Tag Archives: Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge

Making the Old New Again

November 5, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Sherri and John Obermiller decided their new downtown condo reminded them too much of the suburbs.

They should know. The couple moved in 2011 from their five-bedroom, five-bathroom home in the white-picket-fence-lined neighborhoods off 180th St. and West Center Road to the eclectic, artsy downtown for a reason, and it wasn’t perfection and modernity.

Obermiller2“It was time to downsize and just get rid of stuff,” Sherri says. “Plus, this gave me an excuse not to do yard work anymore.”

The pair looked at five or six buildings before deciding the 902 Dodge Street condos were a natural fit for them. The building is located close enough to walk to yoga classes or sushi restaurants, but far enough from the bustle of the Old Market. “We don’t always like to be in the crowd, but we like to be near it,” Sherri says. “We enjoy being anonymous in a sea of people.”

An available condo on the fifth floor was too small and in need of a facelift, but the Obermillers saw its potential. Their first act as new owners? Asking their neighbor what amount of money it would take for him to move. Their new home instantly doubled in size.

To further construct their vision for the space, they enlisted the help of Stephanie Basham, principal designer and owner of Group One Interiors, and Don Stormberg, owner of Stormberg Construction. The couple rented and lived in a unit on the second floor of the building as Basham and Stormberg’s teams worked to renovate the condo to the Obermillers’ standards.

Obermiller3“It’s always challenging to work in a space that people are inhabiting during construction,” Basham says. “The Obermillers have a finely tuned sense of contemporary style and an appreciation for urban modernism. And to top that, John and Sherri value attention to detail, which is a dream for a designer.”

From using lime green as an accent color to matching the gray of the exposed concrete ceiling to the condo’s columns, the detailed design was inspired from the Obermillers’ travels to metropolises like New York City.

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To make the home feel larger, Basham took advantage of the high ceilings and crafted a floating translucent cloud above the kitchen island. The focal point of the home, the cloud creates a sense of separation between the kitchen and adjacent rooms without impeding the view. Local fabricators and installers used frosted acrylic to have the effect of tinted glass without the weight. This fixture is a personal favorite of the Obermillers.

“The cloud above and countertop below have the same steel lines, so they mirror one another,” Sherri says. “We strived for symmetry throughout our home.”

Following nearly a year of renovations, only the cherrywood cabinets in the kitchen remain in the now-2,400-square-foot condo.  An entire patio was removed; new floors and appliances were installed; iron-welded, artisan-crafted barn doors were mounted; and rooms were ornamented in furniture from as far away as Sweden. The result is a simple, contemporary design that’s entirely unique to the Obermillers.

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The Obermillers saw not only the potential of their condo but the value of the downtown area as well. While the CenturyLink Center was the major draw north of Dodge Street when the Obermillers first moved downtown, the area will soon be home to HDR’s high-rise headquarters and a collection of newly developed apartments, offices, and entertainment space.

“We are incredibly excited about this development and what’s next,” John says.

Obermiller6Embracing an urban lifestyle is a hot trend, yet the Obermillers aren’t concerned with following or setting trends. Instead, their new home serves as a space for them to reinvigorate their story together.

“We can walk to the trails by the pedestrian bridge or quickly go to the restaurants in the Old Market. It’s fun and incredible,” Sherri says. “It feels like we live in a much bigger city than what Omaha really is.”

When the Obermillers aren’t watching Nebraska sunsets melt behind the Woodman and First National from their building’s rooftop terrace, they enjoy a different view from their living room window. They look down onto the interstates weaving under and over themselves, roads looping and stretching in different directions. An image the Obermillers agree is beautiful. Just below the roads and between the urban sprawl of Omaha and Council Bluffs lies the river.

“We always thought at this point in our life we’d have a condo overlooking Lake Michigan,” John says. “Living happily next to the Missouri River in downtown Omaha? Well, that’s just the next
best thing.”

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Nebraska’s Most Controversial Woman

June 6, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Article originally published in July/August 2015 Omaha Magazine.

The founder of Bold Nebraska— Jane Fleming Kleeb—travels to Omaha once a week. Although the Nebraska transplant lives in Hastings, she has grown accustomed to the five-hour round-trip drive on I-80. “I call it my windshield time. It’s quiet,” says the liberal firebrand who has gained national notoriety fighting construction of the Keystone XL, a 1,179-mile pipeline slated to transport daily 830,000 barrels of diluted crude bitumen from Canadian tar sands across central Nebraska to gulf coast processing facilities.

