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Omaha World-Herald Columnist Mike Kelly: A Storyteller for All Seasons

April 2, 2014 1 comment

I suppose it’s inevitable and only natural that I write about journalists from time to time.  After all, the world of journalism what I know best having plied the trade myself for many years.  The following New Horizons cover profile I wrote about the popular Omaha World-Herald columnist Mike Kelly is like a lot of stories I’ve done about journalists that you can find on this blog in that like those other pieces this one focuses on a veteran in the field whom I admire.  Kelly has become the face of that venerable daily and a leading advocate for Omaha and for good reason: he’s a prolific storyteller well plugged into the ryhthms of life in his adopted hometown of Omaha, Neb.

 

 

Cover Photo

New Horizons Newspaper

 

 

Omaha World-Herald Columnist Mike Kelly: A Storyteller for All Seasons

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons
The face of a newspaper
When it comes to local print media, the Omaha World-Herald is the only game in town owing to its vast coverage and reach. For a long time now the venerable daily’s most public face has been lead Metro columnist Michael Kelly, also a much in-demand master of ceremonies and public speaker. The Cincinnati, Ohio native has made his life, career and home here. He often uses the popular column he’s penned since 1991 as a platform for celebrating Omaha.

He served as sports columnist-sports editor for a decade before his Metro gig. He was a news reporter for 10 years before that. He estimates he’s produced 6,000 columns and another 2,000-plus bylined pieces. The sheer volume and visibility of his work make Kelly the paper’s most branded writer commodity.

Managing editor Melissa Matczak measures his impact this way: “Mike Kelly has endured as a popular columnist because he knows what makes Omahans tick. He understands the people and our culture and he has deep sources within the community. People trust him and want to talk to him. He is invaluable to our news organization. His knowledge base, connections, sources and trust in the community take decades to build. There is no one in Omaha quite like Mike Kelly.”

Working at the same publication for the entirety of one’s professional life is increasingly rare in a field where job turnover’s common. Kelly”s survived upheavals, housecleanings and regime changes.

His allegiance to this place is such he lives here year-round while his wife Barb is in Cincinnati. Their commuting relationship finds him going there regularly, sometimes filing stories from Ohio, and her coming here. Phone and email help keep them connected.

As Kelly explains, “We’re both from Cincinnati. We raised our kids in Omaha. Barb always wanted us to relocate and I didn’t want to leave. Meanwhile, our oldest Laura and her husband moved to Cincinnati. They now have five kids. We just got to the point where I said, ‘We can do this two-city thing.’ I knew she wanted to go back. So we bought a house there near our daughter. Barb helps them. She sees her siblings (she’s the oldest of 11) all the time, and I go back there one week a month. Then Barb comes out here (she’s back in April). She’s still very active in Omaha. She has lots of friends.

“We’re at the age we can pull this off and it works very well.”

Kelly says his bosses tell him they can’t tell the difference when he’s here or away, “and that’s good, but it is harder writing from away. I just wish the whole family was here but they’re not. They’re dispersed.”

Too close to home
His scattered clan includes daughter Bridget, who lives in New York City with her husband. In 2002-2003 Kelly wrote a moving series about Bridget surviving a traumatic attack in Killeen, Texas, where she taught school. She’d moved there to be near her then-Army boyfriend stationed at Fort Hood.

The morning of June 21, 2002 Kelly was at his newsroom desk when he got the call that changed everything. A detective informed him that overnight Bridget had been abducted from her apartment and taken to a field, where a male suspect raped her and shot her three times. She somehow made it 200 yards to the home of Army combat veteran Frank James, who cared for her until paramedics arrived. The call to Kelly came after emergency surgery at the Fort Hood hospital.

“I kind of stuttered, ‘Is she going to live?’ ‘I think so,’ was the reply. I hung up the phone and turned to Anne Henderson, my editor, who was having a confab, and said, ‘Anne!’ She looked at me like, Why are you interrupting me?, and I told her. I was told later it was like everything stopped in the newsroom. Our executive editor Larry King spoke to our publisher John Gottschalk, who made a private jet available. I went into an office and called Barb in Cincinnati. She had the terrible duty of calling our three other kids and telling them.

“I ran home, grabbed a few things. Steve Jordon, my buddy (and Herald colleague), got on the plane with me without so much as grabbing a toothbrush.”

Ironically, only months before Kelly had written about WOWT Omaha anchor John Knicely’s daughter Krista being attacked while a student at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. But this was Kelly’s own flesh and blood. At the hospital he found Bridget conscious in the ICU.

“She couldn’t speak because of all these tubes. I just leaned down, both of us crying, and tried to comfort her. Then she motioned with her hand she wanted to write something and I pulled out my reporter’s notebook. She wrote, ‘I was thinking of you and Mom and the whole family when this was happening. I didn’t want to die.’ I’ve still got that notebook. That afternoon the police took me out to the field. I saw her blood. I met the James family at their house to thank them. That night her survival was the lead story on the 5 o’clock TV news down there. No name, but everyone from the school she taught at figured it out.”

Kelly received a message of support that evening from John Knicely.

“I appreciated that.”

The “tight-knit” Kellys came together as they always do in crisis.

“The waiting room was overflowing with people. Barb and our daughter Laura got there the next day. Eventually the whole family was there.”

Business reporter Jordon, who was there to support his friend, witnessed Kelly rise to the occasion amidst the anguish:

“Mike showed impressive calm during that time, and that’s what Bridget and the other family members needed. Mike was able to talk with the authorities, make decisions about what to do for Bridget, talk with her friends about the incident, keep family members informed and engaged and help Bridget start on the road to recovery during those first few days. He was a true father.”

Bridget’s assailant, who’d driven off in her car, was soon captured.

“The police down there were amazing,” Kelly says. “About four days after Bridget had given her long statement to the police and identified her attacker in a photo lineup, I was talking and she was writing. The whole story had not been told at that time. The paper down there, The Killeen Daily Herald, said a 24 year-old school teacher had been raped and shot, left for dead, survived. The World-Herald said Bridget Kelly, a local girl, was abducted and shot three times and was in critical condition. It didn’t say anything about rape.

“I explained to her the difference in the coverage and she wrote, ‘Did they say rape?’ and I said, ‘No, this is born out of compassion. Also, some people think there’s a stigma on the victim.’ And she wrote, ‘Why is it more shameful to be a rape victim then a gunshot victim?’ And I thought, Oh my gosh, she wants to say something. That would have been against our policy.”

His first column about the incident expressed gratitude that “our daughter was still alive” and singled out those who aided her. The lead read, “June 21, the longest day of the year for daylight, became our family’s longest, darkest day.” He laid out in stark, sparse prose the nightmare of her attack and the miracle of her survival.

But after what Bridget communicated in the hospital, he knew there was more that needed to be said.

“I told my editors Bridget wants to say what happened, that she’s not ashamed, she didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t get the OK right away. Five weeks after it happened the suspect was charged with attempted murder, abduction, robbery and rape. I asked, ‘Are we going to report that?’ The decision was yes and so I wrote a column whose headline was, ‘A plea for more openness on rape.’ I wrote, ‘You don’t have to read between the lines and wonder if my daughter was raped…’

“When that column ran we heard from so many people. A lot of women survivors of rape were just glad someone was talking about it. The outpouring was unbelievable.”

Much more lay ahead for Bridget’s recovery and story. Kelly recounts, “She went to Cincinnati to recuperate. At the end of the summer her blood sugar shot through the roof and she was diagnosed with Juvenile Diabetes (Type I). She still has to deal with that. We believe it’s tied to the trauma. She was bound and determined to get back. She resumed teaching (at the same Texas school).”

National media picked up the story. The Dallas Morning News asked Kelly to write a piece that ran on the front of its Sunday paper.

“So then came a whole other wave of response.”

His handling of her story netted wide praise from peers. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized him with its Award for Commentary/Column Writing. Jordon summed up what many admired about Kelly’s treatment of the intensely personal subject matter:

“His writing about the attack was straightforward, honest and unvarnished, the right approach to a story that deserved to be told without embellishment and tricks. In the end, he was able to tell Bridget’s story fully, from a father’s perspective that resonated with the readers. He put himself in the story, but didn’t dominate the writing. It’s Bridget’s story, and he told it as her father would tell it.”

Bridget did many interviews. The Herald’s Todd Cooper went to Texas to file a story about her. “I appreciated that because then it wasn’t just the dad writing,” says Kelly. Bridget spoke at her alma mater, Duchesne, and at a Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation banquet her father MCd and her Good Samaritan, Frank James, attended. A commendatory telegram from Colin Powell recognized James for his heroic service.

“That was very memorable.”

Tragically, James died a few years later. “The family asked me to speak at his funeral, which I was honored to do.”

Then a movie-movie twist occurred. ABC’s Prime Time flew Bridget to New York City to be interviewed by Charles Gibson. She met an associate producer with the show, Eric Strauss. A couple years later Bridget moved to the Big Apple to get her master’s in literacy. A mutual friend reconnected Bridget and Eric and the two developed a friendship that bloomed into a romance that culminated in marriage.

Kelly wrote a 2012 Herald piece updating Bridget’s journey, including her work as a teacher, her public speaking and her volunteering as a trained advocate for rape-domestic violence survivors.

“She’s on call one weekend a month to go to any (NYC) emergency room,” says her father. “I’m very proud of her for doing that.”

His piece referenced that at the behest of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault she went to the field where she was attacked and made a video shown statewide for a public awareness campaign.

His story appeared ahead of a scheduled New York Times article about Bridget and Eric’s unusual meeting and storybook romance.

“We were looking forward to the Times piece. Then I get a call from a Times editor who says, ‘We’re killing the story.’ ‘Oh, that’s too bad, why? ‘We want to run your story.’ They wanted it longer, so I had to actually interview Bridget and Eric. It was interesting because I asked questions I never would have asked.”

Her advocacy will bring her to Omaha as featured speaker for the April 11 Torchlight Ball to benefit the SANE/SART (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner/Sexual Assault Response Team) unit at Methodist Hospital.

Omaha love affair
Some hearing about Kelly’s two-city lifestyle assume he resides in Cincinnati, only maintaining the facade of an Omaha presence through his column. Mailing it in so to speak. He sets the record straight.

“No, I live in Omaha, I pay a lot of taxes here. This is my home. But I do have a job where I can get away with going back to Cincinnati.”

As a locals columnist he must stay in touch with Omaha’s heartbeat.

“I love the neighborhoods. We raised our kids in Dundee, Happy Hollow. They went to St. Cecilia, Duchesne and Mount Michael.”

Kelly later moved to the Skinner Macaroni Building downtown. Now he’s in a 7th story condo in the restored Paxton Building.

“I feel like we’re right in the middle of everything here, close to the airport. I’m a block from my office. As my wife said when I bought here at the Paxton, ‘Well, now you’ll be happy, you’re going to spend 24 hours a day at the World-Herald.’ It’s not a 9 to 5 job, so it’s good and bad to be that close. You do have to get away.”

Kelly values many Omaha attributes.

“We’re not quite big enough to have major league professional sports but we’ve got everything else. It’s a great-sized city. Not to use the cliché but people come together, it’s friendly, it’s easy. I love my colleagues, I love my job.”

This big-fish-in-a-small-pond can find anonymity when he wants it, though his gregarious side doesn’t mind the limelight.

“I love my privacy and I love being out and around people.”

He’s a featured performer at Omaha Press Club Shows, where his gift for mimicry and ability to carry a tune have seen him impersonate Elvis and Johnny Cash, among others.

“Then, of course, there’s my new career, singing.” he says, jokingly, referring to recent vocal lessons he’s taken from Omaha crooner Susie Thorne. which he wrote about in a March column.

Kelly’s closely charted Omaha’s coming out party from placid, nondescript burg to confident creative class haven.

“I’ve seen the whole Omaha attitude change. The late ’80s for me was the low point. There was so much stuff going wrong, you wondered what the future was of this town, Then in the ’90s things started turning around.”

 

 

 

Mike Kelly

 

 

Downtown-riverfront redevelopment spurred a cultural-entrepreneurial explosion. Omaha suddenly went from a staid place where 20 and 30-somethings complained there was nothing to do to an attractive market for young professionals and tourists.

“The Chamber of Commerce had some studies done saying, Well, Omaha doesn’t have a bad image, it doesn’t really have an image. People didn’t know who we were. So I think the change is not so much that people have a great image of us but our image of ourselves. I hear this over and over from people. I think we had kind of a negative feel about it, like we weren’t worthy. Now we’re worthy.

Kelly says in national socioeconomic rankings “Omaha’s consistently in the top 10 for livability,” adding, “At the same time we’ve got urban problems any city has. A few years ago Kiplinger’s ranked Omaha as the number one overall place to live and I interviewed the reporter who came here and he said, ‘You’ve really got a lot going on, but if you could just solve the north Omaha problem you’d be a great city.’ That is my lament, having come here in 1970 and seen that the north Omaha problem has not improved. There’s a lot of people working on it. I’d love before I retire to see north Omaha rise up.”

Writer’s life
What’s the best part of what Kelly does?

“Just getting to tell people’s stories. being able to touch people, whether make ‘em laugh, make ‘em think, put a lump in their throat now and again. People do read the World-Herald. We do have one of the highest penetration rates – the percentage of people in your local market that read the paper – in the country. It’s like we have this commonality of interest. It doesn’t mean we agree, it doesn’t mean we’re all interested in the same things, but people are interested in what goes on in this community.”

Story after story, his column paints a rich human mosaic.

“i do believe everybody’s got an interesting story.”

He doesn’t believe a writer should draw undue attention to himself or to his style. “The better material you have the more important it is for you as the writer not to get in the way but to let it tell itself,” he says. “Your job is just to organize it for maximum impact.”

He’s outraged some journalists resort to fabricating things, saying, “The true stuff has great natural utter born drama. You don’t need to make stuff up, just keep listening, keep asking questions.”

If there’s a Kelly axiom he abides by it’s – get it right.

“I always feel I have a responsibility to the readers and to my editors and to the source to tell the person’s story accurately. There’s nothing more important than accuracy.”

He says he’s methodical, “plodding” even as he hones copy to the bone and compulsively fact checks. “I keep the reader in mind all the time.” Next to accuracy, clarity and brevity, structure is everything.

“I do have a philosophy about writing, and that is the importance of getting your key words and phrases at the ends of sentences. It’s just like telling a joke – where does the punchline go. And then you always want to have a thump. You don’t want it to just end, you want to have an ENDING.”

Like father, like son
When he joined the Herald in 1970 at age 21, fresh out of the University of Cincinnati, he couldn’t have imagined still being at the paper in 2014. Next to Jordon he’s the newsroom’s most senior staffer.

“I was happy to get a job here. I thought Omaha would be a nice place to go for two or three years. No regrets for having stayed. I feel very lucky I’ve latched on here.”

Kelly wasn’t the first journalist in his family. His late parents Frank and Dorothy Kelly put out a small weekly, the St, Bernard (Ohio) Journal, during the Great Depression. Though his father, who was also a stringer for various publications and news services, gave up the business to work for the IRS, it remained his life’s true passion.

“That was his love – journalism,” says Kelly, whose prized possessions include a framed front page of the St. Bernard Journal and the old portable Underwood typewriter his father employed. “I used to type my term papers on that,” Kelly says with pride.

“We always had newspapers around the house. Cincinnati had three daily papers in the ’50s when I was growing up and my dad subscribed to all of them. I was the only one of his eight kids that went into what was his love, so it was a nice connection. This is my heritage.”

The devoted son spent much of his first decade in Omaha covering the police and city hall beats, where former head cop Richard Andersen and mayor Ed Zorinsky were among the public servants he covered. Next he became a general assignment reporter. Then he unexpectedly got offered the position of sports editor.

 

 

 

Back in the day before computers

 

 

From news to sports to news again
“I’m a sports fan like a lot of people but I had no intention of going into this. The managing editor, Bob Pearman, liked a couple things I wrote, one of them a piece on Ron Stander (the ex-club fighter who fought heavyweight champion Joe Frazier at the Civic Auditorium). I wrote this long piece with flashbacks to the championship fight, which I was at, and it got Associated Press story of the year.

“Pearman wanted me to be writer and editor. I hemmed and hawed for days. One day he calls me into his office. ‘Mr. Kelly, have you decided yet?’ ‘Well, I was thinking I wanted to…’ ‘Mr. Kelly, shut the god______ door. Do you want to be my sports editor or don’t you?’”

Kelly timidly accepted.

