Tag Archives: African-American

Mural Man

June 2, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Visual artist Mike Giron’s creative life spans studio practice, teaching, and working with A Midsummer’s Mural and South Omaha Mural Project teams.

“In my studio work, I have no idea what’s going to happen—I just go. I’m not forcing or insisting on anything. The work creates itself in some crazy way,” Giron says. “When it comes to murals, it’s a lot more deliberate. You have to propose a design before you begin. So, I live in these two different worlds, and I think it’s keeping me balanced.”

The New Orleans native came to Omaha in the early 1990s by way of Colorado, where he met his ex-wife, an Omaha native. After her father died, the couple moved here with the intent of restoring her family home, selling it, and returning to Colorado. But Omaha proved a good place to raise their two children, so they stayed.

Giron, 45, taught art at Bellevue University and ran the campus gallery. Today, he’s a Metropolitan Community College adjunct instructor.

Without knowing it, he prepared to be a muralist through his experience painting Mardi Gras floats in New Orleans. Walls are not so different from float structures—they’re big and imperfect. And just as he used cut-out panels on floats, he does the same with murals.

“The Polish mural is the clearest example,” he says. “There was a downspout, a chimney, and a fence around an air conditioning unit, and we used cut-outs to hide those things. It gave a 3D pop-up look effect. It also breaks the frame to extend beyond the box of the building.”

Patience is a virtue for a muralist.

“Murals take a long time—maybe two months,” he says. “Unless you really practice your Zen, you’ve got to make it enjoyable to keep on doing it every day.”

The social contract of public art and the collaborative nature of murals means you’d better like people. He does. You’d better like working big, too.

“Once you experience large-scale production, it’s hard to go back to small paintings,” he says. “Although I still consider myself a studio painter, there’s also something about doing large work. You can’t help but see a wall and go, ‘Oh, that would be perfect for this statement.’ And then the physicality of the work feels good. You’re carrying stuff all the time; you’re up and down ladders. The brush strokes are not just a flick of the wrist.”

But Giron says the real reason he and his fellow muralists do it is because “we’re channeling the voices of people who can’t do this, and we take pride in that.” He says, “We feel good about delivering something that people feel does express them.”

The process for the South Omaha murals involves deep community immersion.

“The more you immerse and personally connect with the people on a street level, the more you’re going to be trusted by that community, and the more they’ll open up and allow you in,” he says.

The South O murals feature diverse looks.

“Some fall into naturalism, and others go into some other place,” he says, “That’s interesting to me because it’s not the same. Rather than a signature style, I would prefer they look like they were done by different people.”

They are. Giron works with Richard Harrison, Rebecca Van Orman, and Hugo Zamorano. Neighbors contribute stories and ideas at community meetings. Residents and students participate in paint days and attend unveiling celebrations.

The works are an extension of the new South Omaha Museum, whose director, historian Gary Kastrick, conceived the murals project. Giron serves on the museum board. He enjoys digging through Kastrick’s artifact collection and preparing exhibits, including a replica of an Omaha Stockyards pen.

The idea is for the museum, the murals, and Kastrick’s history tours to spark a South O renaissance keying off the district’s rich heritage and culture. Muralists like Giron share a bigger goal to “make Omaha a destination for public art.” He says murals are a great way to enhance the city’s visual aesthetic and to engage the community. Besides, he says, murals “demonstrate to the public there is an arts community here” in a visible way galleries cannot.

Giron is impressed by the Omaha arts explosion. “There’s so much going on and so many young artists hitting the scene making a big impact,” he says.

Meanwhile, he continues to create studio art. His series On the Brighter Side of Post-Apocalyptic Minimalism employed fire-singed materials to make their satirical marks.

“With the process-oriented stuff I’m doing now, there’s a huge amount of variety, even though I’m just using grids,” he says, explaining that his personal artworks have moved away from rules of perspective and representational dictates of realism.

“When you don’t use any of that, all you have is the process and the visual reality of things—line, shape, value, color, texture, and space,” he says. “When you start playing in that area, where there’s no limits in terms of defining what things should be or should look like, you find it’s actually inexhaustible.”

He intends to follow “the course of my curiosity,” adding, “If you are really free as an artist, then you just follow whatever’s interesting to you.”

New murals keep beckoning, though. “I get pulled into all this work. You set yourself up for a fall, but the fall is where all the good stuff happens,” he says.

Having completed Czech, Lithuanian, Polish, Mexican, Metropolitan Community College, and Magic City murals for the South O project, Giron and company are now working on a Croatian mural. Irish, Italian, African-American, and Stockyards murals are still to come.

Visit amidsummersmural.com for more information.

This article was published in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Touched by Tokyo

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Alain Nana Kwango

If you don’t consider Omaha a beauty-style launching pad, think again. Homegrown talents Jaime King and Gabrielle Union tear it up on screen, in photo spreads, and for the red carpet. Designer Kate Walz has a Paris collection to her credit. But no one’s trending hotter than hairstylist-to-the-stars William Jackson, aka Tokyo Stylez.

This lithe young man with striking African-American and Native American features is courted for his dope skills with tresses.

“Hair is the new accessory now,” he says.

