion usually draws 500 or more folks, and for those milestone years it sees 700, 800, or more. Eight generations worth come from near far. Then consider they’ve been doing this for 94 consecutive years.
A Family Thing, Bryant-Fisher Family Reunion
©by Leo Adam Biga
As published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The biennial Native Omaha Days began in 1977. But it’s a newbie compared to the historic annual reunion that dates to 1917, when Emma Early Bryant Fisher inaugurated the event with a family picnic at Mandan Park near her South Omaha home. The picnic was held there for 30 years.
Sunday’s picnic at Levi Carter Park will mark its 94th consecutive year.
The Days and the reunion coincide only every other year. Just as NOD winds down, the reunion gears up, though there’s an extra week between them this time. NOD officially runs a week. The reunion, three days.
NOD boasts signature events attracting sizable crowds. The Bryant-Fisher reunion has one main event – the sprawling, all-day August 14 picnic. The picnic moved to Carter Lake in the early 1990s.
The picnic draws the biggest family throng.
“They’re going to be at the park. If they don’t do anything else for the whole weekend or the whole year, that Sunday they will be at the park,” says family historian Arlett Brooks. “You cook your food and you pitch your tent, and you may be there for an hour or you may be there for five hours, but you go.”
This mega extended family, whose population rivals that of many Nebraska towns, takes over a few acres at Carter Lake.
The Bryants and Fishers exert a considerable presence wherever they encamp. They comprise what’s believed to be the largest African-American family around, extending over 12 branches. They’re so large they conduct their own census. At last count they numbered more than 2,200 direct descendants.
If this year is like others, 500 to 800 souls will gather Sunday.
“People just don’t realize the magnitude of it until they get there,” says Brooks, whose sister Cheryl Secret and mother Patricia Moss are family stalwarts.
The enormity of the history and scope is a point of family pride.
“I think it’s associated with pride, it’s associated with tradition, respect for our elders. By continuing this we’re respecting our great-grandmother,” says Secret.
For milestone reunions like the 90th in 2007, when upwards of 1,000 or more gathered, the family throws its own Saturday parade on North 24th Street.
In this frantic age, the reunion expresses solidarity and consistency. The family likes to say no matter where you are in the world, you know the reunion will be held on the second Sunday in August ,come hell or high water. Neither storms nor floods will deter it.
“Nothing has ever stopped it,” says Secret. “You don’t even look at the weather, you just go.”
“We’ve been rained on a lot of times, but not rained out,” says Moss, who by her reckoning hasn’t missed a reunion during her 85 years.
Having something to count on helps this enormous family remain tight.
“It’s wonderful to have that bond, to have something that brings us together as opposed to separating us,” says Paul Bryant. “We need more things like that in society – showing love as opposed to hate or indifference.”
“We may not see each other every day, but if you need us we’re there. That’s how we are,” says Juanita Sutton.
Meeting and greeting at the picnic is an invitation for young and old to share where they fit on the vast family tree. “If someone says, ‘How are you related?’ it’s an honor to be able to go down the line as to how you belong in the family,” says Secret.
Arlett’s daughter, Makida Brooks, says, “It means a whole lot, just knowing I can go anywhere and not be alone. I can go anywhere by myself and be pretty sure I’m going to be in the same area as one of my relatives, so I’m going to be okay, wherever I go.”
On their Dozens of Cousins Facebook page, Makida says, “We send messages, ‘Do we have any cousins in Alabama? In Buffalo, New York.? In L.A.? Most places we do. On Facebook I have 500-600 friends and 90 percent of them are my relatives. I don’t accept you if I don’t know you, so you have to be related to me.”
Moss, whose grandmother was reunion founder Emma Early, does old school social networking at the picnic, where she seeks her closest cousins.
“When I could walk I used to walk from one end of Carter Lake all the way to the other to make sure I saw every one of my cousins, especially my first cousins,” says Moss, who as an elder now has relatives come and wait on her.
When she was still spry, her daughters shadowed her as she made the rounds. It ignited their interest in family lore.
“We got to visit and develop relationships with all 12 families because we were with her,” says Brooks.
Patricia’s daughters cherish their mother’s and other elders’ tales.
“She loves telling us stories,” says Secret. “She’ll tell stories about racial things that happened in South Omaha, where they kind of pushed the blacks out, and how her father’s family stayed put. Her uncle sat on the porch with a shotgun and said, ‘I’m not going anywhere.’ They stood their ground.
“When we’re like this, just sitting around, all you gotta do is just give her a little hint of what direction you want to go, and she’ll just start sharing stories.”
As if on cue, Patricia recalls how long-ago customs were enforced at the picnic.
“I remember when we were kids my grandmother had all of the cousins sit at one table. The sisters (daughters, daughters-in-law) had to wait on everybody before they could eat. My grandmother would sit down with the men and she’d have her dinner and she’d make sure all the kids had theirs, and then the sisters could sit down and eat.”
Where a pavilion or large tent once accommodated the picnic, she says, “It’s got so big, now each family’s got their own tent.”
The Bryant-Fisher thing turns Carter Lake into a multi-colored tent city. Black folks of every shade and hue mingle. Eight generations worth. Some sport Bryant-Fisher T-shirts, complete with the family crest. Some “wear” the logo as body art. Jazz, blues and R&B mix with hip-hop.
One could mistake it all for Native Omaha Days. But don’t confuse the two. The family is protective of what they have and don’t like sharing the spotlight.
The reunion’s longevity and large turnout regularly attract media notice, even gaining Guinness Book of World Records mention. During election cycles the picnic’s known to bring out politicians in search of votes.
Party crashers are not unheard of.
“Oh, yeah, but they’re kind of welcome, as long as they’re not bringing trouble,” says Mary Alice Bryant. “To me, what’s great, with all the violence in Omaha, we’ve never had one incident, not one.”
Rev. Doyle Bryant, pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church, says his family’s commitment to staying connected, and the reunion’s high profile, explain why it’s endured and why it’s coveted by outsiders.
“This family reunion is nationally known, that has a lot to do it. When you get that type of notoriety you don’t want it to die out. We have people coming from all over the country to participate.”
“I know some families struggle to keep the family together, but I grew up with us always having it. It’s just expected,” says Arlett Brooks. “I think a lot of people admire that we could have kept it going that long.”
“There’s not too many that have gone on this many years,” says Marcelyn Frezell. “I think it has encouraged other families to have family reunions.”
But there are posers, too.
“We’ve got a whole lot of wannabes,” says Patricia Moss.
With a family this size, it’s impossible to know everyone.
“I think it’s intimidating, especially for the people who come from out of town maybe only every five years,” says Secret. “You walk through the park and you know all these people are your relatives, but you just don’t have a clue who they all are.
“I think the more we go down in generations the less connection they seem to have with each other. That’s something we talk about, we really need to work on – the young people getting to know each other to maintain the closeness and bonds with one another.”
And the lineage beat goes on.
There have been countless occasions when two young people who are sweet on each other find out they’re cousins.
“I had six children and every last one of my kids, every last one of ‘em, brought somebody home as their girlfriend or their boyfriend,” says Moss. “When I got through questioning them, they were cousins. And we all live right here in Omaha. That’s what I couldn’t understand – how they don’t know each other.”
Arlett and Cheryl had it happen to them, as did most of their cousins.
“I went all the way through high school with a guy and one year I seen him at the family picnic. He said, ‘This is my family,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, where have you been all of these years?’ Sometimes, they’ve been there and you’ve been there, you just haven’t seen each other,” says Arlett.
Someone she works with turned out to be a cousin. “We’re very close now.”
Cheryl began a family genealogy book 16 years ago. Arlett’s revised it every five years. The family consults it when there’s a question.
“I took the initiative to research and find out all of the generations underneath my mother’s generation,” says Secret. “If someone can’t go down that line and tell me who their grandmother was or who their great-grandmother was, then you know they’re a wannabe or they married in or they’re somebody’s friend.”
Not that friends aren’t welcome, they are. “I have two girlfriends I’ve been knowing all my life, and they don’t miss it,” says Mary Alice Bryant.
Coming on the heels of Native Omaha Days, it makes for two weeks of black pride heritage celebrations.
Folks catch up with family and friends, revisit old haunts and make the rounds. The Days is a succession of reunions, picnics, barbecues and block parties. There’s music, dancing, card playing. Church. A parade down North 30th. A communal picnic at Elmwood Park. A Blue Monday at local watering holes to tie one on before parting-is-such-sweet-sorrow goodbyes.
The Bryants-Fishers turn out in force at The Days. A family matriarch, Bettie McDonald, co-founded the event and its sponsoring Native Omahans Club. Not surprisingly, the itinerary is patterned after that of the Bryant-Fisher bash.
Though the Dozens of Cousins picnic has changed, one thing that hasn’t is the dawn fish-fry breakfast, followed by a church service. Other activities include a talent contest, volleyball, foot races, fishing. Pokeno, gin and dominos are the favored card games.
There’s a formal dinner dance Friday night at the Lake Point Center, a Family Fun Day Saturday at Fun-Plex and various odds and ends.
When the family has a parade, Bryant-Fisher floats and drill teams pass by the Native Omahans Club on North 24th. The building doubles as the family clubhouse for Dozens of Cousins meetings and fish-fry dinners.
Just as The Days ends on a blue note, some relatives will ring out the reunion on Monday at the club or a bar – tilting back a few to bid each other farewell, till next year.
For Paul Bryant, the reunion’s been a given his whole life, and with it the realization his family is far from ordinary.
“Some of my earliest childhood memories are at family picnics at Mandan Park,” he says, “and of some of the same things still going on today. The dance contest, the races. We used to almost always go down to the bottom of the hill to play football.
“The little kids would watch the older kids. ‘Oh,he plays for Central! He’s my cousin?’ Then you become older and you become the one the little guys are watching. Then you get older still and admire someone like my cousin Galen Gullie, who made us all proud playing ball for Bryan (High). In my day, I was kind of doing that.”
Bryant sees the reunion as continuity. An each-one-to-teach-one opportunity for older generations to impart the family heritage and tradition.
“I always knew we have a big family,” says Bryant. “When I was 8 or 10 they’d hold a program with a dinner and the mayor or someone would speak. I was like, ‘Wow, there’s something special here.’ Politicians come to the picnic and press the flesh. I mean, there’s a lot of people there and a lot of them have done some things in the community.
“As a kid, you’d see that, you’d hear that, and you knew your family had something special. And you were proud to be inheriting all that legacy.”
He enjoys discovering some notable is a relative. He’s a notable himself. He excelled in sports in high school and college, then embarked on a fast-track corporate career before assuming leadership of the Nebraska Urban League. He found a new mission as executive director of the Wesley House, where he formed an excellence academy. Today, he’s a presenter at schools with his purpose-driven leadership program.
Bryant, his wife Robin and their three kids are widely recognized for their community service. He says high achievers in the family, whether the late coach-educator Charles Bryant or current young hoops star Galen Gullie or the family’s bona fide celebrity, actress Gabrielle Union, serve to inspire.
Union gets back for The Days some years and for the reunion others. Her appearances, lately with NBA squeeze Dwyane Wade, cause a sensation in the black community every bit as electric as the buzz Lady Gaga generates among her Little Monster fans.
The family is unapologetically possessive in claiming “Gabby” as their own. Paul Bryant’s as starstruck as the rest, but he’d rather his kids view their elders as role models and their family history as cool.
“My son can tell you, ‘My dad’s Paul Bryant, whose dad was Doyle Bryant, whose dad was Marcy Bryant, whose dad was Thurston Bryant, who’s the son of Emma Early, who’s the daughter of Wesley Early, who’s the son of a plantation owner.
“For me, it’s important to pass that down. I want every one of my kids to know their lineage as far back as we can trace it. I think that’s part of what this whole Bryant-Fisher thing is. If you don’t know, if it’s just going to the picnic Sunday and you don’t feel connected with something bigger, you miss out, you’ve got nothing to pass on.”
Makida Brooks values the experiences her elders share. “Just knowing what they had to go through and what they had to do makes me appreciate what I have now. I understand I don’t have nearly the struggles they had.”
Ninety-four years since it’s start, the reunion appears set for the future.
“I’m not expecting anything different than what has happened in the past,” says Arlett Brooks. “People will step up and make sure it continues, just like I have for my generation, and I’m sure my daughters will for their generation. It’s just expected.”
“I think it’s embedded in so many of us we couldn’t stop this thing if we wanted,” says Cheryl Secret. “I think in each tribe there are children who will make this thing happen, no matter what.
“It will go on I think for generations.”
- Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- The Ties that Bind, One Family’s Celebration of Native Omaha Days (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Native Omaha Days: A Black is Beautiful Celebration, Now, and All the Days Gone By (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Native Omahans Take Stock of the African-American Experience in Their Hometown (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Get Crackin’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Parenting the Second Time Around Holds Challenges and Delights for Senior Kinship Caregiver Theresa Glass Union, Who Always Puts Family First (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
We are all suckers for stories of long separated family members reuniting, and while I have written a few stories that have touched on this subject, it’s never been the the entire focus of an article. Until now. As soon to be published in a small Omaha newspaper called El Perico, two half siblings (a brother and sister) born in Puerto Rico recently found each other after years apart in the United States and their reunion took place in, of all places, Omaha, Neb., where it turns out the brother lives and the sister’s husband is from. In fact, the brother’s wife is from Omaha as well. The unlikely parallels and coincidences that brought them together in Omaha are legion and hopefully make for a good read. On a personal note, I actually knew some of the family members involved in this tug at your heart tale before I got into the reunion story.