“I’d just turned 33, so I call this the highlight day of my career. Oh my gosh, it was like jumping into the deep end and not knowing how to swim. I’m glad I did it, but the problem was trying to do two jobs. You’re a middle manager with no middle management training in charge of 25 people, plus all of a sudden you’re a columnist with your picture in the paper. I’m dealing with Tom Osborne and I had been a fan. I knew enough that now I had to have an arm’s length relationship.

“Newspapers were starting to cover recruiting. It’s an industry now. I’m there at 9 o’clock one night after putting in 12 hours. I get a call from an assistant Nebraska football coach. He cussed me out, every filthy word I’ve ever heard and about six others I hadn’t, because we were doing recruiting stories and letting Oklahoma know who they were going after. Well, Oklahoma knew who they were going after. He tried to intimidate me and I was a little shaken. I remember hanging up the phone and thinking, Oh my God, this is not fun and games is it?”

Besides being young, Kelly was an interloper coming from news into a sports role that older, more qualified colleagues had been in line to get.

“Acting sports editor Bob Tucker was a veteran and all of a sudden some guy from news side was put into the job he deserved to get. He was my assistant, I relied on him. It worked out. He was the kind of guy who could make the trains run on time. That’s what I needed.

“I think I injected some creativity. I was more controversial in my sports days than I am now. I used to get criticized regularly by Cornhusker fans. I wasn’t constantly critical but sometimes that’s what you’re supposed to be. I enjoyed the 10 years in sports for the most part but I could never get my arms around both those jobs.”

A highlight was covering the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, where the U.S. gymnastics team, which included Nebraskans Jim Hartung and Scott Johnson, won the gold medal. He considers Creighton’s 1991 College World Series run “the most fun event of my time in sports.” His father covered the 1940 Major League World Series in Cincinnati.

But Kelly was already torn by the enormous time sacrifice covering sports events demands. He was missing, among other things, his daughter Laura’s volleyball matches.

“I asked if I could go back to news side.”

He got his wish when named a Metro columnist. But where sports provided a constant, steady stream of in-season subjects related to area teams, news side subjects were less defined.

“I remember thinking, How am I going to come up with 200 column ideas a year? What am I going to write about?”

He gives the same answer to the question readers most often ask him: Where do you get your story ideas?

“I read a lot, I get out and talk to people, but luckily the best source for me is people calling and telling me stuff. That’s usually a function of I’ve been around for a long time and they’ve seen what I write, so that’s a benefit. But when I left sports and started column writing in the news section I didn’t quite have that. It was harder in the beginning.”

Full circle
One of his most “memorable” columns dealt with the Vietnam War. The subject’s always been sensitive for him because his enrollment in college deferred him from serving and then when the draft lottery went into effect his birth date exempted him. He found these privileged exclusions “patently unfair.” Then he got the idea of following what happened to one of the unlucky ones with a birthdate near his own.

Reggie Abernethy of Maiden N.C. was born one day removed from Kelly and that was all the difference it took for him to get drafted and ultimately killed in Quang Tri, South Vietnam while the luck of the draw allowed Kelly to stay home, launch his career and start a family.

“I made a couple calls and found out a little bit about Reggie. I went to his hometown and met with his family, friends, his old girlfriend. I went to his school.. It was really moving. It’s one of these moments where you think, What a privilege to get to ask people these personal questions. It was like he had only died a week or two before.

“Before I left his brother took me out to his gravesite. I had a letter from his friend who was with him when he was killed. I wrote the piece for Memorial Day and that got the biggest reaction of anything I’ve written up until the columns about my daughter a decade later. It was kind of a story that hadn’t been written. It was just a different angle. It was definitely (motivated by) survivor guilt.

“That damn war, it had so many tentacles, even today. It was just dumb luck I didn’t have to go.”

It’s one thing being haunted by the specter of vets who served in his place. It’s quite another coming so close to losing his daughter. It’s inevitable he wrote about her odyssey. He still gets emotional about it.

“You’d think at some point I’d be able to talk about this without getting choked up.”

Bridget Kelly went from being an interested observer of her father’s work to being the focus of it.

“Growing up, my dad helped me understand the power of storytelling. We can learn more about what it means to be human through reading about other people’s struggles and experiences. After my attack, there was an outpouring of supportive messages from family, friends, and my dad’s readership.

“It seemed a natural response my dad would share in his column some of what my family and I were going through.”

How did the experience of writing about it impact him?

“Something like that’s got to affect you. I think I was compassionate before. I don’t think it’s made me more compassionate but maybe it has.”

Bridget says, “I always knew my dad was a compassionate person He handles sensitive and difficult subject matter with compassion. Now I better understand what a special voice he has at the newspaper. He gets people talking about all kinds of topics.

“I gained a real respect for his connection to the readers of the World-Herald. He tells me he meets people in the Omaha community even today who still ask him how I’m doing. All kinds of people feel comfortable asking him about such a personal story because he made it okay in the way he wrote about it.”

He says seeing others not always get Bridget’s story right “caused me to redouble my efforts when I’m writing about someone to think of it as a little documentation of their life.”

His daughter got a deeper appreciation for what he does..

“He talked with me during his writing process, and I could tell he wanted to be sure my perspective was accurately reflected in what he wrote. I can see he takes that kind of care in telling other people’s stories, too. I think that’s one reason people trust him to give voice to their personal experiences.”

As for how much longer he’ll keep working, Kelly has no plans to retire.

“I love my job. I hope I can keep doing it reasonably well. I would miss it.”

His devoted readers would surely miss him, too.

Follow Kelly online at http://www.omaha.com/section/news60.

 

 

 

Bob Hoig’s Unintended Entree into Journalism is Six Decades Strong Now

January 25, 2013 2 comments

I can’t speak for my colleagues but for this journalist anyway it’s fun to write about other journalists, particularly if the person has enjoyed a rich career in the field we share.  The subject of this New Horizons profile, Bob Hoig, has definitely seen a thing or two in a 56 year career that progressed from copy boy to reporter to editor to publisher.  He’s best known today as publisher of the Midlands Business Journal but he had some intriguing newspapering adventures before he launched that publication in 1975.  I’ve had the pleasure of profiling many fascinating folks in the field, including Don Chapman, Warren Francke, Bill Ramsey, Howard Rosenberg, John Hlavacek, Rudy Smith, Don Doll, and Howard Silber.  You can fnd my stories about them on this blog.  I now add Bob Hoig to the list.

 

 

Bob Hoig

 

 

Bob Hoig’s Unintended Entree into Journalism is Six Decades Strong Now

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in the New Horizons

 

Midlands Business Journal publisher Bob Hoig has often wondered how his life might have turned out had his curiosity not gotten the better of him one fateful day in 1957.

He was a young man recently arrived in New York City after years pining to go there, He was born in rural Kansas and grew up in Pueblo and Colorado Springs, Colorado but he sensed he was meant for bigger things.

“I just had wanted to be there. It was a city that always intrigued me. It had a mystique. I fancied myself a poet at the time. My reading preferences in literature have always tended toward writers who had a lot to say about New York City. That would include F. Scott Fitzgerald. John O’Hara, who was a real favorite of mine, and Ernest Hemingway.”

Hoig actually met the iconic Hemingway in an old German bar in New York.

Rich in words but poor in dollars, Hoig’s Big Apple sojourn was beginning to seem more folly than destiny. Then something happened that changed the course of his life.

“I was out of work, I didn’t have a lot of money, and I was walking down 42nd Street, just past 3rd Avenue, towards 2nd and the East River and the United Nations Building, when my peripheral vision caught the lobby of a building. Inside the lobby was a giant globe of the Earth, roughly 8 or 10 feet high, revolving around. I was just interested, so I walked in. I didn’t know what was going on there.

“There were a lot of brass gauges like you might think of as nautical or aeronautical. There was a guard by the elevator and I said, ‘What building is this? and he said, ‘Why, it’s the New York Daily News.’ Well, I needed a job and so I just asked, ‘Are they hiring?’ He said, ‘It beats me, why don’t you go up and talk to personnel?’ So I did that and the next thing I knew I’d been hired, with no particular qualifications, as a copy boy.”

That mere chance encounter turned into a career 56 years old and counting. He was a reporter for the Miami News, the UPI and the Omaha World-Herald and the managing editor of the Omaha Sun Newspapers and the Douglas County Gazette before founding the MBJ. He still can’t get over how his life in the Fourth Estate began in such an off-handed way.

“I had very little college, one year at the University of Colorado before I dropped out and I had no particular reference to journalism at all.”

He briefly worked in accounting. He’d sold shoes in the basement of Ben Simon department store. But he was restless for something more adventurous. Then he struck out for New York. He was nearly flat broke when he got on with the big city newspaper despite a lick of experience. He was 24, clueless about the world he was about to enter, but soon found himself in a “rich stew” of people and places that spurred him on.

All these years later he recalls the job of Daily News copy boy “a supreme experience,” adding, “The main thing that made it a great experience is that it offered many avenues toward advancing in he trade of journalism.” Being in the newspaper game in New York put one right in the mix of things in the most exciting metropolis in the world. And if one showed a spark of initiative and promise, as he did, opportunities availed themselves.

“That set me up for everything that came after. I was ambitious and ambitious people in New York are always rewarded. I was just ready to do anything. I guess I displayed a little bit of panache in the way I approached things and I was soon made assistant head copy boy. I know that’s not much of a title but it opened doors. It meant I handed out the other copy boys’ assignments, which gave me the pick of the best for myself. That included going to to Yankee Stadium and sitting in the press box just above the dugout when legends like Yogi Berra, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle were trouping out to the plate and back.

“It was not totally glorious because after two innings I had to take the photographer’s film and get out of the stadium, race to the subway and rush the photos back to the Daily News office in time to make the Bulldog edition.”

His entree to the Who’s-Who of New York sports figures didn’t end there.

“That experience had parallels in every sport,” he says. “I was on the sidelines for the New York Giant games on Sunday when Kyle Rote, Roosevelt Grier, Frank Gifford and other legends of Giant football were playing. I got to charge up and down the sidelines with the photographer (until the end of the first quarter when Hoig had to high-tail it back to the office with the film). I got to go to the races at Belmont. Once again, that same drill – after the Daily Double I had to rush the film back to the office.”

It was a fertile training ground, especially for anyone with aspirations.

Hoig says, “That was a great way to get into it and build up a little bit of knowledge and sophistication to life in Manhattan. The main way it helped breaking into the     newspaper business as a writer was that I got to work on Sunday features. What it amounted to was working with some of the legends of New York city journalism and having the benefit of them critiquing my work and being a little bit patient with me. They weren’t totally patient with the copy boys if they showed no spunk but if you did they would work with you. And I got to have bylines in the paper as a result.”

For a journalist, getting a byline is like your name appearing on a theater marquee. It’s your chance to puff out your chest and bask in the spotlight. Hoig took full advantage.

“There was a lot of glory in that kind of byline, for this reason: the stories appeared in the zoned editions of the Sunday edition and for instance my work would appear in the Manhattan Bronx section but there was also a Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, so forth. And the good thing about that was those sections wrapped around the whole newspaper, so on Sunday if you were lucky enough to get a front page byline in the Manhattan Bronx section there your name was staring up from every New York newsstand. So you can bet that any girlfriend I was wining and dining at the time I made sure we walked past that Sunday stand and I’d say, ‘Oh look…’”

The ethos of the times found Hoig following the newspaper pack to the bars, where drinking and swapping stories through the night was routine.

He positively subscribes to the sentiment that if you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere. “Yeah, it’s true because it tees you up. For one thing you’re used to some of the more dire circumstances. A lot of them required you to have your wits about you and to sort of be as much as actor as a reporter.”

Working at the News offered other advantages, too.

“The News was a totally Irish dominated newspaper. it was quite a place to be in my day by the way because some of the absolute legends of the New York scene were actually there then. For instance, Ed Sullivan still had a desk. He was just breaking into television. He’d been a columnist for years. If I had a tip I would try to feed it to his column. Paul Gallico was not only a top sports editor he was famous around the desk for getting knocked out by Jack Dempsey. He was also a great short story writer who won the O’Henry Award. Harry Nichols was a big-time city editor. A tough, no-nonsense kind of guy. He was a legend.”

Hoig also got his feet wet in live TV.

“The News not long before had started a television station, WPIX, which was also in the building, and I got the chance to write the most basic kind of copy for the news scripts – death, weather, anything very routine. That opened the door to some other sophistications that the average kid working in Grand Island or Kearney wouldn’t find at the introductory level.”

He was only in New York about two years when he left for Neb., where he had family. He’d spent time visiting relatives in the state as a youth. “The Hoigs got out here about 1895 around Beatrice and Wymore. My dad had deep roots with the old Cooper Foundation theaters. I returned to Lincoln, Neb. on the advice of one of the ‘lobster’ city editors of the New York Daily News. That’s the editor who comes on at midnight and works until 8 in the morning. He became a friend of mine.”

Hoig was itching to do crime reporting but as a copy boy it would have taken him longer than he cared to wait before he got his opportunity to cover that beat.

“My friend felt I had enough talent that I needed to get out and get right into the mainstream of what i was interested in, which was crime writing. Now you could go that route with the Daily News but they rarely if ever hired from the outside and you had to work up from a copy boy through junior assistant and that kind of thing, and the waiting period could be fantastic. For instance, Jimmy Cannon, who’s a legend in sportswriting, was a copy boy for seven years on the Daily News. The man who at the time was the travel editor had been a copy boy for 13 years.

“There were all kinds of names in New York City who had followed that route. This editor thought I would benefit by getting out and getting a job. It worked out that I did get a chance to work in Lincoln covering police and fire in the period when Charles Starkweather had been brought to trial and was being executed. At the time it was the Lincoln Journal-Star, but I worked for the Journal, which was the afternoon paper.”

Hoig wound up in Omaha, first on the United Press International desk and then as an Omaha World-Herald newsroom staffer, but not by way of Lincoln as you might expect, rather by way of Miami and Chicago of all places. His wanderlust called again.

“That was kind of a circuitous route,” he notes. “After I cut my teeth on police reporting, doing a lot of it in Lincoln, I felt the same lure to Miami that I did to New York. I went to Miami and after being rejected at the Miami Herald by the then-assistant managing editor, Harold “Al” Neuharth, who went on found USA Today, I wound up working for in my opinion the greatest newspaper in all of Florida and the South at the time as a young crime reporter, the old Miami News. It was a real blood and guts paper. It was edited again by a legend in newspapering down there.

“It was a great place to be and right off the bat they assigned me to the sheriff’s office and so many good stories would come out of there.”

Organized crime was well entrenched in the city, as was rampant police corruption, and one assignment required him to “go up to a known Mafia family head and ask, ‘How do you feel about your son being shot-gunned to death?’ When you’re in a crazy situation like that you gotta just quick think and get out. “

He enjoyed being in the thick of the action of a cosmopolitan city built on tourism and graft. It was a vital place and time where the news never quit.

“I had a chance to really move along there,” says Hoig. “I cultivated a friend who was probably my closest colleague on the Miami News. He was an old-timer who had worked on the war desk during World War II in New York for United Press. I loved the job at the Miami News but I didn’t like Florida and neither did my then-wife, and at that time she was my new wife. We didn’t like the heat, so we decided to go north.

“When Bill Tucker, this friend of mine, heard we were going north he said, ‘Well, I hate to see you leave but as long as you’re going I’ll give you a reference to the man who’s the division news manager for United Press International in Chicago. I interviewed with him, I was hired and I had (incidentally) some Neb. roots but they just happened to send me to Omaha. That’s how I wound up in Omaha.”

UPI was still a player among wire services in the 1960s.

“We were totally rivals with the Associated Press. We had more radio and TV clients in Neb. than AP did. AP was ahead of us in newspapers. But we shared all the biggies, like we were both in the World-Herald, the Lincoln Journal-Star, and their editors played that very cleverly because they would pit us against each other in a competitive way.”

His highlight with UPI came with a bit of newspaper bravado.

“I was sitting in the United Press Bureau one night in the mid-‘60s when a report came in about a shooting in Big Springs. An armed robber had come in the bank, lined up four people on the floor and shot them. Three of them died and one of them survived. So this gunman was on the loose and nobody knows who it was.

‘We got a tip authorities were searching for a Kansas farm boy, Duane Earl Pope. We found out his father had been cruel to him. Duane had recently graduated from McPherson College, where he was a football star. I thought, Who could issue an appeal I could write that would lead Duane to surrender. His father? No. His coach? Maybe. His college president? Yeah. When Pope finally was captured they learned he’d heard that appeal in a hotel room in Las Vegas. He made arrangements to fly back and surrender to the FBI in Kansas City, That was the biggest coup I ever staged and I think there is a classic role in journalism for that sort of thing.”

