American adoptee’s discovery of his birth parents reveals a story of interrupted romance and African regal ancestry
Marty Johnson is the adopted brother of my late life partner Joslen (Johnson) Shaw. About 1o years ago his search for his identity led him to the discovery of his birth parents and the story of their interrupted romance and his regal ancestry. Marty was the product of a brief union between an American caucasian woman and a Nigerian foreign exchange student. He grew up in an African American family in Omaha, Neb. When I wrote this story Marty was just about to embark on a journey to meet his biological father, a tribal chief in Nigeria. Marty comes from a long lineage of chiefs and by birthright he is a prince himself. His journey became the focus of some national media coverage, including a GQ Magazine spread and an appearance by Marty and his wife Laura on “Good Morning America.” For various reasons my story was never published, until now.
Marty visiting family in Nigeria
Marty and Laura on “Good Morning America”
American adoptee’s discovery of his birth parents reveals a story of interrupted romance and regal ancestry
©by Leo Adam Biga
The crowded, cantankerous West African nation of Nigeria, where ju ju charms still hold sway and civil unrest brews, is where former Omahan Marty Johnson travels in December for his initiation into a royal lineage he uncovered this year.
The 38-year-old mortgage broker, a resident of Eagan, Minn. with his wife Laura and their children, Alyssa and Jacob, is the rare adoptee to find exotic origins. The product of an illicit interracial union, he was adopted at age 3 by Omahans George and Juanita Johnson, then Omaha Public Schools educators and the parents of a daughter, Joslen. The black couple raised Marty as their own. They and their extended family were the only relatives he knew until a few years ago. All he knew of his biological parents is that they were college students.
His search for answers began in earnest two years ago when his birth mother, the former Kathleen O’Connor, contacted him and he tracked down his natural father, John Ogike. Marty was conceived during a 1964 summer fling in Cedar Falls, Iowa. She was a pretty, red-headed Irish-Catholic University of New Mexico student visiting family in the college town, where her father headed the United Way, and he was a dashing Nigerian-Catholic exchange student studying for his master’s in education at the local University of Northern Iowa.
The unplanned pregnancy was scandalous and the idea of marriage, which Ogike proposed, impractical. She went off to a home for unwed mothers in Minnesota while he completed his degree and returned to Nigeria. Soon after his birth, Marty was put up for adoption.
For Johnson, who showed scant interest in his roots growing up, pursuing his Nigerian background has acquainted him with a large, wealthy, well-educated African family with a major presence in America and a prestigious position in Nigeria. What began as an odyssey to fill-in the missing pieces of his unfinished life has become something larger since the discovery early this year that as the first-born son of John Ogike, the latest in a long line of tribal chiefs among the Igbo (ee-boo) people in the southern state of Imo, Johnson is regarded as a prince and, by tradition, chief-in-waiting. The revelation he is the eldest son of the Ude-Ekeh, or chief came as news to the clan, none of whom knew of his existence, as his birth was kept secret by Ogike until inquiries by Johnson reached him two years ago.
As Johnson finds out new things about his rich family legacy, the emerging story is more than he ever bargained for, such as his late grandfather described as “a powerful man that ruled with an iron fist and served as one of the first senators in the Nigerian parliament after the country declared independence from Great Britain. Really, truly something new gets added to it each time I talk with my Nigerian family. It was all overwhelming from the beginning,” he said, “and so this royal thing is like, Oh, well, here’s another cool thing to add to my story. Now, what’s next?”
Next will be the pilgrimage he, his wife and children make to Nigeria during its December high season. The trip to the Ogike hometown of Old Orlu, a city of 1.5 million and the Imo seat of power, will mark his first face-to-face encounter with his father.
The journey, which NBC News is to chronicle, will coincide with a celebration commemorating the feats of Johnson’s grandfather. If the experience of a Nigerian-American cousin who visited her ancestral homeland for the first time is any indication, then Johnson will be feted like a prince during a spate of parties introducing him to relatives, including seven siblings he’s never met. He’s been told his father is likely to lavish him with gifts, but he doesn’t want special treatment. “For me, it’s just a part of my heritage. I’m excited to see what it’s like over there and to see how my family lives and to be able to honor them.”
Marty’s late sister, Joslen
Prior to learning his African ancestry’s high pedigree, Johnson ignored clues the family provided about the esteem in which his father is held and the respect he, as the eldest son, commands. First, there was a letter from an uncle Bonifice welcoming him “to the Ogike dynasty.” A second letter, from an aunt Theresa (his father’s oldest sibling) said he would need “to prove his claim” with photos of himself from early childhood on. “When they were saying these things I thought it was just some kind of African cultural terminology to call your family a dynasty and I didn’t think anything more of it,” he said.
He next got a sense for his lofty status visiting his aunt Uloma’s and her husband Hilary’s house in California. Now, he said, it’s clear the meeting was meant for John Ogike’s oldest, most trusted relatives to “check me out to see if I really was” his son. “My aunt Uloma opened the door, her eyes got big and almost the first words out of her mouth were, ‘Well, there is no doubt — you’re my brother’s son,’ because I do look very much like my father.”
An example of how avidly he’s been accepted by the Ogikes is the scene that played out when he and his family arrived at the home of a cousin in California. “We knocked at the door and one of my cousins opened it and he just stopped and stared at me and announced, ‘He’s here.’ Suddenly, people are pulling me inside and there’s like 20 of them talking and tugging at me,” he said. They sat us down and served us food. Everyone was talking. There was just this great outpouring of joy for me as their long lost cousin. It was just crazy…totally overwhelming.”
As he’s learned, “family is extremely important” to the Ogikes. “They’re very honorable, hospitable people,” he said. “They treat me as a lost family member they’re happy to see and want to make feel welcome. Now, it’s nice to be able to have these other people in my life who are family… because I know what family is.”
Still, it wasn’t until January when he first met one of his new siblings, a sister named Obianuju, that his elevated place was revealed. “That’s when she started asking, ‘What have you learned about our family?’ We told her we kind of knew this and that and who was who. And she said, ‘Well, you understand that because of who my father is you’re considered a prince in the Igbo culture?’ And I just kind of looked at her and went, ‘Huh? What do you mean?’ And she explained the Ude-Ekeh or tribal chiefs were, before there was central government, the main ruling people over large areas with the power to declare war and their children were all considered royalty in a sense. And I was like, ‘Wow, that’s new.’”
Soon, talk turned to the inevitability of Johnson traveling to Nigeria to assume his rightful, privileged place among the elite clan. He said, “It was never IF you come to Nigeria, but always ‘WHEN you come to Nigeria…there will be a tremendously big celebration. My father will probably give you a house.’” His father’s slowly filling him in on more family lore and on what it means being a chief.
The next order of business was sorting out any problems among kin who may have viewed Johnson as an interloper infringing on their own favored status.
