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Omaha South High Buffett Outstanding Teacher Award Winner Maria Walinski-Peterson Follows Her Heart

July 24, 2012 2 comments

 

A lot of negative things are said about the state of American public education but most schools and teachers do a fine job within the parameters they’re given.  If you ever find yourself despairing about the situation give this profile of a master teacher a read and you’ll likely feel a bit better about the caliber of people teaching our kids.  Maria Walinski-Peterson may not be average or typical but she’s certainly not an aberration.  The Omaha South High School social studies teacher is a product of the very system (Omaha Public Schools district) and school she teaches in.  Yes, she’s won some major awards and been recognized as a stellar classroom instructor, but she’s one of many thousands of outstanding teachers fighting the good fight who’ve learned under great teachers before them and are influencing great teachers ahead of them.

 

 

 

 

Omaha South High Buffett Outstanding Teacher Award Winner Maria Walinski-Peterson Follows Her Heart

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico

 

When Omaha South High Magnet School social studies teacher Maria Walinski-Peterson thinks about her 2011 Alice Buffett Outstanding Teacher Award, she’s reminded of master teachers she had as a student there. Teachers like Sally Fellows and Jim Eisenhardt.

“They were models of teachers who knew what they were talking about, who had some energy, some enthusiasm, and who made me want to pay attention. They had a kind of charisma. I wanted to do a good job for them,” says Maria.

“That’s a pretty tall order to get that breadth and depth. The fact that anybody thinks I have even a small piece of that…” she says, her voice trailing off. “When that call came about the Alice Buffett, I thought, Really? I’m not Sally Fellows yet, I’m not Jim Eisenhardt yet, I’ve only been doing this nine years, this is too soon.

“But I learned from the best, and I knew if I’m going to truly follow this vocation I have to give these kids something they’re not going to necessarily get from somebody else.”

The recognition and the $10,000 that come with the award means raised expectations.

“There are people looking at me like, ‘Really, you got a Buffet? What’s so great about you?” The pressure is enormous. Other people are like, ‘Oh, just relax and enjoy it.’” To which her response is, “Are you freaking kidding me?’ If students and colleagues have said you’re one of the best in your profession — guess what? — I have to be one of the best. I don’t get to slack off. People are watching.”

She may feel added pressure, she says, “because I’m relatively young. You don’t usually get a lifetime achievement award until you’ve put in a lifetime.”

There’s pressure, too, teaching where she once attended school, but she couldn’t see herself working anywhere else.

“I lobbied diligently to be here. After I got my teaching certificate and master’s degree at Drake University, I was sending emails and calling people back here saying, ‘Make sure there’s a spot for me — I need to student teach in this building, so that I can teach in this building.’ This place gave me so much. It’s simply payback. It’s a calling and I just knew this is where I had to be.”

If anything, her loyalty has only deepened. She says she recently declined “a cushy gig” at a suburban school to stay at South. In light of what happened last fall, she can’t imagine ever leaving. Days from being married, her best friend and intended maid of honor, fellow South social studies teacher Stacey Klinger, died when a truck struck her as she crossed the street in front of school.

 

 

 

Maria with South’s mock presidential debate team

 

 

 

Maria will never forget how students consoled her. “These kids literally and figuratively put their arms around me and said, ‘We’re here for you. What do you need?’ We bonded in a way you can’t bond in any other way. We have that history together. They have seen me at a level of humanity they don’t see too many teachers in.”

As an Academic Decathlon and African-American History Challenge coach she’s bonded with yet more kids. “I just know we’re always going to be like this,” she says, clasping her hands together. “I love those people and they love me back.”

The daughter of a retired Lutheran-Episcopal-Orthodox Christian priest, Maria was born in upper New York state. She likes saying she was at Woodstock, where her mother Joan was pregnant with her in 1969. At age 11 Maria moved with her family here when her father was assigned the pastorship at St. Martin of Tours Episcopal Church across from South.

She was expected to attend private school, but she preferred the more diverse public school experience afforded by South.

“I wanted to be in the real world,” she says.

This teacher of human geography loves the cultural melting pot there.

South Omaha’s always had working class diversity and it’s always been an immigrant landing strip,” she says, “but now those immigrants are coming from other places than just western and eastern Europe. They’re coming from the Sudan. We’ve got a lot of Karen kids from Burma. We’ve obviously got a lot of Central and South American kids.

“South High is the most ethnically diverse high school in Nebraska. In any given class period I’ve got that rainbow looking right back at me. We have a microcosm of the planet right here.”

For her, geography is more than a subject. “It’s the world,” she says.“Geography is life.”

As teachers, she says she and her colleagues are “in the business of building people.” The art and science of reaching today’s kids with their shorter attention spans and passive learning habits can be frustrating.

“There are many days when I’m like, ‘I’m not doing this, this is hard, I’m going to quit,’ and my kids all just laugh and go, ‘You’re a lifer.’ Even my husband Glenn says, ‘If you told even one of those kids you’re going to give up teaching, the look on their face would change your mind like that,” she says, snapping her fingers.

She knows he’s right. Besides, she loves “the creativity” of lesson planning. Then too, she says, “I’m really not good for anything else. This is all I know.. so I guess I better stick it out.”

 

 

 

South High - Omaha Public Schools

 

Omaha South High Student Marissa Gomez Will Stand, Deliver and Be Heard at Louder Than a Bomb Omaha Youth Poetry Festival and Competition

April 8, 2012 2 comments

With Omaha gearing for its own citywide Louder Than a Bomb youth poetry festival and competition (April 15-22), I profile high school student Marissa Gomez, a talented writer and performer who will be representing with her teammates from Omaha South Magnet High School. She and her fellow teen poets are brave souls for how deep they plumb the depths of their beings. I recently met Marissa for this story.  I interviewed her and saw her perform one of her poems, and I was bowled over by her command of language and her, well, fairly refined poetic sensibilities. She has a maturity about her work and her life that’s beyond her years.  Whether she and her team win or lose at the event is beside the point because she’s well on her way to blazing a trail for herself that will get her to wherever she wants to go.

 

 

Omaha South High Student Marissa Gomez Will Stand, Deliver and Be Heard at Louder Than a Bomb Omaha Youth Poetry Festival and Competition

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

When South High Magnet School represents at Omaha‘s first citywide youth poetry slam, Louder Than a Bomb, starting April 15, junior Marissa Gomez will be a performer to watch.

Resident poet Katie F-S, who coaches South’s poetry slam team, has high praise for Gomez:LTaB takes its name and model from a teen poetry festival and competition in Chicago, where slamming was born. A popular documentary about the event has sparked a nationwide youth slam phenomenon.

“Marissa is a fantastic artist. Her writing is authentic and accessible, her performance is compelling, her poetic ear is sharp, and her sense of humor keeps all our work from ever feeling like a chore.”

With friends cheering her on the 16-year-old Gomez took second place in her school’s December slam.

“I let out whatever I had in me,” says Gomez, who rated high-fives and props, even from kids she didn’t know. “It was crazy because (before) these kids would see me in the hallway and just walk past, but once I slammed they heard me.”

LTaB co-founder Kevin Coval visiting Omaha South High

 

 

On Fridays South teacher Carol McClellan runs an “open mic” in her creative writing class, where Gomez tries out her latest poems. On April 6 she stood to deliver with equal parts conviction and poise her poem, “For You, I Would Pray to God.” The piece, like all her work and that of her classmates, is deeply personal.

“At the beginning of the year when we first started doing open mics it was difficult expressing these raw emotions to people but as much as we’ve gotten to know each other it’s like we’re home. We just kind of go there and we open up,” she says “We open up things in writing that maybe we wouldn’t normally share.

“We break down in tears when we read sometimes and we’re all there for each other, we support each other, give a big round of applause, give a hug. It’s nice knowing there’s those people who I can read to and they’re not judging, they’re just telling me, ‘Hey, that’s good, I can’t believe you said that, I can’t believe you live with that, I can’t believe you actually told somebody that.’”

“Marissa’s work is fearless,” says Katie F-S..” There’s nothing she won’t say on a stage if she feels it’s important.”

Revealing her inner life to others is freeing and healing for Gomez. The turmoil she often expresses comes with the territory.