Long-Separated Brother and Sister from Puerto Rico Reunited in Omaha
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to be published in El Perico
Omaha’s Hilton Hotel hosted a July 7 reunion between two Puerto Rico-born siblings separated almost their entire lives.
Myraida “Mimi” Goodwin knew she had a younger half brother somewhere. Likewise, Angel Rodriguez knew he had a half sister. Though they share the same father, the two had only met once, and then only briefly.
The two mothers arranged a single weekend meeting between the estranged siblings. Mimi was put on a plane to visit Angel in Tampa. She was 11, he was 8. There was never a second visit. Life moved on. Each relocated, embarked on careers, started families of their own. Decades passed without any contact.
Mimi became a women’s fashion designer. Angel, a dental assistant.
Meanwhile, in a improbable twist of fate or coincidence, each married an Omaha native. Mimi and her husband, film and television actor Randy Goodwin, live in Los Angeles with their six children. Angel, who returned to Puerto Rico for a time, actually moved to Omaha with his wife, former U.S. Army Reservist Kenyatta McCray, some years ago. They have four children.
When Mimi visited Omaha in the past, she and Angel were oblivious to their being so near. Their paths never crossed but easily could have, as Angel and Kenyatta live near Randy’s mother, Mary Goodwin.
“We’ve been back there five-six times since we’ve been married,” says Mimi. “All this time I’ve been going there and I’ve been so close to him, and I didn’t even know it.”
“There’s times when she’s probably been right up the road from me,” says Angel.
It’s only recently that Mimi rediscovered Angel. Learning that he lived in, of all places, Omaha, was too strange. “That just can’t be,” Mimi recalls saying.
“It’s crazy how it all came to be — the circumstances of it,” says Angel.
The Omaha links run even deeper, as Kenyatta and her family have known the Goodwins for years. She used to get her hair done by Randy’s brother Bryan.
“It’s overwhelming to take all of it in,” says Angel. “I can’t wrap my mind around it. Even now I still don’t believe it. I told Mimi I’m not going to believe this until you’re in front of me.”
When Mimi caught sight of Angel in the Hilton lobby last Thursday she says, “I flew into his arms,” adding, “I practically knocked him over.” Their tearful embrace lasted minutes. In the two weeks leading up to then, they traded countless texts and calls, catching up with each other’s lives, struck by how similar they are. As their weekend reunion unfolded they noticed more subtle similarities.
“I think it’s a lot of little things, not so much things we’re saying,” she says. “Like when I look at him he does certain eye movements that are the same as mine or that remind me of my dad’s. Or the way we laugh. Oh, my gosh, I can see myself in him.”
“Yeah, it’s kind of weird,” says Angel. “We have so many things in common it’s just crazy. It’s really neat though.”
Instead of feeling like two strangers, says Mimi, “it’s actually really familiar, it’s like we’ve known each other our entire lives.”
All the parallels make their reunion seem like destiny fulfilled. Angel says, “I think it was a long time coming and I think this is supposed to happen for us.” “This has to be an absolute manifestation of God‘s work,” says Mimi, “and it’s absolutely meant to be — I’m supposed to have him in my life.”
None of it may have happened if not for Mimi’s dogged search. Apart from him all those years, she hungered to reconnect and fill a hole that left her feeling incomplete. The more she was around her husband’s tight-knit family, the more she pined for her long lost brother.
“It became almost like a mission to find him because I found myself jealous of the relationship Randy has with his family,” says Mimi. “Yeah, I have Randy and the kids, but there’s nobody like me around, and so I started trying to find him. About once a year, I would go on the Internet and type in his mother’s name and his name and whatever ever little information I had, and nothing would come up. After a while I kind of just gave up because I really didn’t know what else to do.
“I even thought of hiring somebody.”
In the end, it didn’t take a private detective, just prodding from her mother, a key lead from her father, the help of social media and perhaps some divine intervention. Never in her wildest dreams though did she expect finding Angel in Omaha.
Connecting the dots that lead her to Angel happened June 25. She was doing a Facebook search for him when his profile popped up and listed Omaha as his residence. Before going any further, Mimi felt apprehension.
“The strange thing is I was so afraid that he wouldn’t want a relationship, and I don’t know why I felt that way. I thought, Gosh this could be awkward, what if we don’t have anything to say, what if our personalities are so different?”
After exchanging a couple texts, it was clear they were indeed blood and were two sides of the same coin. Angel explained he’d been wanting to reconnect with her, too, but just hadn’t got around yet to searching.
“She was definitely on my mind, but I guess she beat me to the punch,” he says.
Mimi says any fear they would not jive soon disappeared. “Talking to him it was like he was the other half of me. We say the same things, we like the same things, we have the same sense of humor. He was as excited as I was to have found him. It was like instant chemistry.”
He says, “It’s an awesome feeling knowing that I’m not alone in the world, that there’s somebody out there actually just like me.”
After going to bed flush with excitement, Mimi says she awoke the next morning wondering if she’d dreamed it all. “I thought, Was that real, did I really talk to him? I checked my phone and I texted, ‘Are you still there?’ And he texted back, ‘I’m not going anywhere.’”
Again, chalk it up to fate or coincidence, but Mimi and Randy were already booked to come to Omaha when she connected with Angel via the Web. Their story became a communal celebration here, where the reunited siblings’ only desire was to finally get some alone time together. Mission accomplished. They vow never to lose track of each other again. Small chance, given their shared Omaha ties.
- Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Long Live Roberto Clemente, A New Exhibit Looks at this Late King of the Latin Ball Players and Human Rights Hero (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Esmeralda Santiago emancipates her feelings (repeatingislands.com)
Alzheimer’s scares me. I suspect it does many people. I cannot hardly think of anything more devastating or tragic than having your mind slip away or watching helplessly as a loved one’s mind fades into confusion, and ultimately oblivion. All of which is to say I was a bit queasy when I got the assignment to profile a woman with Alzheimer’s, or more accurately to profile a family and their odyssey with the afflicted loved one in their care. But I was struck by the love this family has for each other and for their beloved Lorraine, who was variously a wife, mother, grandmother to them. The way they rallied behind her is a testament to the family. Of course, not all families are as close or loving, and not all Alzheimer’s victims are fortunate to have such attentive support. If you’re in the mood for a sentimental story that is based in fact, than this might be your cup of tea. The piece originally appeared in the New Horizons.
I’ll Be Seeing You, An Alzheimer’s Story
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places, and in all the old familar faces…
Blessed with the voice of an angel, the former Lorraine Clines of Omaha enchanted 1930s-1940s audiences with her lilting renditions of romantic ballads as the pert, pretty front singer for local bands. Billed as Laurie Clines, she was also featured on WOW radio’s “Supreme Serenade,” whose host, Lyle DeMoss, made her one of his “discoveries.”
From an early age, she used her fine singing voice to help her poor Irish Catholic family get by during the Great Depression — winning cash prizes in talent contests as a child and, after turning professional in her teens, earning steady paychecks singing with, among others, the Bobby Vann and Chuck Hall orchestras at area clubs and ballrooms. After the war, she gave up her performing career to marry Joe Miklas, an Army veteran, semi-pro baseball player and Falstaff Brewery laborer. The couple raised seven children and boast 17 grandchildren.
The memories and meanings bound up in such a rich past took on added poignancy at a recent Miklas family gathering during which Lorraine, a victim of Alzheimer’s Disease since 1990, sang, in a frail but charming voice, some standards she helped popularize in the big band era. Her family used the occasion to preserve her voice on tape, thus ensuring they will have a record of her singing in her senior years to complement the sound of her voice on platters she cut years before. While even advanced Alzheimer’s patients retain the ability to hum or sing, Lorraine has clung to music with an unusual ardor that reflects her deep feeling for it and the significant role this joyous activity has played in her and her family’s life.
“There was always music in the house — singing, records, dancing,” daughter Kathy Miklas said. “When we were little we each learned two songs Mom recorded, “Playmate” and “Little Sir Echo,” and we all learned how to dance to “Ball and the Jack.” At their mother’s insistence, the Miklas kids took piano lessons and at their father’s urging, they played ball. “We really were lucky Dad loved sports and Mom loved music. It was a great combination. They made sure we did both. It was a nice foundation to have,” daughter Theresa Ryan said, adding the family participated in neighborhood talent shows and competed in softball leagues as the Miklas team.
Even though she went from headliner to homemaker, Lorraine never stopped making music. She harmonized doing chores at home. She sang lullabies to her kids. She broke into tunes on holidays and birthdays. Away from home, she taught music at St. Adalberts Elementary School, vocalized in the church choir, led singalongs on family road trips and performed for her children’s weddings. Ryan said she and her siblings knew that whenever Mama made music, she was in a merry mood.
“You would get a yes if you asked her a favor while she was singing. You knew that was a good time.” Even now, despite the ravages of Alzheimer’s, music continues to hold a special place in Lorraine’s mind and heart. In a reflective moment one September Sunday afternoon Lorraine commented, ‘We gotta get all the music we can.” And then, as if remembering how music enriched life for her and her family despite scant material comforts, she said, “We haven’t had a lot of other things, but we sure have had a lot of music.” Accompanied on piano by Carolyn Wright, Lorraine found most of the words, with some prodding from husband Joe, to ballads like “I’ll Walk Alone” and “Girl of My Dreams.” When she got around to singing the bittersweet “I’ll Be Seeing You,” which is about being true to an absent loved one, Joe broke down in tears — the lyrics hitting too close to home.
“Not having her around” is the worst agony for Joe, who loses a little more of his wife each year. “It’s hard to live alone,” said Joe, breaking down with emotion. As he has seen Lorraine slip further and further away into the fog that is Alzheimer’s, he has had to content himself with memories of “the good old days.” He said, simply, “We had some good times.” A son, Joe Miklas, Jr., said the cruel reality of the degenerative disease is that it feels like losing a loved one, only the afflicted is not dead but stranded in a dementia that makes them increasingly unreachable. unknowable, unrecognizable. They are present, yet removed, their essence obscured in a vague shadowland of the mind. “Physically, she’s there, but she’s not Mom anymore. We’ve lost our mother and yet she’s still here.” Kathy Miklas describes the experience as akin to “a slow grieving process.”
Bill Miklas, the youngest among his siblings, is convinced his mother is, on some level, aware of the prison her impaired brain has confined her to, although she is unable to articulate her predicament. Evidence of that came only last year when, Kathy Miklas said, her mother confided to her, “‘I think something’s wrong with me, but I don’t know what it is. It makes me feel bad that people are having to do things for me that I used to have to do for them.’”
The sad thing, Bill said, is “this disease has forced her to be isolated, not only from those around her, but from herself. She has to live within her world. She has to travel this journey, for however long, by herself. It must be very frustrating to her to realize when she talks she’s not making sense. She can see the reactions on our faces, but her pride won’t allow her to show she’s debilitated. It’s hard for her to look me in the face and say, ‘I don’t remember your name.’ Yet even as debilitating as this disease can be…she still likes to sit and talk, and she’s still a happy person.”
As Alzheimer’s evolves, its victim presents changing deficiencies, behaviors and needs. Mirroring the patient’s own journey are the changing emotions and demands felt by family members. Just as no two sufferers are alike, the experience for each family is individual. Every step of the way, the Miklas clan has made Lorraine’s plight a family affair. “Everybody just kind of took their part in it and did what had to be done,” said Ryan. “I don’t know what I would have done without them,” Joe said of his family’s pitching-in. Not everyone always sees eye-to-eye on how to handle things, but the Miklas’s remain united in their commitment to do right by Mom. And, no matter what, they’ve stuck together, through thick and thin, in illness and in health. “We’ve kind of become our own support group,” Joe, Jr. said. “We don’t always agree, but we always communicate, which is the key.”
Married 54 years, Joe and Lorraine hail from a generation for whom the vow “for better and for worse” has real import. That’s why when she was stricken with Alzheimer’s he put his life on hold to become her primary care giver at the couple’s home, where she continued living up until about a year ago. Lorraine’s first symptoms were shrugged off as routine forgetfulness, but as her memory deficits and confused states grew more frequent and pronounced, her family could no longer ignore what was going on. It all began with Lorraine making repeat phone calls to family members without knowing who she was dialing and not remembering she made the exact same call just minutes before.
Ryan said, “At first, we laughed it off among ourselves. It was like, ‘Oh, did Mom call again to ask who’s making the turkey for Thanksgiving? I told her 10 times.’ And then, we got a little upset with her. We’d say, ‘Mom, would you pay attention. You’re just not listening.’ There were other signs. Normally a precise, productive person who kept on top of her large family’s many goings-on, she could no longer keep track of things. She let the house and herself go. She grew disorganized. And she seemed to just shut down. “I think one of the things we first started noticing is that she just wasn’t doing as many things as she was doing before,” Kathy said. “One of the striking differences was she’d always been very organized and efficient” but not anymore.
Concerned, Kathy convinced her mother to be evaluated by the University of Nebraska Medical Center geriatric team. “When the doctors said she didn’t have any physical reason for this — that it’s probably Alzheimer’s — I was totally shocked,” she said. The entire family was. Lorraine went on living at home with Joe. “I think our family…was in denial,” Bill said. “We didn’t want to mention Alzheimer’s in front of Mom. I think a lot of us thought there was a mixed diagnosis. That, you know, it’s not really Alzheimer’s — Mom just forgets things. It’s not that big a deal.” From denial, the family gradually accepted Lorraine’s fate, the diminished capacity that accompanies it and the demands her care requires.