“It’s a big deal that I am the first born son. More so than I would have ever guessed,” he said. “Added to that is the fact I have three brothers, one of whom for 37 years knew himself to be the oldest son of John Ogike. So, one of the biggest concerns I had and that my cousins had was that my presence would be upsetting to him. But I have since actually talked to this brother and he’s been very welcoming, too.” Johnson, has no intention of usurping anyone’s position despite what he’s been told is due him. “It’s nothing that I want,” he said. “The royalty thing is so far off the map of what I care about. It’s just an interesting side note to what I’m about.”
However he feels about it, an American finding a princely African lineage extending back generations makes good copy and it made news in January when a Minnesota reporter filed a story. Picked up by the Associated Press, the item was widely published. He’s taken some ribbing along the way. “Oh, God, yes. People bowing to me, saying, ‘Oh, the prince is here.’ A local morning radio DJ gave me a hard time with cracks like, ‘If I were you, I’d be asking where’s the money.’ The implacable Johnson took it all in stride. The teasing took a harsher tone at Alyssa’s school.
Adding to the story’s appeal is the courtly, magisterial way Johnson, a large man with a dignified demeanor, carries himself. More than once, he’s been told that he looks the part of a prince. “He’s always been a gentleman,” his sister Joslen said. His regalness is most evident when wearing one of the majestic, flowing kafkans given him by his Nigerian aunts. His wife Laura hardly needed confirmation, saying, “I’ve always seen Marty as a prince. Everyone says this couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. Marty’s so humble. At first he had me tell his story, and it’s fun to finally see him tell it as he identifies more with his African heritage.”
Johnson only researched his biological roots after prodding from Laura. Until then, he said, “I never felt compelled to find out. I mean, I had some curiosity, but no burning interest to actually take some action. I was so fortunate I grew up in a really good family and thankfully my life turned out very good.” After graduating from Omaha Central High School in 1982 and from Drake University in 1988, Johnson worked in the food industry in Des Moines, Iowa and St. Paul, Minn. before transitioning into the mortgage brokerage business in 1996. He married Laura in 1993 and it was she who got him to think about his origins. “Laura was always asking, ‘Aren’t you just dying to know?’” What turned the tide, he said, was the birth of their kids. “I thought I should probably find out something to, one, know about my parents’ medical histories and, two, if they’re still alive, get to know them.”
He’d just begun making inquiries with online adoption registries when an envelope arrived at his adoptive parents’ home from Catholic Charities addressed to John Martin Johnson.
“My mom, Juanita, called and said, ‘I think this is a letter you probably want to see,’ and sent it. It was a form letter saying, ‘Someone from your family would like to contact you…’ So, I filled in all the information and about three weeks later I got an e-mail from Kathleen Wang (O’Connor) saying she was my birth mother. She just happened to start looking around the same time I did. She said she was nervous and didn’t know what to say and basically I e-mailed back saying, ‘Hey, don’t be nervous, I was looking for you, too. Let’s talk.’ She called me about 10 minutes later. I told her about my two kids and my wife and I asked her if she has any other kids and she told me I have two sisters. We just talked about family and…really get into the details of the story. I didn’t want to put her on the spot the first time we talked because it had to be tough enough for her already.”
Between that conversation, some e-mails and visits they made to each other’s homes, mother and son “got to know each other.” He said when the time was right, “I asked the one question I’m sure every adopted child asks — why did you give me up? I was prepared for the worst. But for me it wasn’t so much knowing why as what was going on in her life that she had to make this kind of sacrifice. It had to be hard.”
Marty with his two moms, Juanita and Kathleeen
He found the adoption was the best option for a biracial child born to single parents who’d only known each other a few months and who lived on different continents. “My father returned to his life in Nigeria, where he and his brother ran a school their father founded. He later married and fathered eight children,” Johnson said. “My mother didn’t want to go to Africa. She just didn’t feel like it was going to work. Besides, she had this boy friend back in New Mexico.” She resumed her college studies, married and bore two daughters. She and her family have resided in California since the late 1960s. Ironically, all these years she’s lived 20 minutes away from John Ogike’s sister — and Marty’s aunt — Uloma, but didn’t know it until being reunited with her son.
As for his first three years of life, Johnson lived with two foster families before being adopted. He has memories of the farm he lived on, near Dubuque, Iowa, that his second foster family worked. He recalls the farm’s friendly dog, its fearsome, fenced-in bull, the litter of kittens he sheltered in a bed of hay inside the barn and the mewing dairy cows. He vaguely remembers the day he met the Johnsons, who drove up to Dubuque. Juanita Johnson said they took Marty out to eat and that he and Joslen interacted so well at a playground that “he seemed ready to join the family.”
He remembers flying, escorted by a nun, on the propellor-powered plane that took him to Omaha to start his new life with the Johnsons, who promptly brought him to a picnic that found Joslen proudly showing off her gregarious little brother. “He talked so much,” Juanita said. “He didn’t seem to have any hangups. The most important thing was how well he and Joslen got along. She took his suitcase, showed him where they would be sleeping and got him unpacked.”
His adoptive mother is “glad” her son has found his blood roots. “I think it makes any individual more complete to know their background,” she said. She’s intrigued, too, by his impending African trip because her late mother traveled extensively there as a missionary teacher. For his part, he said, “I would love to be able to take my parents, Joslen, Kathleen and my other two sisters there some day.” Meanwhile, Marty and Laura are soliciting sponsors to help defray the cost of their Nigerian sojourn. They plan essaying their trip via video, still photography, audio and print in the hope of producing a documentary and/or multi-media presentation they can share with school and community audiences.
So, has he ever wondered what life would be like had he grown up in Nigeria? “Uh, for about half a second.” Despite the hoopla over his new found roots, he said, “I don’t place any more importance on that than the relatives I knew before. My family’s still the Johnson family. I just have more family. That’s the best thing about it. A question I get a lot is, How has this changed you? And it really hasn’t changed anything. I’m still just Marty. I just get to learn some things about me I didn’t know before. For me, this just kind of completes the puzzle of what I am.”
As Laura put it, “When all this broke, I was creating a family tree and now I just have to add more branches.”
With his African adventure still ahead, his story is “to be continued,” he said. Then there are the sagas of his birth mother’s family emigrating from Ireland and of his adoptive father’s grandfather escaping slavery, “but that’s a whole other story.”
Marty’s African halfl; Photo courtesy of Mark Seliger
Show a Little Tenderness; For Her 40th Birthday Kirsten Case Asked Friends to Perform Acts of Kindness
Here’s a feel good story for you. Kirsten Case, or as some of you may know her, Kirsten Romero Case, is a serial do-gooder in Omaha with a lifetime of community outreach work behind her. She recently decided she would celebrate her 40th birthday by asking people in her life to perform acts of kindness. They did and the story of why she put out this sweet intention and the ensuing good works that followed is detailed in this piece I wrote for Metro Magazine. She heads the Literacy Center in Omaha and before that she worked for the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and for various nonprofit human services organizations. It’s quite clear that whaterver she does from this point forward will involve doing for others.