 

 

Duane Earl Pope in custody after turning himself into authorities

 

 

He left the Omaha Bureau of UPI after roughly seven years to join the World-Herald. He explains, “I had what seemed like a much better offer at that time from the World-Herald to become a crime and corruption reporter. That was 1969.

“The biggest story I covered up to that point was a banking scandal in Sheldon, Iowa. A spinster named Bernice Geiger was the trusted bookkeeper for the local bank owned by her aging parents and she had embezzled $2 million. So I went up there and every day just as I was getting ready to leave something major developed in the story. All of a sudden reporters from Time, Newsweek, the New York papers and all over the country came flooding in to cover this story.

“It had so many angles that you could write a book about it. It had such human interest, including a possible love angle. A young con man came in and there was suspicion that he helped her spend the money. It turned out she blew the money on the Chicago Commodities Exchange, which is a weird place for a spinster to blow money.”

In 1971 he was the Herald’s nominee for a Pulitzer Prize for a series he did about serial sexualpaths that led to a state law being changed to tighten lax security procedures at the then-Nebraska State Hospital. To get the story Hoig says he “went down to Lincoln and asked a lot of questions.” He explains, “That story was precipitated by a particularly bad actor who was an inmate down there. Staff just let inmates like him wander the grounds. There was no particular supervision and this guy every now and then would just wander off and do his thing. What got him caught is he wandered off to Omaha, where he raped a couple women, and so that set in motion the Herald’s interest in it.”

He remained with the Herald until 1972.

His path to launching the Midlands Business Journal actually began at the end of a brief turn he took as editor of the Douglas County Gazette. “By that time I’d had my fill of crime and corruption and looking under every rock to expose something sinister or wrong or some crime,” he says. “I didn’t want to do that anymore.”

When a Herald column mentioned he was leaving the Gazette, he recalls, “that morning my phone was ringing at a quarter to eight and it was the owner of Rapid Printing, the late Zane Randall, saying, ‘If you’re out of work, come and talk to me.’ So I did and he hired me as general manager of a bunch of suburban shoppers he either owned or printed. I talked Zane into letting me take a shot at founding a business newspaper with somewhat of a unique concept.”

Few people thought the business journal could work.

“This came in the face of many prophecies of doom from people like Jim Ivey at the Herald, so it wasn’t an assured thing. But what I wanted to do was produce a product that would localize and bring close to the community stories of businesses and with a particular angle of success stories. I’ve always been a good salesman and I think I’m a good enough writer and editor that I had the two components you need to start a successful paper, and that’s why I thought it would be successful.

“It was something nobody was doing at the time and that’s what I staked my guess it could be successful on. Zane was backing me in a sense. He didn’t put any money into it but he printed the paper for us and he let us use his composing room and typesetting and so forth. So it was a relatively painless way to try something that worked.”

Hoig and Randall drew up a contract to be half-and-half partners of MBJ at the start but as time went on the enigmatic Randall wanted out.

“Zane was the kind of guy who would just take a chance on anything and he backed newspapers and mailing operations that failed. He had a lot of failures out there with little probes into different aspects of journalism. Of course, he sold (Rapid) out to the Herald for a reputed seven or eight million bucks, so when he scored he scored big. His inclination to back anything is what helped me out in the long run.

“But we were about a year into the MBJ when several relatives he had working for him told him to get out of it.’ I tried to point out to him that we were in the process of being successful and for our humble niche in the community we were being very successful. The ad sales were almost good enough to meet the goals and the subscription sales were renewing at a fantastic 90 percent rate. That usually doesn’t happen.

“Based on all that I said to him, ‘Look ahead one more year and this thing is going to be doing really well.’ I couldn’t talk him out of it, and he said, ‘No, we’re closing it down. I said, ‘Well, how about you name a figure and if I can possibly meet it I’ll sign a note and pay it off? and that’s the way that one went.”

 

 

 

 

Thirty-eight years later MBJ is still going strong. He attributes its enduring success to his ‘nose for news,” his business sense and his numbers crunching ability.

“I can spot stories or I can cook them up.”

“I know accounting and I keep the books and so every day I know what my cash position is to the penny. Every month I reconcile the bank statements and I do my general ledger entries. I’ve never graduated from that routine and that’s one way to keep your hands on your business and know what’s going on.”

Meeting unforgettable characters and public figures has also come with the territory. A bigger-than-life politico he had occasion to know was the late South Omaha kingpin Gene Mahoney. Hoig recalls a memorable encounter.

“I was walking on South 13th Street when Mahoney in this old beater of a car pulls up and says, ‘Where you going?’ ‘Back to work,’ and he said, ‘Hop in.’ So I got in and asked, ‘Where we going?’ and he said, ‘We’re going on the Polish sausage run.’ He had his car loaded with Polish sausage and other things and good old politician Mahoney was swinging by everybody in South Omaha that he’d found out was either sick or laid off or injured. He was just a master politician that way.

“He was such a powerbroker. I think I’m the last guy to know how great he was. As a powerbroker, maybe not as an individual. He had some sides to him that I don’t think I’d recommend. But as a guy who just controlled everything…”

Once, when Omaha Federation of Labor AFL-CIO president Terry Moore launched into a favorite theme about Mahoney being “all washed up” Hoig set the record straight. “I said, Terry, think about it, where is Mahoney right now? His best friend has just been elected to the U.S. Senate, Ed Zorinsky. His handpicked apparatchik is in the legislature, Bernice Labedz. She’s keeping him totally informed about everything. He’s got a job that has more perks and power than any job in the state as Games and Parks commissioner. He can airplane people out to any lodge, so as a position to collect IOUs you can’t beat that. Plus, he’s got a say in a certain amount of projects that get built.”

Hoig, who closely follows politics and doesn’t exactly pull punches when critiquing politicians, admired Mahoney’s savvy when it came to patronage and influence.

“As a former legislator and someone who’d been across political parties – he switched back and forth from Democrat to Republican to Democrat again – he could talk to anyone. He was a master at doling out favors. He’d get together with Peter Kiewit and Walter Scott on what were their desires and what needed to be done and all of a sudden things got built.”

Hoig has anecdotes about all the big names he’s met, including corporate tycoons Peter Kiewit and V.J. Skutt, then presidential candidate Richard Nixon, then-vice president Lyndon Johnson, not to mention Neb. politicians whose wrath he’s earned. His life is as full as any of theirs though. He toiled for others the first third of his career before striking out on his own and becoming a successful entrepreneur. Besides MBJ he publishes the Lincoln Business Journal and the Omaha Book of Lists. MBJ was the Chamber’s 2002 Golden Spike Award honoree. He’s been recognized by the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce (2004) and the Omaha Kiwanis Club (2006) as Entrepreneur of the Year.

“As a unit success our biggest success is our 40 Under 40 program with the Chamber. That, of course, isn’t a paper but it’s a yearly program we started in 2002 during the depths of another bubble recession and it made it’s way through. It’s forged on identifying and honoring 40 professional businessmen and women under the age of 40.”

He’s also the father of three adult children. Long divorced, he’s well into his second marriage with an old friend, Martha, who’s every bit as bit as active as he is. He’s a veteran tennis player and swimmer. He used to ski. Since taking up skiing late in life Martha’s become quite the devotee and continues to enjoy the sport despite some mishaps on the slopes. She’s also an artist with her own downtown studio. Bob says her streaks of “daring-do” and whimsy have led her to stand on her head atop the Olympic Tower in New York and to ride a motorcycle with him. She’s also his faithful flying companion. He only took up flying a decade ago but it’s his main hobby today.

He’s not conceding anything to age as he continues coming to the office every day and living it up away from the office. He says he enjoys “keeping everything in balance now,’”adding, “I like the idea of having the balance. The work, the great relationship with my wife, the flying and the writing – I’m really starting to ramp up my own fiction writing.”

At 80, he still plays tennis and swims. He only gave up skiing three years ago. He works out a few days a week at the gym.

His boundless curiosity invariably leads him to some new passion he takes up with vigor and once he hit upon flying it’s become his main fascination and outlet.

 

 

Hoig pilots a Cessna very much like this one

 

 

“Almost every decade of my life I’ve turned a corner into something that fascinates me,” he says. “When I was 68 my son and I were in my den playing flight simulator and I was like, ‘This is really interesting and fun, I think I’ll take a (flying) lesson.’ So I went out to get a lesson and just from the first landing of feeling like a big bird, sailing slowly, slowly, now a little faster, and then, whoosh. It just captivated me and that’s all I could think about for a year other than my work.”

He got his private pilot’s license in 2000 and purchased his own Cessna SkyLane in 2003. He earned his instrument rating in 2005. He’s logged 1,700 hours in the air.

He’s proud of his blue and white Cessna he personally selected from the plant. “It’s a beauty. It’s a good one for traveling and my wife and I travel a lot. Any vacation, we fly. That has really kept my spirits and kept me thinking.”

He and Martha love seeing the sights.

“We do travel an awful lot. The most routine trip we make is every year we fly the plane to New York and go to the U.S. Open tennis tournament. That’s in late August-early September. Of late we’ve taken to flying into New England or to upstate New York. In 2011 I flew it up to a place called Plattsburgh, New York just across the lake from Burlington, Vermont. It’s way up there. That was good.

“A couple times a year we fly it up to a place called Rosemary Beach in the Florida Panhandle. Three years ago I flew it all the way down into the Florida Keys, beyond Key Largo. I’ve flown it a lot to my hometown of Colorado Springs.”

He has the chops to fly into airports large and small.

“I really made it my business to learn GPS and that has helped us fly into big airports and feel comfortable doing it in rain, in clouds, and so on.”

Between changeable weather systems and heavy air traffic, he says, “You have to keep your wits about you.”

Sometimes he and Martha just light out on a whim.

“We’ve gotten up on a Saturday morning with no idea of what we’re going to do that day and one of us will say, ‘Hey, it’s a nice day, why don’t we go to Kansas City?, so you jump in the plane and you’re in Kansas City for lunch.”

The couple also travel to Europe with great regularity. They never do tours. Instead they simply “follow the wind,” he says.

Martha, who is a breast cancer survivor, has also been a key cog in his publishing empire as vice-president in charge of marketing. His sister Cindy is vice-president of advertising. And his daughter Andrea once worked for him as well before branching off on her own. Much to his surprise and delight Andrea’s followed his footsteps. She began working for him as a photographer and in 1996 she purchased a fledgling publication he started, Metro Monthly, and she’s since transformed it into Metro Magazine, whose niche is covering the area’s philanthropic scene.

Seeing her blossom into a peer entrepreneur and publisher, he says, gives him “great satisfaction,” adding, “She’s done a terrific job with the magazine that I told her in the beginning, ‘Just forget it, it won’t go,’ so she proved me wrong on that.”

 

 

Hoig with his daughter Andrea holding their Faces on the Barroom Floor caricatures

 

 

It’s sometimes hard for him to reconcile the rebellious girl who worked for him with the mature woman who is a colleague today.

“When she was a teenager we just didn’t mix at all. We didn’t get along. In the course of maybe working around me a little bit and getting into journalism it turns out of my three children she’s more like the apple that fell closest to the tree. She seems to have an instinctive ability in journalism for some of the things I think are very important. She’s unusually good at detail. She gets along very well with people and unlike me she has a very kind heart. She just empathizes with everybody and for the niche that she’s in that’s really the way to be anyway, but she is like that.”

They’re very different people though. “She is liberal where I’m conservative,” he says. “She doesn’t even read my editorials.” But his admiration for her is complete. “I’m very proud of what she’s accomplished, She’s come so far from where I thought.”

Last fall father and daughter were honored as Faces on the Barroom Floor at the Omaha Press Club.

Over time he’s learned some lessons from her, too, such as giving up control.

“I was the typical entrepreneur in feeling that if I didn’t do it it couldn’t be done right. Everything really important I felt I had to do myself. It’s hard enough to grow a really      small business like ours without giving it total attention and I probably lost a lot of good people over the years by not turning enough over to them. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten better at delegating responsibility. I’ve started to turn more over to our editor and to our advertising director and that’s been good.”

As he’s taken more time out for himself, his wife, his family and his passions, he’s found his later years to be the best of his life. He’s far from retired though.

“There’s a saying I heard long ago that work ennobles a person and I find this work very ennobling because it keeps me alive, it keeps me involved and it keeps me thinking. It also keeps people employed.”

From the Archives: Warren Francke, A Passion for Journalism, Teaching and Life

June 11, 2012 2 comments

When I studied journalism at the University of Nebraska at Omaha there were three professors in my major area of concentration who stood out:  the late Bob Reilly for his warm personality and engaging storytelling; the late Todd Simon for his brilliant analytical mind; and Warren Francke for his passion in teaching us about the rich history of the Fourth Estate.  I was an odd bird of a student because my rampant insecurities kept me from really ever getting to know any of my fellow J students.  The only prof I got somewhat close to was Reilly, which was no great feat because he was welcoming to all.  Simon probably most stimulated my sensibilities, though his intellect intimidated me.  Francke is someone I wanted to know better and sought more affirmation from, but I don’t think I gave him much to work with.  After graduating college and pursuing my career I remained friendly with Reilly, who became a mentor of mine.  I doubt if I would have stuck it out as a freelancer those early years without his encouragement.  After college I never had any contact again with Simon, who just passed away in early 2012.  Francke is someone I likely would not have encountered again if not for the fact that he and I both became contributing writers to the same alternative news weekly, The Reader.  He’s a fine writer and human being and I am proud to call him a colleague.  Like his good departed friend and colleague Bob Reilly, he too has had encouraging words for him that I greatly appreciate.  When I did the following New Horizons profile on Francke about a dozen years ago he was just as I remembered him from UNO – a vital presence excited by his craft as teacher and journalist.  I can happily report that he is still that vital presence today.  I hope to have his energy and engagement 20 years from now.

 

 


Warren Francke, ©UNO Criss Library


 

 

From the Archives: Warren Francke, A Passion for Journalism, Teaching and Life

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

 

When University of Nebraska at Omaha communications professor Warren Francke gets a certain misty, far-off gaze in his eyes, chances are he’s lost in another Rocky Mountain reverie.  As a veteran Colorado summer dweller, he can’t help but daydream about hiking where the wild flowers bloom or waking to the warm golden glow of the morning sun glinting off snowy peaks or filling his lungs with the cool crisp ether of pure mountain air or sitting under a canopy of stars from atop a tall ridge at night.

Perhaps he even conjures his long-awaited rendezvous with a bear on some remote mountain trail.

He’s been hooked on Colorado’s high country life since the early 1970s, when summers first found him hauling his family out west, into the Estes Park region of the Rockies, where they grew enchanted by the languid pace and natural beauty of those rarefied heights and eventually extended their two-week vacations there into months-long visits.

Francke and his late wife of 31 years, Sue, adored life in those far upper reaches.  When she died of a heart attack in 1991 he, son Chris, and daughter Cara scattered her ashes in a place she loved.  Now, he shares the towering landscapes with his second wife, Carol, who suffered the loss of a longtime spouse.  After meeting and surviving what Francke calls “the human comedy that is dating after 30 years,” he and Carol married in 1994.              After years renting in the Estes Park area the Francke family finally have a cabin of their own — in the Tahosa Valley, a half-mile north of the town of Allenspark. Situated at 8,500 feet elevation, on a lot dotted with tall ponderosa pines and small aspens, the cabin looks out on Mt. Meeker to the west and the lush valley below.  The couple drive their jeep to secluded spots and make cross-country jaunts on foot to favorite hideaways.

When not sampling the great outdoors he reads books (preferring mystery novels), writes features for the Estes Park Trail-Gazette and pens articles for various professional journals and reference volumes.

Since joining the UNO faculty in 1966, he’s always remained a working journalist.  You may remember him best as a a reporter-columnist with the Omaha Sun Newspapers in the 1960s and 1970s and as that curmudgeon media critic Watching the Watchdogs on WOWT-TV in the 1980s.  These days you can find Francke-penned theater reviews in the Council Bluffs Nonpareil.   At UNO he teaches Literary Journalism and  History of Mass Communication courses as well as a graduate seminar.  He feels writing and teaching give him the best of both worlds.

“I love to write.  It helps my teaching and it helps fill some creative need I have.  For my entire 34 years of teaching I’ve had the good fortune to also do the kind of journalism I enjoy most.  I haven’t had to do the routine, mundane, grinding work of daily journalism.  I do stories I like to do and I teach classes I enjoy teaching,” he said from his modest Fairacres home, his two faithful old dogs (“the ancient ones”) lolling nearby on the floor.

