Sculptor John Lajba has made a name for himself by documenting Omaha’s most iconic figures. His subjects range from joyous to somber.
One of his bronzes, The Road To Omaha, is a familiar image broadcast during ESPN coverage of the College World Series.
When police officer Kerrie Orozco was killed in 2015, hundreds of mourners left flowers and mementos at the foot of Lajba’s fallen officer sculpture, just outside of Omaha police headquarters.
Now, a group hopes another unforgettable figure will join the ranks of Lajba’s definitive sculptural portraits of Omaha history.
Family and friends knew the bronze-to-be as the Rev. Livingston Wills. For the rest of the city, he was “The Broom Man,” a man born with only 5 percent of his vision who traversed the city on foot, for decades, selling his brooms.
The Broom Man Project—formed in March 2016—is an effort by David Jensen, Jim Backens, Marc Kraft, and Lajba to memorialize Wills, who died in 2008 at the age of 91. Almost 10 years after his death, people still vividly recall Wills selling his brooms on routes that took him through North Omaha, Benson, and up through Countryside Village.
The Broom Man Project launched a GoFundMe campaign last October to fund a sculpture in honor of Wills. Since its launch, the site has raised approximately $9,000 of its $150,000 goal. Downtown Omaha Inc. has almost matched that amount, bringing the total raised so far to about $15,000.
“Our very first contribution was five dollars,” Jensen says.
A Facebook page, dedicated to Wills, is filled with posts recounting memories of meeting him. One post called for people to post pictures of brooms purchased from Wills.
While many fondly recall long conversations with Wills, at times, he could be very business-oriented: Get the sale. Move on to the next customer. Get another sale.
Jane’s Health Market in Benson is situated at the location of one of his many regular stops. Owner Jane Beran says she bought several brooms from Wills.
“I can’t remember him sticking around much. I would just buy a broom from him, and he’d be on his way,” Beran says.
Wills was born in Brownsville, Tennessee, about 60 miles northeast of Memphis. In Brownsville, he began making brooms out of cornstalk. He eventually moved to Nebraska, where he studied English and history at Union College in Lincoln. He then moved to Omaha, where he was a pastor at the Tabernacle Church of Christ.
For decades, to support his family, he would sell brooms, going door-to-door and to businesses. Toting brooms over his shoulder, and using a cane for support, he would use his whistle as a sort of a sonar to detect nearby obstacles. Lance Criswell, grandson of Wills, would see him when he was done with a typical workday.
“I’d say, ‘What have you been doing, Rev.?’ and he’d say ‘scratchin,’” Criswell recalls. “‘Scratchin’—that means he’s been working.”
In 2006, Barbara Atkins-Baldwin wrote a book based on her family’s experiences with Wills. The book, The Blind Broom Salesman, was reissued with a new cover last year. Atkins-Baldwin pledged to donate all of the profits from her book to The Broom Man Project. In November, Leavenworth Bar posted a check for more than $550 to go toward the sculpture on The Broom Man’s Facebook page.
When it came time to choosing a location for the proposed statue, Lajba wanted the Douglas County Courthouse because of the building’s downtown location and its historical significance. When he first heard about making a sculpture in Wills’ honor, Lajba envisioned him in his usual routine: walking the streets of Omaha with his array of brooms.
“I want him to be well dressed,” Lajba says. “I really want to show how he cared about himself.”
Criswell says his grandfather had more than a hundred suits. “He’d always like to look professional when he was out selling his brooms,” Criswell says.
Criswell sat with Jensen, Lajba, and Tom Hanus at Tourek Engraving to discuss his grandfather and his impact on the Omaha community. As they conversed, the temperature outside was a crisp 18 degrees, much as it would have been when Wills walked his routes in winter.
Tourek Engraving has become sort of a centralized headquarters for the Broom Man Project, with copies of The Blind Broom Salesman stacked beside flyers that detail the Broom Man Project’s ambitions.
“If he walked through this door right now, he’d squeeze through the door, because the brooms would be over his back, and he’d say, ‘My friends!’” Criswell says, pointing to the front door. “He’d always come in with that presence. He became a part of the fabric of Omaha.”