Show a Little Tenderness; For Her 40th Birthday Kirsten Case Asked Friends to Perform Acts of Kindness
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in Metro Magazine
As her 40th birthday approached last fall Kirsten Case decided to celebrate the milestone in a most unusual way. The Literacy Center executive director used her personal blog to encourage friends and strangers alike to perform 40 Acts of Kindness in 40 days and to share these “simple, thoughtful” acts online.
Just like Kirsten
Case, a longtime Omaha transplant from Denver, has devoted her life to nonprofit human services work that delivers tender mercies to people in need. Wendy Hamilton and Angie Schendt are among those who granted Case’s birthday wish. They say the project fit her to a tee.
“It felt so natural that this idea came from her, and I was excited to participate,” says Hamilton, whose act of kindness involved reaching out to a young woman she didn’t know but who looked like she could use some friendly advice.
“Kirsten does have a big heart and it wasn’t surprising to me at all that she came up with this idea,” says Schendt, who honored Case’s request by organizing workmates to present a $500 check to a retiree who’d lost everything in a fire.
Shannon Smith, another friend who joined this mini-movement, says, “I’ve come to admire Kirsten both personally and professionally. She is one of the kindest people you will ever meet, always putting the needs of others before herself. When I first read her blog, I thought ‘of course.’ Of course Kirsten would come up with something compelling to motivate others to give back. Of course she would be selfless on her big day. Of course she would think big. The birthday request is everything that Kirsten is about.”
One way Smith fulfilled Case’s request was by befriending a female co-worker who rubbed her the wrong way.
“I could tell she needed a pick-me-up so I took her to lunch. We had a great chat, and I’m glad we did because I now have a greater understanding of where she’s coming from.”
Other acts people checked in ranged from reporting graffiti to giving someone a ride to donating unused clothes to a career closet to giving up a seat on a plane (twice) to making dinner for a sick friend to helping a dog owner find her lost pet in a park. Comforting words. Helpful advice. Lending a hand. Opening one’s heart.
Then there was the Saturday when Case and her daughter were in the family car in a ATM drive-thru when a man approached, speaking in broken Spanish. The bilingual Case made out he needed to deposit money and she assisted him. She says she drove off before realizing he could benefit from the Literacy Center, “and so I drove back and talked to him about it. It would have been easy to ignore him and been scared of him and to assume certain things but he was just a hard working guy that needed help.
A helping hand
Case says doing unto others is “the easiest and most inexpensive way we can improve the condition of somebody else’s life and our own. I mean, being kind or helpful to others isn’t just about them, it impacts our own life in a positive way, so it’s sort of a win-win.”
“The reality is any of us could be in a situation that could cause us to have to lean on a support network,” she says. “We’re all a heartbeat away from being in somebody else’s shoes. Besides, we’re always leaning on each other and so that’s why it really shouldn’t be a foreign concept to reach out and do something.”
She simply decided to be a conduit to help it happen.
“I just put stuff out there and hoped that maybe somebody noticed it. I really wanted to do something fun and special for my birthday. I have friends who’ve had big blow out parties and that didn’t feel comfortable. I spend a lot of my life trying to get other people to get involved in the community and do nice things for people and so it made perfect sense that way.”
She didn’t know who might respond and what they might do but as her birthday drew near she stumbled upon a Facebook event a friend created and to her delight she discovered plenty of folks heeded her request.
“It was the best birthday I’ve ever had. I was so excited to hear about things people were doing. It just brought me a lot of joy, it made me really happy to know they’d done things. I didn’t really know if people would do anything at all. I mean, how do you really ask people to do stuff? And I’m surrounded by people that are very giving and very involved, so how do you ask those people to do more?”
But more they did.
She says even though she and her friends already give-back to the community “a lot of us are working on a level where we’re not connected one-on-one, so it’s easy to get disconnected from the human side of the work that we’re doing.”
Paying it forward
She’s surprised her project’s elicited so much interest, saying, “A lot of people have talked to me about it,” and though the project ended Oct. 17, she adds, “Even now people still email me wanting to go to lunch because they want to talk about this. That part’s been fun – that people are still talking about it and telling me about things and wanting to do it themselves.”
Case says she doesn’t know how many acts of kindness overall resulted from her appeal because she hasn’t counted but she likes to think its ripple effect is ongoing. “My hope is that there’s a lot more that happened or that might happen that I don’t know about, although I do like hearing about it because it makes me happy.”
Encouraging kindness may just become her new birthday tradition.
“I do think I’ll have to do this every year now. Honestly, it really was my favorite birthday, hands-down. I feel like the people that did it did it because they do care about me and in fulfilling this request they cared about doing something. It was just so meaningful to me that somebody would honor a request like that.”
If you’re a practicing journalist for very long in Omaha there are some local stories that will inevitably cross your professional path at one juncture or another. For years I had known about and experienced some of the fallout from the annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting that literally brings thousands of folks from around the world to town for face or proximity time with the Oracle of Omaha, billionaire investor and Berkshire chairman Warren Buffett. Until an Omaha Magazine assignment a few years ago I had never written about the event and while the gig didn’t call for me to actually cover the proceedings but instead to preview them I can at least say I’ve crossed off yet another Omaha tradition from my story bucket list.
Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders Tuns Omaha into Buffettville Destination
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine
Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s once modest annual shareholders meeting has morphed into what one pundit called “Woodstock for Capitalists.”
Thanks to chairman Warren Buffett’s “Oracle” status, the weekend event’s now a branded experience. Sure, Buffett and partner Charlie Munger’s witty Q & A is popular, but there’s also exhibits by subsidiaries, entertainment, parties, concerts, tours and immersion in-all-things-Omaha. People drop big bucks on buying-junkets at Berkshire-held Borsheims and Nebraska Furniture Mart, which reportedly did $30 million in sales for last year’s spree. Gorat’s and Dairy Queen do well.
Economic crisis or not, thousands will once again venture here from across the nation and globe for the May 1-3 bash. The Saturday May 2 meeting is when Qwest Center Omaha overbrims with activity. Annual meeting director Kelly Muchemore-Broz said she’s seen the event take on “a life of its own.” “The first meeting I attended there were 200 shareholders. When I started helping with the meeting, there were a couple thousand. Back then we were able to pass microphones to the shareholders to ask their questions. Last year we had 32,000.”
The scale, said Qwest Center director of event operations Stan Benis, “is probably the largest we handle from start to finish. People come early and stay late. The event is certainly in a class of its own. The closest would probably be the American Idol tryouts, but even that didn’t take the entire convention center floor space.”
So, what goes into making it all happen?
Months in advance Muchemore-Broz begins working with a core team to plan every element of the all-day event. The devil’s in the details. That includes a theme. This year’s is cowboys. “I try to select themes that are whimsical, colorful and offer a large canvas of creative possibilities,” she said. Designers lead crews that dress the facility — this time in a Western motif. Only the arena’s left untouched. “It’s all business in there,” she said, referring to the venue where the company movie, Q & A and business meeting unfold. Everything else is fair game.