It all began in Omaha doing his family’s hair. It morphed into an enterprising hustle that became his calling and career. Based in Washington D.C., he’s a bicoastal creative with a celebrity client list: Lil’ Kim, Toni Braxton, Fantasia, Naomi Campbell, Rihanna, Gabrielle Union, and Kendall and Kylie Jenner.

“It’s all about building relationships and a trust that you can create their image—their look—and bring it to life for them,” he says.

Tokyo2He’s signed to make over a TV-publishing icon. He’s close to realizing a dream of doing hair for divas Beyonce, Madonna, and Cher. He appears on TLC’s Global Beauty Masters. He tours, giving tutorials. His “Touched by Tokyo” brand features a hair fragrance mist and custom wigs.

It’s all happening so fast. But he’s ready for it.

“Right now is my time, and I just have to capture it and take things to the next level,” he says in his sweet, soft voice.

He feels his versatile chops set him apart.

“I’m like a big creative ball wrapped in one. I have a little bit of everything. You want to take it to the street, I can take you there. If you want soft, chic, and classy, I can do that. If you want a little high fashion. I do that, too. I’m just out of this world. Anything you want, I’ll do. I plan to be the next Paul Mitchell,” he says without brag.

His dreams got fired at 9 when his mother, Jessica Haynes-Jackson, was incarcerated. Some bad choices led to being caught up in a drug ring. She got busted and served several months in prison. While confined, Tokyo and his siblings lived with their father. Before going in, she says, “I asked Tokyo to take care of sissy’s hair while mommy was away. He was delighted and gracefully accepted the challenge. I knew he could do at least one ponytail, and that was all I expected.”

Except he proved a prodigy, replicating what he saw his hairdresser grandma and his mom create—braids, twists, French rolls.

He says, “I picked it up really quick. That’s kind of where I got an idea I knew what I was doing.”

When his mother was released, he couldn’t wait to show her his handiwork.

Tokyo1“She had never seen it. She’d only heard my grandmother telling her, ‘He’s killing it.’ So to show her and to see the look on her face was a great feeling.”

“This was how we discovered his amazing talent that now the whole world enjoys,” Haynes-Jackson says.

By 15, he made a name for himself doing hair. Meanwhile, his mother earned two degrees, became a mental health counselor, and coached. She is his biggest fan and inspiration.

“She’s always supported me and loved everything I’ve done. She’s an awesome lady. She is very independent. She’s never really asked anyone for anything. She’s always found a way to make things happen. I definitely would say I’ve inherited my drive from her.”

“I think what I love most about Tokyo is his warm, gentle spirit,” his mom says. “He is the same person despite his celebrity status. I think what touched my heart the most is when he traveled with his ‘Glam Squad’ to give a teenage girl battling a rare cancer a surprise makeover for her prom. I am a very proud mom.”

Tokyo’s travels have gone international. Life in the fast lane means dropping everything to do high profile gigs with tight deadlines.

He got an early taste of being a coveted stylist in school.

“Everyone came to me to get their hair done—girls and boys. My mom’s friends and clients. Their daughters. I was in such high demand it was crazy. People would be passing me notes, ‘Hey, can you do my hair after school?’ It was always something. But I knew this was something I wanted to do.”

Tokyo3With “a very steady clientele, the money was coming in,” he says. An attempt at a dancing career led to taking Tokyo as his stage name.  Seeking a bigger market as a stylist, he moved to Atlanta where he rebranded as Tokyo Stylez and blew up on social media. Celeb clients followed. In D.C. he’s minutes from New York fashion central and a nonstop flight from L.A.’s entertainment capital.

He plans to have a business presence in Omaha.

“I definitely want something back at home where it came from. It would only be right to do so.”

Meanwhile, he changes perceptions of Omaha wherever he goes.

“People are like, ‘You have black people there?’ I get that every time.”

Visit touchedbytokyo.com for more information. Omaha Magazine.

The Silo Crusher

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The story of athletics at the University of Nebraska at Omaha has fluctuated from wild success to heartbreak (and back). All-Americans, post-season runs, and national title traditions collided with mismanagement and sparse spectator attendance.

Then a fresh Maverick joined the fray. Trev Alberts—one of the most decorated defensive players in the history of Huskers football and a former ESPN anchor—took the mantle of UNO’s athletic director in April of 2009.

Tensions bubbled behind the scenes. Chronic budget shortfalls clashed with fractious booster relations. Although new to his administrative role, Alberts knew enough about balance sheets and group dynamics to recognize systemic disarray and dysfunction. “We were in trouble and we needed to find some solutions,” he says.

The current academic year marks five years since Alberts dismantled UNO’s beloved wrestling and football programs. Alberts looks back on his crucial decisions without regrets. But the “solutions” didn’t come easily. In 2011, the former football star had to cut the sport that defined his own athletic career.

He saw that the financial equation for UNO’s splintered athletic programs no longer worked. A struggling Division I hockey program could not prop up the remaining Division II programs. Even with a hefty university subsidy, low athletic revenue painted a bleak picture amidst rising costs.

UNO’s bold response was to transition its entire athletic program to Division I by joining the Summit League in 2011. Because the conference does not accommodate wrestling or football, those two sports had to go.

News broke with awkward timing. Maverick wrestlers had just clinched the Division II national championship for the third straight year. A few hours after their victory, UNO Athletics began reaching out to notify celebratory wrestling coaches of the grim news.