“Hey, I’m 16, I have a lot of problems. It’s great to relieve myself into my poetry.”

Her poems and those of her peers are not all angst-filled reels and rants about the pangs of youth. There’s plenty of humor, too. However, despair is a common refrain. “Who I Am” deals with the dark moods that once overtook her.

“I used to be really depressed,” she says. “and this poem is kind of telling people that’s the way I am. One of the lines in it is, ‘Would you still love me if you knew that on the inside my anger and hate it grew.’ I mean, it’s really just being honest that I’m not perfect. Everyone seems to think I’ve got it all going on so good, but again I’m 16, I’ve got a lot of stuff going on, and it’s not always working in my favor.

“Another poem called ‘One, Two, Three, Four’ counts the four biggest heartbreaks I’ve ever gone through. My poem ‘Dear Mom, I Want You to Meet Richard’ is about a co-worker of mine who was killed. I was writing poetry that day and I couldn’t think about anything else but him and I wrote about how I wanted my mom to meet him. My mom and I are best friends, we talk about everything. I got the call at work Richard had been murdered and we were all raw about it. I came home and my mom saw me kind of hit bottom. I just kind of broke down and she sat there with me and tried to help me get through it.”

Marissa Gomez performing at the Omaha South slam

 

 

Anything is fair game for a poem.

“I don’t know, my poems cover a lot of different things. ‘A Letter from Mistake’ talks about how I was an unplanned pregnancy and my parents were actually on the verge of splitting up and everything, and they stuck it out for me. One line is, ‘I hope you don’t blame me for everything and I hope you understand that even though I was a mistake I can still be something you want.’ I write a lot about my family.”

Her work sometimes refers to an older brother serving time in prison. They often exchange letters. Hers contain poems, his include raps.

At LTaB she expects family and friends to support her as always but she’s not hung up on the competition aspect.

“It’s not about points and placing. Yes, we would like to place, we would love to win, but when it’s all said and done if someone heard something and took something from what we wrote, then that’s great,” she says.

Having a platform for her voice is all she really cares about.

“When you’re doing poetry you’re letting yourself be heard. Everyone’s knowing that’s what you’re doing. You’re putting that out. It’s a great experience. I love performing.”

For Omaha slam details visit ltabomaha.org.

Soul on Ice – Man on Fire: The Charles Bryant Story (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

December 9, 2011 5 comments

 

Never is anyone simply what they appear to be on the surface.  Deep rivers run on the inisde of even the most seemingly easy to peg personalties and lives.  Many of those well guarded currents cannot be seen unless we take the time to get to know someone and they reveal what’s on the inside.  But seeing the complexity of what is there requires that we also put aside our blinders of assumptions and perceptions.  That’s when we learn that no one is ever one thing or another.  Take the late Charles Bryant.  He was indeed as tough as his outward appearance and exploits as a one-time football and wrestling competitor suggested.  But as I found he was also a man who carried around with him great wounds, a depth of feelings, and an artist’s sensitivity that by the time I met him, when he was old and only a few years from passing, he openly expressed.

My profile of Bryant was originally written for the New Horizons and then when I was commissioned to write a series on Omaha’s Black Sports Legends entitled, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, I incorporated this piece into that collection.  You can read several more of my stories from that series on this blog, including profiles of Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Ron Boone, Marlin Briscoe, and Johnny Rodgers.

 

 

 

Charles Bryant at UNL

 

 

Soul on Ice – Man on Fire: The Charles Bryant Story (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons and The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

“I am a Lonely Man, without Love…Love seems like a Fire many miles away. I can see the smoke and imagine the Heat. I travel to the Fire and when I arrive the Fire is out and all is Grey ashes…

–– “Lonely Man” by Charles Bryant, from his I’ve Been Along book of poems

Life for Charles Bryant once revolved around athletics. The Omaha native dominated on the gridiron and mat for Omaha South High and the University of Nebraska before entering education and carving out a top prep coaching career. Now a robust 70, the still formidable Bryant has lately reinvented himself as an artist, painting and sculpting with the same passion that once stoked his competitive fire.

Bryant has long been a restless sort searching for a means of self-expression. As a young man he was always doing something with his hands, whether shining shoes or lugging ice or drawing things or crafting woodwork or swinging a bat or throwing a ball. A self-described loner then, his growing up poor and black in white south Omaha only made him feel more apart. Too often, he said, people made him feel unwelcome.

“They considered themselves better than I. The pain and resentment are still there.” Too often his own ornery nature estranged him from others. “I didn’t fit in anywhere. Nobody wanted to be around me because I was so volatile, so disruptive, so feisty. I was independent. Headstrong. I never followed convention. If I would have known that then, I would have been an artist all along,” he said from the north Omaha home he shares with his wife of nearly hald-a-century, Mollie.

Athletics provided a release for all the turbulence inside him and other poor kids. “I think athletics was a relief from the pressures we felt,” he said. He made the south side’s playing fields and gymnasiums his personal proving ground and emotional outlet. His ferocious play at guard and linebacker demanded respect.

“I was tenacious. I was mean. Tough as nails. Pain was nothing. If you hit me I was going to hit you back. When you played across from me you had to play the whole game. It was like war to me every day I went out there. I was just a fierce competitor. I guess it came from the fact that I felt on a football field I was finally equal. You couldn’t hide from me out there.”

Even as a youth he was always a little faster, a little tougher, a little stronger than his schoolmates. He played whatever sport was in season. While only a teen he organized and coached young neighborhood kids. Even then he was made a prisoner of color when, at 14, he was barred from coaching in York, Neb., where the all-white midget-level baseball team he’d led to the playoffs was competing.

Still, he did not let obstacles like racism stand in his way. “Whatever it took for me to do something, I did it. I hung in there. I have never quit anything in my life. I have a force behind me.”

Bryant’s drive to succeed helped him excel in football and wrestling. He also competed in prep baseball and track. Once he came under the tutelage of South High coach Conrad “Corney” Collin, he set his sights on playing for NU. He had followed the stellar career of past South High football star Tom Novak  – “The toughest guy I’ve seen on a football field.” — already a Husker legend by the time Bryant came along. But after earning 1950 all-state football honors his senior year, Bryant was disappointed to find no colleges recruiting him. In that pre-Civil Rights era athletic programs at NU, like those at many other schools, were not integrated. Scholarships were reserved for whites. Other than Tom Carodine of Boys Town, who arrived shortly before Bryant but was later kicked off the team, Bryant was the first African-American ballplayer there since 1913.

 

No matter, Bryant walked-on at the urging of Collin, a dandy of a disciplinarian whom Bryant said “played an important role in my life.” It happened this way: Upon graduating from South two of Bryant’s white teammates were offered scholarships, but not him; then Bryant followed his coach’s advice to “go with those guys down to Lincoln.’” Bryant did. It took guts. Here was a lone black kid walking up to crusty head coach Bill Glassford and his all-white squad and telling them he was going to play, like it or not. He vowed to return and earn his spot on the team. He kept the promise, too.

“I went back home and made enough money to pay my own way. I knew the reason they didn’t want me to play was because I was black, but that didn’t bother me because Corney Collin sent me there to play football and there was nothing in the world that was going to stop me.”

Collin had stood by him before, like the time when the Packers baseball team arrived by bus for a game in Hastings and the locals informed the big city visitors that Bryant, the lone black on the team, was barred from playing. “Coach said, ‘If he can’t play, we won’t be here,’ and we all got on the bus and left. He didn’t say a word to me, but he put himself on the line for me.”

Bryant had few other allies in his corner. But those there were he fondly recalls as “my heroes.” In general though blacks were discouraged, ignored, condescended. They were expected to fail or settle for less. For example, when Bryant told people of his plans to play ball at NU, he was met with cold incredulity or doubt.

“One guy I graduated with said, ‘I’ll see you in six weeks when you flunk out.’ A black guy I knew said, ‘Why don’t you stay here and work in the packing houses?’ All that just made me want to prove myself more to them, and to me. I was really focused. My attitude was, ‘I’m going to make it, so the hell with you.’”

 

 

Bryant brought this hard-shell attitude with him to Lincoln and used it as a shield to weather the rough spots, like the death of his mother when he was a senior, and as a buffer against the prejudice he encountered there, like the racial slurs slung his way or the times he had to stay apart from the team on road trips.