A live reenactment of a stagecoach hold-up will break out right in front of the Qwest on 10th Street. A Wild West show, minus shootouts, is on display inside.
“Every year it’s amazing to see an empty exhibit hall become completely transformed,” said team leader D’Ann Lonowski of Mint Design. “It is an elaborate setup that usually contains a large, central focal point in the exhibit hall. From there we branch out with scenery and signage.”
Muchemore-Broz said the most time-intensive work is “finalizing meeting details — designing, writing, printing, organizing, communicating and delivering meeting materials to both shareholders and attending exhibitors.” The most labor-intensive? “Stuffing envelopes,” she said.
All of it, the landscaping, centerpieces, booth displays and graphics, right down to passes and visitor guides, Lonowski said, must work together to “create a cohesive environment” and to “bring the theme to life.”
Then there’s the buzz. Think of Buffett as the iconic front man for a hot band whose star power gets shareholders to queue up hours before the meeting starts. “I believe the record was one o’clock the morning of the meeting. However, last year there was a gentlemen who arrived at 11 the night before,” said Muchemore-Broz. In terms of preparations, Benis said, “we treat it just like a rock show. The crowds are lined up outside and pass through a security checkpoint.” Once inside, he said, it’s a race of people “in suits-and-ties trying to get a front row seat.”
With attendance now at sold-out, stadium-concert proportions, demand on area service sectors, such as lodging, is great.
“The downtown hotels do sell out the summer before,” said Muchemore-Broz, “but room availability changes constantly –- right up to the weekend of the meeting. So it doesn’t mean you can’t get a room in Omaha.” However, she added, “If you wait until spring to get a room, it’s possible you could be as far away as Lincoln.”
Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau executive director Dana Markel said its Visitor Center at 1001 Farnam Center sees double its highest traffic that weekend. “It’s just a spectacular event for Omaha and really nothing compares,” she said. “People come in from all over the world.”
The day of the meeting, Benis said, “parking is always a challenge but people seem to find spaces. A lot of attendees take the hotel shuttles or walk over.” As the arena can’t hold everyone, teleconferencing beams the meeting into the exhibit hall, the ballrooms and the concourses, where the overflow crowd mingles.
Accommodating all those visitors requires much coordination. Muchemore-Broz said countless people support the meeting and satellite events/activities. “My team members have their own staffs. Everyone at Berkshire works the meeting — including employees at a couple of our local insurance companies. There’s Qwest personnel, Omaha Police Department, Nebraska and Iowa State Patrol, Douglas and Sarpy County deputies. Many local residents volunteer to help. And, of course, the local restaurants, hotels, taxi companies, the airport –- the list goes on and on.”
At the Qwest, Benis said, “our event staff, including cleaners, is around 300 on the day of the meeting. Levy, our concessionaire, will have around 250 on site. Keeping the arena and convention center clean is always a challenge, but this event again is so different because of the length of time visitors are in the building.”
Muchemore-Broz said putting on the event is “a very exhilarating and fun grind. I’m thrilled when it’s over and everyone has had a terrific weekend but it’s sad too. It’s a big emotional let down when the lights go out. Every year is a lesson in growth and fine tuning.”
- Berkshire Hathaway’s Operating Profit Grows 37%, Net Income Beats Street Expectations (seekingalpha.com)
- Warren Buffett says Berkshire Hathaway may buy more newspapers (nextlevelofnews.com)
The Mercer name is exalted in Omaha for the family’s embedded presence as downtown commercial-residential property owners and managers, historic preservationists, aesthetic arbiters, and the primary visionaries, developers, and protectors of what’s known as the Old Market. The Old Market is a small enclave of late 19th and early 20th century brick warehouse buildings that comprised the city’s wholesale produce center. Under the Mercer’s leadership these stuctures took on new life in the 1970s to house an eclectic collection of restaurants, artist studios, art galleries, trendy shops, and loft condos. For a few decades now the National Register of Historic Places district has been one of the state’s top tourist attractions. The subject of this story, artist Vera Mercer, is a native German who married into the family just as the Mercers were transforming the area into a cultural hub. She played a vital role, along with husband Mark Mercer and father-in-law Samuel Mercer in establishing some of the anchor sites there, including the French Cafe. Her photography is prominently displayed in the restaurant. The Mercers own a few eateries in the district and Vera plays a hand in them all behind the scenes. Additionally, her large-scale, Baroque-style food still lifes can be seen in one of these spaces – The Boiler Room. The Mercer’s La Buvette is a bistro style eaterie with an impressive wine selection and it’s often where Vera and Mark can be spotted. She also runs her own gallery, The Moving Gallery, that features work by European artists. Though she’s long been a key player in the Old Market, Vera has been a low-key, little-know presence outside that gilded arena. That is until recently, when a book of her paintings and exhibitions of her work have received much notice here and in Europe. I had never met Vera until doing this short 2011 piece about her for Encounter Magazine. What I found is a charming woman who is an artist through and through. Her photography and painting, equally compelling.
Artist Vera Mercer’s Coming Out Party
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in Encounter Magazine
Vera Mertz Mercer occupies a paradoxical place in Omaha. She’s a world-renowned photojournalist and art photographer, yet her work is little known here. She’s a vital part of the Mercer family’s Old Market dynasty, yet few recognize her influence.
Forty years after coming here, this German native is finally getting the attention that’s eluded her thanks to several projects featuring her work, which ranges from evocative street-market-figurative portraits to richly textured still lifes of food-animal-plant motifs.
A new book, Vera Mercer, Photographs and Still Lifes (Kehrer, 2010), includes a selection of her photo reportage and still lifes. Following well-received exhibits in Berlin and Hamburg, Germany, plus a show in Lincoln, Neb., she has a single work on display in the 12th Annual Art Auction and Exhibition at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, October 8-November 6. Her biggest exposure though will be her first Omaha solo exhibit, Vera Mercer: Still Lifes, opening in January at the Bemis.
“Given the Mercers central role in the development and sustainability of the Old Market, and their longstanding role in Omaha’s art community, it was surprising to me she had never had a one-woman exhibition” here, said Bemis curator Hesse McGraw.
He said the show will reveal “an under-recognized jewel and legacy of the contemporary art community. I’m interested in the deep intensity of Vera’s photographs. They have a timeless quality that is both classical and highly contemporary. The works are unsettlingly rich in tone, composition and content. It’s surprising these decadent, grotesque, deep-hued works also have a sense of levity. They possess a rigor that is very rare.”
Vera Mercer at an opening
More 2011 exhibitions of Mercer’s work are slated for Mexico City, Japan and Italy. Her emergence on the art scene follows a stellar career in Europe photographing famous artists and their work (Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol), authors (Norman Mailer), playwrights (Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco), performers (Jacques Brel), street scenes and markets. Her first husband, artist Daniel Spoerrii, was active in theater. Her father, Franz Mertz, was a noted set designer. Both men introduced her to the avant garde and she flourished in the heady company of artists and intellectuals.