“As I approach retirement it’s a source of great enjoyment to me to find that I enjoy writing as much or more than ever.  If I had had to give up writing to be a teacher I don’t know that I would have, but I didn’t have to.  There’s an enormous variety to teaching, especially if you mix it with journalism, and when you get good results it’s wonderful.”

A past Excellence in Teaching Award winner at UNO, he’s seen many former students achieve high success, including Omaha World-Herald executive editor Larry King and Merrill Lynch executive vice president for communications Paul Critchlow.  Among his most memorable years as an instructor came in 1975, when, as part of UNO’s Overseas Program, he taught seven months at Ramstein Air Force Base in West Germany.  His wife and children were there for the duration and together they toured the festive wine country and traveled to prime European getaways.  “We had a great time.  We bought a Volkswagon and ran all over Europe,” he said.

UNO Arts & Sciences building

 

 

Last fall Francke, 62, took a sabbatical from UNO to hole up in his cabin and begin writing the centennial history of Omaha’s Dundee Presbyterian Church, where he worships.  He will take a leave of absence next fall and head for his cabin to complete the project, one he’s excited about because it combines his thirst for history with his love for a good yarn.  It also means returning to his mountain retreat in time to hear the trumpeting echo of mating elk.

His research into old newspaper clippings, church bulletins and meeting notes is uncovering a rich tapestry of church history that coincides with Dundee’s growth and the founding of nearby Omaha University as well as early links with the Buffett and Fonda families.

“You’re talking about a church being formed at the turn-of-the-century in a little village called Dundee, fifteen years before it was annexed by Omaha. You read what you think might be dry records of meetings of church elders, trustees and ladies aid members, but as you learn to know these people you can’t help but have an enormous admiration for them,” he said.  “You become so immersed in the life of this church and of these people that when you turn a page and you find someone — who’s been a real pillar and force for good — has died, you feel a personal loss.

“You really come to share the experience of building a church with them.  These people become great heroes and heroines to you.  It’s very rewarding to bring the lives of these people back to life, so the people in the church now can know who came before them and what they did.  It provides a wonderful way to understand the story of a church and a neighborhood.”

Serving the greater good has been a sort of family inheritance.  His late father, Ted, hailed from a German Lutheran family that produced an unbroken line of ministers dating back to the 1600s.  His father studied for the ministry but was never ordained.  If his father hadn’t broken tradition, Francke himself might have been a preacher.  He thought about it.  As things turned out he’s followed a similar calling as a writer — giving voice to
people and their stories — and as a teacher — helping young people find their way.  “Sure, teaching is a form of ministry to me.  There’s a real common ground there,” he said.

His zeal for a finely-crafted story or well-turned phrase shines through whenever he reads aloud his students’ work.  Then, his eyes grow wide and voice gains inflection as if the Holy Spirit itself has moved him.  “My students turn in stories from life experiences that are so powerful.”

Estes Park

 

 

In that way things have of coming full circle, Francke led a church-centered life as a youth, then, in the contrary ‘60s, drifted away from organized religion — exploring Zen Buddhism — before eventually returning to the fold and even being ordained an elder.  Ancestral currents run deep.

Born and raised in Council Bluffs, Francke and his sister Rhoda grew up in a hilltop home above the Missouri River.      Their father was a study in contrasts.  The former top athlete was a physically-imposing man who worked as a manual laborer, even doing custodial work at the church the family attended, yet delighted in displaying his classical education by reciting Shakespeare.  A bound set of the Bard’s works (which the son inherited) was kept in the family’s home, along with antique ancestral bibles dating back to the 17th century.  During some hard times his parents sold the bibles to raise much-needed cash.

While Francke’s late mother Lydia, who hailed from hearty Iowa farm stock, never got past the 8th grade she was an avid reader who encouraged her children’s education.

“She was remarkably good at always taking us to the library and to Joslyn Art Museum,” Francke said.  “I had a library card as early as you could get one.  I read all the Paul Bunyan books.  I read every book by John R. Tunis, who wrote a wonderful series about sports.”

His introduction to journalism came by way of a neighboring family, the Zimmermans, whose father, Reid, and oldest son, Earl, worked as aWorld-Herald  editor and reporter, respectively.  Francke often joined his boyhood chum, Ken Zimmerman, on weekend visits with the boy’s father to the Herald offices in downtown Omaha.

“While Ken’s dad was reading galley proofs or doing something else in his office, we’d run around the World-Herald, sliding down the brass pole in the press room or visiting different parts of that plant. Having newspaper people as neighbors did have great significance in my life.  I got the idea a newspaper was an interesting place to work.”

He succumbed to the reporting bug at Abraham Lincoln High School, parlaying his interest in athletics (He collected autographs of sports idols, including Iowa’s own fireball pitching phenom Bob Feller.) as sports editor for the school paper, Echoes.  Even as a novice newsman he got a kick out of being thrust into the action and reporting about it.

“I loved it.  That experience epitomized the enjoyment of journalism, which is being in the middle of things people are interested in and then writing about them and participating in them. It’s the fact that you have the opportunity to experience a rich array of life and then get to make use of that experience by articulating it.”

With his reporting appetite whetted, he applied and was hired as a copy boy (copy messenger) at the World-Herald  in the spring of 1954.

“It was an easy step from being sports editor in high school to going to work for the World-Herald within a couple weeks after I graduated.  By that next fall I was doing something I had already done  – covering prep sports.  All it really boiled down to at age 17 or 18 is somebody paying you to go to the games you went to all the time anyway.”

 

 

Dundee Presbyterian Church, ©The Bouncing Czech

 

 

The paper’s many strong personalities made an impression on him.  Quiet but firm Don Lee, the venerable sports editor, was “always after you to ‘trim it down, trim it down.’” He recalls Fred Ware, “the fire-breathing managing editor,” was always “railing against somebody like Lou Gerdes, the distinguished city editor, shouting, ‘That damn Gerdes,’ and as a copy boy I’d just say, ‘Yes, Mr. Ware,’ and stand there.  I can remember one morning it was pretty quiet in the newsroom when suddenly there was a horrendous clap of thunder outside and without even looking up Ralph Smith, who worked on the rewrite desk, said, ‘Good morning, Mr. Ware.’”

Despite his boss’s intimidating presence, Francke said, “There isn’t any question who the main influence on my writing was — it was Fred Ware.  He talked about making a story sing.  He wrote a style-book for the World-Herald and along with Strunk’s Elements of Style  with the introduction by E.B. White and its emphasis on strong verbs and all that kind of thing, Ware’s emphasis on making a story sing had a profound influence on me.  I took it seriously.  Some of the best things I’ve written are influenced by a real strong sense of the flow and rhythm of language.  If I could make a story a work of poetry I did.  I think Ware started that in me.”

A gentler influence was the late, beloved sports writer Wally Provost.

“The writer at the World-Herald who was my hero was Wally Provost.  Wally did everything I think a writer should do.  He was a wonderful, graceful writer, but he also had a conscience and a sense of justice.  Wally was the first person at the paper, as far as I know, to write seriously about racial injustice.  His was a very effective, quiet voice on issues that mattered.”

In 1958 Francke left the paper to be a full-time staffer at his hometown daily, the Nonpareil.  As a roving, Tom Allan-like reporter he covered all aspects of Southwest Iowa life.  By the time he joined the staff of Omaha’s weekly Sun Newspapers  in 1964, he was dabbling in the freer, livelier New Journalism, whose open literary narrative approach was a bold departure from the rigid, classic journalistic form.  Provost, a devotee of the old-school, ribbed him about the new style’s descriptive excesses.

“I can remember running into Wally and him teasing me by saying, ‘Well, are you going to write about what kind of tie I’m wearing?’”

But for Francke, whose work grew out of his deep love for and intensive study of literature and drama (he has a master’s degree in English from UNO), the new wave of writing was no laughing matter.

“There’s no question I tried to change journalism.  When Tom Wolfe and the New Journalists came along I was already doing the things they were talking about and I was enjoying doing that.  I had the freedom at the Sun  to do it.  That’s why working there was such a terrific experience.  I couldn’t have done that at the World-Herald, which traditionally has not been a place where a writer could work with creative freedom.  The Sun was a place where I could experiment.  My students every week write things better than I have written, but I attempted at least to be out on the edge.”

Even today he tries not settling for humdrum work.  “I’m very unsatisfied when I write what I consider a routine review.”

Omaha Community Playhouse

 

 

He credits a friend, noted Omaha author and former UNO colleague Robert Reilly, for pushing him.  “There’s no question working alongside Bob Reilly was important to me.”  Another key figure for him was the late Ralph Wardle, former UNO English chairman.  “A great writer and teacher.”

Francke’s 1968 Sun profile on his celebrated Omaha U. classmate, Peter Fonda, displays how he pushed the envelope then. Fonda, who’d been banished to his famous father’s hometown by older sister Jane to get his head straight, had become a youth movie icon via his starring role in the Roger Corman exploitation biker flick, The Wild Angels (Easy Rider was yet to come).  Francke’s piece reflects on the unrebel-like Fonda he knew.  A
sweet awkward guy haunted by a messy childhood and distant father.  Smitten by first love (with Carol Robinson).  Desperate to find acceptance.

Francke cleverly frames Fonda’s college life in dramatic, playwright terms, an apt approach for describing someone whose life was an open book and who hailed from one of America’s preeminent acting families:  “Act I, Scene I — Freshman girl hears the son of Henry Fonda is a classmate.  She asks a circle of respected elders, fraternity men all…‘What’s Peter Fonda really like? ‘A real phony.’

“Scene II — A girl named Judy dates Peter and writes an English 112 composition about a boy who will always walk alone.

“Scene III — Peter and Carol walk together down Administration Building halls.  They’re going to class…they’re not holding hands.

“Act II, Scene I — Christmas 1958.  Peter takes Carol to New York.  Lauren Bacall throws a cocktail party.  Carol meets Jane and Henry.

“Scene II — Sorority leaders call Carol aside.  They’ve heard bad reports about her and Peter.

“Scene III — It’s spring…on the campus.  Peter’s there…Sad, grieving.  What’s wrong?  Carol did him wrong.  ‘Oh, well,’ he sighed.  ‘I guess it can’t be April forever.’”

Peter Fonda as the butler in The Happiest Millionaire at UNO

 

 

Francke knew Fonda as a fellow contributor to the student paper, The Gateway, and to the literary publication Francke edited, The Grain of Sand.  They also shared a mutual interest in the burgeoning Cool Scene, with its rebellious Beat writers and anti-Establishment musical icons.  The pair weren’t above playing their affected rebel image to the hilt — like the time they convinced a KMTV news crew they were radical campus beatniks.

“We didn’t really cut it as bona fide beatniks.  We were both full-time students. I held a night reporting job at the Nonpareil.  But we’d both read Jack Kerouac.  We could talk the talk.  We ended up on the 10 p.m. news.”

Once Fonda left Omaha for eventual success on Broadway and in Hollywood, Francke lost touch with him.  He’s always had it in the back of his mind to “drive up to his ranch in Montana someday” to kick over old times.

Speaking of old times, Francke misses the vital alternative forum for ideas the Sun  offered under publisher Stan Lipsey, managing editor Paul Williams and owner Warren Buffett.  With the paper’s folding in 1983, he said Omaha lost “a second voice” it has yet to replace.

“Our constitution is based on the idea of letting truth and falsehood fight it out in the free marketplace of ideas.  The marketplace is not so free when you just have one major voice.  The Sun  took on the important, controversial issues that were being ignored and did a first-class, quality job that won them many national awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting on Boys Town’s finances.  None of the alternative publications that followed have had quite the strength of the Sun.”

The paper stopped publishing when, as Francke puts it, “it could no longer compete with certain advertising and business practices of the World-Herald,” which led to a lawsuit settled out of court.

Francke’s fervent but well-reasoned opinions on media and culture are the culmination of his many years as a journalism professional, student, teacher and observer.  He holds a Ph.D. in mass communication from the University of Minnesota. His scholarly work on various facets of the media have earned him a national reputation.  He recently contributed a biographical overview on James Gordon Bennett, a key early journalist, to Oxford University Press for a mammoth reference work it is publishing.

Watchdogs was Francke’s last major public forum for wading in on media topics.  He credits then WOWT news director Steve Murphy with allowing him free reign.  “There was no one else in the country doing media coverage and media criticism on television like I was, where I was not only free to criticize the station I was reporting on but to praise people on the other stations.  I criticized the World-Herald more than any other entity, but I often said how much better it covered something than television.”

He fears his Herald bashing caused a backlash in terms of lost opportunities for him and his students:  “Their top management deeply resented my criticism.  It created a lot of tension. There’s a certain price to pay for…taking on the biggest power in town.”  While Watchdogs ended its run in 1990, it was not due to any chilling effect.  Instead, he simply felt he’d said enough after more than 300 commentaries.

The ever feisty Francke has hardly kept silent.  He bemoans what he perceives to be the World-Herald editorial page’s move from “a moderate conservative position” to “The Right,” and categorizes its treatment of the President as “malice.”  He is still asked to comment on current media events, as when KFAB sought his appraisal of Barbara Walters’ Monica interview, which he said regrettably only “satisfied our low curiosity.”  He looked with dismay at “the sanctifying” of Joe DiMaggio upon his passing, noting the hype still paled next to how Princess Di’s legend grew “beyond all reasonable bounds.”

But where he used to crave always being “in the mix” of news events – putting his wry spin on things, he no longer minds “being away from the battle for months at a time” in that “other world” that is his mountain sanctuary.  Yes, it’s a sure sign his Colorado conversion is complete.

“We lead such a simple life out there.  When we go back in the summer for the first church service and the choir begins to sing, ‘There’s Something By the Mountain,’ I have a very hard time not getting teary-eyed because these things come to combine in a tapestry of meaning about the experiences you’ve had there and the way in the mountains you feel closer to the grandeur of creation.”

Despite the strong pull Colorado exerts, he has no intention of taking up year-round residence there. “No.  I like life in Omaha.  I don’t like missing the opening of the theater season in the fall.  I would miss not being here for UNO and Nebraska football.  I would miss my friends.”

A Brief History of Omaha’s Civil Rights Struggle Distilled in Black and White By Photographer Rudy Smith

May 2, 2012 10 comments

Rudy Smith was a lot of places where breaking news happened.  That was his job as an Omaha World-Herald photojournalist.  Early in his career he was there when riots broke out on the Near Northside, the largely African-American community he came from and lived in.  He was there too when any number of civil rights events and figures came through town.  Smith himself was active in social justice causes as a young man and sometimes the very events he covered he had an intimate connection with in his private life.  The following story keys off an exhibition of his work from a few years ago that featured his civil rights-social protest photography from the 1960s. You’ll find more stories about Rudy, his wife Llana, and their daughter Quiana on this blog.

 

 

3/21/04  Omaha, NE Omaha World-Herald photojournalist Rudy Smith. (photo by Chris Machian/for Prarie Pixel Group)

Rudy Smith, ©photo by Chris Machian

 

 

A Brief History of Omaha’s Civil Rights Struggle Distilled in Black and White By Photographer Rudy Smith

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Coursing down North 24th Street in his car one recent afternoon, Rudy Smith retraced the path of the 1969 summer riots that erupted on Omaha’s near northside. Smith was a young Omaha World-Herald photographer then.

The disturbance he was sent to cover was a reaction to pent up discontent among black residents. Earlier riots, in 1966 and 1968, set the stage. The flash point for the 1969 unrest was the fatal shooting of teenager Vivian Strong by Omaha police officer James Loder in the Logan Fontenelle Housing projects. As word of the incident spread, a crowd gathered and mob violence broke out.

Windows were broken and fires set in dozens of commercial buildings on and off Omaha’s 24th Street strip. The riot leapfrogged east to west, from 23rd to 24th Streets, and south to north, from Clark to Lake. Looting followed. Officials declared a state of martial law. Nebraska National Guardsmen were called in to help restore order. Some structures suffered minor damage but others went up entirely in flames, leaving only gutted shells whose charred remains smoldered for days.

Smith arrived at the scene of the breaking story with more than the usual journalistic curiosity. The politically aware African-American grew up in the black area ablaze around him. As an NAACP Youth and College Chapter leader, he’d toured the devastation of Watts, trained in nonviolent resistance and advocated for the formation of a black studies program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he was a student activist. But this was different. This was home.

On the night of July 1 he found his community under siege by some of its own. The places torched belonged to people he knew. At the corner of 23rd and Clark he came upon a fire consuming the wood frame St. Paul Baptist Church, once the site of Paradise Baptist, where he’d worshiped. As he snapped pics with his Nikon 35 millimeter camera, a pair of white National Guard troops spotted him, rifles drawn. In the unfolding chaos, he said, the troopers discussed offing him and began to escort him at gun point to around the back before others intervened.