As one of only a few blacks on campus, every day posed a challenge.  He felt “constantly tested.” On the field he could at least let off steam and “bang somebody” who got out of line. There was another facet to him though. One he rarely shared with anyone but those closest to him. It was a creative, perceptive side that saw him write poetry (he placed in a university poetry contest), “make beautiful, intricate designs in wood” and “earn As in anthropolgy.”

Bryant’s days at NU got a little easier when two black teammates joined him his sophomore year (when he was finally granted the scholarship he’d been denied.). Still, he only made it with the help of his faith and the support of friends, among them teammate Max Kitzelman (“Max saved me. He made sure nobody bothered me.”) professor of anthropology Dr. John Champe (“He took care of me for four years.”) former NU trainers Paul Schneider and George Sullivan (who once sewed 22 stitches in a split lip Bryant suffered when hit in the chops against Minnesota), and sports information director emeritus Don Bryant.

“I always had an angel there to take care of me. I guess they realized the stranger in me.”

Charles Bryant’s perseverance paid off when, as a senior, he was named All-Big Seven and honorable mention All-American in football and all-league in wrestling (He was inducted in the NU Football Hall of Fame in 1987.). He also became the first Bryant (the family is sixth generation Nebraskan) to graduate from college when he earned a bachelor’s degree in education in 1955.

 

 

 

 

 

 

He gave pro football a try with the Green Bay Packers, lasting until the final cut (Years later he gave the game a last hurrah as a lineman with the semi-pro Omaha Mustangs). Back home, he applied for teaching-coaching positions with OPS but was stonewalled. To support he and Mollie — they met at the storied Dreamland Ballroom on North 24th Street and married three months later — he took a job at Brandeis Department Store, becoming its first black male salesperson.

After working as a sub with the Council Bluffs Public Schools he was hired full-time in 1961, spending the bulk of his Iowa career at Thomas Jefferson High School. At T.J. he built a powerhouse wrestling program, with his teams regularly whipping Metro Conference squads.

In the 1970s OPS finally hired him, first as assistant principal at Benson High, then as assistant principal and athletic director at Bryan, and later as a student personnel assistant (“one of the best jobs I’ve ever had”) in the TAC Building. Someone who has long known and admired Bryant is University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling Head Coach Mike Denney, who coached for and against him at Bryan.

Said Denney, “He’s from the old school. A tough, hard-nosed straight shooter. He also has a very sensitive, caring side. I’ve always respected how he’s developed all aspects of himself. Writing. Reading widely. Making art. Going from coaching and teaching into administration. He’s a man of real class and dignity.”

Bryant found a new mode of expression as a stern but loving father — he and Mollie raised five children — and as a no-nonsense coach and educator. Although officially retired, he still works as an OPS substitute teacher. What excites him about working with youth?

“The ability to, one-on-one, aid and assist a kid in charting his or her own course of action. To give him or her the path to what it takes to be a good man or woman. My great hope is I can make a change in the life of every kid I touch. I try to give kids hope and let them see the greatness in them. It fascinates me what you can to do mold kids. It’s like working in clay.”

 

Since taking up art 10 years ago, he has found the newest, perhaps the strongest medium for his voice. He works in a variety of media, often rendering compelling faces in bold strokes and vibrant colors, but it is sculpture that has most captured his imagination.

“When I’m working in clay I can feel the blessings of Jesus Christ in my hands. I can sit down in my basement and just get lost in the work.”

Recently, he sold his bronze bust of a buffalo soldier for $5,000. Local artist Les Bruning, whose foundry fired the piece, said of his work, “He has a good eye and a good hand. He has a mature style and a real feel for geometric preciseness in his work. I think he’s doing a great job. I’d like to see more from him.”

Bryant has brought his talent and enthusiasm for art to his work with youths. A few summers ago he assisted a group of kids painting murals at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. He directs a weekly art class at Clair Memorial United Methodist Church, where he worships and teaches Sunday School.

Much of Bryant’s art, including a book of poems he published in the ‘70s, deals with the black experience. He explores the pain and pride of his people, he said, because “black people need black identification. This kind of art is really a foundation for our ego. Every time we go out in the world we have to prove ourselves. Nobody knows what we’ve been through. Few know the contributions we’ve made. I guess I’m trying to make sure our legacy endures. Every time I give one of my pieces of art to kids I work with their eyes just light up.”

These days Bryant is devoting most of his time to his ailing wife, Mollie, the only person who’s really ever understood him. He can’t stand the thought of losing her and being alone again.

 

“But I shall not give in to loneliness. One day I shall reach my True Love and My fire shall burn with the Feeling of Love.”

–– from his poem “Lonely Man”

The History Man, Gary Kastrick, and his Project OMAHA Lose Home Base

October 3, 2010 8 comments

What's the lesson?

Image by The National Archives UK via Flickr

A frequent enough occurrence finds me reading about somebody in the local daily newspaper and my feeling an immediate connection to the person and what makes him or her tick.  Usually I am responding to a depth of passion the subject has for whatever that thing is that’s become a magnificent obsession in their life.  As a journalist, I then naturally want to take my own crack at telling the story.  That’s precisely what happened when I read about the subject of the two stories posted here, Gary Kastrick. At the time he was an Omaha high school teacher getting off the ground an ambitious history-social sciences program called Project OMAHA, which entailed Kastrick and students collecting, researching, and interpreting local history through multi-media projects.  Kastrick was an award-winning teacher who paired his love of education with his love of history.  Kastrick’s also a lifetime collector who has gathered countless artifacts of Omaha history.  His collecting increased after he started Project OMAHA.  He ended up creating an interactive museum at Omaha South High School that displayed materials he found and that others acquired or donated.  I followed Project OMAHA’s progress from afar, charting its ups and downs.  It was years before I finally caught up with Kastrick, and by that time his beloved project was in a tenuous state.  By the time I completed these two stories this year, one for the New Horizons and the other for El Perico, he had retired and the project retired with him. Thus, my stories are bittersweet in tone, because that’s how Kastrick feels after seeing his magnificent obsession became homeless after 12 years of pouring so much of himself into it.

 

 

Gary Kastrick holding Time Magazine with Omahan Johnny Goodman on the cover

 

 

The History Man, Gary Kastrick, and his Project OMAHA Lose Home Base

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in the New Horizons

One of Omaha’s most honored high school teachers retired at the end of this past school year, and with him a singular history project he gave his heart to retired with him.

In 1999 then-Omaha South High social studies teacher Gary Kastrick’s abiding love of history led him to create Project OMAHA (Oral Memories and Historical Anthologies), an innovative local history educational-interpretive program at the school, which happens to be his alma mater.

After announcing the project and inviting the public to come forward to have their oral histories recorded and to donate artifacts, the positive response that followed took him by surprise.

“We got floods of people and floods of material. A lot of stockyards people came forward,” said Kastrick. “What we have the most material of is the stockyards. I’ve got tons and tons of material.”

But he soon realized his little project struck a chord well beyond the stockyards and South Omaha to include all kinds of people with stories to tell about many different segments of the city.

“There was no rhyme of reason to the people that came down and interviewed. We have such a diversity of people on tape.”

The history and memorabilia added to what Kastrick had been acquiring himself for years. With a museum to put it in, he ramped up the collecting.

“I never expected it to happen like this,” he said, “but stuff just came pouring in. For awhile there I was going to every (estate) sale I could find, I was on e-Bay constantly, just gathering material. When the Durham Museum threw out a lot of stuff I ended up in their garbage heap. I mean, I almost had to literally stop (collecting) because it was just becoming overwhelming.”

Stuff soon jam-packed the subterranean room given over to the project at South. Every last inch utilized. As far back as two years ago he ran out of space, saying then, “I’ve basically used about every inch of space I can in this room. I’ve got hundreds of artifacts more than this. I’ve got stuff in the back of this room, in storage places…I don’t know what to do with all of it I’ve got so much.”

The interactive space encouraged South High and visiting students to pore through the collection. It was harder for the general public to access the project since it was housed in a functioning school, making it perhaps the only museum in a school anywhere, but occasional open houses were held and tours could be arranged by appointment.