Mercer trained as a modern dancer, teaching for a time, before Spoerri gave her her first camera. Photography’s expressive possibilities fascinated her. Self-taught, she develops and prints her own work. She prefers shooting with high speed film. She likes grainy, dimly lit images. Her lush still lifes are made with a 4-by-5 camera.
In Europe she met sculptor Eva Aeppli, the wife of Samuel Mercer, an attorney who divides his time between his native Omaha and France. Aeppli’s astrological sculptures adorn the Garden of the Zodiac in the Old Market Passageway. The Mercer family has owned property there for generations. The couple befriended Vera, who later married Samuel’s son, Mark. As an artist and gourmand she fit right in with these cosmopolitans and their affinity for artistic and epicurean delights. Her discerning eye and palette helped shape the Old Market into a cultural oasis.
Mark manages the family’s many properties. He and Samuel, a 2010 Omaha Business Hall of Fame inductee, have been the primary agents for preserving this former wholesale produce center and repurposing its warehouses as shops, galleries, restaurants, apartments, condos.
The ambience-rich Market, a National Register of Historic Places district, has become Omaha’s most distinctive urban environs and leading tourist destination.
Overshadowed in this transformation from eyesore to hotbed is Vera Mercer. She’s applied her aesthetic sensibilities to some iconic spots, such as, V. Mertz, which bears her name. She and Mark own La Buvette, an authentic spin on the French cafes they know from their Parisian haunts. More recently they opened the Boiler Room, a fine dining establishment with Vera’s large format, color still lifes integrated into the decor.
Her black and white photo murals of Parisian cafes are among the distinctive interior design elements at the French Cafe, which Samuel Mercer developed with Cedric Hartman. Her photo project for the cafe first brought her to America.
While a familiar figure to Market denizens for her culinary endeavors, her photography is decidedly less known, though in plain view. She’s exhibited her work in galleries around the world but seldom locally. This despite the fact she oversees the Moving Gallery. Mercer said, “I could easily show there but I think that’s not for me to do that.”
There are practical reasons why so much of her work is showing now after years of scant exhibition activity. First of all, she doesn’t believe in over-exposing herself. “I think one should not be overseen,” she said.
Then she’s been busy. “I had lots to do,” she said, referring to her many Mercer Old Market duties, including launching restaurants. She keeps the books for the two the Mercers still own. Several “intense” photo installation projects she did in Asia with designer John Morford kept her occupied.
So, all along she’s been practicing her craft, just not exhibiting. But she’s built a tremendous body of work.
“I work every day a lot on photography,” she said.
Exhibiting isn’t everything. The culinary arts are creative, too. “Making a restaurant is something so beautiful. It’s something for the people. It’s just like a painting,” she said, before adding,“It’s just like theater, too.”
She’s a bit taken aback by all the attention directed her way these days, but she’s “not surprised.” Always open to change, she’s now experimenting with some new portraiture techniques, ready to reinvent herself again.
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Another of my Holocaust stories is featured here. Joe Boin tells his story of defiance and survival.
A Not-so-average Joe Tells His Holocaust Story of Survival
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
|RBJH activities director Maggie Conti spots Joe Boin tooling around the Home in his wheelchair decorated with the Husker flag.|
It’s not as if Joe Boin hadn’t spoken about his Holocaust survivor tale before. He shared his story for the Shoah Visual History Project. He’s told it to school groups. He helped form Nebraska Survivors of the Holocaust to raise awareness and to commission public memorials as reminders of what happened.
But until now the Berlin, Germany native never laid out his story for publication. The time seemed right. The 87-year-old widower resides at the Rose Blumkin Home, where he scoots around in his motorized wheelchair with aplomb, American and Go Big Red flags affixed to the back. The amiable man makes friends easily and lives a credo of looking ahead, not back, but the searing memories never dim. Alone with his thoughts, his odyssey is always near.
His wife Lilly, a fellow survivor he met and married after the war, passed away 14 years ago. A Vienna, Austria native, she told her survivor tale in her 1989 book, My Story. Everyone close to her died in the Shoah.
Remarkably, Joe’s entire immediate family made it out alive. His parents are long gone and his only two siblings live in Israel. Palestine is where Joe, Lilly, his sisters and eventually his folks migrated after the war. Joe and Lilly’s two children, Heni Alice and Gustav Daniel, were born and raised in Israel. Joe suffered wounds in the fight for Israel’s independence. The couple’s children preceded them to America and Joe and Lilly followed in 1966.
After hopskotching the country to be near their children, Joe and Lilly made it to Nebraska in the late-1970s, residing first in Lincoln before settling in Omaha.
Today, Joe lives for his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He sees them when he can but they all live out of state. He’s spending Hanukkah and New Year in Phoenix with his daughter and her family.
Joe insists his story is nothing special. “I’m not too interesting,” he says through his thick accent. “I’m not important.” But Joe knows better. He knows that while every survivor story shares certain commonalities, each is its own wonder, even miracle, of fortitude and fate. He knows, too, it’s his obligation to bear witness.
Born Joachim Boin, he was the only son of Arthur and Bianca Boin, an educated Orthodox Jewish couple whose roots were in Germany and Poland, respectively. Joe’s father was a World War I veteran who fought in the German Army. He had his own accounting firm. Joe’s younger sisters, Ruth and Gisela, soon followed.
The family lived in a mixed district of Berlin where Jews and Christians lived and did business together. Next door was a Christian family, the Kruegers, who were old friends. They took an active hand in helping the Boins once the Nazi’s anti-Jewish laws took effect. They even ended up hiding Gisela during the war.
Before the rein of terror, Joe’s early childhood was idyllic. “It didn’t last long but it gave me a taste of what life could be or can be,” he said. “I had dreams but it became impossible for me to even follow them after Hitler came — that all went.”
Growing up in Berlin, Joe witnessed the fascist fervor in its huge rallies and parades that kindled the worst kind of nationalism. The mass public displays included virulent anti-Semetic screeds, all meant to sway the Aryan citizenry, to inflame hatred, to intimidate Jews and other supposed enemies of the state. The Nazi regime tapped the fears of a shaken people by offering security and scapegoats.
“Like everywhere in the world Germany was in a very deep depression, people were out of work and they had big families,” noted Joe, “and so Hitler came and said, ‘Well, if you elect me as your leader I will put bread on your table and I will make sure you have enough money to pay your bills and rent.’ Of course, everybody went for it.”
|Back row: Joe, right, his nephew Yehuda Salomon, left, niece Rachel Kominsky, and sister, Ruth; front row: Arthur and Bianca Boin and a nephew between them, Jerusalem, 1953.
To the Christian majority Hitler appealed to widespread prejudice in blaming the Jews for Germany’s decline since World War I. For most Jews, the rhetoric and restrictions aimed at them seemed nothing they hadn’t seen or heard before.
“In the very beginning when he was elected he organized the political police and then when people found out what really was going to happen it was too late, they couldn’t do much about it,” said Joe.