Public rancor ensued. Coaches and student-athletes of the winning programs were left adrift. History, however, has proven the difficult decisions were healthy for the university and its athletics department.

Alberts found a key ally in chancellor John Christensen. The man who had initially recruited Alberts promoted him to vice chancellor in 2014, thus giving athletics a seat at UNO’s executive leadership table. “There needs to be absolute integration and now we have internal partnership, collaboration,” says Christensen.

Five years have passed. Athletics programs are stable. Sport teams no longer operate in silos. Alberts dismantled the barriers to build a strong overall athletic department: “When I got here, it appeared we had 16 different athletic departments,” he says. “There was no leadership. We hated campus. The mindset was the university leadership were out to get us, didn’t support us, didn’t understand us. The athletic department would blame the university; the university would blame the athletic department. 

“Strategically, my job was to get on the same page as part of the university team. I asked John Christensen to define his goals. He said community engagement, academic excellence, and (being) student-centered. I had to explain to staff everything we do is going to try to help the university advance its goals and every decision we make, if it isn’t student-centered and doesn’t support academic excellence and community engagement, we’re going to ask ourselves why are we doing that.”

Since then, the athletic department has made major strides. The hockey team made the 2015 Frozen Four, men’s basketball contended for the 2016 Summit title and saw a 65 percent attendance increase, and other sports have similarly fared well. With added academic support, the cumulative student-athlete grade point average of 3.4 is among the nation’s highest.

Alberts says that cutting the beloved football and wrestling programs meant “a really trying time, but galvanized the department and the university.” He continues,“We came together as a university. This was an institutional decision. It wasn’t John and I in a corner room deciding. We had a lot of people involved.”

Even with unanimous University Board of Regents approval for the athletic department shake-up, emotions ran high among constituents opposed to the cuts. Despite pleas to save wrestling and football, Alberts says, “The data was going to drive the decision-making. We weren’t going to manage the outcome of a good process. We moved to Division I because the market had an expectation about what the experience would be like, and we weren’t able to meet that expectation.” Maintaining the programs, especially football, would have required larger expenditures at the next level and exacerbated the fiscal mess.

Everything was on the table during deliberations: “We looked at trying to stay at Division II and regaining profitability in hockey, we looked at Division III, we looked at having no athletics, and then we looked at Division I. The conclusion was Division I would bring us an opportunity to get at more self-generated revenue through NCAA distributions.”

It was all about athletics better reflecting the “premiere urban metropolitan university” that Christensen says defines UNO. As the strategic repositioning set in, academics flourished, new facilities abounded, and enrollment climbed. Christensen says going to D-I was “a value-add” proposition.

“We looked at our peer doctorate-granting institutions and they were all Division I,” Alberts says. “The real value an athletics department has to a campus is essentially a brand investment. You have alumni come back, you have student engagement. That’s really the role you play. We are the front porch of the university.”

What followed was the rebranding of UNO to associate more with Omaha and embrace what Alberts and Christensen call “the Maverick family.” The rebrand is encapsulated in the construction of Baxter Arena, a D-I sporting facility adjacent to UNO’s midtown campus that also provides a venue for community events.

The past five years were not without tumult. Some longtime donors withdrew financial support in response to UNO cutting wrestling and football. Businessman David Sokol reportedly cut part of his pledged donation in reaction. But donors have since returned in droves.

Van Deeb, another longtime booster and a former UNO football player, was initially an outspoken critic of UNO cutting wrestling and football. “My big disappointment was not that it did happen but the way it happened. Even being on the Maverick athletic board, we had no clue it was coming,” says the Omaha-based entrepreneur.

“But that’s in the past,” says Deeb. “I couldn’t be prouder of where UNO is headed as an athletic department and as a university. I’m 100 percent behind the progressive leadership of Trev Alberts and John Christensen. They’re all about the student-athlete and the future.”

Alberts realizes that some hard feelings linger. “We have people who I don’t think will ever be a part of what we’re doing, and I understand that,” he says.

Regardless, there was enough community buy-in that private donations reached new heights ($45 million) and helped build the showplace Baxter Arena. Alberts cites the construction of Baxter Arena as a tangible result of the move to Division I.

Deeb says Baxter Arena has propelled UNO to another level. “When you’re around campus or at a UNO event there’s a level of excitement I can’t describe,” he says. “It’s a great time to be a Maverick supporter.”

The arena has proven a popular gathering spot for greater Omaha. This past spring, some 100,000 people attended high school graduations there, a realization of the chancellor and Alberts’ desire for greater community engagement.

Although few of UNO’s current students remember what campus was like before the rebrand, that doesn’t mean that Alberts or his team have forgotten. They still recognize the historic importance that the canceled sports provided to the university.

In fact, Alberts joined Van Deeb and several other community leaders on a steering committee seeking to honor one of UNO football’s greatest athletes, Marlin Briscoe. “An Evening with The Magician,” will celebrate the school’s most decorated football player, an Omaha native and civil rights trailblazer, at Baxter Arena on Thursday, Sept. 22.

