Seventy-five years ago a fetching Florence Emelia Young (then Taminosian), took the stage in the Omaha Community Playhouse’s first production, “The Enchanted Cottage.” For the romantic fantasy the trained dancer landed the minor, non-speaking role of a sprite-like figure, but with her shapely legs, graceful movements, dark bangs and cute dimples she no doubt caught the eye of male admirers in the audience that night in 1924.
The glowing high school student, all of 17, had been urged to try out for the fledgling theater’s inaugural play by her neighbor, Henry Fonda, a quiet young man two years her senior. Fonda, who practically “lived at the Playhouse,” would later leave Omaha to find stardom. The star-struck girl appeared in a few more plays there. She made her mark though not as a performer, but as a devoted theater volunteer and supporter these past 75 years. Today, she is the benevolent grand dame of the Playhouse.
“I always thought she was a treasure,” said the theater’s former executive director Charles Jones, “because she was really willing to put herself out for the Playhouse. She was proud of selling season memberships and helping us move forward. She has this bulldog tenacity, but the most wonderful heart. She’s a glorious, caring person.”
Another bedrock Omaha institution in Florence’s life has been Dundee Presbyterian Church. Founded in 1901, she attended Sunday School there beginning in 1910 and was confirmed in 1918. She has been an integral part of the church’s life and it of hers. Dundee is where she wed, where her children were baptized, confirmed and married, where her mate of 61 years, Kenny, was eulogized, where she served as choir member, deacon, elder and Sunday School teacher. In 1991 she was ordained a Stephen Minister. Young-endowed scholarships are granted each year.
Florence has seen a century of change unfold. She’s outlived many who have been dear to her. In 1979 she buried her only son, Bob, after he died of cancer. Yet, her bright, buoyant spirit remains undimmed. Whatever has come next, she “took it in stride,” forging a life of infinite variety and enviable richness, one based in family, church and community. Her passions range from travel to cooking to the arts. Then, there’s her entrepreneurial side. She had her own public stenographic business and real estate broker’s license at a time when career women were scarce. Also a noted restorer of Oriental rugs, she continues plying the craft today.
Even now, this vivacious lady of 92 still works, volunteers and travels. Additionally, she spends time with her six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. She is clearly centered on the here and now, not the past.
“I have such a fascinating life,” she says.
She’s still very much the same charming girl who moved with the greatest of ease that night so long ago. She was recently back at the Playhouse visiting the set of “The Little Foxes,” the current offering in the Fonda-McGuire Series. Looking radiant in a flowing black gown topped by an aqua blue sequined blouse, her white hair set-off like a pearl, she was every bit a teenager again, primping and preening for a captive audience – in this case a photographer. A graduate of the Misner School of the Spoken Word and Fine Arts, she glided effortlessly through the set, posing on a staircase and reclining on a chaise lounge. Ever the trouper, she responded to the photographer’s every request, obviously enjoying the attention, her energy and enthusiasm belying her years. A picture of health — she takes no medicine and drives a 1986 Cadillac kept “in perfect running shape” — she believes age is just a number anyway.
“It is. It really is. I think attitude makes a lot of difference, no matter what your age is,” she says in a ripened voice full of eager anticipation.
Ask her what’s the best thing about being 92, she unhesitatingly quips, “Everybody is so nice to you.” The worst part, she adds, is “knowing you maybe only have about ten more years left, if that many, and so much to do. Every year goes so fast.”
Her long life is filled by so many telling incidents that in recounting it the tendency is to telescope events, but that would not do her justice. Her story, like the intricate rugs she restores, is a tapestry of interwoven threads that form the pattern of a life lived well and fully. The only way to get a true picture of her is to go back to the beginning.
Born at home in Omaha in 1907, Florence was the first child of John Isaiah Taminosian and the former Ellen Maria Andersson. A sister and brother completed the family the next few years. Florence and her siblings grew up in a house (still standing) on Chicago Street in Dundee.
Florence’s parents each emigrated to America. He from the former Asia Minor Republic of Armenia. She from Sweden. By all accounts, her father was a charismatic fellow with a history straight out of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. “He has such a fantastic story,” Florence says.