A strapping, athletic young man, Joe competed as an elite Maccabi club tennis player, boxer and gymnast, yet Jews like him were ostracized from German national teams and games by the Nazi regime’s racial policies. This exclusion was a bitter pill to swallow for Jewish athletes when Berlin hosted the 1936 Olympics.
“It was pretty painful, I’ll tell you that.”
Amid unprecedented propaganda and pageantry the Nazis attempted to gloss over their campaign of hate against Jews and while some observers saw through the facade most of the world did not. As far back as the Berlin Olympics, Joe’s family was warned of the impending danger facing them.
“In 1936 my mother’s brother, who lived in Berlin, too, came to my dad and said, ‘Arthur, now is the time to leave this country.’ My dad looked at him and said, ‘I was in World War I, I pay my taxes, I have a legitimate business, why should I leave?’ If anybody had any idea what was going to happen, they would have left,” said Joe, but the Boins like most people could not conceive that what seemed another pogrom would become the systematic genocide known as The Final Solution.
Until the fall of 1938 things were tolerable. Jews couldn’t go where and when they pleased as easily as they once could, owing to growing restrictions on their movements and activities, but they didn’t fear for their safety. Clearly, though, life was far from normal and things were getting more tense. Roving gangs of Nazi Brown Shirts were becoming a menace and the mere fact of being a Jew, identified by a Yellow Star, made you a target of these thugs.
The Kruegers, the Christian family who lived next door to the Boins, became a lifeline. “Our neighbors were very nice people and they supplied us with some food and so on, sometimes without taking payment, so that we could live a little,” said Joe.
When he was 15 he and his family moved to a town, Cottbus, where Joe’s father felt they would be more insulated from the Nazi grip. They did find there some kind Christians who lent aid just as the Kruegers had.
“Like everywhere else there were wonderful people that were kind to Jews, that tried to help,” said Joe.
But there ultimately was no escaping the threat. Things took a turn for the worse on Kristallnacht, Nov. 9, 1938. Nazi goons came to the Boin home to take Joe and his father away to the town square where other Jewish residents had been rounded up and their homes and businesses vandalized.
“They took us to a marketplace where they had us surrounded by Nazis and by private citizens and they put dogs on one side and they gave us a spoon and we had to pick up the crap. We got beaten pretty bad. A lot of people got killed there, too. They put bodies in the synagogue and afterwards they burned it.”
|Lilly and Joe Boin and their children, Gustav Daniel and Heni and a neighborhood child in Tiberias, 1953|
For Joe, the nightmarish incident marked the end of his boyhood innocence and the start of a cruel new reality based on instinct, chance and survival.
“My life as a child (ended). I had two years of high school before Hitler kicked us out.” From then on out, life was a harrowing affair. “We were treated like animals, not as human beings, we had to walk on the street, we couldn’t walk on the sidewalks, we couldn’t go into certain stores.”
More and more, Jews found themselves targeted, isolated, marginalized. Then, in 1939, the year Germany invaded Poland and Czechoslovakia and instigated World War II, the family was forcibly split up. A band of Nazis came to the Boin home, this time demanding only Joe come with them. He described what happened:
“At midnight they knocked on our door, shouting, ‘We want your boy Joachim.’ I came to the door and asked, ‘What do you want?’ ‘We have come for you,’ they said, and they grabbed me and hit me and put me on a truck. ‘Where are we going; do I have to take something?’ ‘No, where we’re going you don’t need nothing.’”
The ominous reply presaged the unfolding horror of the next six years, a black time when he and his family were separated from everything they knew, including each other, as each endured his or her own survival odyssey. Joe, his father, his mother and his sister Ruth all ended up in either labor or death camps.
Only his baby sister Gisela was spared. She was hidden by the Kruegers in the Christian family’s Berlin home, where for three-and-a-half years she passed a secreted-away life that if discovered would have meant certain death for her and her benefactors.
“My dad always said to them (the Kruegers), ‘You know, if the authorities find out they’re going to kill you too,’ and they said, ‘We are responsible to God, not to him (Hitler), and we feel if there’s any way to help somebody and to do something that prevents anybody from getting killed, we do it.’”
This courageous attitude struck a chord in Joe, who has tried living up to the kindnesses people bestowed on him and his family.
“It’s amazing in a situation like this that you find people that have a different way of thinking and they feel it’s immoral for others to be killed or whatever just because they’re Jewish. People helped even though they knew if they got caught they would get shot. Despite the risk, they said, ‘No, we have a responsibility to God, but not to Mr. Hitler, and whatever happens, happens,’ and that’s why quite a few Jewish people had a chance to live.”
From the time Joe was taken away in the middle of the night to the war’s end, six years passed before he was reunited with his family. He would survive six camps in four countries, counting the displaced persons and refugee camps he ended up in after the war, before the ordeal was over.
“The first camp I was in was Sachsenhausen — it was a concentration camp close to Berlin where all kinds of political prisoners, religious people were together, gypsies too. Just a very, very interesting group of people, and then from there they distributed them to the other camps.”
He didn’t know anyone at Sachsenhausen.
“I didn’t want to know anybody because in a situation like this it’s very difficult to trust people you don’t know. Sometimes you had to, but unfortunately you had a lot of Jewish people who tried to inform the Nazis of what was going on, hoping they might have a better life, which didn’t happen.”
Upon his arrival, Joe was consumed with anger over the injustice of it all.
“I was 17-years-old and the only crime I’d committed was I was born to a Jewish mother. That’s why I could never understand why I had to go through all this. I wasn’t thinking about anything else but why I’m here. I didn’t steal anything, I didn’t murder anyone — why am I here, what’s the reason? Why couldn’t I get my education so I could become somebody and get further on in life later? Why? — because I was Jewish. I could not get over that.”
Then some things happened those first 24 hours in camp to change his outlook.
“I was so mad that when we came in the barracks in the evening I said, ‘I think if I ever by any chance come out of this place I will kill every German that comes in my way.’ Somebody tapped me on my shoulder and said, ‘No my son, if you do this you’re not any better than the Nazis.’” It started him thinking.
“The next morning we had to stand in a roll call and an elderly man fell down and, of course, I bent down trying to help him and one soldier came and shoved this rifle in my back and so I fell down, too. We were carried into the barracks and the older prisoners told me, ‘If you want to stay alive you don’t see anything around you.’ Well I was a person that wanted to see what life was all about and I was trying to live a little longer if I could, and so I followed this advice.”
|Joe and Heni ride a donkey in Ein Kerem, 1953.|
Joe was also befriended by an elderly Catholic priest whose selfless example made a big impact on him. When the meager bread ration was given out, Joe said, the old priest gave away his portion to Joe and other young people. “He told us, ‘You need it more than I do, I have nothing to look forward to, it’s God’s will.’ It taught me there are people who really care for other people.”
After two years at Sachsenhausen Joe was transported to Buchenwald in 1941.