As a quarterback at UNO (then called Omaha University), the Omaha South High School grad set 22 school records (including 5,114 passing yards and 53 touchdowns during his collegiate career). Briscoe became the first African-American starting quarterback in the NFL during his 1968 season with the Denver Broncos. He played for several franchises during a nine-year NFL career, spending the majority of time in the league as a wide receiver with the Buffalo Bills. He won two Super Bowls with the Miami Dolphins.   

On Friday, Sept. 23, UNO will unveil a life-size statue of Briscoe on campus. Alberts says he envisions that the sculpture might be added to “a champions plaza” whenever the south athletics complex gets built-out. “This is not necessarily a UNO thing; it’s an Omaha thing,” Alberts says. “Marlin is a great person with a great story, and it’s been an honor to get to know him.”

Under Alberts’ leadership, the university does not seek to diminish the importance of those former storied programs. But he has to keep an eye toward the future. “I’m absolutely bullish on where we are today and where we can go,” says the optimistic Alberts. “We’re only scratching the surface. We are an absolute diamond in the rough.”

Visit baxterarena.com for more information. Omaha Magazine

TrevAlberts1

Morgann Freeman

March 11, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Morgann Freeman vividly remembers the day she moved from being “the angry black girl” who got into many fights to the budding activist who believes she can battle societal ills better with her mind than her fists.

It’s etched in her brain. Freeman was a high school freshman in Bellevue when a fellow student called her “the ‘N’ word.” “I suffered a lot, but no one had ever dehumanized me that way,” she says.

Equipped with martial arts to defend herself from being bullied, an altercation inevitably ensued. But instead of Freeman’s annual expulsion, an African-American dean brought down demerits and an empowering message: “He told me, ‘I understand why you reacted the way you did,’ ” Freeman recalls. “‘But you have to learn to walk away. You have a bigger purpose in life.’ Those words resounded.”

Freeman hoped for a fresh start at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She thought her ticket out of 18 years of hardship was to emulate the ideal of the TV show Scandal: black, powerful, successful, and rich. What she experienced instead was “countless sexual assaults…I was raped multiple times, there were physical assaults…I was stalked. All of that kept erasing any progress I made, because I didn’t really want to work to fix myself,” she says. Freeman flunked out of UNL in 2011, opening the floodgates to all that was locked in her soul.

“I just sat down and started writing,” Freeman says. “For the next week, I wrote whatever I felt, everything I had been through in my life. I realized for the first time, with all I’ve been through, I have a story. And my story might help other people.” Freeman always liked poetry, so she moved back to Omaha and put ink to her thoughts—a lot—about romance, sex, relationships, racism, sexism, feminism, and elitism. The topics grew in breadth and depth as Freeman explored how her arduous past was shaping ideas about the world around her. She studied at Metro Community College and UNO, where subjects such as institutional cruelty, social constructionism, and social oppression fueled her passion for how, “America is put together to keep people in their place.”

“If you’re a woman, you have your place,” Freeman says. “If you’re black, you have your place. If you don’t have as much money as the CEO, you have your place. We have a long way to go to change that.”

Freeman hopes her writings are controversial and mind-expanding enough to spark a conversation. She has been published in 13th Floor Magazine and blogs at socialotherness.wordpress.com and lifelovefreedom.wordpress.com. She hopes her consulting business can help companies large and small deal with issues of diversity and inclusion. All of it adds up to what Freeman envisions as a day when children in north Omaha and Bellevue, college students and professionals alike, won’t suffer the same injustices she has endured.

“I want to use my writing, my story, my business, my academic life—all of it together—to make a difference in the world,” Freeman says. “I believe real change is possible.”  Encounter

Visit socialotherness.wordpress.com and lifelovefreedom.wordpress.com for more information.

MorgannFreeman

From Omaha to Notre Dame

October 27, 2015 by
Photography by Bill SItzmann

On a seasonably pleasant Friday evening last July, members of the Jenkins and Wessling families gathered at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church for a wedding. The bride’s uncle had traveled back to his hometown to officiate. Dr. Erin Jenkins and her dozens of cousins know the priest simply as Uncle John. You know him more formally as the Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. (Congregation of Holy Cross), president of the University of Notre Dame.

As leader of the most renowned Catholic school in the country—perhaps in the world—Jenkins’ responsibilities and schedule leave little room to breathe. Yet he found time to honor a twin daughter of his older brother, Tom, and to squeeze in another opportunity to visit with his beloved 86-year old mother, Helen.

“My father, Harry Jenkins, was a gastroenterologist who taught at Creighton Medical School and mother went to nursing school,” says the Rev. Jenkins.  “Dad died in 2004,” shortly after his son’s election as Notre Dame’s president. “Our parish was St. Pius X and then St. Leo’s. My mother still lives in the family home.”

“Omaha is still very important to him,” says Tom Jenkins. “Even though he has another family [the priests], he’s very interested in coming back here and spending time with Mom and our family. He’s humble that way. Genuine.”

Returning to the city that formed his Catholic faith and to the family that molded him as a man seems to agree with Jenkins. Laughter and a relaxed mood punctuated the wedding weekend.

“John has always been kind of quiet and calm,” Tom says. “People don’t realize he’s also a lot of fun and quick to laugh. He’ll be the first one to share a joke or a story.”