Buoyed by a published interview he granted to a Mankato, Minn. newspaper in 1910, the dramatic circumstances of his coming over are known. As he told it then, he was ostracized by his family when he rejected Christianity (his father was a Congregational Church deacon) for Islam and became a dervish or kind of Muslim evangelist.
He escaped to Cairo, Egypt with the aid of a local prince. While living under the prince’s protection he was ordained an Islamic priest, but after time grew disillusioned with his new calling and yearned for his old life and faith. But, rebuking Islam invited certain death. Returning home was out since Armenians were a persecuted minority. So, he enlisted the aid of Western missionaries, who secreted him out of the region.
He arrived on U.S. shores in 1893, not knowing English or a single soul. After a year of struggle he landed the part of “the howling and whirling dervish” in the Barnum & Bailey Circus, traveling to 29 states in two years. His talent for proselytizing and performing, as well as his knowledge of Oriental rugs, would later be passed on to his daughter Florence. His circus days ended when, struck by a second religious conversion, he became a street corner preacher with the Volunteers of America, a Christian evangelical organization ala the Salvation Army. With his dark exotic good looks, wild gestures, musky voice and turban-topped uniform he cut quite a figure. So much so he was invited to appear at the 1898 Trans-Mississippi International Exposition in Omaha. Here he stayed, finding more mainstream work with Woodmen of the World Life Insurance Co. and meeting his future wife Ellen. Later, he began selling Oriental rugs.
The arrival of Florence’s mother is devoid of storybook intrigue but no less compelling. Purportedly descended from Swedish royalty, Ellen Maria grew up in privileged surroundings on a country estate, Borstad, near Vadsteima, Sweden. One of ten children, she attended finishing school and became expert in household maintenance, particularly sewing, a skill Florence would learn under her watch years later.
In 1903 Ellen Maria ventured alone to America, by ocean liner, and made her way to Mead, Neb., where an uncle lived. She learned English and moved to Deadwood, S.D., where she worked as a seamstress. Restless in the small town, Ellen Maria moved to Omaha and soon secured a position in the home of Herman Kountze, one of the city’s leading citizens.
“She was in charge of their upstairs maids and when the family entertained she helped with the serving,” Florence writes in a family history she’s compiling. “She was treated just like one of the family.”
It was at a Kountze soiree, Florence believes, her mother and father met. Although from vastly differing backgrounds, she guesses the attraction was mutual. “My father was a very handsome man. He spoke seven different languages. He was selling Oriental rugs and I imagine, even at that time, they were highly esteemed. And he was probably doing well by then. My mother was a very beautiful, talented lady. She was always very beautifully dressed. Everybody loved her.”
Even after becoming a family man and attending to business (he eventually acquired the Dundee Cleaning Co.), Florence’s father still preached on the side. She saw him speak once to some long forgotten congregation. By then he was no longer the flamboyant Great Dervish, but rather a sober, chastened man of God.
“He gave a very good sermon. I think he was a very good speaker. I was so proud of him as a preacher.”
In her mind, she can still see the occasion when her normally stoic father broke down after bitter news arrived from the Old Country. “The only time I saw my father cry is when he received notice his mother and father had been dragged to death by the Turks” in another round of atrocities.
The Taminosian home, a two-story wood-frame house, was always open to visitors and a melting of Armenian, Swedish and American culture.
“My mother had a regal quality, and yet our friends were always welcome in our house. There was always something to eat for them. On Sundays my mother would cook a big beautiful dinner and she and my father would invite their friends. I grew up with many different languages being spoken around me. The men would be in the living room after dinner and my mother and her friends would be in the kitchen.”
Leisure time then was less hurried, more social. Cheap too.
“It didn’t cost a lot of money to have fun in those days. As little girls we played jacks, hopscotch, hide and seek, things like that. When I was older a whole group of us might go dancing to Peony Park. I’ve always enjoyed dancing. It was just a lot of good wholesome fun. It was a lovely time.”