It was a sight to see. Photographs and descriptive panels put history in context. Remnants from famous buildings that no longer exist were exhibited. A popular exhibit recreated one of the famous Christmas window displays of the downtown J.L. Brandeis & Sons department store.

“We had an open house here one Christmas and people flocked. We had this place packed. They literally cried in front of the window and started telling their Brandeis stories,” said Kastrick.

Instead of static displays of history that remained distant, this was hands-on, up-close history that students were encouraged to use in multi-media projects that repurposed the material as teaching tools for elementary school students. Working under Kastrick’s direction, South students produced children’s books and videos based on oral history interviews and made these available to 3rd grade teachers and their students.

South students variously described Kastrick as “making history fun” and Project OMAHA as being “different than a regular class.” One student said, “It reminded me of my grandma’s house.” Indeed, it was like the ultimate grandma or grandpa attic overbrimming with things.

While OPS never mandated teachers utilize the project, some 3rd grade classes did make regular treks down there. He enjoyed giving tours of historic Omaha to youths, especially suburban kids who rarely venture that far east. The tours obviously energized him because once he had a captive audience he suddenly turned spry, animated guide and Pied Piper leading his charges up and down South 24th Street or through Prospect Hill Cemetery.

 

 

 

 

His goal was instilling in children an interest in history they could carry wherever they went. On a 2009 tour for Pinewood Elementary students he told the 8-year-olds to note the names and dates on buildings:

“What I really want you to learn is how to look at buildings or how to look at historical places. By the time we’re through here you should have a real good history of this area without even opening a book. Now when you go around the city you have to look for clues on what might have been there at one time.”

 

 

South 24th streetscape today

 

 

Mr. K, as kids call him, always has a story about whatever site he stops to show a group. He often interjects personal anecdotes, like as a boy his hunting rats around the packing plants or his selling bologna sandwiches to livestock haulers stuck in the long procession of trucks waiting to unload their cargo at the stockyards.

“I love the 3rd graders because they’re at that age where they still have that vim and vigor for things, and they still have that appreciation.”

He still leads a popular South Omaha tour for the Durham Museum and even in retirement he may lead school tours again because of all the requests he gets from teachers. Teachers love how Kastrick’s own childlike passion for history, combined with colorful information, resonates with kids. Teachers refer to the project as “a great asset.”

The interpretive center he created within South was his playground. He loved having his own students as well as visiting students immerse themselves in it. Besides the children’s books/videos South students created, an original opera, Bloodlines Sings of South Omaha Immigrants, was drawn from the historically-based narratives South students gathered about the community’s immigrant experience. Former South teacher Jim Eisenhardt took those stories and enlisted then-Opera Omaha artistic director Hal France and composer-in-residence Debra Fischer Teaser, along with local theater director Kevin Lawler, the Omaha Symphony and local actors and dancers ,to collaborate with South students on the product. It had its world premiere in 2001.

The opera showed the potential of Kastrick’s project.

“It was more of a learning center than it was a museum,” Kastrick said. “It was more to bring kids down and have them do activities. I’m going to miss that, I’m going to miss the activities, I’m going to miss the 3rd graders and trying to educate people about local history.”

Designed as a multi-media learning experience for students at South, an arts and technology magnet school, the project provided opportunities to hone computer, video, Photo-Shop, editing and writing skills. All that activity is suspended now, leaving many unfinished projects and unrealized dreams. Hundreds of taped interviews need transferring to DVD. Kastrick wanted to publish many stories people shared. He wanted to see completed new book/video projects abandoned as students graduated or funds ran dry, including a planned four-set animated history DVD.

The school and school district helped underwrite the project at times, including a technology upgrade. But Kastrick’s vision and ambition seemingly went beyond where South or OPS were prepared to go. The limbo position the project inhabited was perhaps best summed up by spokeswoman Luanne Nelson, who described it as an “unofficial but valuable resource.”

Much recognition came Kastrick’s way for his efforts in the classroom and with extracurricular activities, including an Alice Buffet Outstanding Teacher Award. Shortly before retiring the Omaha Optimist Club honored him for his work with the organization’s Academic Decathlon competition. In September he received the Nebraska State Historical Society’s James C. Olson award for his contributions to preserving local history through Project OMAHA.

Despite considerable media coverage and grant funding, Kastrick bemoaned a lack of support, appreciation and, well, love for his baby. In his mournful Chicagoese “Sou’d O” voice he vented frustration. He complained of burn-out. The craggy-faced Kastrick often looked as bedraggled as he sounded. Chalk it up to a mid-life crisis or to the divorce proceedings he was embroiled in.

The mood of this self-described “pessimist” brightened in light of 2009 developments. He won a tourism grant to enhance displays and upgrade an interview booth used for recording oral histories. Artist Doug Kiser was commissioned to fashion a scale model replica of the Omaha Stockyards. It was enough to have “rekindled” Kastrick’s hopes.

Still, it vexed him there was no plan to continue the project at South and no off-site facility to house it once he retired in May. He rued the prospect of moving the entire works. Then his worst fears were realized when South officials disbanded it. With resignation and resentment in his voice, he told a reporter, “Project OMAHA has ended at South High.” He glumly dissembled the exhibits, hauling away hundreds of items into an already cluttered storage site.

Many items are stacked in a heap: an old cash register, an adding machine, a vintage typewriter, assorted furniture, display cases. Against walls are a floor radio and a juke box. Arranged more carefully are posters, photographs, audio cassettes, newspaper clippings. None of it has any real monetary value he concedes, but it’s history he and others value.

Upon retiring, he grew his gray hair out and sprouted a full beard, giving him a Biblical prophet look befitting his extreme history fixation. He wasn’t letting himself go, instead he was getting into “character” for his gritty South O tours.

Whether or not the collection sees the light of day again, he wants it archived. That task was put on hold when he had hip replacement surgery, followed by a bout of pneumonia. He may be getting his other hip done. For now then, the collection gathers dust, a sad end to a proud program that seemingly came out of nowhere but that was the culmination of a lifetime fascination.

He and former colleague Dean Flyr conceived Project OMAHA. Kastrick devoted countless unpaid hours treasure hunting, interviewing, organizing, supervising, presenting. Flyr and a paraprofessional who once assisted him moved on. Officially, the project was an adjunct to Kastrick’s teaching. Emotionally, it’s what he lived for. It’s where his passion for education and history coalesced.

After giving so much and getting so little in return, he felt like an unrequited lover. A decade into it he still fought to get it institutionalized. Though the project received significant direct grant support, donated equipment and in-kind services from Apple and other sources, it was never an official Omaha Public Schools or South project. Instead, it was Gary’s Chasing Windmills Dream. That precarious position left it at the whim of administrators. It’s why he was always scrounging to keep it going.

Its governance was under the nonprofit Omaha History Inc. The board’s comprised of Kastrick and a friend. South High Alumni Association executive director Dick Gulizia  was a vocal advocate, as was Omaha City Councilman Garry Gernandt.

 

 

Omaha South High School

 

 

The History Boys sought benefactors to recognize and reward this labor of love. Finding a permanent home was priority one. Kastrick acknowledged his lack of tact was a detriment. “Maybe it’s because I’m not a good politician. I’m not a schmoozer. I’m a stubborn Pollack. I believe this is good enough on its own merit and should be able to sell itself.” He said it didn’t help being “a peon — I’m just a working stiff.”

Denver architect Phil Greenberg did offer $50,000 should a permanent home be found. An Omaha native, Greenberg’s father, Sam Greenberg, owned the South 24th Street landmark, Phillip’s Department Store. The old South Omaha City Hall building was one site Kastrick and Co. eyed. More recently, they fixed on the former South Omaha public library branch at 23rd and M. They asked the City to donate the structure for the Project Omaha/Sam Greenberg Learning Center. But the Omaha Library Board declared the building surplus property and put it up for auction at fair market value, making it a cost prohibitive for the project.

Luanne Nelson said that after some preliminary discussion the district decided not to get involved in acquiring the old South O library for OMAHA.

Kastrick’s been unable to get a line on another building. Even if he did, renovations would likely cost more than the promised $50,000.

He also wanted to to establish an endowment that put the project’s operations on sound financial footing well into the future. With the project disbanded, it seems a moot point now. A part of him is prepared to move on and let the project rest in mothballs, but another part of him is holding out hope a patron will step up and provide a new lease on life. A grant that Metropolitan Community College is seeking could provide a lifeline for a new exhibition space. He’s not holding his breath though.