To get to that point, however, the Miklas children first had to come to terms with how their mother’s condition was affecting their father. “We were all kind of going on with our lives,” Ryan said, “but I don’t think we were focused too much on the disease because Dad was there to do the day to day caring.” As the disease progressed and Lorraine grew more unmanageable, the job of caring for her 24/7 consumed Joe’s life. He halted his active recreational life to attend to her needs. “Dad started to give up a lot of the things he likes to do,” Ryan said. It got so that it was dangerous leaving her alone, even for brief periods, and no longer possible for anyone untrained like Joe, now 79, to always be on call. Overwhelmed by it all, he could no longer hack it alone, and that’s when the family began the long, winding odyssey to find the right care giving situation.
Kathy, a private practice speech-language pathologist, steeped herself in Alzheimer’s — from possible causes to drug therapies to support services to care providers. “I felt like I could deal with it better if I understood it. So, I started talking to the Alzheimer’s Association and reading lots of stuff. As a family, we shared information about what Alzheimer’s is and what goes on with it. I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to do something or to have something because we didn’t know about it.”
Family members also attended conferences to glean more understanding — from health professionals and family care givers alike — about what to expect from Alzheimer’s and what adjustments the family could make to ease things for themselves and for Lorraine. For further insight about her condition and how to manage it, they consulted one of the world’s preeminent Alzheimer’s experts, Dr. Patricio Reyes, director of the Center for Aging, Alzheimer’s Disease and Neurodegenerative Disorders at Creighton University Medical Center. “We just lived and made adaptations and accommodations as needed,” Kathy said. “We knew not to ask Mom to do certain things because she wouldn’t remember them and we reminded her to do things she maybe still remembered how to do.”
The family explored several care giving options: first, enrolling her in a respite day care program; next, arranging for a home health nurse to come each morning to assist with her personal needs; and, then, when respite/home care was no longer sufficient to accommodate her unfolding illness, they sought more intensive aid.
“In November, we decided it was not a good idea for Dad to have to constantly be on duty all the time,” Kathy said. “We could see his health deteriorating from the stress…so we started looking at nursing homes.” Lorraine was placed in one, but the family found its medically-based approach and strictly-regulated environment stifling for their mobile, verbal, social mother, who felt uneasy in such a restrictive setting.
According to Kathy, the site “just wasn’t set-up to handle somebody like Mom. They had everybody get up at seven, eat breakfast at eight and go to bed by seven-thirty. Well, having been a singer — Mom never gets up at seven and she’s used to going to bed at about one o’clock in the morning. Plus, they had her heavily medicated. One night, they called and said, ‘Your mom is having a behavior episode we can’t manage.’ Well, I got there and she was having ice cream with a nurse. She was fine. Mom was very frustrated because in her mind this was her house and at night she got terrified. She would ask, ‘Why are all these people in my house?’ After a month of that place, we decided it wasn’t working out.”
Searching for the best care facility for a love one means weighing many complex issues and making many difficult decisions, not the least of which are financial. Although the nursing home was unsatisfactory, it did have the advantage of being Medicaid certified. As the Miklas’s looked around for an alternative, they discovered most quality care centers do not accept Medicaid patients, are cost prohibitive on a private pay basis and, even if the family could afford to pay privately, they would face a two or three-year waiting list.
“We were struggling with what we were going to do,” Kathy said. That’s when they found new hope and the right fit in Betty’s House, a residential assisted care facility, where Lorraine resides today. Where, at the large, institutional nursing home, Lorraine was anxious and irritable, the family has seen “a dramatic difference” in her mood at Betty’s House, Kathy said, adding: “It’s been a godsend. It’s small and home-like, not like a nursing home. The lady who runs it, Mary Jo Wilson, cared for her own Alzheimer’s-sticken mother for 10 years. She knows how to do Alzheimer’s. She knows what you say, when you argue, when you don’t argue, what’s important, what’s not important and she teaches her staff…that you give residents praise and tell them how happy you are they’re there, and I really think that positive feedback is part of the reason Mom’s been so calm and so happy the past few months. She’s doing well.”
And, relieved from the pressure of daily care giving, Joe Miklas began doing better, too. “Now, he can relax,” Kathy said.
Joe is just relieved Lorraine is situated where she seems at peace. “She’s safe. She seems to be happy,” he said. “They’re very good out there. The owner does a hands-on job. She’s always around, supervising things. She’s got some good help. It makes a lot of difference. I try to make it out there every other day if I can. Lorraine talks about coming home, and I’m not sure whether she has this (he gestured to mean their home) in mind or what. I thought she considered that (Betty’s House) her home. It’s hard to know.”
He does know she’s content whenever she breaks into song, as she did upon overhearing a conversation he had with another visitor to Betty’s House. “We got to talking about music when Lorraine suddenly sang ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling’ and she just took it up right from there.” Anything Irish elicits a response from her, said Kathy. “She’s always been passionate about her heritage. St. Patrick’s Day was a big day at our house. She’d sing Irish songs. Even now, when you mention something about being Irish, she’ll go into her version of an Irish brogue” and maybe start up a song.
Music remains a vital conduit to the past. “Still, in spite of all the things she can’t do, if you put a microphone in front of her, she turns into Laurie Clines, the singer,” Kathy said. “Her body moves as a singer. Her voice changes and her intonation, her breath and her rhythm become that of the singer again.” This transformation was evident the night son Tim Miklas appeared with his band, the Pharomoans, at Harvey’s Casino. “I went down into the crowd where Mom was and we sang “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” together. That was pretty special,” Tim said.
Family and faith have defined Lorraine’s and Joe’s lives. Growing up within blocks of each other in south Omaha, each lost their father at a young age and each began working early on to support their family during tough times. They attended the same school and church, St. Adalberts, but didn’t start dating until after the war.
“I thought she was the prettiest girl in school,” Joe said, “but I didn’t think I had a chance to get a date with her, so I just kind of put it out of my mind.” After marrying and starting their own family, the pair made sure all their kids attended parochial school, scraping together the tuition from his modest Falstaff salary, and even saved enough for family vacations. “Family was very big to her and she passed that on,” Theresa Ryan said. “I think they both wanted that family environment and worked very hard to achieve it.” Bill Miklas added, “One of their man ambitions was to raise a great family, and I think they did a wonderful job.”
Through the process of Lorraine’s sickness, the Miklas’s, always close to begin with, have drawn ever closer. If there’s anything they’ve learned about dealing with a loved who has Alzheimer’s it is, Tim Miklas said, “to try to maintain the courage to go on and make sure that person is still a member of your family. Maintain your relationship with that person as much as possible. At some level, some of the things get through to them.” Whatever the family occasion, Joe knows his wife still “wants to be part of it, that’s for sure.”
Kathy Miklas advises others to “really value the time and the experiences you have with your loved one because you don’t know what it’s going to be like three months or six months from now. Like many people with Alzheimer’s, physically Mom’s going to last a lot longer than she is mentally.” Another piece of advice she has is: “Give people choices. Give people dignity and the ability to have some control over their lives. For example, giving my mother the choice of when gets dressed eliminated a lot of arguments.”
In the end, this Alzheimer’s story is about the enduring love of a man and a woman and of a resilient family. “Theirs was a very subtle love,” Bill Miklas said of his parents. “It was something you always felt. The same with the faith they lived. It was a constant. There was never a question — never a doubt. It was a very stable reality. I think Mom taught us a lot about faith and about commitment — to ourselves and to our family. She taught us not to focus on what you don’t have but to enjoy what you do have and to find the value in that. Somehow, if I can take that to my family than that will be Mom’s greatest legacy.”
I’ll see you in the morning sun and when the sky is grey. I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you…
- ‘Memory Show’ a sweet, painful portrait of Alzheimer’s toll (boston.com)
- Caring for a Loved One With Alzheimer’s: New Insight on Memory Care (health.usnews.com)
- Test may catch Alzheimer’s in earliest stage (abclocal.go.com)
- Maria Shriver Raises Awareness of Alzheimer’s Disease (psychologytoday.com)
- Progress made on blood test screening for Alzheimer’s (ctv.ca)
- Half of All Alzheimer Cases Might Be Preventable (newser.com)
The Storz Saga: A Family Dynasty – Their Mansion, the Brewery that Built It, the Man Who Loved It, a Legacy of Giving, the Loss of a Dream
The story that follows is a kind of sequel to the first story I did on Art Storz Jr., the beloved Omaha eccentric who had a magnificent obsession with his family dynasty and the mansion they built and that he tried to preserve as a lasting tribute. That initial story is also posted on this site. This follow up story was published in The Reader (www.thereader.com). Art fought the good fight to retain the mansion but in the end he had to give it up. The historic home was donated to Creighton University, which has since sold it to an Omaha couple who now reside in it and are restoring it. That would have made Art happy.
The Storz Saga: A Family Dynasty – Their Mansion, the Brewery that Built It, the Man Who Loved It, a Legacy of Giving, the Loss of a Dream
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Once the centerpiece of an Omaha German-American family’s brewing empire, the brawny Storz mansion at 3708 Farnam Street is the brewmeister house that beer built. Much like the Storz brewery ranked as a dominant family-run business for 90 years until sold by the clan in 1966 and shutting down five years later, the big gabled house was a high society icon during the 20th century but now, for the first time, it’s fallen out of the family’s hands.
This is a story about a house that defined an era in Omaha affluence and connoted the influence a family wielded in shaping the city. It is the tale of a magnificent obsession by one Art Storz, Jr., a third-generation heir and self-described black sheep of the family, who, with the aid of a gambling tycoon, warded off creditors in trying to make the house a brick-and-mortar tribute to the Storz heritage. It is a story of industry, intrigue, money, love, fear, desire, loss and legacy played out in public and private arenas.
A fitting symbol for a family enriched by their conspicuous manufacturing success and openhanded with their generous community support, the 27-room residence was built from 1904 to 1907 to the scale and opulence of the area’s affluent Gold Coast standards by Storz Brewing Co. founder Gottlieb Storz. The German emigre, an honored citizen in his native Benningenam, worked as a brewmaster before starting the company that bore his name at age 24. Boasting a third-floor ballroom serviced by an elevator, a sun room patterned after the solarium aboard the Bremen oceanliner, a music room, servants quarters, a grand foyer and a richly appointed decor featuring mosaic-tiled fireplaces, quarter sawn oak woodwork and stained glass windows, the mansion was designed by architects George Fisher and Harry Lawrie in the Jacobethan Revival style. The exterior includes relief panels displaying key ingredients in the brewer’s art: barley, hops, grain. A carriage house adjoins the mansion.
Guests were, by definition, members of the social elite and therefore feted in the Victorian era’s rich style. Family lore has it that as children Fred and Adele Astaire, son and daughter of Fritz Austerlitz, Storz Brewing Co. employee, often whirled around the ballroom at parties and recitals. Holidays were marked by extravagant celebrations and decorations. The house, which outside the Joslyn Castle has few local counterparts in its old-style grandiosity, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Preservation Magazine once featured it in a spread. “They’re not going to be building houses like that anymore,” said Art Storz, Jr., 82, the last member of the family to occupy it.
After the family patriarch, Gottlieb, died in 1939, the mansion was home to one of four sons, Arthur C. Storz, Sr., and his family. During his reign as master of the manor, Arthur, Sr., a brewery VP and president, made the home into what Art Storz, Jr., the eldest of Arthur’s two sons, called “a showplace.” A combination bon vivant and man’s man, Arthur C. Storz was a race car driver and World War I aviator, a rugged outdoorsman, an amateur gourmand, an astute business executive and a classic hail fellow-well met chap. He hosted lavish black-tie bashes, trimmed with elegant place-settings and floral arrangements, for an eclectic and gilded circle of friends.
For special occasions, the house was transformed into giant set pieces, once as a replica of a showboat and another time as an airplane. “They were just fantastic parties,” Art recalled. His father imported finely-trained German chefs and butlers to head the domestic staff. Art likes painting his folks as common people, saying, “My mother and dad were not ostentatious. If any of us kids would of showed any inkling of that, I think they would have kicked our butts.” Still, their privileged lifestyle set them apart. Art and his brother Bob actually grew up in a Field Club area home with an indoor boxing ring, rifle range and pool room.
A meticulous person who demanded order in everything he did, the old man ruled with an iron hand at home and at work. One who never suffered fools gladly, he could reduce anyone to putty with his withering stare and sharp tongue. “My dad scared a lot of people. He was a tough guy. He’d rip ya, but once it was all over, it was done. He’d never hold a grudge,” Art said. Expressions of affection were rare. “My dad knew the word love but he didn’t use it.”
With his charisma and connections the senior Storz became a powerful civilian advocate for the U.S. Air Force and the airline industry, using his abode and his storied hunting sanctuary, Ducklore Lodge, near Lisco, Neb., to court military brass, industry titans, politicos, celebrities and assorted movers-and-shakers. Among the who’s-who attending Storz sprees were cinema star Jimmy Stewart, a former flyer himself, broadcasting personality Arthur Godfrey, SAC commander Gen. Curtis LeMay, wartime hero Jimmy Doolittle, WWI ace and race car legend Eddie Rickenbacker, whom Arthur Sr. flew with and raced against, and various big-wigs, including Omaha moguls Peter Kiewit, W. Dale Clark and Leo A. Daly.