The Holy Cross priest’s sense of humor has served him well since assuming the helm of the 12,000-student campus near South Bend, Indiana, a decade ago. Under his leadership, Notre Dame’s reputation as an academically elite undergraduate program and a top research school has ballooned, its endowment has tripled to $10 billion, and the Fighting Irish football team has fought its way back into the conversation.

As president, how does he balance the decidedly secular issues of academics and research with the school’s Catholic identity?

“Notre Dame is a place of faith,” Jenkins says. “That gives it a distinctive role in being a place of conversation, of inquiry that can take up issues of faith and morality in ways that are powerful. We have a set of Catholic principles that guide our educational efforts as well as our work in the world.”

Notre Dame’s Catholic identity, some would argue, has hit turbulent times.

Like many Catholic institutions, including Creighton University, Notre Dame has recently drawn fire for its response to hot-button social issues—granting employee marriage benefits to same sex couples, for example. Jenkins has absorbed the blows with grace, for beneath his quiet, thoughtful demeanor lies the steeliness of a man with a keen sense of identity and mission. As Creighton theology professor Dr. Eileen Burke-Sullivan points out, “Anyone who actually operates on behalf of the kingdom of God knows that you draw criticism on yourself. I don’t think any religious leader can have thin skin.”

Jenkins2Jenkins’ quick wit, his seeming ease with everyone he meets, and his ability to listen and compromise no doubt spring from a childhood surrounded by what can politely be described as controlled chaos.

“We had 12 kids in our family, six boys and six girls,” says Jenkins, who checks in at number three in the lineup. “I’m very close to my brothers and sisters.”

In 1966, when Jenkins was 12, the family moved from 75th and Blondo to a new, seven-bedroom home in a lively Catholic neighborhood on 100th Street, then the western edge of the city.

“I would say on our block alone, there were about 50 kids,” says Tom, an attorney. “We never had any trouble getting baseball teams together. We usually had 11 to a side.”

The Kizers lived next door and contributed nine children to the mayhem.

“There was something different about John, something special, even when we were young,” muses John Kizer, the Rev. Jenkins’ best friend growing up. “He was a big thinker and was always looking for a place to get quiet time, which was tough in a household of 12 kids.”

The friendship between the two Johns extended all through St. Pius X grade school and Creighton Prep, where Jenkins ranked high on the popularity meter. His classmates voted him Prom King senior year.

“I got a lot from Creighton Prep,” says Jenkins, whose middle name, Ignatius, honors the founder of the Jesuit order. “I’m very grateful to my Jesuit friends.”

Jenkins’ popularity at Prep benefited from his athletic abilities. He was one of the top swimmers in the state and played on the school’s inaugural soccer team, following his parents’ example of mental discipline and physical activity.

“Our dad entered the Hawaii Ironman contest when he was 58,” Tom marvels. “And his triathlon buddies dedicated a steel-sculpted bench with depictions of bike riders along [Omaha’s] Keystone Trail to him.”

Harry and Helen Jenkins also encouraged each child to follow their heart, opening the door for the third oldest to explore his desire to contribute to society. That desire became evident during a backpacking trip through Europe with Kizer the summer between their freshman and sophomore years in college.

“We had two different sets of interests,” laughs Kizer, president and chairman of Central States Indemnity Co. of Omaha. “I had the beaches of Saint-Tropez and [golf’s] Old Course at Saint Andrews on my list. John was more interested in Dachau [Concentration Camp] outside Munich, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. We spent lots of time in Rome.”

Following his continental adventure, Jenkins decided to join Tom at Notre Dame. He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1976, followed by a master’s degree in the same subject.

“Notre Dame gave me a superb education, a very vibrant and robust intellectual life, and an ability to combine that with a serious faith,” Jenkins says. “I had questions about my life and what I should do with it. That eventually led me to prayer and to the seminary about a year after I graduated.”

“It didn’t surprise me he became a priest and rose through the ranks,” says Kizer. “There are certain people that, when you meet them, you know they’re a cut above.”

Jenkins’ decision to join Notre Dame’s founding community of priests necessitated a separation from his Omaha family and, according to a 2005 Chicago Tribune article, “a difficult breakup with his [Omaha] girlfriend.” After receiving his doctorate from Oxford, Jenkins returned to his alma mater in 1990 as a professor of philosophy.

Since he first stepped onto what is called the campus “God Quad” in 1973 as a sophomore transfer student from Creighton University, Jenkins’ goal has been to serve the school he loves in whatever capacity it needs. That he would reach the highest level of service makes for an impressive Omaha success story, but not an isolated one.

Jenkins joins several current, high-profile priests with doctorate degrees who call the Omaha area home. William Leahy, S.J., 67, the president of Boston College, was born in Omaha and raised across the Missouri in Imogene, Iowa. Leahy still has family here. Daniel Hendrickson, S.J., 45, is Creighton University’s new president. He calls Fremont home and attended Mount Michael Benedictine High School in Elkhorn. His identical twin, the Rev. Scott Hendrickson, also a Jesuit, teaches at Loyola Chicago. Archbishop Blase Cupich (pronounced SOO-pitch), 66, was recently appointed by Pope Francis to head Chicago’s archdiocese. He grew up in ethnically rich South Omaha. He and Jenkins first met in Rome during the aforementioned backpacking trip and remain friends.

Omaha produces not only heavy hitters in the Catholic Church, but heady intellects as well.