Just as he was “transformed” by the wreckage of Watts, his eyes were “opened” by the crucible of witnessing his beloved neighborhood going up in flames and then coming close to his own demise. Aspects of his maturation, disillusionment and  spirituality are evident in his work. A photo depicts the illuminated church inferno in the background as firemen and guardsmen stand silhouetted in the foreground.

The stark black and white ultrachrome prints Smith made of this and other burning moments from Omaha’s civil rights struggle are displayed in the exhibition Freedom Journeynow through December 23 at Loves Jazz & Arts Center, 2512 North 24th Street. His photos of the incendiary riots and their bleak aftermath, of large marches and rallies, of vigilant Black Panthers, a fiery Ernie Chambers and a vibrant Robert F. Kennedy depict the city’s bumpy, still unfinished road to equality.

The Smith image promoting the exhibit is of a 1968 march down the center of North 24th. Omaha Star publisher and civil rights champion Mildred Brown is in the well-dressed contingent whose demeanor bears funereal solemnity and proud defiance. A man at the head of the procession holds aloft an American flag. For Smith, an image such as this one “portrays possibilities” in the “great solidarity among young, old, white, black, clergy, lay people, radicals and moderates” who marched as one,” he said. “They all represented Omaha or what potentially could be really good about Omaha. When I look at that I think, Why couldn’t the city of Omaha be like a march? All races, creeds, socioeconomic backgrounds together going in one direction for a common cause. I see all that in the picture.”

Images from the OWH archives and other sources reveal snatches of Omaha’s early civil rights experience, including actions by the Ministerial Alliance, Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties, De Porres Club, NAACP and Urban League. Polaroids by Pat Brown capture Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his only visit to Omaha, in 1958, for a conference. He’s seen relaxing at the Omaha home of Ed and Bertha Moore. Already a national figure as organizer of the Birmingham (Ala.) bus boycott and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he’s the image of an ambitious young man with much ahead of him. Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Jr. joined him. Ten years later Smith photographed Robert F. Kennedy stumping for the 1968 Democratic presidential bid amid an adoring crowd at 24th and Erskine. Two weeks later RFK was shot and killed, joining MLK as a martyr for The Cause.

Omaha’s civil rights history is explored side by side with the nation’s in words and images that recreate the panels adorning the MLK Bridge on Omaha’s downtown riverfront. The exhibit is a powerful account of how Omaha was connected to and shaped by this Freedom Journey. How the demonstrations and sit-ins down south had their parallel here. So, too, the riots in places like Watts and Detroit.

Acts of arson and vandalism raged over four nights in Omaha the summer of ‘69. The monetary damage was high. The loss of hope higher. Glimpses of the fall out are seen in Smith’s images of damaged buildings like Ideal Hardware and Carter’s Cafe. On his recent drive-thru the riot’s path, he recited a long list of casualties — cleaners, grocery stores, gas stations, et cetera — on either side of 24th. Among the few unscathed spots was the Omaha Star, where Brown had a trio of Panthers, including David Poindexter, stand guard outside. Smith made a portrait of them in their berets, one, Eddie Bolden, cradling a rifle, a band of ammunition slung across his chest. “They served a valuable community service that night,” he said.

Most owners, black and white, never reopened there. Their handsome brick buildings had been home to businesses for decades. Their destruction left a physical and spiritual void. “It just kind of took the heart out of the community,” Smith said. “Nobody was going to come back here. I heard young people say so many times, ‘I can’t wait to get out of here.’ Many went away to college and never came back. That brain drain hurt. It took a toll on me watching that.”

Boarded-up ruins became a common site for blocks. For years, they stood as sad reminders of what had been lost. Only in the last decade did the city raze the last of these, often leaving only vacant lots and harsh memories in their place. “Some buildings stood like sentinels for years showing the devastation,” Smith said.

His portrait of Ernie Chambers shows an engaged leader who, in the post-riot wake, addresses a crowd begging to know, as Smith said, “Where do we go from here?’

Smith’s photos chart a community still searching for answers four decades later and provide a narrative for its scarred landscape. For him, documenting this history is all about answering questions about “the history of north Omaha and what really happened here. What was on these empty lots? Why are there no buildings there today? Who occupied them?” Minus this context, he said, “it’d be almost as if your history was whitewashed. If we’re left without our history, we perish and we’re doomed to repeat” past ills. “Those images challenge us. That was my whole purpose for shooting them…to challenge people, educate people so their history won’t be forgotten. I want these images to live beyond me to tell their own story, so that some day young people can be proud of what they see good out here because they know from whence it came.”

An in-progress oral history component of the exhibit will include Smith’s personal accounts of the civil rights struggle.

Retired Omaha World-Herald Military Affairs Reporter-Editor Howard Silber: War Veteran, Reporter, Raconteur, Bon Vi Vant, Globe Trotter

October 6, 2011 1 comment

I have done my fair share of stories about journalists by now, and my favorites are generally those profiling venerable figures like the subject of this story, Howard Silber, who epitomized the intrepid spirit of the profession. Howard, though long retired, still has the heart and the head of a newsman. It’s an instinct that never fully leaves one.  His rich career intersected with major events and figures of teh 20th century, as did his life before becoming a reporter. I think you’ll respond as I did to his story in the following profile I wrote about Howard for the New Horizons.

 

 

Howard Silber

 

 

Retired Omaha World-Herald Military Affairs Reporter-Editor Howard Silber: War Veteran, Reporter, Raconteur, Bon Vi Vant, Globe Trotter

©by Leo Adam Biga

Oriignally published in the New Horizons

It’s hard not viewing retired Omaha World-Herald military affairs editor Howard Silber’s life in romantic terms. Like a dashing fictional adventurer he’s spent the better part of his 90 years gallivanting about the world to feed his wanderlust.

A Band of Brothers World War II U.S. Army veteran, Silber was wounded in combat preceding the Battle of the Bulge. Soon after his convalescence he embarked on a distinguished journalism career.

As a reporter, the Omaha Press Club Hall of Fame inductee covered most everything. He ventured to the South Pole. He went to Vietnam multiple times to report on the war. He interviewed four sitting U.S. Presidents, even more Secretary of States and countless military brass.

He counted as sources Pentagon wonks and Beltway politicos.

Perhaps the biggest scoop of his career was obtaining an interview with Caril Ann Fugate shortly after she and Charles Starkweather were taken into custody following the couple’s 1958 killing spree.

A decade later Silber caught the first wave of Go Big Red fever when he co-wrote a pair of Husker football books.

As Veteran of Foreign Wars publicity chairman he went to China with an American contingent of retired servicemen.

Even when he stopped chasing stories following his 1988 retirement, he kept right on going, taking cruises with his wife Sissy to ports of call around the globe. More than 60 by now they reckon. They’ve even gone on safaris in Kenya and South Africa. Their Fontenelle Hills home is adorned with artifacts from their travels.

In truth, Silber’s been on the move since he was a young man, when this New York City native left the fast-paced, rough and tumble North for the slower rhythms and time-worn traditions of the South. His itch to get out and see new places may have been inherited from his Austro-Hungarian Jewish immigrant parents.

Growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Silber learned many survival lessons. HIs earliest years were spent in a well-to-do Jewish enclave. But when the Depression hit and his fur manufacturer father lost his business, the small family — it was just Howard, his younger sister and parents — were forced to move to “a less attractive neighborhood” and one where Jews were scarce.

As the new kid on the block Silber soon found himself tested.

“Fighting became a way of life. It was a case of fighting or running and I decided to fight,” he said. “I had to fight my way to school a few times and had to protect my sister, but after three or four of those fracases why they left me alone.”

Sports became another proving ground for Silber. He excelled in football at Stuyvesant High School, a noted public school whose team captured the city championship during his playing days. An equally good student, he set his sights high when he attempted to enroll at hallowed Columbia University.

“I wanted to go to Columbia as a student, not as an athlete,” he said. “They turned me down. I had all the grades but in those days most of the Ivy League and other prestigious schools had a quota on so many Jews they would admit per year.”

Columbia head football coach Lou Cannon offered Silber a partial football scholarship. The proud young student-athlete “turned it down.” The way Silber saw it, “If they wouldn’t take me as a student I didn’t want to go there as an athlete.’”

He said when the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa recruited several teammates he opted to join them. The school’s gridiron program under then head coach Frank Thomas was already a national power. Silber enrolled there in 1939.

At Alabama his path intersected that of two unknowns who became iconic figures — one famously, the other infamously.

Paul “Bear” Bryant was my freshman football coach. I thought he was a great guy. He did a lot for me,” Silber said of the gravely voiced future coaching legend.

 

 

Paul “Bear” Bryant

 

 

The Bear left UA after Silber’s freshman year for Vanderbilt. It was several coaching stops later before Bryant returned to his alma mater to lead the Crimson Tide as head coach, overseeing a dynasty that faced off with Nebraska in three New Year’s bowl games. Bryant’s Alabama teams won six national titles and he earned a place in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Silber makes no bones about his own insignificant place in ‘Bama football annals.

“I was almost a full-time bench warmer,” he said. “The talent level was higher than mine.” He played pulling guard at 170 pounds sopping wet.

His mother wanted him to be a doctor and like a good son he began pre-med studies. He wasn’t far along on that track when the medical school dean redirected Silber elsewhere owing to color blindness. Medicine’s loss was journalism’s gain.

Why did he fix on being a newspaperman?

“I always had an interest in it. My environment had been New York and jobs were hard to get in those days and it just never occurred to me I would try for one. I was more interested in radio as a career. Actually, my degree is partly radio arts. I interned at WAPI in Birmingham and after three weeks I quit and went to work as a summer intern for the old Birmingham Post, a Scripps Howard paper, because it paid four bucks a week more. That’s how I got into print journalism.”

Silber became well acquainted with someone who became the face of the Jim Crow South — George Wallace. When he first met him though Wallace was just another enterprising Alabama native son looking to make his mark.

“George Wallace and I shared an apartment over a garage one summer school session,” recalled Silber. “I had known him a little bit before then. We became pretty good friends. There was no sign of bigotry at that time, and in fact I’m convinced to this day that his bigotry was put on for political purposes.

“He (Wallace) ran at one point for the (Alabama state) judiciary and his opponent was Jim Folsom, who later became governor, and he lost, and he made the comment, ‘I’m never going to be out-niggered again.’”

 

 

George Wallace

 

 

Years before Wallace uttered that comment Silber witnessed another side of him.

“We had our laundry done by black women in town. Their sons would come around the campus, even the athletic dorms, to pick up laundry. Tony, a big lineman from West Virginia, was always hazing them and finally George, who was on the boxing team, wouldn’t take it anymore and he went up to Tony ready to fight him, saying, ‘We don’t treat our people down here that way.’ I wouldn’t have wanted to get into a fight with him. He was a tough little baby.”

In 1968 the one-time roommates’ paths crossed again. By then Silber was a veteran Herald reporter and Wallace a lightening rod Alabama governor and divisive American Independent Party presidential candidate on a campaign speaking tour stop in Omaha. Wallace’s abrasive style and segregationist stands made him a polarizing figure.

“Wallace’s advance man Bill Jones was a mutual friend and because of Bill I was invited into Wallace’s plane as it was sitting on the ground and George answered some local questions. He seemed familiar with local politics and the local situation and he was interested in agriculture. We talked for a good 15 or 20 minutes.”

That evening at the Omaha Civic Auditorium Wallace’s inflammatory speech excited supporters and agitated opponents. A melee inside the arena spilled out onto the streets and in the ensuing confrontations between police and citizens a young woman, Vivian Strong, was shot and killed by an officer, setting off a civil disturbance that caused serious property damage and looting in Northeast Omaha.

In some ways Northeast Omaha has never recovered from those and other disturbances that burned out or drove away business. It’s just the kind of story Silber liked to sink his teeth into. Before ever working as a professional journalist Silber found himself, likes millions of others, caught up in momentous events that forever altered the course of things.

He was an undergraduate when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. The call to arms meant a call to duty for Silber and so many of the Greatest Generation. Boys and men interrupted their lives, leaving behind home-family-career for uncertain fates in a worldwide conflict with no guarantee of Allied victory.

“The day after Pearl Harbor hundreds of students went to the recruiting offices in Tuscaloosa, the university town. The lines were terrible and finally several days later I got in. I wanted to become a Navy pilot but I was rejected because I was partly color blind. So I just entered the Army.”

He was 21. He went off to war in 1942, his studies delayed button forgotten.

“The university had a program where if you finished the spring semester and had so many hours you could enter the armed services and finish your degree by correspondence,” said Silber, who did just that.

His military odyssey began at Fortress Monroe, Va. with the Sea Coast Artillery. “We had big guns to intercept (enemy) ships,” he explained. “Because I had some college I was put in the master gunner section where with slide rules we calculated the azimuth and range of the cannon to zero in on the enemy ships that might approach. The Sea Coast Artillery was deemed obsolete by the emergence of the U.S. Air Force as a reliable deterrent force.

“I was transferred to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, an anti-aircraft training center (and a part of the country’s coastal defense network). “I loved it down in El Paso. It was a good post.”

From there, he said, “I went into a glider unit and once in action we were supposed to glide in behind enemy lines to set up for anti-aircraft. Well, the glider unit was broken up. So I had some choices and I just transferred to the infantry. I went to Camp Howze (Texas), a temporary Army post, and became a member of company A, 411th Infantry Regiment, 103rd division. We did some pretty heavy training there,” said Silber.

“We went by train to Camp Shanks, New York — a port of embarkation. One morning with very little notice we were put aboard trains and transferred to a ferry stop in New Jersey and ferried across New York harbor to the Brooklyn Army Base,” he recounted. “There we boarded a ship that, believe it or not, was called the Santa Maria. We sailed to Southern France. It took about two weeks in a convoy strung out for quite a distance.”

Silber, whose descriptions of his wartime experiences retain the precision and color of his journalistic training, continued:

“We landed in Southern France (post-D-Day, 1944). We were equipped to go into combat but we were diverted to the Port of Marseilles. The French stevedores, who were supposed to be unloading ships of ammunition and such, went on strike. So we spent about two weeks unloading ammunition from ships to go up to the front.

“We were encamped on a plateau above Marseille. It was a happy situation. We’d be able to go in the city and enjoy ourselves.”

The idyll of Marseille was welcome but, as Silber said, “it ended soon enough. Part of the division went by truck and my regiment went by freight train with straw on the floor to a town called Epinal in Eastern France. From there we went into combat. The first day of combat eight members of my platoon were killed. A baptism by fire.”

That initial action, he said, “was in, oddly enough, a churchyard in which most of the graves were occupied by World War I German soldiers. I didn’t learn that until later.” Many years after the war Silber and his old comrades paid for a monument to be erected to the eight GIs lost there. He and Sissy have visited the site of that deadly encounter to pay their respects.

“It’s become kind of a shrine to guys from my old outfit,” he said.

The next phases of his combat duty exposed him to even more harrowing action.

Although wars historically shut down in winter or prove the undoing of armies ill-equipped to deal with the conditions, the record winter of ’44 in Europe ultimately did little to slow down either side. In the case of the advancing American and Allied forces, the treacherous mix of snow and cold only added to the miseries. When Silber and his fellow soldiers were ordered to cross a mountain range, the dangers of altitude, deadly passes and avalanches were added to the challenge.

“We fought our way through the Vosges Mountains in Alsace,” he said, adding cryptically, “We had a couple of situations…

“We were the first sizable military unit to cross the Vosges in winter. We had snow for which we were not equipped really. It turned out to be the worst in the history of that part of Europe. We didn’t have any white camouflage gear or anything like that that the Germans had. We met some pretty heavy combat in the mountains for a time. It was an SS outfit, but we managed to fight our way through.”

 

 

 

 

If any soldier is honest he admits he fears engaging in hand-to-hand combat because he doesn’t know how he’ll perform in that life or death struggle. In the Vosges campaign Silber confronted the ultimate test in battle when he came face to face with a German.

“I’ll tell you what happened,” is how Silber begins relating the incident. “We went out on patrol at night trying to contact the enemy and pick up a couple prisoners for intelligence purposes. By that time I had become a second lieutenant, courtesy a battlefield commission. I didn’t really want to become too attractive a target for the Germans, so I pretended I was still an enlisted man in dress and in emblem, and I carried around an M-1 rifle instead of a carbine.

“What often happened was the Germans might send out a patrol at the same time just by coincidence and we would kind of startle each other at the same moment and ignore each other purposely. That happened a lot and we thought it was going to happen this time, but they opened fire on us.”