He sometimes ponders what might have been. He wonders if the project’s scope was too broad for others to grasp or if the inner city location hurt its chances of being endorsed. “Maybe if it wasn’t at South High, maybe if it was at a Burke or a Central, the crown jewels, there’d be more interest,” he speculated. He wanted OPS and the Learning Community to “authenticate this” — to make it a required or encouraged part of the curriculum. He said a project web site was taken down by OPS during a digital redesign. It was never restored.

It was all proof to him that no one cared as much about the project as he did.

His laments are remindful of Bertha Calloway’s. Her grassroots Great Plains Black History Museum struggled on the north side just as Kastrick’s did on the south side. Like him, she found some support but ultimately felt betrayed when she couldn’t get the museum on solid enough ground to secure its future. It’s now closed. The materials Calloway worked so long and hard to accumulate have no permanent home. Kastrick long feared a similar fate for the materials he collected should things not work out and the project forced to move.

For Kastrick, as for Calloway, it’s a legacy thing. It’s about preserving heritage and history for future generations. It’s about saving a lifetime of work. They know without preservation their work’s likely lost forever. After the GPBHM closed, Calloway’s legacy lay in storage for years and only recently a portion of the collection has been archived at the Nebraska State Historical Society.

To understand how much this endeavor meant to Kastrick you have to know he grew up in the neighborhood, shadowing his late custodian father Leo Kastrick on moonlight shifts tending bar and cleaning businesses. The belly-up-to-the-bar stories told by meatpackers, stockyards workers and ethnic immigrants spurred Kastrick’s interest in culture and history.

“I do distinctly remember listening to all these people and their stories. Like in any of these ethnic, industrialized areas the taverns were where the folk history abounded. I found that interesting and I always thought later on down the road I’d like to get together some of these stories,” he said.

His father was a born storyteller. He told Kastrick of the 1919 lynching of William Brown outside a besieged courthouse, the ‘35 streetcar riot, the fatal ‘30 Krug Park rollercoaster accident and Johnny Goodman’s upset win at the ‘33 U.S. Open.

“He loved to tell stories about Omaha,” the proud son said.

History came alive in those moments. “Yeah, there was a passion and fascination for local history, with what used to be. Being an old romantic, I love walking down the street and visualizing what used to be there. That’s really the inspiration for this.”

His dream was to have a large enough space to accommodate groups who could come tell their stories — of working at the Martin Bomber plant or dancing at Peony Park or playing the ponies at Ak-Sar-Ben or shopping at the downtown Brandeis department store — and make digital recordings of them.

He rues not having a venue or apparatus for collecting this history. “Some of these people really love to tell their stories,” he said. “It’s amazing sitting and listening to them and having them recount their lives like that.”

He regrets, too, not having a space where all his stuff can be displayed. His “packratism” manifested early and has never stopped. His storage units overflow with memorabilia collected since childhood. Collecting, he said, is “what got me enthralled” with not only preserving the past but teaching it.

As a fresh young teacher at Bancroft Grade School in the ‘70s he struggled connecting with its at-risk kids. With the old school slated for closure officials wanted to document its history. He volunteered himself and a group of students to do the job. He peeked students’ interest by telling them their old urban digs were where Omaha began.

“We looked through old city directories and found the original Bancroft school building. One of the kids was actually living in it. Sure enough, downstairs was a blackboard. That intrigued me and so then I thought, Let’s do all of South 10th Street. What I saw happening from this was the kids got a whole different perspective of their own neighborhood. This was no longer ‘Aw, they’re just a bunch of old beat-up houses,’ but instead, ‘Somebody famous lived here’ and ‘This company started there.’ They really got into it.”

Noting how history helps kids see with new eyes, he made it his educational focus.

“When I came to South I put into progress the first local history class” in OPS, he said. “By 1987 I had an Omaha history class.”

Twelve years later Project OMAHA was born. He and Dean Flyr were already thinking about a history project when the stockyards announced it would close in 1999, prompting the pair to have students chronicle its rich past. A World-Herald article on the fledgling project and the educators’ interest in recording stories elicited a huge response.

He and South students sought out artifacts for display, conducted oral/video history interviews and researched various facets of local history to inform educational products they produced. He also accepted materials brought in by staff and the public — artifacts, books, photos, newsreel film. The memorabilia documented everything from the history of organized sports in Omaha to the early struggles for civil rights here.

Kastrick even salvaged the last standing cattle pen from the now defunct Omaha stockyards, which once claimed the title of world’s largest livestock market. He regards the pen as if a holy relic.

“A lot of people wanted this wood,” he said, caressing it. “It took me awhile to get that out of there.”

 

 

Omaha Stockyards

 

 

Even though the project is homeless and he’s short on space, he still collects things, like Omaha Knights hockey memorabilia he recently came into possession of, adding to his already extensive Omaha sports collection.

Whenever he adds a new piece, he feels he’s saved another link to the past. But where to put it?

“What I feel good about is that I had families bring me photographs and newspaper clippings and little pieces from their businesses that otherwise would have been thrown away. If it’s thrown away, you’re never going to find it again. Where would that have gone if I wasn’t here?”

But his heart isn’t in it like it used to be. He’s had it broken too many times. Still, he can’t help acquiring things. Like the Jetter Brewing Co. beer case he obtained. He had to have it. Then there’s that great white elephant, Rosenblatt Stadium, and all the stories and artifacts to cultivate. It sickens him the old ballpark will soon be gone. He covets a row of grandstand seats.

Beyond that, there’s an Alamito Dairy sign he lusts after. And if he can ever locate the old Chief movie theatre’s neon headdress sign, he’ll feel complete.

As much as he’d like to be out from under the avalanche of materials in his care, he cannot renege on the promise he’s made to himself and others to hold onto this “hodgepodge” of ephemera. Even though he’s a curator without a museum now, he feels a custodial duty to preserve what he has.

He admits it’s become a burden. Not that he’d ever do it, but he said “there are times when I want to take it all and burn it, because it’s holding me down. Sometimes stuff can take you over.” Part of him would like to leave it all behind. He talks about getting on a Harley and just taking off. Where to, you ask. “Who knows,” he says.

As much as he craves freedom from his encumbrance, the glint in his eyes tells you he’s not done collecting or leading South Omaha tours. Besides, people just won’t let him alone, always calling or emailing with requests for tours or Omaha history tidbits. He’s always happy to oblige because in truth he’d be disappointed if people didn’t contact him for his expertise. It’s his passion.

Project OMAHA may now be only a heap of junk in the dark, but The History Man’s magnificent obsession still burns bright.

If there’s anyone out there who’d like to help it find a home, Mr. K will gladly listen. Sure, he’s tired, but he’s not dead.

El Perico cover/Reader culture story on Gary Kastrick and Project Omaha

Story sources: interviews w/Kastrick, visits to Project Omaha and his home, etc.

Photo contacts: Kastrick, 905-2538

The History Man, Gary Kastrick, Loses the Home to His Beloved Project OMAHA But His Magnificent Obsession Still Burns Bright

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in El Perico

In 1999 then-Omaha South High teacher Gary Kastrick’s abiding love of history led him to create Project OMAHA (Oral Memories and Historical Anthologies). The impetus for this innovative local history educational-interpretive program at the school, also his alma mater, was the Omaha stockyards’ closure. The focus soon extended to all Omaha history.

After announcing the project, he said “stuff just came pouring in. For awhile there I was going to every (estate) sale I could find, I was on e-Bay constantly, just gathering material. When the Durham Museum threw out a lot of stuff I ended up in their garbage heap…it was just becoming overwhelming.”

Artifacts were displayed in a subterranean room at South. In the jam-packed space, South students pored through the collection and, using computer technology, created history materials for 3rd grade teachers in the Omaha Public Schools. Teachers brought their classes to South.

Kastrick loved leading history tours: at the project’s digs; along South 24th Street; at Prospect Hill Cemetery. The activity energized him.

“It was more of a learning center than it was a museum,” he said. “It was more to bring kids down and have them do activities.”