In son Art’s opinion, the mansion may be without peer locally as a historic residence: “I doubt if any home in Omaha can even come close to it as far as history and the significant people that have been in and out of there over the years.”
The same was true at the handsomely outfitted Ducklore refuge, where Arthur Sr. hosted everyone from Hollywood legends Wallace Beery and Robert Taylor to Air Force top dogs to the heads of General Motors and Union Pacific. But the place was not just reserved for blue bloods. Enlisted men were welcome there along with Storz employees. An annual Storz-led Armistice Day celebration in nearby Lisco fed and entertained thousands.
Also a strong advocate for the city and state, Arthur Sr. is credited with influencing the placement of the Strategic Air Command at Offutt Air Force Base as a player in the Air Force Association and steering the early growth of Eppley Airfield as Omaha Airport Authority chairman. His staunch support of air power netted him the Exceptional Service Award, the highest civilian citation the Air Force bestows. With Arthur Sr.’s death in 1978, his son Art said Omaha “lost a real champion for this area.”
Two of Arthur Sr.’s brothers and Art’s uncles made names for themselves, too. Adolph, who headed the United States Brewers Foundation, was a noted breeder and exhibitor of show horses. Through his two marriages he merged the Storz’ with two other preeminent American families, the Haydens, owners of the former Hayden Brothers Department Store, and the Anheusers, of the St. Louis brewing company fame.
Robert Herman Storz’s many interests included raising prized cattle, serving on such community boards as the Chamber of Commerce and Ak-Sar-Ben, spearheading the building of Clarkson Hospital and the development of Memorial Park, whose dedication President Harry S. Truman attended, and donating millions to the Joslyn Art Museum and Omaha Community Playhouse. Also a media baron, in 1949 he joined his son Todd in purchasing Omaha radio station KOWH, which anchored Storz Broadcasting Co., a chain of radio stations Robert Herman Storz became president of after the tragic 1964 death of his son, at age 39, of a cerebral hemorrhage.
As a long-standing family brewing dynasty, the Storz’ moved easily in the high society echelons of the brew world, where many German emigres made their fortunes. While the families socialized together, their empires engaged in fierce fights for consumer preference. “My folks were very close with the Coors’, the Metz’s, the Millers, the Strohs and others,” said Art, “but they were awful competitive, too.” At its peak, he said, Storz didn’t take a back seat to anyone. “We were an old-line company. We’d been successful, like the other companies, in selling the family name and been a leader for year after year after year.”
Art Storz, Jr. assumed his role in the brewery in the 1950s, directing its marketing and advertising. After its sale and the death of his parents, he dedicated his life to preserving the mansion. His late brother, Robert Hart Storz, was also a brewery executive. When World War II erupted each brother, like their father before them, became a flyer in the service of their country. But where Bob served with distinction, leading the famed 1943 raid on the Romanian Ploesti oil fields, Art got dressed-down for a stupid stunt. It would always be that way — with Bob, the dashing chip-off-the-old-block, seemingly doing no wrong and Art, the insecure one, never measuring up to their father’s “stringent yardstick.”
Besides making the house his residence, Art rented it out for receptions, gave tours and led an effort to turn the residence into a museum. His life there was a contradiction. Amid all the opulence, he lived austerely after renouncing his inheritance in a dispute with family members over the disposition of the home. He handled much of the house’s and property’s upkeep himself. He had no car. He dressed like a handyman, preferring corduroys, jeans or shorts, a t-shirt and a cap. Despite acute shyness, he often opened the home to guests and visitors.
Despite his near pauper status the Storz name gained him entry into powerbroker circles. While unable to raise sufficient funds for the house’s restoration or rebirth, he did make it a kind of living-working museum by keeping its possessions largely intact and displaying memorabilia relating to his father’s exploits. Eventually, he ran into financial difficulty, owing some $70,000 in back taxes, and came close to losing it all in the late ‘80s, but was bailed out by a family friend, Michael Gaughan, the son of Art’s former Creighton Prep-Creighton University classmate, Jackie Gaughan, who made millions as a Nevada casino-hotel owner. The younger Gaughan, also a well-monied Las Vegas casino-hotel magnate, paid the back taxes, bought the property and subsidized its upkeep. In an oft-quoted assessment of why he intervened Gaughan, who once worked at the brewery, said it wasn’t so much historic preservation as it was “to preserve Art” (Storz).
When, last June, Art took a bad fall at home, breaking a hip, his nieces convinced him it was no longer safe for him to be cooped-up all alone in such a massive place — there had been break-ins and items stolen — and moved him into the Westgate assisted living facility, where he remains today. He resisted the move. He wanted to return home. But since he was a tenant, not a title-holder, he had little say.
Meanwhile, the house he made into a shrine was donated to Creighton by its owner and his benefactor — CU alumnus Michael Gaughan. The university has not announced plans for the house, although it will likely host tony alumni affairs. Family members offered up a variety of objects and furnishings from the house in an estate sale last December at Collectors Choice. Storz, who hates being separated from the place he fought very public battles over, is upset with himself for not securing it as a permanent memorial to his family and their deeds.
“I saw this coming,” he said. “I get pretty down on myself over the home because I feel I didn’t do the job I should have done. I was in over my head with this thing, but I couldn’t walk away. I was in love with the whole damn place. And, well, now I guess Creighton’s paying the bills.” His mind often rehashes his fight to hang-on to the home. “I think it was kind of crazy, you know, trying to do what I was doing because I didn’t have this,” he said, rubbing his fingers together to indicate money. “I let my love get involved with it. It hurt me, too, boy. I feel bad because a lot of people helped financially, none more than the Gaughans, and I failed.”
Hardly a failure. After all, it still stands as a proud symbol. Since moving he’s received an outpouring of notes and cards from people expressing cherished memories of the home and admiration for his fight to save it.
As for the home itself, he hopes something of the Storz legacy is “retained” in whatever new life Creighton decides for it and that, under no circumstances, it be converted into a frat house, the fate of another vintage Storz mansion, at 40th and Dewey, also owned by Creighton. A third old Storz dwelling, at 39th and Harney, has found new life as the Renaissance Mansion. Two other Storz homes were long ago razed by the University of Nebraska at Omaha to accommodate parking and new construction on campus.
During his travails to retain the house Storz was dogged by the irony that he, of all his polished relations, should be carrying the Storz banner given youthful indiscretions that brought unwanted attention to the family.
There was the “buzz job” he pulled during World War II when, as an Air Force pilot he flew his Flying Fortress low over a wide swath of Omaha, just for the thrill of “showing off.” At one point he maneuvered the four-engine B-17 bomber close to the old Blackstone Hotel, right across from the mansion, swooped by the spires of St. Cecilia Cathedral and roared over the homes of an uncle and aunt. A general panic ensued and, once his superiors got wind of it, he was court-martialed, never rising above the rank of captain.
There was also his penchant for speeding in cars. “I was a rebel,” Art said of his heller days. “I took some tremendous chances.” Then, in the early ‘50s, a breech-of-promise suit surfaced weeks after his only marriage, which ended in divorce. His wife, a member of a Nebraska ranching family, got custody of their two kids. He’s had little contact with them over the years, especially after fighting-off his adult children’s attempts to claim the house in the ‘80s.
Being a Storz has often been a burden.
“I felt terribly intimidated by it all,” he said. It didn’t help that his milquetoast personality was no match for his father’s and uncles’ domineering presence and the looming shadows they cast. “I’ve always been very insecure because I’ve known there’s no way I was ever going to walk in any of my family’s footprints,” he said from the one-room apartment he’s turned into a mini-Storz hall of fame at the Westgate care center he resides in. “I just wasn’t cut out to be what they were. My family left some big footprints, you know.” They were, he said sheepishly, “a hard act to follow.”
Still, his devotion to his family never wavered. Perhaps it was his desire to still measure up in his father’s eyes, but he wanted the Storz’ many contributions to the community remembered. In a sense, they are. The Storz Expressway is named after his father and everything from a hospital wing to a museum gallery is named in honor of his uncle, Robert Herman Storz, and his wife Mildred, whose $1 million gift renovated the Joslyn fountain court.
“Our family played such a prominent role,” Storz said. “When you think of the economic contributions Storz Brewing alone meant and then how my family always got involved in so many civic things, I think we’re an awful important part of this area. It makes me proud.” The family keeps giving, too. The Robert Herman Storz Foundation, with assets of more than $7 million, supports a wide range of community organizations.
The thriving business that provided the capital to pay for the Farnam Street Storz mansion along with the other palatial Storz estates, and that made possible the family’s well-known civic philanthropy is largely unknown today except by oldsters. Only the red brick smokestack and a scattering of buildings, now in disrepair, still stand as reminders of this industrial juggernaut. Spread-out over a multi-acre site along North 16th Street, the Storz Brewing Co., which operated from 1876 to 1966 under family ownership, employed anywhere from 300 to 500 workers and produced more than 350,000 barrels of beer a year. A strong regional and select national brand in Nebraska, the Midwest and on Air Force bases (courtesy the family’s Air Force ties) Storz was the most prominent player in what was once a booming local brewing scene and a name that prompted strong loyalty among consumers.
Its state-of-the-art production and packaging operation, occupying more than 15 buildings, featured spotless red tiled floors and walls, burnished stainless steel and copper fixtures, millions of dollars worth of gleaming equipment, ranging from mashers and brew tubs to bottling and labeling machines, along with massive cellars for storing beer and huge garages for sheltering and maintaining the company’s large fleet of delivery trucks.
Railroad tracks ran right up to the back of one building to allow for direct box car access — with imported hops, barley and grain off-loaded and cases of beer on-loaded. A hospitality room, patterned after a brewhause and hunting lodge and adorned with the stuffed heads of big game bagged by Arthur C. Storz, treated employees and customers alike to food and beverages. A Storz-owned tavern, one of many the brewery had, was adjacent to the plant.
The whole works ran with the Prussian-like precision and efficiency demanded by the Storz’, who oversaw every step. To assure quality, early brewmasters were brought over from Germany, where Gottlieb himself learned the brewing arts, and later brewmasters trained under their fathers. It was, as Art likes to put it, “a class deal. Everything was immaculate. All I can say is is that everything was of the finest quality. We had a top-level operation.”
That quality extended to Storz marketing-advertising campaigns, which spared no expense in using the finest materials and devising the most discriminating images for positioning its beer as the purest brew around. Outdoors themes became a Storz trademark. A classic ad pictured snow-capped mountain peaks and green Douglas firs in the background as cowboys on horseback ford an icy-cold river and make their way to a big frothy mug of Storz beer in the foreground with the pitch — “Refreshing as the whole outdoors…take some home for your weekend pleasure” — scripted below the idyllic scene.
A cursory web search finds Storz memorabilia bringing prices comparable to bigger brand names. “It says to me we did things very well,” Art said. “Our material never looked ma-and-pa. It held its own against anybody.” He has the awards to prove it. Storz also got in on the ground floor of tying their product to sports, as the company hired gridiron legend Red Grange and diamond legend Leo Durocher as spokesmen for early network telecasts of NFL football and major league baseball, respectively, that Storz helped sponsor.
Almost from the start, the brewery enjoyed fat times. Then, when Prohibition went into effect in 1920, lean times hit. The company laid off much of its work force but unlike other breweries continued operating, making near beer, ginger ale, soft drinks and ice. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Storz picked up where it had left off. Over the years the Omaha-brew won medals in Paris and Brussels and gained increased market shares.
By the early 1960s Storz controlled 51 percent of the Nebraska market, outselling all its competitors combined. It finally met its match when national brewers began selectively underpricing their beer in Storz home markets.
“The national brewers never could make any inroads in our markets, but then they started playing dirty,” Art said. “It was pretty obvious they were trying to get us. That always burned me up, too. I will always wonder how they got away with that. That had to be a bitter pill for my dad. My father had great love for the business and he wouldn’t have sold unless” declining profits and rising expenses forced his hand.
In 1966 Arthur Sr. and one of his brothers, who together owned all the stock, sold the brewery to Iowa Business Investment Corp., a consortium of Iowa investors that then leased the operation to Grain Belt Breweries of Minneapolis, under whose management the brewery lasted a few more years before finally closing for good in 1972. The former brewery buildings have found some reuse in the years since.
Art rues that he and his brother Bob “never had the opportunity to carry-on the family business.” Art tried getting his father to meet the nationals “head-on, but he wouldn’t go for that,” opting instead to sell rather than fight. Art used to visit the old brewery site, but it’s too painful for him to see the ruins left behind.
“I could cry when I look at it now. It’s all torn to hell. My family worked very hard to make the Storz name whatever people think of it today. My family was one of Omaha’s very few industrialists. We made our own product and we marketed it successfully against the biggest names in the land.” As for the imposing family mansion that sits empty and that no he longer has a key to, he said, “I would have gone to hell for this house. I know it sounds crazy, but I would have died for this house. It was a love affair.”
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The late Art Storz Jr. was a strange, lovely man whose fierce devotion to his family and to their legacy as successful beer brewers, as civic leaders, as philanthropists, knew no end. He was a mass of contradictions. Generous to a fault. Shy, unassuming, and eccentric to the end. Getting him to give me an interview the first time was like pulling teeth, and then when he did what should have taken an hour or two became a marathon session of three or four hours, followed by another, before he finally got comfortable with me. The following story, which appeared in the New Horizons, was the first I wrote about him. I did a subsequent piece, which I have also posted. The mansion in the headline or title of the story offered here really was Art’s magnificent obsession. He finally did have to leave there for a nursing home, where I visited Art a few years ago. He was as sweet and squirrelly as ever. A little broken-hearted, too. He’s gone now but hardly forgotten. He will always remain one of the most unforgettable characters in my life.