In the close quarters chaos of the fire fight, he said, “I jumped into a roadside ditch with my M-1 and it was knocked out of my hand by the guy I killed. Had to. I had a trench knife in my boot and I attacked him with that and fortunately I beat him, or he would have beaten me.” Only one man was coming out alive and Silber lived to tell the tale. He does so without boast or pleasure but a it-was-him-or-me soberness.

A desperate Germany was sending almost anyone it could find to the front, including boys. The SS troop Silber dispatched was an adult, therefore, he said, “I didn’t have that to worry about on my conscience.”

“After that most of the units we encountered were made up either of young conscripts, and I mean below the age of 18, or middle aged men, as almost a last gasp. I saw German soldiers who couldn’t have been more than 12 or 13 years old. I also saw men in their 40s and 50s.”

This last gasp “was a hopeful sign” Germany was through, but he added, “We didn’t feel very comfortable fighting against 14 year olds. I mean, if we had to do it, we did it because they were trying to kill us. We lived with it, that’s all.”

Finally breaking out of the mountains onto the Rhine Plain was a great relief. For the first time since the start of the campaign, he said, “we got to sleep in an intact house. We proceeded around Strausberg. We were in the U.S. 7th Army and integrated into our army corps was the French 1st Army and they were made up mostly of North Africans. Most of them were Moroccans, Algerians and Tunisians, I guess. They had come across the Mediterranean with de Gaulle. We saw them from time to time. They had a reputation of being good fighters.

“We headed north paralleling the Rhine River and we were approaching the Maginot Line (the elaborate French fortification system Germany outflanked during its blitz into France). On December 14, 1944 we had orders to break through it. The Germans had artillery, some troops and some tanks zeroed in and ready to go.”

All hell then broke loose.

“We woke up one morning to the sound of artillery high above us, exploding in the trees,” recalled Silber. “We were on the side of a ravine through which a road had been cut and on that road was a tank destroyer outfit — using World War I leftover anti-tank guns. They were a platoon of African-Americans. The bravery those guys exhibited was unbelievable. When I think of it I become emotional because they were shot up to hell and kept fighting.”

 

 

 

 

His second close brush with death then occurred.

“The artillery action slowed down and we began to advance into the Maginot Line,” he said. “The Germans had some tanks positioned between fixed fortresses. We encountered off in the distance a tank — 400 or 500 yards away. It was very slowly approaching us. The tank destroyer outfit had been so decimated they were pretty much out of action, so we had bazookas. Our bazooka team in my platoon was knocked out. By that time I was the platoon leader. I picked up the bazooka, knelt and loaded it, fired once and missed. It was quite a distance still.

“The last thing I can remember is that tank lowering its beastly 88 millimeter cannon in my direction…I woke up the next day in an Army field hospital. Apparently the shell was a dud but its impact half buried me in my foxhole. Our platoon medic dug me out of the collapsed foxhole and got me out of the way. I was unconscious. Both my arms were broken and my left rib cage was pretty well beat up. I woke up December 16 and that was the day the Battle of the Bulge erupted about a hundred kilometers north of us.”

Silber spent the remainder of the war healing.

“The next day the field hospital was emptied out of patients and it moved north to take care of casualties from the Bulge,” he said. “I was shipped along with other patients by ambulance to the U.S. 23rd General Hospital at Vittel, France, a spa town. It had been a resort. It had a racetrack and a casino. We wound up in the grand hotel.

“Even though my arms were in casts by then I enjoyed being there, believe me.”

Ending up sidelined from the action, banged up but without any life threatening injury, reminded him of something he and his buddies often joked about to help pass the time.

“Especially when I was an enlisted man we used to sit and talk in our foxholes, usually at night when things were quiet, smoking a cigarette under a tarpaulin or something, about the ‘million dollar wound.’ We’d speculate on what it would take to get us back to the States without getting really hurt.

“Well, maybe I should be ashamed of this, but that was one of the things I thought of in the hospital — that I had kind of one of those (wounds). Except I was hurt a little more than I would have chosen.”

Back home, he continued mending at Rhodes General Hospital in Utica, New York. A restless Silber completed his college studies by correspondence and volunteered in the public relations office. He penned the script for a weekly radio show written, produced and acted by patients, mostly on war experiences, that the hospital sponsored. Silber shared in a George Foster Peabody Award for public service a show segment won. “It wasn’t my brilliant writing or anything,” he said, “but I was part of the process.”

He was still hospitalized when VJ Day sparked celebrations over the war’s end.

One of his PR tasks was delivering copy to the local Utica Daily Press, where he secured a job upon his discharge. “I took my swearing out ceremony as we called it at 10 o’clock in the morning and by two o’clock I was down there working for a salary, not much of a salary — $38 a week. I still have a soft spot in my heart for Utica. I actually was stationed in a bureau in Rome, New York 15 miles away.”

From there he returned to his old stomping grounds in the Big Apple, where he worked for the New York Sun. A plum early assignment put him in the company of Harry Truman, “the VIP who really impressed me most,” said Silber. “I rode his (1948) campaign train. I was pretty raw material then, a real cub reporter, but I got the assignment and I ran with it. I even got to kibbutz his (Truman’s) poker game.”

Silber recalls Truman as “very kind, although he’d pick on guys for fun,” adding, “He was just a pretty decent man but he had shall we say a frothy tongue.”

When the Sun folded in 1950 Silber got on with “a blue ribbon” PR firm, but as he once put it, “I just had the romance of daily journalism in my blood.” Thus he began searching for a newspaper job. His choice came down to a Kansas City paper and the Omaha World-Herald, and $5 more a week brought him here in 1955.

He started out on the rewrite desk.

The Herald had a team of reporters out covering the Charles Starkweather story but Silber was familiar with the mounting murders and resulting manhunt around the upper Midwest from rewriting field reports. Then, as things often happen in a newsroom, Silber found himself enlisted to cover a major development.

“When the Starkweather case broke, our chief photographer Larry Robinson, who was versed in aviation and friendly to some of the operators out at the air base, chartered a good airplane on standby. So when we got the word in the newsroom about Starkweather being captured in Douglas, Wyo., city editor Lou Gerdes pointed to me and said, ‘Go!,’ and I went with Robby and John Savage.”

“We got there ahead of anybody else outside the immediate area and because of that we were able to have a lot of informality that wouldn’t exist today. We got friendly with the sheriff, Earl Heflin, and his wife, the jail matron. We got some good stories.”

 

Charles Starkweather in custody

 

 

 

Minus a wire to transmit photos, Robinson flew back with the negatives, while Silber and Savage stayed behind to cultivate more stories.

That night, a keyed up Silber, unable to sleep, walked from the hotel to the courthouse where the captured fugitives were held.

“The sheriff was answering telephone calls from all over the world with his wife’s help, and he was dead tired, so I said, ‘Why don’t you get some sleep while I sit in for you?’ He took advantage of that, and I took advantage of it, too.”

The story was a sensation everywhere it headlined.

“There weren’t that many serial murders in those days for one thing,” said Silber, “and it seemed to have all the elements — a teen with his girlfriend going around shooting people, not at random but for one reason or another, and it just caught on. Besides that, we were feeding a lot of stuff to the Associated Press and United Press. I was a stringer for Reuters and they were getting plenty of it. I was also stringing for the New York Daily News and at that time it was the largest circulation newspaper in the country.

“It just captured the imagination of readers.”

 

 

Caril Ann Fugate

 

 

So Silber wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to further play the story when one presented itself. Having relieved the sheriff, Silber then convinced Heflin’s wife to let him interview Caril Ann Fugate when Mrs. Heflin went to check on her. He ended up doing interviews with Fugate and Starkweather, separately, while Savage snapped photos — getting exclusive stories and pictures in the process.

Regarding Fugate, Silber said, “I had mixed feelings about her at the time, and then over a period of several weeks when more and more reports were coming in about her I became convinced she was not innocent. She was goading him to shoot people.” He said Starkweather struck him as “the upper end of juvenile delinquency, because he was 17 when he was captured. He was inarticulate. He couldn’t give a straight answer.”

Silber’s most far-flung assignment took him to the South Pole in 1962 as part of the press pool on a military junket with dignitaries Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, radio-newsreel commentator Lowell Thomas and Notre Dame president Fr. Theodore Hesburgh. “We staged out of Christchurch, New Zealand,” he said. “It’s a long ride down there in a prop plane.” En route, everyone geared up with layers of thermal clothing.

 

 

U.S. South Pole station

 

 

“We landed at (Amundsen-Scott) Pole Station — the actual landing strip they carved out of the ice about a mile or so from the pole. When we got there the temperature was 60 something below zero. They made heated track vehicles available, but Gen. Doolittle, Lowell Thomas and Fr. Hesburgh said no, They walked. So as a result we in the press pool had to walk, too (much to their curse-laden dismay).

“The actual stay on the ice as we called it was 2 1/2 weeks. We took day trips to scientific-research stations and historical places where early explorers had froze or starved to death.”

Flying to the pole station in a C-130 a tired Silber clambered atop crates lashed in the aisle and when he awoke a fellow member of the Fifth Estate said, “You know where you’ve been sleeping?” A clueless Silber shrugged, no. “On cases of dynamite,” his colleague gleefully informed him.

Among the most unforgettable characters Silber knew was bombastic Gen. Curtis LeMay, the first commander of the Strategic Air Command. “He was tough but he was a patriot through and through,” he said. “I admired him but it was tough to get along with him.” An enduring LeMay anecdote Silber attests is true found the general lighting a cigar near a refueling plane. When an aide mentioned the danger of the plane blowing up, LeMay blustered, “It wouldn’t dare to.”

 

 

Gen. Curtis LeMay

 

 

Silber and Sissy attended many a lavish black-tie officers’ party at Offutt.

There wasn’t much posh about reporting in Vietnam, where Silber covered the war as early as 1964. On a later visit there he ran into Omaha television reporter John Hlavacek, a former print foreign correspondent for whom Silber has high regard.

In 1970 Silber and other press accompanied Ross Perot on a chartered trip the billionaire organized ostensibly to deliver supplies to U.S airmen held as prisoners of war in North Vietnam. The hopskotch trip, which Henry Kissinger was behind, failed to deliver any supplies but did raise awareness of the POWs’ plight.

Upon reflection, Silber said his military reporting, which earned him numerous awards, “was satisfying — very much so. It was a high point.”

Back home, Silber claims credit for thinking of the Husker football books he and colleagues Jim Denney and Hollis Limprecht collaborated on, the second of which was a biography of Bob Devaney. Silber thought highly of Devaney.

“I loved the man. He was just a hell-raiser. A down-to-earth guy. A man’s-man.”

Over the years Silber wrote pieces for Readers Digest, Esquire and other national publications. He was a Reuters stringer for 20 years.

“I could never be satisfied with just working 8 hours a day. I had to be doing other things, too. I had a little office set up at home and I would do what I could.”

He means to resume his memoirs — for his grandkids — now that he’s cancer free for the first time in years. Long ago divorced from his first wife and the mother of his two daughters, Silber and Sissy have been partners 36 years now. Her warm, bigger-than-life personality complements his own hail-fellow-well-met charm.

Each retired comfortably from divergent careers. While he never became rich as a reporter he did well as a World-Herald stock holder. When Sissy’s father left behind his Katelman’s hardware supply store she and her mother took it over and ran it till 1981, when the Kanesville Highway went in.

Howard and Sissy met as a result of, what else?, a story Silber was working on. They’ve been inseparable since marrying in 1975.

Summing up his eventful life and career, Silber said, “There’s not too many things I’d change.”

Hidden In Plain View, Rudy Smith’s Camera and Memory Fix on a Critical Time in Struggle for Equality

August 29, 2010 2 comments

Negro going in colored entrance of movie house...

Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

Rudy Smith’s own life is as compelling as any story he ever covered as a photojournalist. Both as a photographer and as a citizen, he was caught up in momentous societal events in the 1960s.  This article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) examines some of the things he trained his eye and applied his intellect and gave his heart to — incidents and movements whose profound effects are still felt today.  Rudy’s now retired, which only means he now has more time to work on a multitude of personal projects, including a book collaboration with his daughter Quiana, and to spend with his wife, Llana.  This blog contains stories I did on Quiana and Llana.  I have a feeling I will be writing about Rudy again before too long.

Hidden In Plain View, Rudy Smith’s Camera and Memory Fix on a Critical Time in Struggle for Equality

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

It was another August night in the newsroom when word came of a riot breaking out on Omaha’s near northside. If the report were true, it meant for the second time that summer of 1966 minority discontent was turning violent. Rudy Smith was the young Omaha World-Herald photojournalist who caught the story. His job at the newspaper was paying his way through then-Omaha University, where the Central High grad was an NAACP Youth Council and UNO student senate activist. Only three years before, he became the first black to join the Herald’s editorial staff. As a native north Omahan dedicated to his people’s struggle, Smith brought instant credibility to his assignments in the black community. In line with the paper’s unsympathetic civil rights stance at the time, he was often the only photographer sent to the near northside.

“And in many cases my colleagues didn’t want to go. They were fearful of the minority community, and so as a result I covered it. They would just send me,” said Smith, a mellow man whose soft voice disguises a fierce conviction. “As a result, the minority community that never had access to the World-Herald before began to gain access. More stories began to be written and more of the issues concerning north Omaha began to be reported, and from a more accurate perspective.”

It was all part of his efforts “to break down the barriers and the stereotypes.”

Archie Godfrey led the local NAACP Youth Council then. He said Smith’s media savvy made him “our underground railroad” and “bridge” to the system and the general public. “Without his leadership and guidance, we wouldn’t of had a ghost of an understanding of the ins and outs of how the media responds to struggles like ours,” said Godfrey, adding that Smith helped the group craft messages and organize protests for maximum coverage.

More than that, he said, Smith was sought out by fellow journalists for briefings on the state of black Omaha. “A lot of times, they didn’t understand the issues. And when splinter groups started appearing that had their own agendas and axes to grind, it became confusing. Reporters came to Rudy to sound him out and to get clarification. Rudy was familiar with the players. He informed people as to what was real and what was not. He didn’t play favorites. But he also never hid behind that journalistic neutrality. He was right out front. He had the pictures, too. This city will probably never know the balancing act he played in that.”

As a journalist and community catalyst, Smith has straddled two worlds. In one, he’s the objective observer from the mainstream press. In the other, he’s a black man committed to seeing his community’s needs are served. Somehow, he makes both roles work without being a sell out to either cause.

“My integrity has never been an issue,” he said. “As much as I’d like to be involved in the community, I can’t be, because sometimes there are things I have to report on and I don’t want to compromise my professionalism. My life is kind of hidden in plain view. I monitor what’s going on and I let my camera capture the significant things that go on — for a purpose. Those images are stored so that in the next year or two I can put them in book form. Because there are generations coming after me that will never know what really happened, how things changed and who was involved in changing the landscape of Omaha. I want them to have some kind of document that still lives and that they can point to with pride.”

For the deeply religious Smith, nothing’s more important than using “my God-given talents in service of humanity. I look at my life as one of an artist. An artist with a purpose and a mission. I’m driven. I’m working as a journalist on an unfinished masterpiece. My life is my canvas. And the people and the events I experience are the things that go onto my canvas. There is a lot of unfinished business still to be pursued in terms of diversity and opportunity. To me, my greatest contributions have yet to be made. It’s an ongoing process.”

The night of the riot, Smith didn’t know what awaited him, only that his own community was in trouble. He drove to The Hood, leaving behind the burnt orange hard hat a colleague gave him back at the office.

“I knew the area real well. I parked near 20th and Grace Streets and I walked through the alleys and back yards to 24th Street, and then back to 23rd.”

Most of the fires were concentrated on 24th. A restaurant, shoe shine parlor and clothing store were among the casualties. Then he came upon a church on fire. It was Paradise Baptist, where he attended as a kid.

“I cussed, repeating over and over, ‘My church, my church, my church,’ and I started taking pictures. Then I heard — ‘Hey, what are you doing here?’ — and there were these two national guardsmen pointing their guns at me. ‘I’m with the World-Herald,’ I said. I kept snapping away. Then, totally disregarding what I said, they told me, ‘Come over here.’ This one said to the other, ‘Let’s shoot this nigger,’ and went to me, ‘C’mon,’ and put the nuzzle of his rifle to the back of my head and pushed me around to the back of the building. As we went around there, I heard that same one say, ‘There ain’t nobody back here. Let’s off him, he’s got no business being here anyway.’ I was scared and looking around for help.