Despite media coverage and grant funding, Kastrick bemoaned a lack of support, appreciation and, well, love for his baby. In his mournful Chicagoese “Sou’d O” voice he vented frustration. He complained of burn-out. The craggy-faced Kastrick often looked as bedraggled as he sounded.

The mood of this self-described “pessimist” brightened in light of 2009 developments. He won a tourism grant to enhance displays and upgrade an interview booth used for recording oral histories. Artist Doug Kiser fashioned a scale model replica of the Omaha Stockyards. It was enough to have “rekindled” Kastrick’s hopes.

Still, it vexed him there was no plan to continue the project at South and no off-site facility to house it once he retired in May. He rued the prospect of moving the entire works. Then his worst fears were realized when South officials disbanded it. With resignation and resentment in his voice, he said, “Project OMAHA has ended at South High.” He glumly dissembled the exhibits, hauling away hundreds of items into a storage site already cluttered with excess.

 

 

Omaha Stockyards

 

 

Many items are stacked in a heap: an old cash register, an adding machine, a vintage typewriter, assorted furniture , display cases. Against walls are a floor radio and a juke box. Arranged more carefully are posters, photographs, audio cassettes, newspaper clippings. None of it has any real monetary value he concedes, but it’s history he values.

Unbound by school rules, he’s grown his gray hair out to shoulder-length, giving him a mad Biblical prophet look befitting his extreme history fixation. Whether or not the collection sees the light of day again, he wants it archived. That months-long task must wait until he recovers from hip replacement surgery and pneumonia.

He thought up and did Project OMAHA with former colleague Dean Flyr. Along the way Kastrick devoted countless unpaid hours treasure hunting, interviewing, organizing, supervising, presenting. Flyr and a paraprofessional who once assisted him moved on.

Officially, the project was an adjunct to his teaching. Emotionally, it’s what he lived for. It’s where his passion for education and history coalesced. After giving so much and getting so little in return, he felt like an unrequited lover. A decade into it he still fought to get it institutionalized. Though the project received significant direct grant support, donated equipment and in-kind services from Apple and other sources, it was never an official Omaha Public Schools or South High project. Instead, it was Gary’s Chasing Windmills Dream. He was always scrounging.

Its governance was under the nonprofit Omaha History Inc. The board’s comprised of Kastrick and a friend. South High Alumni Association executive director Dick Gulizia  was a vocal advocate, as was Omaha City Councilman Garry Gernandt.

The History Boys sought benefactors to recognize and reward this labor of love. Finding a permanent home was priority one. Kastrick acknowledged his lack of tact was a detriment. “Maybe it’s because I’m not a good politician. I’m not a schmoozer. I’m a stubborn Pollack. I believe this is good enough on its own merit and should be able to sell itself.” He said it didn’t help being “a peon — I’m just a working stiff.”

Denver architect Phil Greenberg did offer $50,000 should a permanent home be found for the collection. An Omaha native, Greenberg’s father, Sam Greenberg, owned the South 24th Street landmark, Phillip’s Department Store. The old South Omaha City Hall building was one site Kastrick and Co. eyed. More recently, they fixed on the former South Omaha public library branch. They asked the City to donate the structure for the Project Omaha/Sam Greenberg Learning Center. But the Omaha Library Board declared the building surplus property and put it up for auction at fair market value, making it a cost prohibitive deal for the project. Kastrick’s been unable to get a line on another building. Even if he did, renovations would likely cost more than the promised $50,000.

It seems a moot point now.

He wonders if the scope was too broad for others to grasp or if the inner city location hurt the project’s chances of being embraced. “Maybe if it wasn’t at South High, maybe if it was at a Burke or a Central, the crown jewels, there’d be more interest,” he speculated. He wanted OPS and the Learning Community to “authenticate this” — to make OMAHA a required or encouraged part of the curriculum. He said a project web site he launched was taken down by OPS during a digital redesign. It was never restored.

To understand how much this endeavor meant to him you have to know he grew up in the neighborhood, shadowing his custodian father on moonlight shifts tending bar and cleaning businesses. The belly-up-to-the-bar stories told by meatpackers, stockyards workers and ethnic immigrants spurred Kastrick’s interest in culture and history.

“I do distinctly remember listening to all these people and their stories. Like in any of these ethnic, industrialized areas the taverns were where the folk history abounded. I found that interesting and I always thought later on down the road I’d like to get together some of these stories,” he said.

 

 

Gary Kastrick with some of his collection

 

 

His old man was a born storyteller. He told Kastrick of the 1919 lynching of William Brown outside a besieged courthouse, the ‘35 streetcar riot, the fatal ‘30 Krug Park rollercoaster accident and Johnny Goodman’s upset win at the ‘33 U.S. Open.

“He loved to tell stories about Omaha,” the proud son said.

History came alive in those moments. “Yeah, there was a passion and fascination for local history, with what used to be. Being an old romantic, I love walking down the street and visualizing what used to be there. That’s really the inspiration for this,” he said, taking in what’s left of the project, caressing the last stockyards pen salvaged from the Omaha Livestock Market as if a holy relic.

Objects are one thing, interviews are another. “Some of these people really love to tell their stories,” he said. “It’s amazing sitting and listening to them and having them recount their lives like that.”

His “packratism” manifested early and has never stopped. His storage units over-brim with memorabilia collected since childhood. Collecting, he said, is “what got me enthralled” with not only preserving the past but teaching it.

But his heart isn’t it like it used to be. He’s had it broken too many times. Still, he can’t help acquiring things. Like the Jetter Brewing Co. beer case he recently obtained. He had to have it. Then there’s that great white elephant, Rosenblatt Stadium, and all the stories to cultivate. He covets a row of grandstand seats. There’s an Alamito Dairy sign he lusts after. And if he can ever locate the old Chief movie theatre’s neon headdress sign, he’ll feel complete.

Whenever he adds a new piece, he feels he’s saved another link to the past. But where to put it?

“What I feel good about is that I had families bring me photographs and newspaper clippings and little pieces from their businesses that otherwise would have been thrown away. If it’s thrown away, you’re never going to find it again. Where would that have gone if I wasn’t here?”

As much as he’d like to be out from under the avalanche of materials in his care, he cannot renege on the promise he’s made to himself and others to hold onto this “hodgepodge” of ephemera. Even though he’s a curator without a museum now, he feels a custodial duty to preserve what he has.

He admits it’s become a burden. Not that he’d ever do it, but he said “there are times when I want to take it all and burn it, because it’s holding me down. Sometimes stuff can take you over.” Part of him that would like to leave it all behind. He talks about getting on a Harley and just taking off. Where to, you ask. “Who knows,” he says.

As much as he craves freedom from his encumbrance, the glint in his eyes tells you he’s not done collecting or leading his Gritty City tours. Besides, teachers clamor for him to resume his Old Omaha jaunt. He won’t commit, saying only, “I’m going to miss the 3rd graders and the activities and trying to educate people about local history.”

Project OMAHA may be in moth balls, but The History Man’s magnificent obsession still burns bright.

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Prodigal Son, Marlin Briscoe Takes the Long Road Home (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

August 13, 2010 Leave a comment

 

 

I never saw Marlin Briscoe play college football, but as I came of age people who had see The Magician perform regaled me with stories of his improvisational playmaking skills on the gridiron, and so whenever I heard or read the name, I tried imagining what his elusive, dramatic, highlight reel runs or passes looked like.  Mention Briscoe’s name to knowledgable sports fans and they immediately think of  a couple things: that he was the first black starting quarterback in the National Football League; and that he won two Super Bowl rings as a wide receiver with the Miami Dolphins.  But as obvious as it seems, I believe that both during his career and after most folks don’t appreciate  (1) how historic the first accomplishment was and (2) don’t recognize how amazing it was for him to go from being a very good quarterback in the league, in the one year he was allowed to play the position, to being an All-Pro wideout for Buffalo.  Miami thought enough of him to trade for him and thereby provide a complement to and take some heat off of legend Paul Warfield.

The following story I did on Briscoe appeared not long after his autobiography came out.  I made arrangements to inteview him in our shared hometown of Omaha, and he was every bit as honest in person as he was in the pages of his book, which chronicles his rise to stardom, the terrible fall he took, and coming back from oblivion to redeem himself.  The story appeared in a series I did on Omaha’s Black Sports Legends, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, for The Reader (www.thereader.com) in 2004-2005.  Since then, there’s been a campaign to have the NFL’s veterans committee vote Briscoe into the Hall of Fame and there are plans for a feature film telling his life story.