The Magnificent Obsession of Art Storz Jr., the Old Man and the Mansion
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
First-time visitors to the historic Storz mansion are unsure what to make of the shy, self-effacing old man greeting them at the front door. In his ball cap, T-shirt, baggy trousers and sneakers, he might be mistaken for hired help or an overripe guest when actually he’s a reluctant heir to the Storz Brewing Co. fortune.
The 77-year-old eccentric is Art Storz. He lives austerely in the brawny, brick Farnam Street mansion that his beer baron grandfather, Gottlieb, had built in 1907. While the sole occupant of the imposing, gabled, gargoyle-adorned home on Omaha’s fabled Gold Coast, he’s never quite alone there. Not with a well of precious memories to tap. Memories of a golden bygone era that, for him, is never far away or forgotten.
Anyone familiar with his oft-troubled past must find it ironic that this one-time “heller” ended up master of the mansion after committing some highly publicized indiscretions. The most infamous episode came in 1943 when, as a U.S. Army Air Forces pilot, he guided his four-engine Flying Fortress dangerously low over a wide swath of Omaha for the thrill of “buzzing” his hometown.
During the brazen stunt, which he describes today with both sheepish regret and cockeyed pride, he used St. Cecilia Cathedral’s spires as pylons to angle the massive B-17 bomber right past the Blackstone Hotel and over the mansion. Then he repeated the maneuver. The sight and roar of a low flying bomber caused a minor panic, including a stampede of pedestrians and rash of auto pile-ups.
“Thank God nobody got hurt,” he said in a recent interview at the opulent mansion. “If I would of ever hit anything, I’d of wiped out things for blocks. I could have killed a lot of people. I think I was a good enough pilot that I didn’t have to worry about that, but it’s easy to say that now.”
Amazingly, after causing all that commotion mid-town he headed west to “buzz” the homes of an uncle and aunt. “My uncle was shaving with a straight-edge razor when I went through his backyard. He damn near became Robert “Van Gogh” Storz because he nearly clipped off his ear,” the nephew recalls impishly, adding that his aunt, who liked imbibing, was so shaken that she “was fishin’ bottles out of the chandeliers.”
The stunt got him in hot water with civilian and military officials and he was ultimately given a general court-martial. He remained in the service, but never went overseas and never rose beyond the rank of captain during a 29-year Air Force reserve career. His punishment might have been more severe if not for his late father, Arthur C. Storz, a former flier and well-connected aviation supporter.
It was a scandal the family found hard living down. There were to be others, including a divorce. Always, Storz most acutely felt the disapproval of his father, a stern family brewing chief and taskmaster. “My dad used to like to put me down because I was kind of the Peck’s Bad Boy of the family,” he said. “But I deserved to be put down. I was an embarrassment to the family – and he didn’t like it. And he didn’t let me forget it. He really was a good guy, but boy, was he tough. He’d really take it out on you if you got out of line. He had a stringent yardstick.”
Storz also lived in the shadow of his younger brother, Robert Hart Storz, an Abel to his Cain and the apple of their father’s eye. Art suffered by comparison. Where he was a self-described “rebel,” Bob was a model citizen. Where he disgraced his uniform, Bob was a decorated hero. Where he was barely tolerated at the brewery, Bob was made a top executive.
Controversy followed Art in later years too, most notably in the battle he waged in the 1980s to hold onto the mansion in the wake of foreclosure proceedings. Despite his black sheep image, he has a genuine personal stake in the Storz success story. He was, after all, the brewery’s advertising director during some of its fattest years – designing multi-media campaigns that won numerous awards, even if his father discounted them.
Inside the 27-room home today, he’s surrounded by mementos that recall an era when his family’s empire still reigned – before national brewers’ predatory pricing strategies forced the sale of the company in 1966. “It was like cutting my heart out when Storz Brewing Co. was sold,” he said, “because I’d always hoped my brother and I would get a chance to run it. I loved the brewing business.”
For three-quarters of a century Storz beer dominated the Nebraska market, flowing from taps like pure gold. At peak capacity, the firm’s north
Omaha plant employed hundreds of workers, ferrying its own fleet of refrigerated box cars and trucks. The Storz name carried enough clout to open doors and get things done.
Storz likes nothing better than immersing himself in such sweet remembrances of things past. Of rich old times at the mansion – when the family entertained on a grand scale with lavish parties, fancy balls and sumptuous feasts. When prominent industrialists, politicians, military officials and screen idols were feted there and well-trained servants manned each of its three floors. When it wasn’t just a home, but a showplace. If its walls could only talk, oh, the stories they might tell. Of back room business deals and garden romances. Of juicy gossip and heated debate. Of late nights filled with music, laughter and lively conversation.
Fortunately, Storz is around to serve as storyteller and guide, even if it comes hard for someone so shy. He’s never been comfortable being the son of industrial titans and society mavens.
“I was terribly intimidated by it all. My family left some big footprints and I’ve always been very insecure because I’ve known I was never going to walk in any of their footsteps. I just wasn’t cut out to be what they were.”
To avoid meeting people he’d make himself scarce at social functions. “It was so painful for me that I would take a powder. My brother and sister were just the opposite. They were polished and self-assured. I never had that. I just always felt very inadequate. And I still deal with that to this day.”
Yet for all his insecurity, he loves showing off the home. It’s held special meaning for him as long as he can remember. After his grandparents’ deaths, he moved there with his siblings and parents in 1939. He’s lived there continuously since the mid-’50s. His father died at home in 1978, and his mother, Margaret, lived there until shortly before her death in 1981. He helped care for his parents in their final years. Near the end, his father finally uttered the words he’d always craved: “He said, ‘Art, I love you,’ and he kissed me on the side of the face. I always knew he loved me, I’d just never heard him say it,” he emotionally recalls.
A promise he made to himself in 1981– to stay in the home and care for it – still drives him today. His fondness for it runs so deep that he’s risked everything to save it. He nearly lost it several times in the face of legal challenges and financial crises. His fight to retain the home even pitted him against family members. What made him persevere and pay such a steep personal price?
“It’s been a love affair,” he said. “It really is a deep feeling of love for the place and for the history of the Storz family. I doubt if any home in Omaha can even come close to it as far as its history and as far as the significant people that have been in and out of here. There’s too much history here for me to walk away…I’d go to hell for this house today. I would give up anything for it – anything. I’d even give up my life.”
Some say it is his life. When people arrive for tours, his dour demeanor visibly changes. His eyes brighten, voice lightens, posture straightens and step quickens as he swells with pride at the prospect of telling the Storz saga again. And what a saga it is. A dynasty marked by entrepreneurial spirit, philanthropic generosity, civic boosterism, visionary deeds and fabulous bashes.
Gilded memories are among the few luxuries Storz has allowed himself since renouncing his inheritance during a 1981estate dispute with his siblings. Aside from straining his relationship with his brother and sister, he said, “That wasn’t hard, because money’s never been important to me. What hurt really bad was when my kids got control of the money and tried selling me down the river.” He alludes to when his two adult children, from whom he’s now estranged, tried ousting him from the home.
Since the early ‘80s he’s subsisted almost entirely on his monthly Social Security check, a small pension and the largess of friends. He has no car and can often be found pounding the pavement many blocks from home. Except for a part-time helper, he maintains the extensive, well-manicured grounds himself. While recent hernia surgery has slowed him, his passion for the home and its vibrant history remains unabated.
Only with the help of friends has he nourished his dream for the mansion. A dream for this Omaha landmark and National Register of Historic Places designee to be preserved as a museum and lasting monument to the Storz legacy.
He has indeed made the home a kind of shrine to his family’s storied past. Throughout are displayed photos, paintings, letters, awards and assorted other memorabilia that document far-ranging activities and accomplishments.
He’s turned a basement room into “The Eagle’s Nest.” There, framed photos and newspaper clippings salute his father’s prominent role in aviation, which had its beginnings in World War I flying alongside ace Eddie Rickenbacker. Over the years, the elder Storz kept in touch with the flying fraternity and keenly followed aviation advances. As WWII dawned, he counted among his close friends such Air Force luminaries as Gen. James “Jimmy” Doolittle, Gen. Curtis LeMay and Brig. Gen. James Stewart, the late beloved actor. During the Cold War, he played a key role in selling top military brass on the idea of locating the Strategic Air Command here and he spearheaded the development of Eppley Airfield. He was awarded the military’s highest civilian honors.
Another passion of Papa Storz’s was the great outdoors, and his son has converted a basement room into a mini-“Ducklore Lodge” – the family’s beloved hunting resort near Lisco, Neb. – whose walls practically sag from the weight of so many trophy fish and fowl the old man hooked and bagged. Family brewing patriarch Gottlieb Storz built the home and two equally impressive family palaces nearby as conspicuous symbols of Storz success. Edifices to the American Dream made good. While all three homes survive, only the Farnam mansion remains in the family. Nothing was spared in its design or construction, which took three years. Much of it appears as it did in its heyday. A glaring exception is the interior’s painted-over walls and ceilings, which obscure their original quarter-sawn oak finish. Storz one day hopes to have the paint stripped and the wood restored, but that project – like others on hold – awaits needed funding.
The mansion’s Old World craftsmanship survives in leaded-glass doors, stained-glass windows, Tiffany lamps, ornately carved woodwork, mosaic tile fireplaces, exquisite murals and countless other fine details. The pale brick facade includes limestone panel carvings depicting the stuff of the brewmaster’s art – barley, hops, corn.
The third-floor ballroom, where the legendary Fred and Adele Astaire began dancing, is off-limits while awaiting renovation. The main-floor solarium is a sublime replica of the sun room aboard the famed Bremen oceanliner his grandparents sailed on. The study, music room, parlor and dining room are arranged and decorated in period detail.
Storz can offer insights about every room, antique and feature and recall anecdotes of stars (Wallace Beery, Robert Taylor, Arthur Godfrey) and dignitaries (Doolittle, LeMay) who dined there.
Those close to him agree his near obsession with the home is a Prodigal Son’s symbolic attempt to win his father’s approval. Storz himself said hopefully: “I think my father would probably say, ‘Art, you did a helluva job.’ I think he really would be proud of me.”
The demands of maintaining an elaborate old home have strained his own meager finances and those of the Storz Preservation Foundation he created in 1982. Things have gotten so tight at times that the utilities have been shut off. “I was in some terrible messes,” he recalls. “I was totally broke once, and I was petrified.” When he first took on the project, friends and family members considered it Art’s latest folly. “I felt that way, yes,” said his brother. “I felt it was too much. There was too much involved to preserve it.”
Art said he was tempted to sell the home – “to take the money and run” – rather than keep it. “The reason I wanted to run is because I was afraid I would embarrass the family name. I really couldn’t visualize managing this operation. It’s a helluva big job. I knew it was going to cost a lot of money. And I thought, ‘Where the hell is it going to come from?’”
But he stubbornly stayed on. “I never did run because the love’s too great,” he said. He takes satisfaction in the fact he eventually kept the mansion despite the many hurdles, long odds and nagging doubts. “I gave it everything I had – my heart and soul – because I love the place. I think I’ve really been tested. There were times when it felt like I’d been in the ring with Muhammad Ali. I hung in even when I was whipped.”His brother, with whom he’s grown close again, has come to respect his devotion: “I give him credit. I don’t know how he did it. I have admiration for him. He loves that house. It’s a love affair – it really is.”
Others still marvel he pulled it off: “I was afraid he was going to lose the whole shootin’ match and end up on his rear out in the cold,” said Omahan Dick Deaver, a fellow flier and lifelong friend. “I give him credit for seeing it through.”
The constant struggle did take its toll. As Art explains, “The pressure was just tremendous. That kind of stress had a disastrous effect on me. I got really depressed. I was just browbeat so bad that I didn’t even want to be around anybody. I let the place go. And I hate to even admit this, but I got suicidal.” He purchased a gun for the deed. “I was really going to knock myself off, but I never could pull the trigger,” he said. Storz, who still suffers from depression, adds, “I’d rather take a good whippin’ physically then take one that emotionally tears you into little pieces.” In the end, he couldn’t bear disgracing his family that way. Besides, he still had his mission – the home.
Retired Omaha World-Herald reporter Howard Silber, who’s known Storz for years, said, “I don’t think he’d be alive today if it weren’t for that mission and that zeal. He lives for that.”
Storz survived his darkest days with the aid of friends. “When I look back and think about the people who helped me, I just thank God I had friends like that. I’ll never forget what they did for me. And don’t think it wasn’t hard for me to accept. I feel a great debt.”
His lowest point came in 1988 when, due to delinquent property tax payments totaling more than $73,000, the home was auctioned off at a forced sheriff’s sale. It was purchased by a bidder who planned turning it into a restaurant. A judge gave Storz two years to redeem the taxes and allowed him to remain in the home. When an effort to raise the needed money failed, things looked bleak. With the deadline only weeks off, a father-son tandem of Las Vegas gambling magnates came to the rescue. The father, Jackie Gaughan, was a classmate of Storz’s at Creighton University, and when he heard his old chum was in trouble he enlisted his son Michael’s support. Once the taxes were paid and the home reclaimed, Michael Gaughan became its legal owner and Storz its chief trustee. A trust fund helps defray the property’s operating costs and taxes.