She loved silent pictures, especially romances. She enjoyed riding with her family in their horse-and-buggy en route to picnics at Carter Lake. Autos then were still few in number. The first car she rode in was a Model-T Ford. Of all the inventions and advances she saw, the most impressive were electrical power coming into her home and the advent of radio.
Summer nights meant sleeping on the second-story porch just outside her bedroom. Doors were never locked. She always felt safe.
She received her elementary education at Dundee School, which was not yet built when she started. Therefore, she attended kindergarten in Dundee Hall and first grade in the Dundee Fire Barn, where, in the middle of class, “the bell would go off and the firemen would slide down the pole.” She attended Central High School before heeding her mother’s advice (‘every girl ought to be able to earn her own living if she needed to’) and transferring to Technical High School, where she learned typing and shorthand, two skills she would put to good use.
But the familiar red brick Tech edifice on Cuming Street was still under construction, so Florence and her mates attended classes in converted storefronts along Leavenworth Street for one year before moving to the big new Tech High building. “It was wonderful. It was the only school in the city with a swimming pool.” She swam well too. Her other extracurricular activities included editing the school paper, dramatics, debate, chorus. A play she wrote, “The Stovepipe Hole,” was performed on the Tech stage.
Although long closed, Florence keeps her ties to the school alive as coordinator of the annual Tech High Reunion. She’s helped preserve and display school memorabilia and raise funds for a planned renovation of the building’s massive auditorium. Her 75th class reunion is next year.
As a young woman she helped out in her family’s cleaning business. Besides cleaning rugs, her family repaired them. Her father taught her mother all about Oriental rugs and it was under the tutelage of her mother, a master needleworker who did restoration work for individuals and museums, that Florence and her sister Eleanor became skilled.
“I apprenticed for over 30 years under my mother and I learned to be an Oriental rug expert,” Florence says. “She wouldn’t even let us touch a rug belonging to a customer. We had to practice on old ones.”
Along with her expertise, Florence gained a deep appreciation for the rugs, which are traditionally handwoven using the choicest materials.
“They’re the finest you can get. I have one rug that is 168 knots to a quare inch. All put in by hand. It has silk outlining in it. To me, rugs are like pictures on a wall, only they’re on the floor.”
She continues Oriental rug restoration today, refringing ends, reweaving holes and edging sides frayed from wear, pets or accidents.
“Even now, the Nebraska Furniture Mart sends customers to me who need a rug repair done. My sister has a big business doing it in Kansas City too. Neither of us ever advertise. Work just comes to us.”
Over the years Florence has had clients seek her services out from as far away as New York and California. She does most of the work at home, which these days is an apartment at Skyline Manor. For a large piece, she works at the owner’s home. One local couple had such an enormous rug, she says, “they built a room just for it and set-up a table for me to work on. Their cat had really injured this rug. I was there for weeks.”
According to Florence, the best Oriental rugs are made in Iran and before trading with that nation was restricted some years ago she laid in a supply of native yarn that she isn’t sure “anybody else has” in the U.S.
She says the quality of a fine Oriental rug is partly dependent on the area of the country it’s made. “The quality of the yarn produced is determined by the water the goats drink and the vegetation they eat.”
Her travels over the years took her to the Mideast, where she and Kenny bought many rugs. Native weavers working at their looms often remarked on how knowledgeable she was about their craft.
“When I was in Iran I put some stitches in a rug they were making and one of the men came way across the room and kissed me on the cheek, saying, ‘You’re an American, and you know how.’ He couldn’t believe it.”
Travel was one of her and Kenny’s greatest shared pleasures. Everyone who knew them say they were a perfect match.
“He was behind me in everything I did and I was behind him in everything he did. We admired each other so very much. He was a caring, intelligent man and it was just a privilege for us to live together.”
The two met in the late 1920s and married in a formal ceremony at her church. A civil engineer by trade, he had his own firm and worked for Metropolitan Utilities District. He was later properties manager for the Great Plains Girl Scouts. Knowing her abilities, he encouraged her to find work and, when the opportunity arose, they bought a public stenographic business for her to run. Under her leadership, it flourished during the Great Depression.