 

 

 

Prodigal Son, Marlin Briscoe Takes the Long Road Home (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com) as part of my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness

Imagine this is your life: Your name is Marlin Briscoe. A stellar football-basketball player at Omaha South High School in the early 1960s, you are snubbed by the University of Nebraska but prove the Huskers wrong when you become a sensation as quarterback for then Omaha University, where from 1963 to 1967, you set more than 20 school records for single game, season and career offensive production.

Because you are black the NFL does not deem you capable of playing quarterback  and, instead, you’re a late round draft choice, of the old AFL, at defensive back. Injured to start your 1968 rookie season, the offense sputters until, out of desperation, the coach gives you a chance at quarterback. After sparking the offense as a reserve, you hold down the game’s glamour job the rest of the season, thus making history as the league’s first black starting quarterback. When racism prevents you from getting another shot as a signal caller, you’re traded and excel at wide receiver. After another trade, you reach the height of success as a member of a two-time Super Bowl-winning team. You earn the respect of teammates as a selfless clutch performer, players’ rights advocate and solid citizen.

Then, after retiring from the game, you drift into a fast life fueled by drugs. In 12 years of oblivion you lose everything, even your Super Bowl rings. Just as all seems lost, you climb out of the abyss and resurrect your old self. As part of your recovery you write a brutally honest book about a life of achievement nearly undone by the addiction you finally beat.

You are Marlin Oliver Briscoe, hometown Omaha hero, prodigal son and the man now widely recognized as the trailblazer who laid the path for the eventual black quarterback stampede in the NFL. Now, 14 years removed from hitting rock bottom, you return home to bask in the glow of family and friends who knew you as a fleet athlete on the south side and, later, as “Marlin the Magician” at UNO, where some of the records you set still stand.

Now residing in the Belmont Heights section of Long Beach, Calif. with your partner, Karen, and working as an executive with the Roy W. Roberts Watts/Willowbrook Boys and Girls Club in Los Angeles, your Omaha visits these days for UNO alumni functions, state athletic events and book signings contrast sharply with the times you turned-up here a strung-out junkie. Today, you are once again the strong, smart, proud warrior of your youth.

Looking back on what he calls his “lost years,” Briscoe, age 59, can hardly believe “the severe downward spiral” his life took. “Anybody that knows me, especially myself, would never think I would succumb to drug addiction,” he said during one of his swings through town. “

All my life I had been making adjustments and overcoming obstacles and drugs took away all my strength and resolve. When I think about it and all the time I lost with my family and friends, it’s a nightmare. I wake up in a cold sweat sometimes thinking about those dark years…not only what I put myself through but a lot of people who loved me. It’s horrifying.

“Now that my life is full of joy and happiness, it just seems like an aberration. Like it never happened. And it could never ever happen again. I mean, somebody would have to kill me to get me to do drugs. I’m a dead man walking anyway if I ever did. But it’s not even a consideration. And that’s why it makes me so furious with myself to think why I did it in the first place. Why couldn’t I have been like I am now?”

Or, like he was back in the day, when this straight arrow learned bedrock values from his single mother, Geneva Moore, a packing house laborer, and from his older cousin Bob Rose, a youth coach who schooled him and other future greats in the parks and playing fields of schools and recreation centers in north and south Omaha.

For Briscoe, the pain of those years when, as he says, “I lost myself,” is magnified by how he feels he let down the rich, proud athletic legacy he is part of in Omaha. It is a special brotherhood. One in which he and his fellow members share not only the same hometown, but a common cultural heritage in their African-American roots, a comparable experience in facing racial inequality and a similar track record of achieving enduring athletic greatness.

 

 

 

 

Briscoe came up at a time when the local black community produced, in a golden 25-year period from roughly 1950 to 1975, an amazing gallery of athletes that distinguished themselves in a variety of sports. He idolized the legends that came before him like Bob Boozer, a rare member of both Olympic Gold Medal (at the 1960 Rome Games) and NBA championship (with the 1971 Milwaukee Bucks) teams, and MLB Hall of Famer and Cy Young Award winner Bob Gibson. He honed his skills alongside greats Roger Sayers, one of the world’s fastest humans in the early 1960s, NFL Hall of Famer Gale Sayers and pro basketball “Iron Man” Ron Boone. He inspired legends that came after him like Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers.

Each legend’s individual story is compelling. There are the taciturn heroics and outspoken diatribes of Gibson. There are the knee injuries that denied Gale Sayers his full potential by cutting short his brilliant playing career and the movies that dramatically portrayed his bond with doomed roommate Brian Piccolo. There are the ups and downs of Rodgers’ checkered life and career. But Briscoe’s own personal odyssey may be the most dramatic of all.

Born in Oakland, Calif. in 1945, Briscoe and his sister Beverly were raised by their mother after their parents split up. When he was 3, his mother moved the family to Omaha, where relatives worked in the packing houses that soon employed her as well. After a year living on the north side, the family moved to the south Omaha projects. Between Kountze Park in North O and the Woodson Center in South O, Briscoe came of age as a young man and athlete. In an era when options for blacks were few, young men like Briscoe knew that athletic prowess was both a proving ground and a way out of the ghetto, all the motivation he needed to work hard.

“Back in the ‘50s and early ‘60s we had nothing else to really look forward to except to excel as black athletes,” Briscoe said. “Sports was a rite-of-passage to respect and manhood and, hopefully, a way to bypass the packing houses and  better ourselves and go to college. When Boozer (Bob) went to Kansas State and Gibson (Bob) went to Creighton, that next generation — my generation — started thinking, If I can get good enough in sports, I can get a scholarship to college so I can take care of my mom. That’s how all of us thought.”

Like many of his friends, Briscoe grew up without a father, which combined with his mother working full-time meant ample opportunity to find mischief. Except that in an era when a community really did raise a child, Briscoe fell under the stern but caring guidance of the men and women, including Alice Wilson and Bob Rose, that ran the rec centers and school programs catering to largely poor kids. By the time Briscoe entered South High, he was a promising football-basketball player.

On the gridiron, he’d established himself as a quarterback in youth leagues, but once at South shared time at QB his first couple years and was switched to halfback as a senior, making all-city. More than just a jock, Briscoe was elected student council president.

Scholarship offers were few in coming for the relatively small — 5’10, 170-pound — Briscoe upon graduating in 1962. The reality is that in the early ‘60s major colleges still used quotas in recruiting black student-athletes and Briscoe upset the balance when he had the temerity to want to play quarterback, a position that up until the 1980s was widely considered too advanced for blacks.

 

 

 

But UNO Head Football Coach Al Caniglia, one of the winningest coaches in school history, had no reservations taking him as a QB. Seeing limited duty as a freshman backup to incumbent Carl Meyers, Briscoe improved his numbers each year as a starter. After a feeling-out process as a sophomore, when he went 73 of 143 for 939 yards in the air and rushed for another 370 yards on the ground, his junior year he completed 116 of 206 passes for 1,668 yards and ran 120 times for 513 yards to set a school total offense record of 2,181 yards in leading UNO to a 6-5 mark.

What was to originally have been his senior year, 1966, got waylaid, as did nearly his entire future athletic career, when in an indoor summer pickup hoops game he got undercut and took a hard, headfirst spill to the floor. Numb for a few minutes, he regained feeling and was checked out at a local hospital, which gave him a clean bill of health.

Even with a lingering stiff neck, he started the ‘66 season where he left off, posting a huge game in the opener, before feeling a pop in his throbbing neck that sent him “wobbling” to the sidelines. A post-game x-ray revealed a fractured vertebra, perhaps the result of his preseason injury, meaning he’d risked permanent paralysis with every hit he absorbed. Given no hope of playing again, he sat out the rest of the year and threw himself into academics and school politics. After receiving his military draft notice, he anxiously awaited word of a medical deferment, which he got. Without him at the helm, UNO crashed to a 1-9 mark.