“If the Gaughans hadn’t bailed me out, I would have gone down,” said Storz. “They were my biggest benefactors.” He’s also grateful to the local media for its sympathetic coverage of his plight. “The media made me sort of like David and the people trying to knock me out like Goliath,” he said. That depiction suits him fine. “I’m a staunch competitor. I would never quit.”
Even with the home’s immediate future secured, he frets what will happen after he dies. “I’ve got 16 years here of fighting for my life and I don’t want to lose it now. Everything I’ve done has come from my heart. When I’m gone I hope somebody says, ‘Well, he’s carried it far enough – it should be kept intact.’”
For anyone of a certain age, shopping at the downtown J.L. Brandeis & Sons Department Store in Omaha was a pinnacle experience for the sheer size, opulence, and wonder of it all. Any city of size had its equivalent, but I didn’t grow up in any city, I grew up in Omaha, and Brandeis was all I knew when it came to mega department stores. It was my Macy’s or Gimbels or Marshall Fields. This two-part story is my attempt at taking stock of the Brandeis legacy, which eventually grew to include many stores in many locations, although the downtown flagship store was always the one people remembered. I certainly did. I used to go there as a kid with my mom. It was always an occasion. The family that owned the downtown store and ultimately a whole chain of stores and other business enterprises lived liked royalty, and my story is as much about them as anything. Whether or not you grew up with Brandeis as I did, I hope you will find this interesting if for no other reason than the larger-than-life qualities of that store and that family. My story originally appeared in the Jewish Press and served as the basis for a script I wrote on the same subject for a documentary film.
Although most remnants of the Brandeis department store empire are long gone, the jewel in the crown, namely, the downtown store building, remains intact, though retrofitted as a condominium tower. I know a man who lives atop that building in the fabled penthouse, but that’s a story for another day perhaps, another forum, not on this blog.
The Brandeis Story: Family-Owned Department Store Empire of the Great Plains
Part I: On Becoming an Institution and Tradition
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
There was a time when every great downtown featured an immense department store. New York had its Macy’s and Gimbels. Chicago had its Marshall Field’s. Further west, smack dab in the middle of the Great Plains, Omaha had Brandeis. As local family dynasties go, few evoke the nostalgia the Brandeis name conjures. That’s because for a century J.L. Brandeis & Sons ruled the department store market in Omaha, serving hundreds of thousands of customers each year.
In its heyday, the symbol of the company’s and the family’s success was the downtown store. Period advertisements billed it as “the greatest store in the West.” Modeled after Marshall Field’s, nothing quite as elaborate as Brandeis could be found from the Windy City to the Rockies.
“Any city of any pretension, any city of any caliber developed a huge department store,” said Omaha historian Dennis Mihelich. “When Brandeis built that store…Omaha was the 20th most populace city in the United States. That meant a city had arrived. It’s kind of like saying you’re a major league city today…If we go back to the turn of the century, what gave a city cachet…one thing would be that symbol. ‘Look where we get to shop.’ They were architectural symbols in the city.”
Designed by John Latenser Sr. in the Second Renaissance Revival style, the half-million square foot, brownstone edifice included ornate ceilings, Corinthian columns and marble floors. Its vast, sweeping spaces contained every imaginable good and service. So distinct was the store, it became a destination stop for anyone visiting Omaha. Its sheer size, fabulous amenities, everything under-one-roof selection and first-rate customer service set it apart from the competition.
“Brandeis was really the source of most of the things you wanted. It was where you bought your first suit. It was where you went to have dinner with your friends…it was 10 floors of just a wonderful array of things,” Omaha historian Barry Combs said.
All things have their seasons and as downtowns lost their competitive edge to suburban malls in the 1950s and 1960s department stores began to feel the pinch. Many closed in the ensuing years. Omaha and Brandeis were no exception. As the suburbs beckoned, Brandeis followed — building a mall, opening outlets.
At its peak in the early 1970s, the family-owned retail chain grew to 15 stores, 3,000 employees and $100 million in sales. As fewer folks shopped downtown the flagship store became a drag. When, in 1980, Brandeis closed the downtown store as part of a general downsizing, it marked the end of an era. A leaner Brandeis became profitable again by the time Younkers bought it in 1987. More than 100 years of Brandeis retailing was no more.
The dynasty dates back to company founder Jonas Leopold Brandeis. This family patriarch set The Great Man precedent. Born in 1837, the Austrian-Jewish immigrant was a tanner by trade in his native Prague. J.L. came to the U. S. in his late teens, part of a flood of immigrants helping settle the frontier. His self-made success story in America began as a merchant in the wilds of Wisconsin, where he traded with Indians. He married Fanny Teweles of Milwaukee and the couple made a life for themselves and their family in Manitowoc.
A sportsman tradition that runs through the Brandeis family began with J.L., whose prowess with a gun became legendary.
He next set his sights south on Omaha, a booming transportation, mercantile and livestock hub with excellent rail and river access. He, Fannie and their four children, Sara, Arthur, Emil and Hugo, moved to Omaha in the early 1880s. J.L. built the first of what would be several downtown Brandeis merchandising enterprises. The first retail venture, The Fair, opened at 506 South 13th Street. By 1888 J.L. and his boys were full partners when they rented a new site at 114 South 16th Street, calling it The Boston Store, a then-popular name for retail outlets. The J.L. Brandeis & Sons name first appeared over the door there and would appear, on building plates, on all future Brandeis stores.
Business soon outgrew that location and in 1891 the family built a second Boston store on the northwest corner of 16th and Douglas, near what would become the anchor spot for the burgeoning Brandeis empire. J.L. was determined to succeed and not even the total loss of the building in an 1894 fire could deter him. He built a new, larger, better store on the same site.
It didn’t take long for the mutton-chopped J.L. to make his mark, drawing much attention with lighted store windows at night and illustrations in newspaper ads. Every Saturday he released a dozen balloons containing coupons redeemable for a free suit of clothes. Thus, from the very start, Brandeis was known as a pacesetter and innovator. These qualities would distinguish the company and the family members who ran it throughout the 20th century.
“It seemed like Brandeis was always very progressive with the things they did,” said Omahan Ted Baer, whose father, the late Alan Baer, was a great-grandson of J.L and the company’s last owner/president.
As a savvy merchant, J.L. knew a prospering city and Jewish community meant more good will and business for Brandeis and so he and his wife immersed themselves in civic pursuits. He was involved in helping establish one of Nebraska’s first synagogues. He, along with Carl Brandeis, a relative he brought to Omaha, actively worked to create a chapter of the Independent Order of B’nai B’rith. An Omaha chapter was founded by Carl, who remained active in Jewish activities.
Fannie organized a sewing class for Russian Jewish immigrants and led efforts to establish the area’s first Jewish hospital — Wise Memorial — as a sanctuary from bias. When Fannie died the hospital board paid tribute to her with a resolution:
“With patience and perseverance, undaunted by discouragement, she courageously carried forward her plan of founding a permanent institution…open and free to the afflicted without distinction as to creed or race.”
Fannie and J.L. were also on the committee that promoted the largest event in Omaha history — the 1898 Trans-Mississippi & International Exposition, a five month-long fair of more than 4,000 exhibits on 108 city blocks that drew 2.5 million visitors. The Brandeis’ also served on the city parks commission that extended the system of parks and boulevards.
By the early 1900s the Brandeis name owned currency with customers and vendors. His sons were already running things and they embarked on the family’s biggest expansion to date, construction of the giant Brandeis store, between 16th and 17th and Douglas Streets. Work began in 1906 and the $1 million building opened to much fanfare in 1907, displaying the latest goods from the post London and Paris trade centers. Eleven-year-old E.John Brandeis — Arthur’s son — was accorded the honor of laying the cornerstone.
Originally 8-stories, the building qualified as a skyscraper by that era’s standards. Later additions brought the structure to its present height, complete with an Art Deco-style penthouse bungalow atop the 10th floor.
Ads ballyhooed the new store as “absolutely fireproof,” a reference to the fire that destroyed The Boston Store a dozen years earlier.
Brandeis pulled out all the stops to assure the public this store was unlike any before it. Elaborate window displays drew lines of spectators. Mihelich said, “Those window displays were virtual museum exhibits. They would change regularly and would reflect the seasons and the holidays. They were used to entice people in. People literally did window shop.”
Former Brandeis VP Gene Griffin of Omaha said it was a showplace: “People came from near and far to see what was going on…”
Gleaming glass counters and mirrors, polished marble floors and overbrimming bins filled the cavernous interior. “The display was key,” Mihelich said. “Christmas, of course, would be the most important of all.” At Christmas the 10th floor was transformed into Toy Land, a Santa’s workshop-inspired seasonal display that thousands of children and parents visited. Lines of kids waited to sit on Santa’s lap and to have their picture taken with Old Saint Nick. Ex-Brandeis VP Vic Mason of Omaha said, “People looked forward to going downtown and shopping at the store, especially at Christmas time, when they had those fabulous displays on the 16th and Douglas corner and the big Toy Land up on the 10th floor.”
Any time of year the main floor mezzanine was a take-your-breath-away sight with its gilded columns, hanging chandeliers, copper-plated ceiling and brass-fixtured elevators hand-operated by white gloved attendants. A large clock near the 17th Street entrance was a popular meeting spot. A mosaic-tiled balcony offered secluded shopping and custom services. The bargain basement floor attracted teeming crowds. An arcade included an array of eateries — the Pompeian Room, the Tea Room, Hamburger Heaven and a cafeteria.
“…there was a certain elegance to the department store. You had a shopping experience that you certainly wouldn’t have in a big box store today,” Omaha historian Harl Dalstrom said. “…just the surroundings, the showcases, the decor inside the building, the majestic construction of the buildings themselves, the high ceilings, the display of merchandise and, of course, the windows…”
The Brandeis brand stood for something special, representing an ultimate shopping experience unequaled in these parts. A one-time Brandeis VP, the late Sam Marchese, may have put it best when a newspaper quoted him saying:
“When my grandfather came to this country he could speak only three words of English: ‘Hello,’ ‘goodbye,’ and ‘Brandeis.’ From Omaha there are only four real institutions in the state: the University of Nebraska, the Omaha World-Herald, Creighton and Brandeis.”
More than a flagship, the downtown store was THE center for commerce. It’s where people shopped and dined and caught up with friends or associates. It’s where you went to be seen. Where big wigs did business, sealed deals, made plans. Brandeis hosted fashion shows, parties, receptions, graduations and meetings.
Dalstrom said, “You would find going to the big department stores such as Brandeis part of an overall urban experience. When you look at the Brandeis experience you need to consider it too as part of an overall orientation toward during important things downtown..,and so downtown shopping was very much the thing.”
Not to be overlooked, Brandeis was viewed as one of Omaha’s own.
“Locally-owned. Local ties. That was different than all the other department stores. It was kind of funny growing up because everybody I knew either had somebody in their family who did work or had worked at Brandeis,” Ted Baer said.
Every city has its movers and shakers. Big wheels turned early Omaha from a prairie town outfitting Western Plains settlers into a modern metropolis of railroad, meatpacking, livestock, banking and mercantile interests. The names of those who made it happen — Kountze, Storz, Joslyn, Dodge, Reed, Hitchcock, Clarkson, Millard, Doorly — adorn streets and public places. The Brandeis name lives on, too.
The executives guiding the company were more than merchants. They were part of the elite inner circle that called the shots. Through the years Brandeis family members filled the top executive slots in the company, but with its growth Brandeis increasingly looked outside the family. Family or not, the Brandeis name opened doors. When Brandeis spoke, people listened.
“At one time, Brandeis ran this town,” said former VP Helmuth Dahlke. “… in the heyday Brandeis pretty much controlled every corner of downtown Omaha, strategically, so that no one could move in. They controlled the real estate…owned the buildings, the properties. When we wanted something we called and one minute later they called you back. We had muscle.”
“Yes, the Brandeis family and other major corporate executives of Brandeis provided substantial leadership in the business community, in civic affairs, in philanthropy,” Mihelich said. “They did it individually, serving on things like the board of governors of Ak-Sar-Ben…In all of these numerous kinds of activities the Brandeis family and the Brandeis company certainly for the better part of a century were as influential as any of the other major Omaha players.”
Befitting their means, the Brandeis family lived like Midwestern rajahs with their mansions, stables of horses, recreational activities, parties, appointments, titles, world travels and charitable work. Newspapers detailed their comings and goings. Cousins George and E. John Brandeis cut dashing figures with their good looks and active pursuits. Fellow sportsmen, their exploits made much news: George with his prized horses and hunting of fowl in western Nebraska; and E. John riding, yachting, hunting on one of his big-game safaris or squiring eligible young women.
“The Brandeis family were like rock stars,” Ted Baer said. “One of them was on the Titanic. E. John lived like the young Howard Hughes, playing polo, flying all over the place and doing pretty much anything he wanted to do.”
There would be many stars in the Brandeis firmament, but none quite as bright as J.L. By his death in 1903, the company was already viewed as a linchpin in the local economy. An Omaha Bee article proclaimed:
“…its prosperity has been a part of the growth of the city and its faith in the city has been shown by its constant endeavor to grow within the city.”
Even in death, J.L. continued giving, as his will directed generous gifts to several charities, including the Creche, the Omaha Benevolent Society and Temple Israel, beginning a long tradition of charity by Brandeis heirs and descendants.
Following in his footsteps, J.L.’s sons continued as community stewards. Arthur, Hugo and George each served on the Ak-Sar-Ben board of governors. The family’s association with the civic-philanthropic organization would last generations.