That’s when I saw a National Guard officer, the mayor and some others about a half-block away. I called out, ‘Hey! Hey! Hey!’ ‘Who is it?’ ‘Rudy Smith, World-Herald.’ ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ ‘I’m taking pictures and these two guys are going to shoot me.’ The officer said, ‘C’mon over here.’ ‘Well, they aren’t going to let me.’ ‘Come here.’ So, I went…those two guys still behind me. I told the man again who I was and what I was doing, and he goes, ‘Well, you have no damn business being here. You know you could have been killed? You gotta get out of here.’ And I did. But I got a picture of the guardsmen standing in front of that burning church, silhouetted by the fire, their guns on their shoulders. The Herald printed it the next day.”

Seeing his community go up in flames, Smith said, “was devastating.” The riots precipitated the near northside’s decline. Over the years, he’s chronicled the fall of his community. In the riots’ aftermath, many merchants and residents left, with only a shell of the community remaining. Just as damaging was the later North Freeway construction that razed hundreds of homes and uprooted as many families. In on-camera comments for the UNO Television documentary Omaha Since World War II, Smith said, “How do you prepare for an Interstate system to come through and divide a community that for 60-70 years was cohesive? It was kind of like a big rupture or eruption that just destroyed the landscape.” He said in the aftermath of so much destruction, people “didn’t see hope alive in Omaha.”

Today, Smith is a veteran, much-honored photojournalist who does see a bright future for his community. “I’m beginning to see a revival and resurgence in north Omaha, and that’s encouraging. It may not come to fruition in my lifetime, but I’m beginning to see seeds being planted in the form of ideas, directions and new leaders that will eventually lead to the revitalization of north Omaha,” he said.

 

 

Rudy Smith

 

His optimism is based, in part, on redevelopment along North 24th. There are streetscape improvements underway, the soon-to-open Loves Jazz and Cultural Arts Center, a newly completed jazz park, a family life center under construction and a commercial strip mall going up. Then there’s the evolving riverfront and Creighton University expansion just to the south. Now that there’s momentum building, he said it’s vital north Omaha directly benefit from the progress. Too often, he feels that historically disenfranchised north Omaha is treated as an isolated district whose problems and needs are its own. The reality is that many cross-currents of commerce and interest flow between the near northside and wider (read: whiter) Omaha. Inner city residents work and shop outside the community just as residents from other parts of the city work in North O or own land and businesses there.

“What happens in north Omaha affects the entire city,” Smith said. “When you come down to it, it’s about economics. The north side is a vital player in the vitality and the health of the city, particularly downtown. If downtown is going to be healthy, you’ve got to have a healthy surrounding community. So, everybody has a vested interest in the well-being of north Omaha.”

It’s a community he has deep ties to. His involvement is multi-layered, ranging from the images he makes to the good works he does to the assorted projects he takes on. All of it, he said, is “an extension of my faith.” He and his wife of 37 years, Llana, have three grown children who, like their parents, have been immersed in activities at their place of worship, Salem Baptist Church. Church is just one avenue Smith uses to strengthen and celebrate his community and his people.

With friend Edgar Hicks he co-founded the minority investment club, Mite Multipliers. With Great Plains Black Museum founder Bertha Calloway and Smithsonian Institute historian Alonzo Smith he collaborated on the 1999 book, Visions of Freedom on the Great Plains: An Illustrated History of African Americans in Nebraska. Last summer, he helped bring a Negro Leagues Baseball Museum exhibit to the Western Heritage Museum. Then there’s the book of his own photos and commentary he’s preparing. He’s also planning a book with his New York theater actress daughter, Quiana, that will essay in words and images the stories of the American theater’s black divas. And then there’s the petition drive he’s heading to get Marlin Briscoe inducted into the National Football League Hall of Fame.

Putting others first is a Smith trait. The second oldest of eight siblings, he helped provide for and raise his younger brothers and sisters. His father abandoned the family after he was conceived. Smith was born in Philadelphia and his mother moved the family west to Omaha, where her sister lived. His mother remarried. She was a domestic for well-to-do whites and a teenaged Rudy a servant for black Omaha physician W.W. Solomon. Times were hard. The Smiths lived in such squalor that Rudy called their early residence “a Southern-style shotgun house” whose holes they “stuffed with rags, papers, and socks. That’s what we call caulking today,” he joked. When, at 16, his step-father died in a construction accident, Rudy’s mother came to him and said, “‘You’re going to take over as head of the family.’ And I said, ‘OK.’ To me, it was just something that had to be done.”

Smith’s old friend from the The Movement, Archie Godfrey, recalled Rudy as “mature beyond his years. He had more responsibilities than the rest of us had and  still took time to be involved. He’s like a rock. He’s just been consistent like that.”

“I think my hardships growing up prepared me for what I had to endure and for decisions I had to make,” Smith said. “I was always thrust into situations where somebody had to step up to the front…and I’ve never been afraid to do that.”

When issues arise, Smith’s approach is considered, not rash, and reflect an ideology influenced by the passive resistance philosophies and strategies of such diverse figures as Machiavelli, Gandhi and King as well as the more righteous fervor of Malcolm X. Smith said a publication that sprang from the black power movement, The Black Scholar, inspired he and fellow UNO student activists to agitate for change. Smith introduced legislation to create UNO’s black studies department, whose current chair, Robert Chrisman, is the Scholar’s founder and editor. Smith also campaigned for UNO’s merger with the University of Nebraska system. More recently, he advocated for change as a member of the Nebraska Affirmative Action Advisory Committee, which oversees state departmental compliance with federal mandates for enhanced hiring, promotion and retention of minorities and women.

The camera, though, remains his most expressive tool. Whether it’s a downtown demonstration brimming with indignation or the haunted face of an indigent man or an old woman working a field or Robert Kennedy stumping in North O, his images capture poignant truth. “For some reason, I always knew whatever I shot was for historical purposes,” he said. “When it’s history, that moment will never be revisited again. Words can describe it, but images live on forever. Just like freedom marches on.”

Johnny Rodgers, Forever Young, Fast, and Running Free (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

August 18, 2010 Leave a comment

 

 

In the constellation of University of Nebraska football legends, Johnny Rodgers is probably still the brightest star, even though it’s been going on 40 years since he last played for the Huskers.  So dazzling were his moves and so dominant was his play that this 1972 Heisman Trophy winner , who was the one big play threat on the 1970 and 1971 national championship teams, remains the gold standard for NU playmakers.  The fact that he was such a prominent player when NU first reached modern day college football prominence, combined with his being an Omaha product who overcame a tough start in life, puts him in a different category from all the other Husker greats.  The style and panache that he brought to the field and off it helps, too.  He’s also remained one of the most visible and accessible Husker legends.

 

 


Johnny Rodgers, Forever Young, Fast, and Running Free (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)

“Man, woman and child…the Jet has put ‘em in the aisles again.”

Viewing again on tape one of Johnny Rodgers’ brilliant juking, jiving broken field runs, one has the impression of a jazz artist going off on an improvisational riff and responding note by note, move by move, instant by instant to whatever he’s feeling on the field.

Indeed, that is how Rodgers, the quicksilver University of Nebraska All-American and Heisman Trophy winner known as The Jet, describes the way his instinctive playmaking skills expressed themselves in action. Original, spontaneous, unplanned, his dance-like punt returns and darting runs after catches unfolded, like riveting dramatic performances, in the moment. Poetry in motion. All of which makes his revelation that he did this in a kind of spellbound state fascinating.

“I remember times when I’d go into a crowd of players and I’d come out the other side and the first time I’d know anything about what really happened was when I watched it on film,” he said. “It was like I was in a trance or guided or something. It was not ever really at a conscious level. I could see it as it’s happening, but I didn’t remember any of it. In any of the runs, I could not sit back and say all the things I’d just done until I saw them on film. Never. Not even once.”

This sense of something larger and more mysterious at work is fitting given Rodgers unlikely life story. In going from ghetto despair and criminal mischief to football stardom and flamboyant high life to wheeler-dealer and ignominious failure to sober businessman and community leader, his life has played out in surreal fashion. For a long time Rodgers seemed to be making his legend up, for better or worse, as he went along.

Once viewed as an incorrigible delinquent, Rodgers grew up poor and fatherless in the Logan Fontenelle projects and, unable to get along with his mother, ran away from home at age 14 to Detroit. He was gone a year.

“You talk about a rude awakening. It was a trip,” he said.

He bears scars from bashings and bullets he took in violent clashes. He received probation in his late teens for his part in a Lincoln filling station robbery that nearly derailed his college football career. He served 30 days in jail for driving on a suspended license. Unimaginable — The Jet confined to a cell. His early run-ins with the law and assundry other troubles made him a romantic outlaw figure to some and a ne’er-do-well receiving special treatment to others.

“People were trying to make me out to be college football’s bad boy,” is how he sums up that tumultuous time.

 

 

 

Embracing his rebel image, the young Rodgers wore shades and black leather and drove fast. Affecting a playboy image, J.R. lived a Player’s lifestyle. By the time he signed a big contract with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League, he was indulging in a rich young man’s life to the hilt — fur capes, silk dashikis, fancy cars, recreational drugs, expensive wines and fine babes. Hedonism, baby.

Controversy continued dogging him and generating embarrassing headlines, like the time in 1985 he allegedly pulled a gun on a cable television technician or the two times, once in 1987 and again in 1998, when his Heisman was confiscated in disputes over non-payment of bills. Then there were the crass schemes to cash in on his fame.

Rodgers, whose early life could have gone seriously astray if not for strong male figures around him, said, “I really wish I would have had mentors in mid-life like I had coming up so I could have been prepared for a lot of things I found myself getting into and out of, whether good or bad. I really don’t have any regrets as far as whatever has happened, one way or the other, because I’ve grown on both sides. I’ve learned probably more from my mistakes than from my successes.”

It is only in recent years he has settled down into the kind of calm, considered, conservative life of a reborn man who, in conversation, often refers to his Creator and to giving back.

As he was quoted in a 2001 Omaha World-Herald story, “I’m a little boring now. I make people nervous these days because they have to put their drugs away now.”

Not that this inveterate risk-taker and spotlight lover still isn’t capable of surprises, just that his escapades are less brazen. In the late 1990s he went back to school to finish his degree and added a second degree for good measure. In 1996 he started a sports apparel, bedding and accesories business, JetWear, located in the Business and Technology Center at 24th and Lake, that got him named entrepreneur of the year. He and his wife Jawana own and operate it  today. Then, cementing his lofty status as a sports hero, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and named Husker Player of the Century.

These days, Rodgers, looking fit with his shirt-popping muscular physique and jaunty with the gold bling-bling draping his every appendage, seems comfortable in his role as venerable legend. The media seeks his opinions on the state of the Husker Nation in the aftermath of last season’s debacle.

However much he plays the role of wizened old football warrior, he is forever seen as the dangerous artful dodger whose unique combo of strength, quickness and intuitiveness let him do the unexpected on the gridiron — leaving people grasping thin air with magical now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t moves. In an interview from his office, adorned with images and clippings from his glory days, he spoke like a man still in touch with the electrifying, enigmatic athletic genius that left fans breathless and opponents befuddled. Still every inch the star, he’s finally come to terms with himself.

When viewed in the context of a rather rash fellow who follows his instincts, then his punt returns — the plays where he improvised the most, displayed the most creativity and took the greatest chances — make more sense just as some of his reckless off-the-field antics can be better understood if not excused. For better or worse, his let’s-wing-it, go-for-broke attitude explains his life inside and outside of athletics.

“When you’re a risk taker you do make mistakes because you’re going for it all the time,” he said. “You don’t always make the right move. You can fake yourself right into harm’s way or you can shake yourself right through it. But you have to be willing to take a chance. In a lot of ways I should have been more conservative about things but it’s just not my nature.”

Just like calling a fair catch or lining up behind a wall of blockers was not about to happen when fielding a punt.

“You don’t think, you just react. You don’t know, you just feel,” is how Rodgers describes what it’s like for an impulsive person like himself to feed off whatever is happening around him at any given time, including the chaos swirling about when running back a punt in a preternatural daze. “It’s not like being in what athletes call a zone. You get yourself ready in a zone so you can think about what you need to do and you can get it done. Being in a trance is a whole other level. It’s not a planned thing. You don’t know what’s going to happen. If you make a plan, you’re already wrong because it hasn’t happened yet. The plan is, there is no plan.”

Because of Rodgers’ unusual, innate gifts, then NU head coach Bob Devaney gave him great latitude.

“I had a green light returning punts. I just did whatever came natural,” Rodgers said. “I’d call a punt return right and I’d go left in a heartbeat. When I saw everybody going left, I’d change direction. I never would know. I was never ever told to fair catch the football, even in dangerous situations. There were never any rules for me. I was given that freedom. It got to the point where the only thing I could tell my guys is, ‘Get that first man and meet me down field’ because I didn’t know myself what I was going to do.”

Some of his most famous returns illustrate Rodgers at his extemporaneous best. Take the famous 72-yard touchdown versus Oklahoma in the 1971 Game of the Century.

“It was a right return and I started off right but the whole darn thing happened on the left. On that return my guys didn’t get the first man. I had to shake the first man, who was Greg Pruitt. Joe Blahak broke one way and I went the other way, but still he circled all the way back around the field to pick the last guy off my back and that was because we always agreed to meet down field.

“Where most players would be satisfied getting one block and be jogging the rest of the way my guys, like Blahak and (Rich) Glover, were still fighting until the whistle blew. They knew to meet me down field and that attitude really panned out.”

 

 

 

 

Call it a sixth sense or a second set of eyes, but Rodgers possessed an uncanny ability to elude defenders he couldn’t possibly see. “I watch myself returning punts on film and I see guys reaching at my head and I’m ducking and you can see clearly that I can’t see them, but I can feel them. At the exact right time I make the move. It’s an instinct. A spiritual thing. Unconscious.”

In a remarkable series of sideline returns against Colorado in 1972, Rodgers executed some fancy arabesques and tightrope maneuvers that defied logic and balance as he repeatedly made sharp cuts, spins and leaps to escape trouble.

On offense, he also enjoyed a degree of freedom. When the Huskers needed a play, he and quarterback Jerry Tagge would collaborate in the huddle. “When push came to shove we called plays ourselves. Tagge would ask, ‘What can you do? What can we get?’ because I was setting up the guy covering me for something. I’d be running down-and-outs all day long just so I could run the post-and-go or whatever we needed. ‘Is he ready yet? Tagge would ask. ‘He’s ready,’ I’d say. I always had the attitude if we were in trouble I want the ball because I could get it done.”

He got things done to the tune of setting numerous single season and career school marks for catches, yards receiving, punt returns and total offense. Amazingly, Rodgers isn’t sure he could be successful today in NU’s highly regimented schemes.

“I was fortunate enough to come along when I did. I don’t know if I could make it now,” he said. “Coaches don’t let you be who you are. They try to coach you to who they are. They’re not letting the great ones be great. You can’t teach this stuff. If you have to think, you’re already too slow. It’s reaction. You have to react. You have to be free and open to sense it and feel it.”

Precociously talented from an early age, Rodgers first made headlines at age 8 by diving over a human pyramid his Lothrop Grade School tumbling teammates formed with their interlaced bodies in tumbling shows. Despite being much younger and smaller than the youths playing at Kountze Park his athleticism gained him entry into sandlot football and baseball contests there that included such future greats as Gale Sayers, Marlin Briscoe and Ron Boone.

“I was ‘too small’ to play but they let me play ball with them because I was good enough.” He honed his repertoire of fakes playing flag football and, later, tackle with teams sponsored by the Boys Club and Roberts Dairy. By the time he starred at Tech High in football, baseball and basketball, Rodgers had a sense of his own destiny. “I noticed I seemed to be special. I saw these older guys go on and do something nationally and I felt if they could, I could, too. It was almost supposed to happen.”

 

 

 

Rodgers wasn’t always comfortable with his own prodigious talents. He said early on his gift, as he calls it, was “definitely a burden because I didn’t know why I was so good and whether I was chosen or something. I didn’t know if I even wanted to have that type of a burden. I was almost upset because I had it. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I really wasn’t spiritually grown enough to really appreciate this gift, which it really was.” Then there was the fact his prowess caused grief off the field. “My gift was getting me in fights every single weekend…and for no other reason than I was popular, I had notoriety and people were jealous. Girls were telling their guys we were together or whatever. I had people coming down where I lived trying to beat me up. I remember having to crawl out the gall darn window.”

Things got so bad during junior high school he took extra precautions walking to and from the home of his grandmother, who’d taken him in after his brash runaway stunt. “I’d walk in the middle of 25th Street so that if anybody came after me I could get away,” he said. “And it would never be one on one. It would always be several guys and they could never catch me.” If nothing else, being chased helped him develop his broken field moves. One day, Rodgers wasn’t so sure he’d make it past the gauntlet facing him. He and his pal Leroy had just left a friend’s house when they were surrounded by a gang of boys.