“Buchenwald was horrible for me because I was delegated to be on the railroad platform as trains came in from Holland and Belgium. I would pick up the suitcases and possessions people carried. The hardest thing for me was seeing women come with little children in their arms and the children, some not even a year old, were taken away and thrown on the platform. Some guards did much more worse — they used them as target practice. I still have nightmares about this.”
It took all of Joe’s self-discipline to not respond, not intervene, not retaliate.
“I was strong enough I could probably have killed some guards but that wouldn’t do me any good because two minutes later people would be shot on the spot. It doesn’t help me or nobody else either. It was a hard decision to make but unfortunately that’s the way it worked.”
Living conditions were abysmal in every concentration camp, but he said the treatment by the Buchenwald guards was particularly harsh.
“The guys that watched us were much more brutal in Buchenwald than they were in Sachsenhausen. They got a bottle of whiskey in the morning to drink to get them in the mood of tormenting us. They were specially trained, they had only one thing in mind, make sure the people don’t get out of here alive.”
As part of the Nazi program of humiliating prisoners, he said, inmates were given absurd tasks meant to break their mind and spirit.
“We had to do idiotic things, like they had a room that needed to be cleaned and they give us a toothbrush to clean the walls. It made you feel degraded. This is the evil of the world — to not treat us like human beings. They didn’t want you to feel as a human being anymore — well, they didn’t have any luck with me.”
Death, hunger, toil and beatings became every day occurrences.
“In our barracks we had bunk beds, with maybe four or five people laying there in a clump, and very often when you woke up in the morning somebody was dead. It took me a long time to get over those deaths,” he said.
Hardening himself to his reality became a necessary thing.
“I always thought a little bit different — that I’m in a situation where I have to do certain things and I’m looking for a loophole maybe somewhere to improve my situation. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. I was able to be pretty open with the people that were surrounding me in trying to explain how important it was for our little group here to hold together and not go to the Nazis, that we had to stick together and try to improve our lives — that was the only way to make it happen. Some of them did and some of them didn’t.
“Some didn’t have the will (to live) anymore. One guy told me, ‘What difference does it make?’ Some people had a little bit of sense left. I had the will to live. I prayed to God, ‘I know if you want you will give me the strength to fight back in a way to keep my mouth shut when I should,’ instead of saying something that would give them the opportunity to beat me or to restrict food from me.”
|Joe visits his sisters, Gisella, left, and Ruth in Netanya, Israel, in 1984.|
That resolve and restraint, he said, “was not very easy because when you work hard 10-12 hours a day with nothing to eat your mind is mush. I tried to get rest as much as I could because I knew that’s what I needed. Somehow I still kept on going.”
He kept alert for work details that might provide a scrap more food or be out of harm’s way. “If somebody was really weak I jumped in and told them, ‘I’ll do it.’” That may have saved his life when he got to Auschwitz-Birkenau in late ’44.
“I ended up in Auschwitz,” whose dark reputation, he said, preceded it — “somehow it went from camp to camp what happened there. I knew if I would stay there that would be it. My strength was down, we were beaten every day, we had no good food, we had to work. I wasn’t Superman, I just was a simple human being who can take only so much. I was lucky to get out of there.”
It just so happened a work detail was formed and Joe was in the right place at the right time to be assigned it. “I was there three weeks and then some officer came and he saw me and put me to work in the stone quarries on the Polish-German border, near Hindenburg. There was a big forest around us. We slept in tents.”
In early 1945 the quarry camp came under bombardment from advancing Russian forces and Joe and some fellow prisoners used the cover of chaos to flee.
“There were about 10 of us and we said, ‘Let’s go, no matter what.’ We escaped in the big forest there. Some of us were pretty weak. We were afraid the guards might set their dogs on us, so we tried to put as much distance between us and them, but most of the guards had fled — they didn’t want to get in the Russians’ hands.”
|Ruth tends the gravesites of their parents, Arthur and Bianca Boin, Netanya, 1978.|
After foraging on the road for six or seven days Joe and his mates were liberated by Russian Army troops. “We were lucky,” he said, “there was a Jewish major in their ranks who spoke Yiddish and he warned us not to eat the uncooked bacon the Russians spread out to feed us. He said after what we’d been through it would kill us.”
The major didn’t warn about the bottled drinks the Russians offered.
“It looked like water to me, I was so thirsty, so I drank and I almost died — it was 100 percent vodka,” said Joe, who can smile about it now.
Joe weighed 82 pounds when rescued. He spent two months in a Russian military hospital. Once he regained his strength, he made his way to Holland, mostly by hitching rides with G.I. transports. His family had agreed to meet there if they were ever separated during the war. His mother’s brother had fled there. He hoped his family had survived but he had no real expectation of seeing them again.
Amazingly, he said, “we all came out of it. We were lucky. Slowly but surely everybody made their way to Holland.” His mother had survived as a laundress for the German military, his father escaped a camp before being pressed into duty making military roads, Ruth worked in a labor munitions camp and Gisela remained hidden.
The Boins spent the next year in a D.P. camp, where Joe met the woman who became his wife, the former Lilly Engelmann Margulies. She was a survivor of Theresienstadt (Terezin). Having lost her husband, parents and siblings, Lilly was all alone and the Boins became her protectors and friends. There was a considerable age difference between Joe and Lilly but the attraction was mutual.
“We liked each other. Then, of course, I asked her one day ‘will you marry me?’ and she looked at me and said, ‘no,’ and I didn’t take no for an answer, I wanted an explanation. So she told me, ‘Well, I’m 14 years older than you,’ and I said, ‘So what?’ So we got married in Amsterdam and we were married 50 years.”
With no prospects or permits for starting a new life in war-ravaged Europe, the couple, along with Ruth and Gisela, embarked on an epic journey to reach the promised land of Palestine. Traveling with no visas, they made their way to France and Belgium.
Out on the Mediterranean Sea they risked being turned back by authorities or being turned in by mercenaries, but enough angels helped their cause. Making the trip more hazardous was Lilly’s pregnancy. They arrived in Haifa on a Turkish coal boat in 1946. Among the early Holocaust survivors in Palestine, their testimony of the genocide they witnessed fell on deaf ears at first.
“When we first went to Israel, our own people didn’t believe us. They said, ‘Oh you just want sympathy,’ until some of their relatives came and told them. It’s something people couldn’t imagine, that human beings can do this to other human beings, and to children.”
Like many survivors Joe was angry the world largely turned a blind eye to the plight of millions. He said while some lost their faith, he did not.
“Many people said, ‘Where was God? I don’t believe in God anymore.’ That’s your privilege, but let me tell you something, it had nothing to do with God — people are the ones who did it, you can’t blame everything on God. What happened, happened, I cannot repair it, I have to go with what I have now. You have to live with it and you have to make the best you can to keep on living.”
He joined the Israeli Army and was shot in the stomach during a rescue mission. A doctor told Lilly he wouldn’t make it.
“Here I am,” said Joe, the perpetual survivor. He worked odd jobs overseas. In the U.S. he was a botanical gardens curator before going into business as a locksmith. His picks can open anything but safes.