After J.L.’s passing, his three sons found their niches. Arthur, the visionary, assumed the presidency. Emil, the builder, handled supervised construction and maintenance of the company’s early building projects. Hugo, the retailer, sent buyers to foreign markets and managed the store’s sales policies.
Cousin George Brandeis joined them at the department store, first at J.L.’s urging and later at Arthur’s. George’s presence proved invaluable when a series of tragedies struck down J.L.’s boys, leaving George to take over.
The first of these tragedies befell Emil. The lifelong bachelor had concluded his annual overseas trip in the spring of 1912, touring the European continent and Egypt with his niece and her husband. For his return trip, he boarded the Titanic as a first-class passenger and died in its sinking. He was 45. His body was recovered on an ice floe by the MacKay Bennett. He was wearing a dark suit, brown shirt with blue stripes, black shoes and silk socks. Among his effects were diamond cuff links, a gold knife, a platinum and diamond watch chain, a gold pencil case, a gold ring, a gold cigarette case and match box, a pearl tie-pin and a 500 francs note.
Personal accounts of the disaster to reach the Brandeis family placed Emil at a card table when the “unsinkable” luxury liner struck the iceberg that spelled its doom.
An old friend who survived the sinking, Mrs. Henry B. Harris, wired the family her own account of her and her husband dining with Emil on the ill-fated maiden voyage and how he proudly boasted to them of his recent travels. Once the ship was damaged and the evacuation begun, Mrs. Harris was put safely out to sea on a jampacked lifeboat and watched Emil and Mr. Harris remain among the throng of men on deck, stoically awaiting their fate, she reported, “without fear.”
Emil was remembered as a solid citizen in a statement issued by the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben published in the Omaha World-Herald:
“In the consideration of his distinguished services in the upbuilding of Omaha and in appreciation in the loss of his loyal devotion to her interests that his home city has sustained in his tragic death, we…have called a public meeting in memory of our late fellow citizen, Emil Brandeis…”
Upon his death, Emil’s will directed funds to the Visiting Nurses Association, an organization the family continues supporting today.
Only months following Emil’s death, brother Hugo died, after an operation, leaving Arthur as the only Brandeis at the helm. Soon, Arthur cast his eye to diversify Brandeis interests with development of the Brandeis Theater, which opened up next door in 1910, joining the spate of motion picture houses downtown.
Meanwhile, Arthur’s son, E. John, began learning the business as a boy, occasionally accompanying his father on buying trips overseas.
With the loss of his two brothers, Arthur turned to cousin George, then manager of the Boston Store in Chicago, to join the family empire. By 1914 a restless Arthur left the store’s leadership to George in order to attend to his extensive realty holdings and to become vice president of Stern Brothers dry goods store in New York, where he took up residence. When Arthur died in 1916, his will left in excess of $1 million in personal property and real estate, in a trust, to his son, E. John.
As a boy E. John had laid the cornerstone of the Brandeis department store. E. John had worked under his father at Stern Brothers, but at 21 was not yet deemed ready to take over the reins at Brandeis, where George remained in charge as general manager. E. John would have to learn the business from the ground up. George mentored the heir apparent.
George’s tenure at the top lasted longer than anyone’s in Brandeis history. He grew up in Lieben, Austria. His uncle, old J.L., was already a success in America when he visited Lieben in the early 1890s. Impressed by his uncle’s tales of riches, young George returned to America with J.L., who put him to work at the family’s Boston Store in Omaha. George began humbly enough — checking parcels for customers.
Upon returning to Omaha to help manage Brandeis he told a reporter:
“It was one of the surprises of my life to find…Omaha has grown to such a thriving city. And I was also greatly surprised at the enormous amount of business my cousin is doing. Why, they are selling higher class goods here…than in Chicago.”
On his watch George is credited with growing the store’s market share. The growth continued despite the Great Depression and two world wars. Just as Arthur Brandeis brought George on board to guide the company, George brought in a key lieutenant of his own, only this time someone from outside the family, Karl Louis, a German immigrant. Brandeis and Louis met at Chicago’s Boston Store, where the two men forged a professional and personal relationship that lasted 36 years.
Louis got the nickname “Cyclone Kid,” as his arrival coincided with the horrific Easter Sunday tornado that laid waste to miles of Omaha on March 23rd, 1913.
Louis was George’s top aide and eventually made vice president and general merchandise manager. Helmuth Dahlke has fond memories of Louis. “He was a great merchant. He was a great guy. He ran the company all those years — under George — but he ran it. Longer than anyone else. I was in total awe of him.”
With Louis looking after the store, George Brandeis turned his attention to developing Omaha’s downtown business district. Always looking to consolidate the store’s position and spur growth around it, George directed the Brandeis Investment Company in providing the land and the impetus for construction of the Fontenelle Hotel, the Omaha Athletic Club, the Elks Club and the Medical Arts Building. All became fixtures on the vital downtown scene.
As Ak-Sar-Ben president George swelled the organization’s membership and led the drive to give Omaha toll-free bridges across the Missouri River. He was crowned King of Ak-Sar-Ben in 1931. Ak-Sar-Ben bestowed on him the honorary office of chairman of the board. Active in the Omaha Chamber of Commerce, George’s leadership extended to serving as a director of Omaha’s Union Stock Yards Company, operator of the world’s largest livestock market, and head of the Central Land and Cattle Company.
Mihelich said, “George Brandeis…was a mover and shaker…with a vision and a passion for his city…His name was associated with virtually everything going on.”
George raised and trained show horses on his farm west of Omaha. Many of his saddle and harness horses won ribbons on the show circuit. He also owned a prized thoroughbred gelding, Hal Mahone, once valued at $20,000. Long before media titan Ted Turner invested in Nebraska’s rich ranch lands, Brandeis purchased a 30,000-acre Sand Hills spread, the T-O, south of Valentine, where he raised cattle.
When Brandeis died in 1948 he was memorialized by newspapers as “a merchant and civic leader” and more:
“Mr. Brandeis’ civic-mindedness reached into all corners of Omaha life. The story of George Brandeis…is the oft-told tale of the immigrant who achieved great business success. It is the story of a man who worked to build his community while building businesses.”
With George gone, cousin E. John installed himself as president. His early immersion in the family business was interrupted by military service during World War I. E. John was assigned a machine-gun unit at Camp Funston, Kansas and later made inspections of aircraft production. After the war he returned to the fold, opening Brandeis’s New York office, from where he networked with big Eastern jobbers and traveled to European markets. He remained in the Army Reserves, retaining a captain’s commission. On many of his store buying trips — to acquire textiles, chinaware and leather goods — his companion was the “Cyclone Kid,” Karl Louis.
In 1924 E. John came into possession of the Brandeis store and investment company held in trust for him since his father’s death. Confident in cousin George’s management ability, he leftwell enough alone and remained a background figure. E. John bided his time, waiting for his chance at the top. t came in the late 1940s. He would guide Brandeis through the early 1970s.
A dynamic man with a penchant for high living and the outdoors, he spent most of his time at his ranch in California, where he moved in elite social circles. While on the coast or off on one of his many jaunts around the world, he received regular briefings on Brandeis affairs. On monthly visits to Omaha he attended to business. So it was this largely absentee owner oversaw the company at its time of greatest growth.
Change was in the wind, however, and Brandeis would meet new opportunities and challenges that forever changed the company and hinted at its fate.
Arthur, George, and E. John Brandeis
The Brandeis Story: Family-Owned Department Store Empire of the Great Plains
Part II: The Dynasty Has It’s Last Hurrah
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
By 1948 Omaha department store J.L. Brandeis & Sons ruled the roost with its grand downtown emporium. Founder Jonas Leopold Brandeis built an empire that his three sons, Hugo, Emil and Arthur, and a nephew, George, grew. Arthur’s boy, E. John Brandeis, took over as president/owner following George’s death in ‘48.
When E. John assumed control Brandeis was still the only game in town. Its 10-story store was bigger, more impressive and offered more goods and services than any competitor around. Downtown was still the center of everything and Brandeis dominated that retail market. Things pretty well remained that way for the next decade. But the winds of change were blowing. By the late ‘50s-early ‘60s Brandeis faced an altered landscape. The new playing field changed the company’s status and forced a whole new way of doing business. Navigating Brandeis through this transition was E. John and his successor, nephew Alan Baer.
Each Brandeis titan exerted his own style and influence. Without a doubt, E. John proved the most flamboyant. Start with his California retreat, the Open Bar Diamond ranch, whose house was a replica of his favorite big game hunting lodge in Kenya, Africa. A man who indulged his passion for the outdoors, he worked the spread himself. He lived most of the year at the ranch, but stayed in his Omaha penthouse atop the 10th floor of the Brandeis building on monthly Omaha visits. He held court there, playing bridge and hosting parties. The penthouse, appointed in Native American art and big game head trophies he collected, was featured in an Architectural Digest spread. Its interior was inspired by his ranch’s rustic decor.
Despite spending much time away from Omaha and leaving daily operations to others, E. John professed a love affair for his hometown:
“I’m a million percent loyal to Omaha. This is my life. I’ve traveled everywhere, hunted everything, but I still love to come back to Omaha and the store. I was born and raised here and I’ve got a confidence in the Midwest.”
In an address he once made to store employees he spelled out just how closely Brandeis’ and Omaha’s fortunes were aligned. What set Brandeis apart from its competitors, he said, was its local-ownership and community-mindedness. He articulated how Brandeis ties to the area reaped loyal customers:
“This is the only Omaha store owned by Omaha, owned by Brandeis. Nobody can even touch us because we are Omaha and Omaha is Brandeis. All the other stores take it out of Omaha, but we put it back into Omaha and Nebraska. That’s why this is the best store. We are the only store that has EVERYTHING.”
The store that has everything became a mantra. For much of the store’s history it carried full hard and soft lines, from furniture to clothes, including all accessories and assundries. If Brandeis didn’t have something a customer wanted, it got it. No excuses. No questions asked. E. John made the policy crystal clear:
“…if I find we haven’t got EVERYTHING, we must have it…”
“We were very, very keen on making sure we had what the customer wanted,” former Brandeis vice president Helmuth Dahlke said. “Anytime a customer would come to the store and something wasn’t available our clerks had to write it down on a slip and it came through a system to central. It was typed up and then brought back to the buyer with the order, Buy this. The other thing is, we shopped our competition all the time for comparison.”
E. John’s disciplined habits found him riding and playing tennis most days. He was a regular at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, then the center for tennis in the U.S., and at Omaha’s Dewey Park courts. On the coast his playing partners included top pros and movie stars. When he wasn’t recreating, he was off on one of his hunting jaunts to Africa, India, Alaska or some other exotic locale. He bagged lions, tigers, rhinos, bears. He was on safari in Africa when word reached him the U.S. had entered World War II. At his request he went back on Army active duty, serving in the Transportation Corps at bases on the west coast. By war’s end he’d made the rank of lieutenant colonel. He remained on reserve status for years afterwards.
When at his California ranch, he called daily to get sales reports. A top-line man, he always insisted on 10 percent increases across the board, regardless of conditions. E. John declared:
“…I want the store to be running 10 percent ahead because if you don’t run 10 percent ahead you’re running behind…”
The bottom line and details didn’t interest him. He spent an average of one week a month in Omaha, where he conducted inspections, chaired meetings, presided over special functions and hosted guests. No big changes in the company happened without his approval. Said Dahlke, “There wasn’t anything major that would happen when E. John wasn’t around, without E. John giving his blessing. He would call every morning from wherever he was and want to know how business is. He knew exactly what was going on.”
Punctual to a fault, he expected the same from others, especially for the noon executive meeting or the two o’clock tennis game.
“If you were delayed, if it was even 12:01, you would not dare to enter the executive dining room,” Dahlke said. “If you got to the court at 2:01, you wouldn’t play. I mean, he was fiendish about it.”
E. John’s military-style inspections of the downtown store were legendary. With operations manager Ray Powers and other execs in tow, Brandeis would begin his tour on the 10th floor and work his way down to the basement, setting a brisk pace, alert to any speck of dirt or anything askew.
“He marched. He literally marched,” former VP Gene Griffin said. “And the executives that were with him — just making sure to keep up. If they saw something out of place they’d try to hide it before he got to it.”
“He was totally fanatical about cleanliness. I mean, if he saw anything amiss, he’d let you have it,” Dahlke noted.
Always immaculately attired and groomed, he expected the same from his employees, who could expect a stern dressing-down if they didn’t look just right. Knowing he despised long hair on men, managers scrambled to hide, out of sight, personnel with offending locks. Even worse was if he overheard an employee say the store didn’t carry a certain item.
And one never balked at an E. John order or request. “My predecessor made a big mistake one time,” Ray Powers recalled. “Mr. Brandeis was talking to him about something and this guy said, ‘Well, that’s not my job.’ I thought, ‘Oh, he’s dead,’ and he was dead,” Fired. On the spot.
“He was quite a formidable man, and you didn’t walk up to him just to say hello,” said Marcia Baer, whose late husband Alan Baer was E. John’s nephew and the man who succeeded him as president.
Dahlke saw another side of E. John. “He was a very direct, very strong, very firm leader. He was a dominant person but a good person and the most loyal person,” he said. “In those days we had some people that needed to be let go…and he would not allow it. He was very loyal to his people.”
As in any kingdom, Brandeis also had department heads who ruled over their territories like lords. Maury Aresty had the Bargain Basement. Meyer Reuben, “The Famous Fifth,” where high-trafficked hard-lines were sold. Lester Marcus, the main floor. Turf wars were common on the sales floor. It’s what came with high-pressure jobs, strong personalities and rivalries to see who sold more.