“Omaha has always had an excellent system of Catholic schools,” Jenkins says. “It had a big impact on me, and I’m sure it had a big impact on Bishop Cupich. It’s a vibrant Catholic community.”

“Historically, we have had an unusually high Catholic population,” explains Dr. Burke-Sullivan. Much of that can be traced to the European and Eastern European immigrants who came to work in South Omaha’s meat packing plants. “They brought with them a rich, progressive Catholicism, plus the belief that hard work and cooperation with others is the norm.” She says Omaha’s Jesuit and Benedictine communities influence intellectual pursuit. “And I would not discount the importance of the excellently educated orders of religious women who set up the lower school system.”

The belief in civil, open discourse characterizes much of President Jenkins’ response to a seismic shift in this country’s social thinking. Unlike many of their brethren, neither Archbishop Cupich nor Jenkins condemned the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. Cupich, in a letter, pointed out the high court had redefined civil marriage, with no bearing on the Catholic sacrament. He cautioned against discrimination—a sentiment echoed by Jenkins.

“It’s incumbent on us to articulate our views clearly and in a persuasive way, but at the same time to respect those who disagree,” he says. “That’s one of the great challenges: to nurture a more healthy exchange of ideas.”

That “exchange of ideas” turned testy in 2009 when Notre Dame invited President Barack Obama to speak at graduation. Because of Obama’s stance on abortion and embryonic stem cell research, his presence at the school caused a furor. Some Catholic bloggers and newsletter editors hurled verbal vitriol at Jenkins. More than 70 bishops condemned the Obama appearance, calling it a “scandalous decision,” as did many faculty members, students, alums, and activists. The emails, letters, and phone calls piled up and piled on.

“The backlash was greater than I expected,” admits Jenkins, who went on to explain the tradition behind the invitation. “From the very beginning, Notre Dame has always invited newly elected presidents to come and receive an honorary degree; just about every one, except for Johnson and Nixon in the ‘60s,” which corresponds to campus unrest during the Vietnam War. “I thought it was particularly important to invite the first African American president, but for a number of reasons it created a tense controversy in the Catholic community and the wider world,” he says in a calm, measured manner.

Through tough times and good, Jenkins “relies on his faith to get him through and uses it for guidance,” says his brother, Tom.

Jenkins’ quiet time, once found in the corner of a basement on 100th Street in Omaha, has moved to a chapel on the Notre Dame campus. His apartment in the Graduate Student Residence also provides solitude.

Known on campus as “Father John” or simply “JJ,” Jenkins, who’ll turn 62 in December, looks fit, lean, and youthful. He works out in the gym and takes daily walks. Exercise, he says, continues to be “an effective stress reliever.”

The recent success of the school’s storied football team also helps relieve stress. When asked if he has gotten over last season’s offensive pass interference call that cost the Fighting Irish the game against Florida State, the priest chuckles and—ever the tactful diplomat— refuses to criticize “the higher power” that is a referee.

“We were kind of thin and had some injuries, but that’s football, as anyone from Nebraska knows.” Jenkins takes pride in a great football team and in the fact the players are also serious students. “The most important thing I tell them is, ‘national championships are great, but get a degree.’”

Amen to that.

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Jocelyn and Deven Muhammad

August 26, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appears in July/August 2015 Omaha Magazine.

Since coming out a few years ago, Jocelyn and Deven Muhammad have been known as “the gay siblings.” But as a LGBT Nebraskans profile put it: “That’s one of the least interesting things about them.”

Jocelyn’s a promising singer-songwriter with an old-soul spirit. A May graduate of Millard South, where she was named prom princess, she can be found performing her sweet-sad love tunes on Old Market street corners and at open mic nights around town. Her from-the-heart work, some featured in YouTube videos, has attracted the attention of the music industry. She recently sang during open mic sessions at the legendary Whiskey a Go-Go in L.A. and the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville. She plans to return to L.A. this summer.

Her goal is to write hit records. She’s currently creating songs for what she hopes is her debut album on a major label.

Deven has been selected as a touring performing artist with The Young Americans, a nonprofit group founded 50 years ago to promote understanding and goodwill through the arts. The charismatic junior-to-be at Midland University in Fremont recently helped his school’s competitive dance team win two national titles with his dynamic hip hop, jazz, and pompom routines.

In high school he starred in musical theater before becoming the first male dance team member and being voted Mr. Millard South. At Midland he was crowned Freshman Homecoming Prince.

These creatives fiercely support their individual expressions and dimensions. For a long time it was Deven who sang and Jocelyn who danced. As kids they became determined to swap lives.

“What I love about us is that I know she’s the singer of the family and she knows I’m the dancer…and we kind of leave it as is,” Deven says. ”We do our own thing, we have our own thing, so we don’t get jealous of each other. But we also love to share what we’re doing.”

The siblings not only identify as gay, but also Caucasian, African-American, and Chinese. They have encountered racism, both subtle and overt. Through everything, including a childhood when their father wasn’t around much and they made do with less than their friends, these two have been simpatico. Of course, the siblings also sometimes stole each other’s clothes.

“We feed off each other and we respect one another,” Jocelyn says. “We’ve always had each other. We have this bond. He’s always pushed me. He’s very real, very blunt. He’ll tell you what’s up.”