His wife Lilly died in 1995 after a long illness that saw him care for her at home. “I thought my life came to an end,” he said, “but there’s a reason for everything. I never want anybody to feel sorry for me. I’m grateful for what I have.”
He’s dismayed atrocities still go on around the world. “People killing in the name of I don’t know what. How is that possible? Why didn’t people learn and see what comes out of this? You have to sit down with people and talk to them — there always is a way if you have the will to do it.”
|Joe’s sister Ruth, right, visits Joe and Lilly Boin in Omaha in 1991; they’re pictured in front of the newly opened Beth El Synagogue.|
A supporter of Omaha’s TriFaith Initiative, Joe counts Christians and Muslims among his friends and he believes the more interfaith, multicultural dialogue there is, the less likely it is genocide will occur. He does not allow his survivor past to define him but instead uses the experience to practice and preach tolerance.
“You know, the memories are fading away, but this is something that’s inside you. I will never forget what happened, but I am a person that looks forward, I don’t want to look back. I learned not to hate anymore. It gives me more of a reason to try to see that other people are treated like human beings,” he said.
“Try to help whoever you can because you never know – someday you might need help and they will help you. I love life, I love people. I believe in live-and-let-live. Enjoy life as much as you can and do good as much as you can. If you’re a good person and trying to live in the world you have to respect other people’s beliefs, and I try to do that.”
The Kripke Library’s copy of Lilly’s book contains an inscription Joe could have written hmself: “Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards.”
He’s written his own Holocaust reflections, including a prayer:
“I am thankful that I could see life from every angle. I learned how to be rich and how to be poor, how to give orders and how to take orders, how to live in a big family with a lot of friends and how it is to be completely alone. I learned to appreciate health, so I could endure pain. I met the ugly, so I was able to enjoy the beauty. I know how to live in a mansion, but be content to live in a bathroom … to own a Mercedes and to walk barefoot the dusty, stony road. When I was in prison I realized the value of freedom …
“I have met people who found consolation. In helping those who could not help themselves they had put their own life in danger…I saw goodness at its best and bestiality at its worst … I got the taste of almost unbearable disaster and I was blessed to have again a wonderful family, who brought so much happiness into my life … Thank you God … for all the experiences I had in two ways of life.”
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- What groups did the Nazi target during the holocaust (wiki.answers.com)
- Today In History, the Nazi’s Invaded Poland: Naomi Wolf ” they did this in Germany…” (pornalysis.wordpress.com)
David Hall is a born entrepreneur, and if savvy instincts and good intentions mean anything then his newT-shirt design and screen printing business SweeTees should flourish. But the cold reality of business doesn’t much care about whether one’s heart is in the right place or not. The following short piece I did about Hall for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared not long after a senseless act of gun play disrupted his previous venture, Terri Lynn’s Coffee Shop, injuring several and scaring many more, and not long before business fell off so badly that he was forced to close. Terri Lynn was his late sister, who herself fell victim to gun violence. The T in his new SweeTees is for her. In addition to his sisters, Hall’s lost others close to him as well to reckless gun violence. He’s trying to do what he can to succeed while paying homage to Terry and giving young black men in the community a positive role model to follow. I am not alone in wishing him well.
After Night of Violence, Downtown Coffee Shop Owner Ponders Venue’s Future
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Terri Lynn’s Coffee Shop attracted a corps of regulars to its inviting 1618 Harney Street digs before an act of violence changed things. Now, business has slowed to a crawl and owner David Hall is left wondering if the venue, named for his late sister and meant as a safe haven for inner city teens and young adults, can last.
It all went down the evening of Friday, May 13, when a private graduation party turned real life fright night. About 60 people were there when a fight erupted inside. Hall, security staff and chaperones removed the troublemakers and the party resumed. Later, gun shots fired from outside riddled the place. In the ensuing chaos, eight people were injured. One was shot. Some $2,000 in damage was done to the shop, whose register was looted. A week later, an arrest was made and the incident became another statistic in Omaha’s black-on-black crime wave.
Despite taking precautions, Hall feels he was “naive” not requiring a “mandatory guest list. The kids that caused the trouble just slid in,” he said.
The events shook Hall to his core. He couldn’t sleep that night. He couldn’t bring himself to visit the shop that weekend. He contemplated closing for good.
“I felt like a ton of rocks got dropped on me, man. I was so discouraged,” he said. “Then I prayed on it and went to church and it felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. Everybody came up and they hugged me. I thought they were going to blame me more than anything. But my pastor and my community told me, ‘Don’t quit.’ That’s what made me not give up. They wouldn’t let me quit if I wanted to.”
Besides, he said, “Something is telling me, Why penalize all the good kids that come in here for the acts of a few?” Terri Lynn’s had become a live music and dancing hot spot. Hall said there’d been no serious problems until the shooting. He sees what happened as part of a larger, city-wide problem with youth violence.
He has reacted strongly to the shooting because it struck so close to home. His only sibling, Terri Lynn Hall, was fatally shot with her boyfriend in 1994. That same year alone, Hall said, he lost five friends to gun violence. This most recent event was a slap in the face to a man trying to “be part of my community.” The negative pub hurts a fragile business that’s been at its present location just since last fall. He said he faces enough hurdles already as a black small business owner in a white district. Add the fact he’s one part of an interracial couple — his wife Carol is white — and he feels things are stacked against him in a town obsessed with race.
Although an aberration at what’s been a calm spot, he’s afraid the incident brands his place a hazard in the public’s mind.
“I’m a young black dude, man, and it’s hard to beat some of the stereotypes thrown my way. I’m already one of the few minority owners downtown. I didn’t know if people were going to see through all of that — a black on black crime — and be open-minded to what I’m trying to do here,” said Hall, an Omaha native and nephew of Charles Hall, proprietor of North O’s now defunct Fair Deal Cafe.
In an effort to make sense of the violence and to dispel perceptions about Terri Lynn’s as a dangerous place, Hall held “an old fashioned town meeting” there on May 28. The event offered an open forum to discuss the violence and sought donations to help Hall recoup his losses and to pay medical bills of those injured in the melee. Less than two dozen people attended — most of them family and friends. He was discouraged, but he’s not ready to give up on his dream yet.
“I talked to the police and city, and they don’t want me to quit. They want a place for young people to go. They don’t want them to run the streets. That’s what I wish I would of had. That’s what I wish my sister would of had,” said Hall, who plans hiring uniformed officers at parties and installing more surveillance cameras.
“Since Terri passed, I’ve always tried to have a way for her to live on through my life. This is my passion. This is what I want. But as much as I want to be here and to make this work, it’s about dollars and cents now. We were already just getting along, but since reopening May 18 it’s been slow. I’ve refunded six parties we booked. If we don’t have the public coming here supporting the cause, we can’t make it. We’ll remain open as long as we can afford to. I’ve got my rent paid for June, so we’re good for 30 more days. Check back with me then.”
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