“These were the merchandise managers. They were tough guys. Brandeis was a rough-and-tumble environment. We had people working there that were big shots. I mean, they were kings,” Dahlke said.
Away from the fray of the sales floor, things were more serene — usually.
Much as George Brandeis immersed himself in shaping Omaha, E. John made it a point to convene meetings with fellow movers and shakers. These confabs, held in a private executive dining room at the downtown store, would bring Brandeis together with titans of commerce and industry. Their discussions put in motion projects to revive a restructured downtown amidst rapid westward expansion.
Dahlke recalled, “At Brandeis you made it when you became a member of the private dining room and I worked very hard to get there…You would have E. John Brandeis, Alan Baer, Peter Kiewit, Leo Daly, the head of At & T, the head of the World-Herald, and these people ran this town, period. It was a working lunch. Basically, they discussed the city. They discussed projects.”
In line with post-war trends that made Americans more dependent on creature-comforts, E. John, with Karl Louis and Ed Pettis now as his right-hand men, began a modernization program that saw the installation of escalators and air-conditioning. Responding to Americans’ love affair with their cars and a tight parking situation downtown, E. John ordered construction of the 18th Street parking garage.
Affordable vehicles and gas meant greater mobility, a vital economy meant more disposable income, prompting the Great American migration to the suburbs. All of which led Brandeis to look at expanding beyond downtown. Omaha’s mid-town Center Mall was a harbinger of the future. Brandeis kept a close eye on it. When VPs Karl Louis and Ed Pettis broached the idea of leasing land on the outskirts of Omaha, at 72nd and Dodge, for a future outlet, E. John approved the acquisition. Louis and Pettis drafted plans for a dramatic new chapter in Brandeis history.
“They had that property, which was pretty much the end of Omaha. That’s where the streetcars and the buses stopped. It was nothing but cornfields. And they were very nervous about it,” Dahlke said.
Ted Baer, a son of Alan and Marcia Baer, said, “That was pretty progressive thinking…Stores didn’t have outlets like that back in that time. There weren’t malls yet really. They probably took a lot of heat for it, too.” Marcia confirmed the skepticism, saying, “Yeah, it was, How crazy can they get to think this would work?” But it did work.
Brandeis took the plunge in 1959 qirh construction of the $10 million Crossroads Mall, anchored by the first new Brandeis store in half-a-century. Crossroads opened in 1960 to a lukewarm response before the mall caught on with the public.
“We were very disappointed with the grand opening and the initial performance of Crossroads,” Dahlke said. “It was so new, so different. But then gradually it took off and it became a $36-$40 million anchor store for us and a very, very successful shopping center for us.”
The project set in motion an era of unprecedented expansion, including the purchase of Gold’s department store in Lincoln, Neb. and construction of a massive distribution center in west Omaha.
“…the Brandeis family saw that expansion was necessary, that anchoring the entire business on the one store downtown was not likely to continue,” Omaha historian Dennis Mihelich said. Fellow Omaha historian Harl Dalstrom said it showed “Brandeis could and did adapt to the changing times.”
Guiding much of the later expansion was Alan Baer, the next generation to rise to prominence in the Brandeis dynasty. A nephew of E. John and a great-grandson of J.L., Baer was an Army veteran. He grew up in the San Francisco area. On summer visits to Omaha he got a taste of the retail trade. After the war E. John invited Alan to take a greater role in the store’s operations. Alan moved to Omaha and learned the ropes under Karl Louis, his mentor. With Louis’ death in 1959, Baer’s influence in the company grew. More and more, E. John deferred to Baer.
“They had a tremendous relationship,” Dahlke said.
Considered a visionary, Baer became the chief architect of Brandeis expansion with the addition of new stores in north, south and west Omaha, and for the first time — in out state Nebraska and in Iowa. Dahlke recalled, “Alan would have more ideas in an hour than most people have in a lifetime. He was an amazingly mentally agile person.” When E. John was still in charge, Baer would pitch him ideas, pushing for new stores, new ways of doing things. Not everything Baer proposed made the grade but enough did to keep Brandeis ahead of the curve.
“Basically the guy that would sell it to him was Alan Baer. He would sell it to him and he know how to sell it to him and many times he had to…” Dahlke said.
E. John put into words and Alan Baer put into action the Brandeis motto:
“We have to keep rolling. If you don’t go ahead, you fall behind.”
In his last few years, E. John’s active involvement waned except for pronouncements, groundbreakings, ribbon cuttings. He was more ceremonial figurehead than CEO. He continued making inspection tours. He also gave generously: $60,000 for construction of the Hanscom-Brandeis Indoor Tennis Center; and animals and big game trophies to the Henry Doorly Zoo.
Where E. John had little input in day-to-day business, VP Ed Pettis did. “He was a crusty old guy. Very strong,” Dahlke said of Pettis.
Pettis carried on the tradition of Brandeis executives involved in civic affairs. Dubbed “Mr. Omaha,” Pettis chaired the Golden Spike Days celebration in 1939 and directed Omaha Industrial Development Council activities. He lent his expertise to 4-H, United Community Services and Creighton University. He’s best remembered as general chairman of the College World Series when the popular event was still in its infancy. Pettis, along with advertising giant Maury Jacobs and Omaha mayor Johnny Rosenblatt, made the early CWS a success.
“Ed Pettis was the one who really got the College World Series going. Without him and Maury Jacobs, it wouldn’t have happened,” said former VP Vic Mason.
When Pettis died in 1963, Brandeis executive Jack Diesing Sr. assumed many of his duties, among them chairing the series. Diesing is credited with building the CWS into a national phenomenon and keeping it in Omaha. Today, his son, Jack Diesing Jr., heads College World Series, Inc.
“…I think Brandeis had a lot to do with the College World Series being here. There’s a lot of things Brandeis did as a community service,” Ted Baer said.
More than anyone except E. John, Jack Diesing Sr. became the face of Brandeis. From the early ‘60s through the early ‘70s, the executive team of E. John, Alan Baer, Diesing, Vic Mason, Lester Marcus and Ray Powers charted the course. Where E. John and Diesing were public ambassadors, the others were classic behind-the-scenes men.
Much as George Brandeis did with Karl Louis, E. John found in another German emigre, Helmuth Dahlke, an ambitious young man brought into the Brandeis sphere. As the trusted assistant to Alan Baer, Dahlke became an important cog in the Brandeis machine. He would remain with Baer long after the stores were sold.
E. John’s 1974 passing brought an end to an era of bigger-than-life leadership. A newspaper described him as “a fascinating and colorful figure.” In his eulogy, Rev. Carl Reinert said:
“Brandeis believed the God-given pleasures of this world are to be enjoyed with zest….He showed a fatherly concern for the large family of Brandeis employees.”
He was also a major supporter of the Pratt Institute for Individual Instruction. He left an estate valued at $12.7 million, half of which went to the E. John Brandeis Foundation, now the Alan and Marcia Baer Foundation. He also left $1.5 million to nephew Alan Baer, who took full control of Brandeis upon his death.
Where E. John was a fashionplate who lived large, Baer was an introspective eccentric whose austere, frugal, bargain basement tastes fit his simple lifestyle. In his unconventional way, Baer might plop himself down on the floor during a business meeting. “But that’s the way he operated. A little eccentric. But a brilliant mind,” former VP Gene Griffin said. “Totally disarming. He was what I call an ice-breaker,” Dahlke said.Where E. John made a show of inspections, Baer made himself inconspicuous, passing himself off as a shopper. His door was always open but he wasn’t always in his office. He might be out on the floor or playing tennis – he loved the game almost as much as his uncle — or traveling to some exotic spot.
By the late ‘70s Baer saw the changing retail landscape and realized it posed a threat. The emergence of national discounters like Target and the inroads made by departments store chains like Dillards and Younkers squeezed the market, cutting into Brandeis’ share and putting the Omaha company at a competitive disadvantage. A great booster of downtown — just as J.L., George and E. John were — Baer adored the flagship store but realized consumers preferred shopping at suburban malls. The times were making the giant downtown facility a white elephant.
“He was very interested and he was way ahead of the crew because he felt department stores as they existed in the ‘60s were dinosaurs,” Mason said, “and he was kind of right.”
“Brandeis was a big deal locally, but when you looked at it in the big picture, Dillards was ten, probably, a hundred times bigger,” Ted Baer said. “Brandeis could compete with a Dillards or with a Younkers, but we really couldn’t compete with both of them at the same time.”
“It was very apparent that going forward a private company like ours would have a tough, tough time staying in business with the big boys — the national companies,” Dahlke said.
In a move to streamline operations and maximize profits, Alan brought in new management teams from outside Omaha, the first led by Jim Gibson and the second by Sid Pearlman. Departments were scaled back. Hard line, big ticket items dropped. Brandeis could no longer afford to be “everything to everybody.”
The resulting staff downsizings were tough. Tougher decisions followed, none more so than the 1980 closing of the downtown store — the monument of the whole Brandeis empire — along with closing three other stores. The announcement made headlines. The downtown store’s last close-out days drew huge crowds. Generations of customers and employees expressed their nostalgia. It was like losing a beloved family member or dear friend.
The building remained as a mixed retail and office center but with Brandeis gone the tradition was lost.
The Brandeis store at the Crossroads became the chain’s new flagship. Renovations were made. But try as company officials might, it just wasn’t the same anymore. The oomph and awe were gone. Baer’s decision to close downtown was not made lightly. It meant letting go people who in some cases worked there decades. In larger terms, it meant abandoning the very core of what Brandeis represented. But as much as he wanted to keep the downtown store alive, he couldn’t.
Ted Baer recalled, “It definitely was not a popular decision, either in the Brandeis community or within the larger community, because Brandeis was really one of the last stores to hang on and keep downtown, downtown. I know it was a very, very tough decision for him. Gut-wrenching. It was a tradition, Brandeis.”
Still, Brandeis moved on and rebuilt its financial health. A fifth generation family member, Ted Baer, was being groomed to take over one day. Just as Alan and Marcia did, Ted and wife Kathy met working at Brandeis.
When Dillards and Younkers tendered attractive offers to buy the company, Alan Baer ran the numbers and decided to sell the family business to Younkers in 1987. The sale price: $33.9 million. It was a classic case of head over heart. He wanted to keep the stores that were his family’s legacy but Brandeis neither generated the profits nor owned the capital to stay competitive.
Once the deal was struck he didn’t look back, except to offer a hint of regret that Brandeis hadn’t parlayed its success to become a regional giant like Younkers.
He told a reporter: “My goal had been to hang in there until I died. If we had the bucks behind us…if we’d had the finances and the courage, we could have done what Younkers is doing.”
Alan kept ownership of Brandeis Food Service and began Alan Baer & Associates, an umbrella company for wide-ranging business interests — from coffee and nuts to travel services to publishing to sports teams to butterflies. Ted and his father’s longtime assistant, Helmuth Dahlke, joined Alan in the new venture, which gained a reputation for turning around small companies..
Dahlke remains a bit in awe of Alan Baer: “He was a man of incredible curiosity and quick wit. His energy was endless. Alan would ask lots of questions and, to be sure, he knew all of the answers…Alan was a networker. He always worked. He was always on the phone, always talking to someone. He was always exploring something. He went after everything. An uncommon common man.”
Father and son continued the family’s sportsmen tradition: Alan as an avid tennis player and Ted as a championship-level amateur bowler. They bought an amateur hockey team, the Omaha Lancers, that became a phenomenal success under Ted’s guidance. After his father’s death Ted went on to own a second amateur hockey franchise, the Tri-City Storm. He’s since divested himself of his hockey interests to concentrate his sports holdings in bowling with the Thunder Alley and Thunderbowl centers.
Another Brandeis tradition, philanthropy, has continued. “Alan and Marcia were very generous. A lot of their generosity got no publicity,” Dahlke said” Countless examples abound, he said, of them quietly paying the rent or medical/dental bills of Brandeis employees in need. As it has for decades, the Alan and Marcia Baer Foundation grants monies to local cultural, educational and health initiatives.
To the end Alan Baer searched for new endeavors to engage him, always on the look out for businesses to invest in, new challenges to overcome. It’s why Baer & Associates had a piece of so many different things.
“You know what I always thought it was? It was like Brandeis, but not under one roof, because we had everything. We did everything,” Ted Baer said.
Baer, who died in 2002, lived the credo that was the Brandeis slogan under his uncle. E. John Brandeis:
“To build a business that will never know completion, to create an enviable reputation and be worthy of it, to satisfy every customer individually, through quality merchandise and friendly service.”
Marcia Baer admits she doesn’t know much about early members of this fabulous family she married into. “I don’t know anything about them, except they obviously built a place called Brandeis,” she said.
The solid foundation J.L. laid down, and that successive generations added onto, stood Brandeis alone, at the top of the heap among retailers and the city’s leadership. All things have their season, and after a century of success, Brandeis left the scene. Except it will never quite be gone. The downtown building where so much of its history was made still stands. It still goes by the Brandeis name. A dynamic new use for it is under way. Then there are the memories, which never quite seem to fade.
Ted Baer said, “When we run into an old Brandeis employee it’s like we’re seeing an old family member we haven’t seen in awhile. It’s like old home week.” “Yeah, it’s like suddenly a step back in time, but it’s a good step back,” Marcia said.
“Yeah, it’s a very nice warm feeling,” added Ted.
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