Though brutally honest about her first vocalizing attempts, he worked with her. Most of all, he reminded her they come from a loving family that supports whatever interest any member follows.

“He showed me there’s no such thing as trying,” she continues. “You do it or you don’t do it. That’s what he’s done with his dancing. He’s very inspiring. I look up to him a lot.”

Tough love is necessary if you expect to get better, Deven says. “That’s why I’m hard on her on some things and that’s why people are hard on me. I love being pushed, I love reaching for a new goal.”

Though not surprised by Jocelyn’s success, he’s impressed by how far his little sister has come since picking up the guitar less than three years ago.

“She’s growing up really fast. She holds herself very well. She’s different every time I listen to her. It’s literally a whole new voice. Jocelyn is making strides like it’s nobody’s business. She’s doing what she feels she needs to do to succeed.”

Jocelyn has surrounded herself with veteran musicians who’ve taught her stagecraft and the business side of music. She considers the defunct Side Door Lounge, where she played extensively, “the best schooling I’ve ever had in my life,” adding, “Just being there experiencing everything, meeting musicians, having jam sessions—that one venue changed the rest of my life.”

Deven’s refined his own craft through dance camps and workshops.

“I know if I want something in life I have to work for it,” he says. “I love that the things I have are because I worked my ass off for it. I’m very appreciative of what I have. That’s really shaped who I am.”

As life’s grown more hectic between rehearsals, school, and work, the release that comes in dance, he says, is more precious than ever.

“It kind of makes me forget about everything going on in life,” he says. “It’s the one thing I love to do.”

When the vibe’s just right during a set, Jocelyn gets lost in the music, deep inside herself, connecting with the audience.

“It just makes you feel your highest self,” she says. Jocelyn feels the chances coming her way are, “happening for a reason. You create your own destiny and your own luck.”

Muhammads

That Damn Ernie Chambers!

July 3, 2015 by

This article appears in July/August 2015 Omaha Magazine.

My 88-year-old mother-in-law had never visited the Nebraska State Capitol in her 40 years of living in the state. She mentioned this often during a long visit to our home this spring. “I don’t feel like a real Nebraskan,” she joked.

Her visit to our house was extended because we have had trouble finding her the assisted-living home she now needs. She mentioned the Capitol daily because rapidly progressing dementia is quickly erasing her memory of even the most
recent conversations.

So I drove her to that masterpiece of architecture and art, that message to the world that this little state can do big, bold things. I’m a cynic to a great fault, but I still walk the second floor there with pride and childlike wonder.

How magnificent. And there’s the bust of my hero, Loren Eiseley (I can feel the graceful, melancholy rhythms of All the Strange Hours every time I see this likeness). There are the doors of the second chamber of the Legislature so boldly sealed. Appropriately, the bust of George Norris is just down
the hall.

As we stood in the rotunda amid spastic gaggles of school children, my mother-in-law asked if we could walk over to the legislative chamber that wasn’t shuttered. She heard a voice over the Nebraska Legislature’s public address system that drew her to the glass doors of the chamber. “I know that voice,” she said. “That’s Ernie Chambers.”

Her visit to the second floor of the Nebraska State Capitol was complete. She got to see Ernie Chambers filibustering in the Unicameral.

There are few people about whom I have a more conflicted opinion. At that moment, the hallway outside the chamber was full of people waiting to get on with the business of the state. But, Ernie was inside mucking things up with a diatribe defending his now-infamous earlier comments about Omaha police being more a threat to him and other Omaha black men than ISIS.

Fine, I thought. Stand your ground. But get in and get out. You’re on the clock here, Senator. At that point, I felt like my taxes were paying for him to once again pleasure himself with the sound of his own voice. Who else in this state is this self-absorbed, this rude?

“He’s the check,” my mother-in-law said as she listened.

“What do you mean?” I assumed her mind was elsewhere.

“The balance,” she said. “He balances things out. Makes people reconsider things. I’ve always respected that.”

And so I reconsidered. I always do with Ernie. I considered the times over the last 20 years that I’ve spoken with him about faulty legislation and likely injustices. He always seemed to be present when something needed questioning. And it wasn’t just about north Omaha and African-American issues. He once called me to ask if I knew anything about a shady arrest in my hometown of Falls City. Some white woman may have been wronged 100 miles from his district and he cared enough to make a call to a reporter.

That Unicameral moves more smoothly than any state legislature in the country. But sometimes things run too smoothly—comity isn’t always the ideal. Ernie sometimes serves as the brakeman to a middle-class white-guy locomotive that occasionally barrels through the better angels of our nature.

And, how important has he been to many Nebraskans? Well, for one, my 88-year-old mother-in-law from Hastings suffering from a form of dementia that makes her forget she’s from Hastings immediately remembered the lyrical voice of Ernie Chambers and immediately remembered what that voice has meant to her and her state.

Ernie’s voice echoed through the Nebraska Hall of Fame that day. As my mother-in-law stood there intently watching Ernie incessantly vamp, I imagined these halls on a late night long past closing time sometime in the future. I saw all the busts come to life. And there was Ernie arguing to the contrary with them all.

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Nebraska Capitol

Surviving Heart Disease

January 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

As a young woman of just 38 years old, Dionne Whitfield didn’t fit the typical description of a heart disease patient. But there she was, standing in front of the cardiologist, still tired and breathless after undergoing a treadmill test, trying to grasp the news that she had three major blockages.