Then, a curious thing happened. On a follow-up medical visit, he was told his broken vertebra was recalcifying enough to allow him to play again. He resumed practicing in the spring of ‘67 and by that fall was playing without any ill effects. Indeed, he went on to have a spectacular final season, attracting national attention with his dominating play in a 7-3 campaign, compiling season marks with his 25 TD throws and 2,639 yards of total offense, including a dazzling 401-yard performance versus tough North Dakota State at Rosenblatt Stadium.

Projected by pro scouts at cornerback, a position he played sparingly in college, Briscoe still wanted a go at QB, so, on the advice of Al Caniglia he negotiated with the Denver Broncos, who selected him in the 14th round, to give him a look there, knowing the club held a three-day trial open to the public and media.

“I had a lot of confidence in my ability,” Briscoe said, “and I felt given that three-days at least I would have a showcase to show what I could do. I wanted that forum. When I got it, that set the tone for history to be made.”

At the trial Briscoe turned heads with the strength and accuracy of his throws but once fall camp began found himself banished to the defensive backfield, his QB dreams seemingly dashed. He earned a starting cornerback spot but injured a hamstring before the ‘68 season opener.

After an 0-2 start in which the Denver offense struggled mightily out of the gate, as one QB after another either got hurt or fell flat on his face, Head Coach Lou Saban finally called on Briscoe in the wake of fans and reporters lobbying for the summer trial standout to get a chance. Briscoe ran with the chance, too, despite the fact Saban, whose later actions confirmed he didn’t trust a black QB, only gave him a limited playbook to run. In 11 games, the last 7 as starter, Briscoe completed 93 of 224 passes for 1,589 yards with 14 TDs and 13 INTs and he ran 41 times for 308 yards and 3 TDs in helping Denver to a 5-6 record in his 11 appearances, 5-2 as a starter.

Briscoe proved an effective improviser, using his athleticism to avoid the rush, buy time and either find the open receiver or move the chains via scrambling. “Sure, my percentage was low, because initially they didn’t give me many plays, and so I was out there played street ball…like I was down at Kountze Park again…until I learned the cerebral part of the game and then I was able to improve my so-called efficiency,” is how Briscoe describes his progression as an NFL signal caller.

By being branded “a running” — read: undisciplined — quarterback in an era of strictly drop back pocket passers, with the exception of Fran Tarkenton, who was white, Briscoe said blacks aspiring to play the position faced “a stigma” it took decades to overcome.

Ironically, he said, “I never, ever considered myself a black quarterback. I was just a quarterback. It’s like I never thought about size either. When I went out there on the football field, hey, I was a player.”

All these years later, he still bristles at the once widely-held notions blacks didn’t possess the mechanics to throw at the pro level or the smarts to grasp the subtleties of the game or the leadership skills to command whites. “How do you run in 14 touchdown passes? I could run, sure. I could buy more time, yeah. But if you look at most of my touchdown passes, they were drop back passes. I led the team to five wins in seven starts. We played an exciting brand of football. Attendance boomed. If I left any legacy, it’s that I proved the naysayers wrong about a black man manning that position…even if I never played (QB) again.”

 

 

 

Despite his solid performance — he finished second in Rookie of the Year voting  – he was not invited to QB meetings Saban held in Denver the next summer and was traded only weeks before the ‘69 regular season to the Buffalo Bills, who wanted him as a wide receiver.

His reaction to having the quarterback door slammed in his face? “I realized that’s the way it was. It was reality. So, it wasn’t surprising. Disappointing? Yes. All I wanted and deserved was to compete for the job. Was I bitter? No. If I was bitter I would have quit and that would have been the end of it. As a matter of fact, it spurred me to prove them wrong. I knew I belonged in the NFL. I just had to make the adjustment, just like I’ve been doing all my life.”

The adversity Briscoe has faced in and out of football is something he uses as life lessons with the at-risk youth he counsels in his Boys and Girls Club role. “I try to tell them that sometimes life’s not fair and you have to deal with it. That if you carry a bitter pill it’s going to work against you. That you just have to roll up your sleeves and figure out a way to get it done.”

While Briscoe never lined up behind center again, soon after he left Denver other black QBs followed — Joe Gilliam, Vince Evans, Doug Williams and, as a teammate in Buffalo, James Harris, whom he tutored. All the new faces confronted the same pressures and frustrations Briscoe did earlier. It wasn’t until the late 1980s, when Williams won a Super Bowl with the Redskins and Warren Moon put up prolific numbers with the Houston Oilers, that the black QB stigma died.

Briscoe was not entirely aware of the deep imprint he made until attending a 2001 ceremony in Nashville remembering the late Gilliam. “All the black quarterbacks, both past and present, were there,” said Briscoe, naming everyone from Aaron Brooks (New Orleans Saints) to Dante Culpepper (Minnesota Vikings) to Michael Vick (Atlanta Falcons).

“The young kids came up to me and embraced me and told me, ‘Thank you for setting the tone.’ Now, there’s like 20 black quarterbacks on NFL rosters, and for them to give me kudos for paving the way and going through what I went through hit me. That was probably the first time I realized it was a history-making event. The young kids today know about the problems we faced and absorbed in order for them to get a fair shot and be in the position they are.”

Making the Buffalo roster at a spot he’d never played before proved one of Briscoe’s greatest athletic challenges and accomplishments. He not only became a starter but soon mastered the new position, earning 1970 All-Pro honors in only his second year, catching 57 passes for 1,036 yards and 8 TDs. Then, in an example of bittersweet irony, Saban was named head coach of the moribund Bills in 1972 and promptly traded Briscoe to the powerful Miami Dolphins. The move, unpopular with Bills’ fans, once again allowed Briscoe to intersect with history as he became an integral member of the Dolphins’ perfect 17-0 1972 Super Bowl championship team and the 1973 team that repeated as champs.

 

Following an injury-plagued ‘74 season, Briscoe became a vagabond — traded four times in the space of one year — something he attributes to his involvement in the 1971 lawsuit he and five other players filed against then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, an autocrat protecting owners’ interests, in seeking the kind of free agency and fair market value that defines the game today. Briscoe and his co-complainants won the suit against the so-called Rozelle Rule but within a few years they were all out of the game, labeled troublemakers and malcontents.

His post-football life began promisingly enough. A single broker, he lived the L.A. high life. Slipping into a kind of malaise, he hung with “an unsavory crowd” – partying and doing drugs. His gradual descent into addiction made him a transient, frequenting crack houses in L.A.’s notorious Ho-Stroll district and holding down jobs only long enough to feed his habit. The once strapping man withered away to 135 pounds. His first marriage ended, leaving him estranged from his kids. Ex-teammates like James Harris and Paul Warfield, tried helping, but he was unreachable.

“I strayed away from the person I was and the people that were truly my friends. When I came back here I was trying to run away from my problems,” he said, referring to the mid-’80s, when he lived in Omaha, “and it got worse…and in front of my friends and family. At least back in L.A. I could hide. I saw the pity they had in their eyes but I had no pride left.”

Perhaps his lowest point came when a local bank foreclosed on his Super Bowl rings after he defaulted on a loan, leading the bank to sell them over e-bay. He’s been unable to recover them.

He feels his supreme confidence bordering on arrogance contributed to his addiction. “I never thought drugs could get me,” he said. “I didn’t realize how diabolical and treacherous drug use is. In the end, I overcame it just like I overcame everything else. It took 12 years…but there’s some people that never do.” In the end, he said, he licked drugs after serving a jail term for illegal drug possession and drawing on that iron will of his to overcome and to start anew. He’s made amends with his ex-wife and with his now adult children.

Clean and sober since 1991, Briscoe now shares his odyssey with others as both a cautionary and inspirational tale. Chronicling his story in his book, The First Black Quarterback, was “therapeutic.” An ESPN documentary retraced the dead end streets his addict’s existence led him to, ending with a blow-up of his fingers, bare any rings. Briscoe, who dislikes his life being characterized by an addiction he’s long put behind him, has, after years of trying, gotten clearance from the Dolphins to get duplicate Super Bowl rings made to replace the ones he squandered.

For him, the greatest satisfaction in reclaiming his life comes from seeing how glad friends and family are that the old Marlin is back. “Now, they don’t even have to ask me, ‘Are you OK?’ They know that part of my life is history. They trust me again. That’s the best word I can use to define where I am with my life now. Trust. People trust me and I trust myself.”

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