As Rodgers describes it, “I had a dog chain and he had a knife and I said, ‘Leroy, you ready?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I’m ready.’ So, I’m looking around to check out the situation and when I turn back around Leroy is turning the corner up the street. He ran off and left me. So, I started swinging my chain until I got me a little opening and I broke. In those days, when I broke I was going to be alright because I had it covered. Well, those guys started chasing me, except they sent one guy out while the rest of them stayed back jogging.” That’s when he got a sinking feeling. Not long before the incident he’d watched a Western on television about a lone settler chased by Indians, who sent a series of runners out after the man until they wore him down and caught him.

“I remember thinking, They saw the same movie. I couldn’t believe it. They had me scared to death because I saw what happened to that cowboy. Luckily, I escaped down the street and ducked into an alley and dove in a car. I laid down on the floor in back and they went on by,” he said, laughing and flashing his best Johnny “The Jet” smile.

 

sportsillustrated.cnn.com

 

 

Growing up in The Hood then didn’t pose quite the same dangers as it does now, but there is no doubt Rodgers narrowly skirted the worst of its ills thanks to the influence of some black men who nurtured and guided him.

“I see how easily I could have went totally in the other direction and what it really took came from my athletic background.”

There was George Barber, his gym coach at Lothrop, who got him started in athletics. There was Josh Gibson, his baseball coach at the Boys Club. The older brother of Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, Josh was a legendary baseball coach and “a hard disciplinarian.”

Rodgers, a good enough baseball prospect to be drafted out of high school by the Los Angeles Dodgers, credits Gibson with teaching him to switch hit. His basketball coach at Horace Mann Junior High, Bob Rose, taught him to shoot layups with both hands. Perhaps the greatest lesson learned from Gibson and Rose, Rodgers said, was that “we weren’t there just to play the game, we were there to win. Of course, we lost some games but we learned you never quit. You went back and worked harder and got better.”

And at the YMCA there was Don Benning, still years away from coaching UNO to an NAIA wrestling title, a man whom Rodgers said “has been like a father to me.”

By the time Rodgers emerged as the star of NU’s 1970 and 1971 championship teams and as the 1972 Heisman front runner he was befriended by two more key men in his life — the late community activist Charles Washington and high living attorney Robert Fromkin. A friend to many athletes, Washington helped Rodgers out with expenses and other favors.

But, Rodgers said, what he really gleaned from Washington was “a responsibility to help others. I learned a lot from him about helping out the community.” According to Rodgers what he got from Fromkin, who represented him after one of his arrests, were free lessons in style.

“Bobby was responsible for me having maybe just a touch of class. He always had an elaborate place and a brand new El Dorado. He would invite me to the fights and to shows. We’d have the whole front row. Then we’d go out to the French Cafe and he’d pick up the whole tab. That was stuff I looked forward to at an early age. That showed me how to do it. How to live right. It added to my flamboyance. The thing he taught me is the only shame you have is to aim low. You’ve got to aim high. You’ve got to go for the gusto. It only takes a little bit more to go first class.”

When, on the advice of Fromkin, Rodgers surprised the football world by spurning the NFL for the CFL, he found a perfect fit for his garishness in cosmo Montreal and its abundant night life. “I loved Montreal. It was the city of love. There were some great times in Montreal. The French people and I got along great. We were flamboyant together.” The dash he exhibited off the field complemented his flash on the field, where Rodgers again dominated. After four banner years, it was time to meet his next challenge. “The only thing left to do was to go to the NFL and prove myself there.” He signed with the club that originally drafted him — the San Diego Chargers — and worked like he never had before.

“Because I had so much natural ability I never pushed myself as hard as I really could have. When I got to San Diego I was really determined to go to the next level. I wanted to see just how good I could be. I made sure I was in the best condition I could be in.”

He was coming off a monster preseason showing against Kansas City when his dream fell apart. A series of torn muscles and hamstrings severely curtailed his rookie NFL season. He came back ready the next year only to suffer an ugly, career-ending knee injury. “That was it,” said Rodgers, who after surgery spent much of the next year in a wheelchair and crutches. For him, the biggest disappointment was “never really getting a chance to showcase what I could do. It hurt me, but I’m not bitter about it. I mean, I could have gone crazy but instead I grew from it.”

A perpetual optimist and opportunist, Rodgers has bounced around some since his retirement. For several years he made San Diego his home, starting up a cable TV magazine there that had some success. He returned to Nebraska in the late ‘80s to help support his son Terry during an injury-shortened NU career. Over the years he’s announced several business-community projects that have not come to fruition and some that have. In addition to JetWear, which he hopes to expand, he owns a sports memorabilia business and a promotion arm organizing events like his Husker/Heisman Weekend and public speaking engagements.

Rather than slow down in his mid-50s, he’s poised to make a big move.

“I feel like I had a rejuvenation on life at 50 and so I feel I’m just getting started. I think the best is truly still ahead of me. I have only touched on a small part of the potential I have. Because of my history and my visibility I can create a better future for myself, for my family and for my community.”

Eying Omaha’s riverfront redevelopment, he looks forward to being part of a north Omaha rebirth to match his own. “I think north Omaha’s future is so bright you have to wear shades.” Burn, Jet, burn.

Gospel Playwright Llana Smith Enjoys Her Big Mama’s Time


Choir Boy

Image by Shavar Ross via Flickr

About a decade ago I became reacquainted with a former University of Nebraska at Omaha adjunct professor of photography, Rudy Smith, who was an award-winning photojournalist with the Omaha World-Herald.  I was an abject failure as a photography student, but I have managed to fare somewhat better as a freelance writer-reporter.  When I began covering aspects of Omaha‘s African-American community with some consistency, Rudy was someone I reached out to as a source and guide.  We became friends along the way.  I still call on him from time to time to offer me perspective and leads.  I’ve gotten to know a bit of Rudy’s personal story, which includes coming out of poverty and making a life and career for himself as the first African-American employed in the Omaha World-Herald newsroom and agitating for social change on the UNO campus and in greater Omaha.

I have also come to know some members of his immediate family, including his wife Llana and their musical theater daughter Quiana or Q as she goes by professionally.  Llana is a sweet woman who has her own story of survival and strength.  She and and Rudy are devout Christians active in their church, Salem Baptist, where Llana continues a family legacy of writing-directing gospel dramas. She’s lately taken her craft outside Omaha as well.  I have tried getting this story published in print publications to no avail.  With no further adieu then, this is Llana’s story:

Gospel Playwright Llana Smith Enjoys Her Big Mama’s Time

©by Leo Adam Biga

When the spirit moves Llana Smith to write one of her gospel plays, she’s convinced she’s an instrument of the Lord in the burst of creative expression that follows. It’s her hand holding the pen and writing the words on a yellow note pad alright, but she believes a Higher Power guides her.

“I look at it as a gift. It’s not something I can just do. I’ve got to pray about it and kind of see where the Lord is leading me and then I can write,” said the former Llana Jones. “I’ll start writing and things just come. Without really praying about it I can write the messiest play you ever want to see.”

She said she can only be a vessel if she opens herself up “to be used.” It’s why she makes a distinction between an inspired gift and an innate talent. Her work, increasingly performed around the nation, is part of a legacy of faith and art that began with her late mother Pauline Beverly Jones Smith and that now extends to her daughter Quiana Smith.

The family’s long been a fixture at Salem Baptist Church in north Omaha. Pauline led the drama ministry program — writing-directing dramatic interpretations — before Llana succeeded her in the 1980s. For a time, their roles overlapped, with mom handling the adult drama programs and Llana the youth programs.

“My mother really was the one who started all this out,” Smith said. “She was gifted to do what she did and some of what she did she passed on to me.”

Married to photojournalist Rudy Smith, Llana and her mate’s three children grew up at Salem and she enlisted each to perform orations, sketches and songs. The youngest, Quiana, blossomed into a star vocalist/actress. She appeared on Broadway in a revival of Les Miserables. In 2004 Llana recruited Quiana, already a New York stage veteran by then, to take a featured role in an Easter production of her The Crucifixion: Through the Eyes of a Cross Maker at Salem.

Three generations of women expressing their faith. From one to the next to the other each has passed this gift on to her successor and grown it a bit more.

 

 

 

 

Pauline recognized it in Llana, who recalled her mother once remarked, “How do you come up with all this stuff? I could never have done that.” To which Llana replied, ‘Well, Mom, it just comes, it’s just a gift. You got it.” Pauline corrected her with, “No, I don’t have it like that. You really have the gift.”

“Them were some of the most important words she ever said to me,” Smith said.

Miss Pauline saw the calling in her granddaughter, too. “My mother would always say, ‘Quiana’s going to be the one to take this further — to take this higher.’ Well, sure enough, she has,” Smith said. “Quiana can write, she can direct, she can act and she can SING. She’s taken it all the way to New York. From my mother’s foundation all the way to what Quiana’s doing, it has just expanded to where we never could have imagined. It just went right on down the line.”

Whether writing a drama extracted from the gospels or lifted right from the streets, Smith is well-versed in the material and the territory. The conflict and redemption of gospel plays resonate with her own experience — from her chaotic childhood to the recent home invasion her family suffered.

Born in a Milford, Neb. home for young unwed mothers, Smith knew all about instability and poverty growing up in North O with her largely absentee, unemployed, single mom. Smith said years later Pauline admitted she wasn’t ready to be a mother then. For a long time Smith carried “a real resentment” about her childhood being stolen away. For example, she cared for her younger siblings while Pauline was off “running the streets.” “I did most of the cooking and cleaning and stuff,” Smith said. With so much on her shoulders she fared poorly in school.

She witnessed and endured physical abuse at the hands of her alcoholic step-father and discovered the man she thought was her daddy wasn’t at all. When her biological father entered her life she found out a school bully was actually her half-sister and a best friend was really her cousin.

It was only when the teenaged Llana married Rudy her mother did a “turnabout” and settled down, marrying a man with children she raised as her own. “She did a good job raising those kids. She became the church clerk. She was very well respected,” said Smith, who forgave her mother despite the abandonment she felt. “She ended up being my best friend. Nobody could have told me that.”

 

 

 

Llana Smith, far right, with husband Rudy and daughter Quiana

 

 

Until then, however, the only security Smith could count on was when her Aunt Annie and Uncle Bill gave her refuge or when she was at church. She’s sure what kept her from dropping out of school or getting hooked on drugs or turning tricks  – some of the very things that befell classmates of hers — was her faith.

“Oh, definitely, no question about it, I  could have went either way if it hadn’t really been for church.” she said. “It was the one basic foundation we had.”

In Rudy, she found a fellow believer. A few years older, he came from similar straits.

“I was poor and he was poor-poor,” she said. “We both knew we wanted more than what we had. We wanted out of this. We didn’t want it for our kids. To me, it was survival. I had to survive because I was looking at my sister and my brother and if they don’t have me well, then, sometimes they wouldn’t have nobody. I had to make it through. I never had any thought of giving up. I did wonder, Why me? But running away and leaving them, it never crossed my mind. We had to survive.”

Her personal journey gives her a real connection to the hard times and plaintive hopes that permeate black music and drama. She’s lived it. It’s why she feels a deep kinship with the black church and its tradition of using music and drama ministry to guide troubled souls from despair to joy.

Hilltop is a play she wrote about the driveby shootings and illicit drug activities plaguing the Hilltop-Pleasantview public housing project in Omaha. The drama looks at the real-life transformation some gangbangers made to leave it all behind.

Gospel plays use well-worn conventions, characters and situations to enact Biblical stories, to portray moments/figures in history or to examine modern social ills. Themes are interpreted through the prism of the black experience and the black church, lending the dramas an earthy yet moralistic tone. Even the more secular, contemporary allegories carry a scripturally-drawn message.

Not unlike an August Wilson play, you’ll find the hustler, the pimp, the addict, the loan shark, the Gs, the barber, the beauty salon operator, the mortician, the minister, the do-gooder, the gossip, the busy-body, the player, the slut, the gay guy, et cetera. Iconic settings are also popular. Smith’s Big Momma’s Prayer opens at a church, her These Walls Must Come Down switches between a beauty shop and a detail shop and her Against All Odds We Made It jumps back and forth from a nail shop to a hoops court.

The drama, typically infused with healthy doses of comedy, music, singing and dancing, revolves around the poor choices people make out of sheer willfulness. A breakup, an extramarital affair, a bad business investment, a drug habit or a resentment sets events in motion. There’s almost always a prodigal son or daughter that’s drifted away and become alienated from the family.

The wayward characters led astray come back into the fold of family and church only after some crucible. The end is almost always a celebration of their return, their atonement, their rebirth. It is affirmation raised to high praise and worship.

At the center of it all is the ubiquitous Big Mama figure who exists in many black families. This matriarch is the rock holding the entire works together.

“She’s just so real to a lot of us,” Smith said.

Aunt Annie was the Big Mama in Smith’s early life before her mother was finally ready to assume that role. Smith’s inherited the crown now.

If it all sounds familiar then it’s probably due to Tyler Perry, the actor-writer-director responsible for introducing Big Mama or Madea to white America through his popular plays and movies. His big screen successes are really just more sophisticated, secularized versions of the gospel plays that first made him a star. Where his plays originally found huge, albeit mostly black, audiences, his movies have found broad mainstream acceptance.

Madea is Perry’s signature character.

“When Madea talks she be talking stuff everybody can relate to,” Smith said. “Stuff that’s going on. Every day stuff. We can relate to any and everything she be saying. That character’s a trip. It’s the truth. One of my mother’s best friends was just like Madea. She smoked that cigarette, she talked from the corner of her mouth, she could cuss you out at the drop of a hat and she packed her knife in her bosom.”

Smith appreciates Perry’s groundbreaking work. “That is my idol…my icon. At the top of my list is to meet this man and to thank him for what he’s done,” she said. She also likes the fact “he attributes a lot of what he does to the Lord.”

Her own work shows gospel plays’ ever widening reach — with dramas produced at churches and at the Rose and Orpheum Theatres. She first made her mark with Black History Month presentations at Salem with actors portraying such figures as Medgar Evers, Harriet Tubman and Marian Anderson. Her mom once played Jean Pittman. A son played Martin Luther King Jr. She enjoys “bringing history to life.”

 

 

 

 

 

Her Easter-Christmas dramas grew ever grander. Much of that time she collaborated with Salem’s then-Minister of Music, Jay Terrell, and dance director, Shirley Terrell-Jordan. Smith’s recently stepped back from Salem to create plays outside Nebraska. That’s something not even her mother did, although Pauline’s Your Arms Are Too Short to Box with God did tour the Midwest and South.

At the urging of Terrell, a Gospel Workshop of America presenter and gospel music composer now at Beulahland Bible Church in Macon, Ga., Smith’s taking her gift “outside the walls of the church.” In 2005 her Big Momma’s Prayer was scored and directed by Terrell for a production at a Macon dinner theater. The drama played to packed houses. A couple years later he provided the music for her These Walls, which Smith directed to overflow audiences at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Wichita, Kansas. In 2008 her Against All Odds was a hit at Oakridge Missionary Baptist Church in Kansas City, Kan., where she, Terrell-Jordan and Jay Terrell worked with some 175 teens in dance-music-drama workshops.

Against All Odds took on new meaning for Smith when she wrote and staged the drama in the aftermath of a home invasion in which an intruder bound and gagged her, Rudy and a foster-daughter. Rudy suffered a concussion. A suspect in the incident was recently arrested and brought up on charges.

Smith’s work with Terrell is another way she continues the path her mother began. Doretha Wade was Salem’s music director when Pauline did her drama thing there. The two women collaborated on Your Arms Are Too Short, There’s a Stranger in Town and many other pieces. Wade brought the Salem Inspirational Choir its greatest triumph when she and gospel music legend Rev. James Cleveland directed the choir in recording the Grammy-nominated album My Arms Feel Noways Tired. Smith, an alto, sang in the choir, is on the album and went to the Grammys in L.A.

Terrell’s been a great encourager of Smith’s work and the two enjoy a collaboration similar to what Doretha and Pauline shared. “To see how Doretha and her worked to bring the music and the drama together was a big influence and, lo and behold, Jay and I have become the same,” she said.

Smith and Terrell have discussed holding gospel play workshops around the country. Meanwhile, she staged an elaborate production at Salem this past Easter. There’s talk of reviving a great big gospel show called Shout! that Llana wrote dramatic skits for and that packed The Rose Theatre. It’s all coming fast and furious for this Big Mama.

“This is like a whole new chapter in my life,” she said.


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