She didn’t hear much after that. All she could think about was that she didn’t want to become a mere statistic. That she still wanted to have a family and live to see her potential children grow up. What was going to happen to her, she thought.

One week later, in August of 2012, Whitfield was back in the hospital undergoing triple bypass surgery. Today, Whitfield is doing great, and with age on her side, she is determined to take control of her health and her life again.

Looking back, she knows now that her unhealthy lifestyle habits were bound to catch up with her eventually. At 352 pounds, she ate whatever she wanted, often grabbing fast food along the way. She rarely exercised, and she had settled for the fact that she was overweight and nothing was going to change that. She was also African-American, a population that tends to have greater prevalence of risk factors for heart disease than Caucasian women.

“This has been a big eye-opening experience for me, and I don’t want to go back.” – Dionne Whitfield, heart disease patient

Whitfield’s attitude about her weight and health has done an about-face since then. Her attitude actually started to change with several warning signs shortly before the news of her blockages. In early January of last year, she learned that she was borderline diabetic. Concerned, Whitfield began attending group exercise classes and the pounds began to fall off. Motivated by her success, she began to make exercise a priority.

Then came her second warning. In July, she started becoming so short of breath that she could barely make the short walk from her office to the car. When things didn’t get better, she consulted with her doctor, who referred her to cardiologist Edmund Fiksinkski, M.D., at Nebraska Methodist Hospital, who performed the cardiac testing in which the blockages were found.

Whitfield’s surgery was performed by John Batter, M.D., cardiothoracic surgeon at Nebraska Methodist Hospital. After surgery, she underwent six weeks of supervised cardiac rehabilitation. Whitfield exercises on her own now but is still considered in a recovery phase for the next year and follows a moderate exercise program while her arteries heal.

“Dionne has done great,” says Susana Harrington, a nurse practitioner at Nebraska Methodist Hospital, who worked with Dionne throughout her recovery. “She really owned it and became more determined than ever to lead a healthy lifestyle.”

“This has been a big eye-opening experience for me, and I don’t want to go back,” says Whitfield. She continues to work out regularly, watches what she eats, and even reads labels now before putting food in her grocery basket.

She has also lost more than 72 pounds and is determined to double that. “I feel so much better now,” says Whitfield. “I’m not breathless now, and exercising is getting easier.”

 “She really owned it and became more determined than ever to lead a healthy lifestyle.” – Susana Harrington, nurse practitioner at Nebraska Methodist Hospital

What women need to learn from this is that the development of cardiovascular disease is a lifelong process and that prevention is a lifelong effort, says Amy Arouni, M.D., cardiologist at Alegent Creighton Health. Controlling your risk factors very early in life can help prevent the development of heart disease later. This includes quitting smoking if you smoke, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, eating a diet low in saturated fats with lots of fruits and vegetables, and watching your blood pressure and cholesterol. In fact, women can lower their heart disease risk by as much as 82 percent just by leading a healthy lifestyle, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Prevention is important because heart disease is the No. 1 killer of all women, claiming the lives of approximately a half million women each year.

The main difference between men and women is that women are more likely to develop heart disease in their 60s and 70s, about 10 years later in life than men.

That’s because after menopause, risk factors tend to rise in women, especially blood pressure and cholesterol levels and rates of obesity, says Eugenia Raichlin, M.D., cardiologist at The Nebraska Medical Center. Other risk factors such as smoking, diabetes, and family history also raise a woman’s risk.

“The longer you wait, the greater the potential to suffer significant damage to the heart.” – Amy Arouni, M.D., cardiologist at Alegent Creighton Health

The consequences of heart disease also tend to be more severe in women. For instance, “a greater number of women die of sudden cardiac death before their arrival at a hospital (52 percent) compared to 42 percent of men,” says Dr. Raichlin. “Women often require more hospitalizations compared to men, have lower ratings of general well-being, and limitations in their abilities to perform activities of daily living. As a result, heart disease in women presents a unique and difficult challenge for physicians.”

In addition to prevention, women should also be aware of the symptoms of heart disease and the subtle changes in their bodies, says Dr. Arouni. “Unlike men, women’s symptoms tend to be more vague and atypical and may include mild neck, shoulder, upper back, or abdominal discomfort; shortness of breath; nausea or vomiting; sweating; lightheadedness or dizziness; extreme fatigue and/or a jaw ache that travels down the neck,” she says. “Because the symptoms tend to be vague, oftentimes, women will stay at home and ride it out.”

This is one of the key areas where women go wrong. “Getting help quickly is critical,” says Dr. Arouni. “The longer you wait, the greater the potential to suffer significant damage to the heart.”

While the development of heart disease in a woman’s 30s is less common, it does happen, especially when other risk factors are involved such as family history, obesity, or diabetes.

Whitfield feels fortunate that she and her doctors took her symptoms seriously and that she sought help early on. Now, she hopes she can help other women avoid the same fate by taking control of their health at a young age. “I feel very grateful to my family and friends and to the doctors and nurses that helped me get through this,” she says. “When you’re young, you don’t think anything can happen to you, but now I know differently. I don’t take my health for granted anymore.”