“I built that business up to where I had three offices with a manager in each one. I also did printing and mimeographing.”
She closed the company to raise her family. Once the children were grown she re-entered the business world as a real estate broker. She was a top seller. She and Kenny also built, sold and rented several homes. “We never lost a cent either.” She’s justifiably proud of her professional career.
“I liked business so much. I felt I had to be absolutely correct in everything I did because I was paving the way for other women.”
It pleases her her granddaughters have followed her path and become business professionals in their own right. Her daughter, Helen Margaret Bucher, is a school teacher in Iowa.
Motivated by a mutual curiosity about the world, the Youngs began their travels by seeing the U.S. They eventually made it to all 50 states. From the time they started going abroad in 1954 until his death 37 years later, they visited every continent but Antarctica and a total of 125 countries. She’s since added three Caribbean countries. About their travels, she says:
“Each one was so different, so precious. It’s been very interesting. We both enjoyed people so much. Other people’s customs, ways of living and treasures. You learn so many things. When we went to different countries we tried to learn a few of their words, and it made so much difference. The people knew we wanted to know them better. What was nice is Kenny and I traveled before everything became so Americanized.”
When their children were small the Youngs took them along. “It would be so exciting to see them excited about something and learning about something,” she says.
The highlights of her overseas journeys range from “the wonderful museums in Russia” to India’s Taj Mahal, which “was as perfect as advertised. We were allowed to go down in the tomb and see its exquisite workmanship.” Then there were the geysers Down Under, “the wonderful art and food” of Italy. In Sweden they stayed at the estate her mother grew up in. In the Mideast they visited a mosque her father sought refuge in.
“You kind of pinched yourself you were actually there sometimes. “
As an engineer, Kenny liked “climbing to the top of most everything — from the Leaning Tower of Pisa to the Great Wall of China.”
They cruised on the QE2. Soared on the Concorde. During a memorable tour around the world they had a driver and guide all their own. Florence will never forget their first European jaunt in 1954. They flew from New York to London, when flying across the Atlantic was still a leap of faith.
“It was a propeller plane and I think I stayed up all night long just to see that propeller kept going.”
Wanting mementos of her adventures, she began collecting rings and dolls from every country she visited. Her large collection of dolls, each outfitted with authentic native dress and made of indigenous materials, is proudly displayed in her apartment. The Youngs documented their tours via slides and presented public travelogues. She’s also lectured extensively on dolls and Oriental rugs, many of which she’s given to family members.
Sharing with others is something she’s always done. It’s why, even now, she counsels those in need as a Stephen Minister. “I really truly like people, and if I can help in any way to relieve their problems, I like to.”
Her ministerial work extends to her retirement community. She calls on a woman at Skyline every Sunday and often finds other residents opening up to her. “People often tell me their thoughts and problems.” Ask if she finds the work satisfying, she replies, “Well, you would get a great deal of satisfaction if you helped somebody, wouldn’t you?”
“Florence Young is a devoted, joyful servant of Jesus Christ. She’s an example to members of all ages of this congregation that one never retires from service to the Lord,” says Rev. William L. Blowers, pastor of Dundee Presbyterian Church. “She is a remarkable woman. An inspiration.”
Just as the church is the fabric of her faith, the Playhouse is the link to her love of make-believe. The continuity of her life will find her celebrating the church’s centennial in 2001 and the theater’s 75th anniversary in the 1999-2000 season. She’s been there for every step in the theater’s history.
“It’s a real part of my life. It’s wonderful to know I have been a part of something like this and to have done a few things to help it grow. It’s really almost a miracle the way it has grown.”
The Medallion Award for outstanding promotional service is named after her and Kenny. A top seller too for the symphony and opera, she still sells hundreds of Playhouse memberships yearly. She attends every play.
“I always feel I’m not so much selling, but offering a chance for a wonderful evening. Some plays produce messages. Others are just for amusement. Others bring back memories. It is a world of imagination, isn’t it? It’s such fun.”
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