“The Lakota call the proposed Keystone XL the Black Snake Pipeline,” says Greg Grey Cloud, a pipeline opponent who describes himself as an indigenous defender. For the Lakota, the black snake represents nothing less than a reset button on the creation clock. “For over a thousand years, our spiritual leaders have prophesied that a great black snake will one day wind through the land, bringing doom by robbing us of our natural resources as Grandmother Earth remakes herself and introduces a new coming.”

For years, TransCanada has been planning to build the Keystone XL across Nebraska’s fragile Sandhills ecosystem and the deep-underground Ogallala Aquifer. Eminent domain lawsuits have plagued the pipeline’s route across much of the United States, and courts have ruled against taxpaying landowners in favor of the foreign corporation. Thanks to Kleeb’s activism with Bold Nebraska, the Keystone XL has stalled outside of the Cornhusker State.

Kleeb is a pipeline-fighting road warrior. She has visited the stripped boreal forests of Alberta where the tar sand oil originates. She has seen TransCanada seize lands in Texas and South Dakota. Her regular trips across rural Nebraska to meet with landowners and frequent cross-country speaking engagements make her Omaha commute time seem insignificant.

The Keystone XL has consumed Bold Nebraska’s attention since its inception five years ago. Kleeb says her agenda is all about progressive and populist politics. According to the Bold Nebraska website, the organization’s mission is to “mobilize new energy to restore political balance” in a state “dominated by one political voice” and “dominated by far-right ideas and policies.” Focus will shift once courts confirm the pipeline’s fate. Bold Nebraska is already preparing, surveying supporters on the next social and legislative battles to prioritize.

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Omaha’s liberal (by Nebraska standards) political atmosphere has fostered an important support base for Bold Nebraska. Out of approximately 25,500 Facebook fans and 40,000 email subscribers, 25 percent hail from the metro area, says Mark Hefflinger, Bold Nebraska’s communications director.

A local Omaha brewpub was the logical place for Kleeb to launch Bold’s latest initiative: a statewide network map of local businesses branded “In the Neb.” She arrives early in the afternoon. Bumper stickers on the back of her minivan—a beige Honda Odyssey—reveal her double-life. The 42-year-old activist is also a soccer mom with three daughters. A flaming soccer ball decal represents her eldest (age 14) daughter’s team alongside a slew of anti-pipeline and environmental slogans.

She steps onto Farnam Street in midtown wearing a white dress, suit jacket, and custom red leather cowboy boots (the boots are covered with grey leather crane silhouettes, a nod to the Sandhills where her husbands’ ancestors had homesteaded). Her hair is a short, no-fuss style symbolic of her life’s always-on-the-go pace. Hoops of turquoise beadwork, made by members of the Omaha Tribe, hang from her ears, matching the turquoise rings on her fingers, gifts from husband Scott Kleeb.

She walks into Archetype Coffee with a burst of friendly energy and an armful of promotional material. She has one hour before introducing her “In the Neb.” concept at Farnam House Brewing Company a few blocks away.

“In the Neb.” consists of an interactive online map and mobile app promoting small and local businesses: family farms, breweries, boutiques, clean energy vendors, farmers markets, etc. Omaha and Lincoln residents are the primary target users—“because in small towns, you know who sells eggs,” Kleeb says—but rural communities could also use the effort to source urban Nebraska-made products.

“In order to get on the map, you have to agree on some values, things like we want to see 25 percent of our energy coming from renewables by 2025, and that the Ogallala aquifer should be a protected water source,” Kleeb says. The network of businesses would also provide a pool of supporters for Bold Nebraska when pushing bills of interest to small farms or clean energy interests in the state legislature.

The local bar meet-up for debuting the project might also become a regular thing. Kleeb hopes it will be the first in a series of political talks called “Politics and Pints.”

The business map and barroom talks are indicative of Kleeb’s innovative approach to activism. “Creative actions are super important to us; we draw a lot of inspiration from the Omaha creative community,” says Kleeb, noting that Omaha native Justin Kemerling is Bold Nebraska’s main designer.

Kleeb’s lifestyle bridges Nebraska’s urban-rural disconnect. She and Scott are renovating a farm in Ayr and hope to move in by next year. The property is located en route to Red Cloud, Willa Cather’s hometown south of Hastings. They named their youngest “Willa,” (age 4) after the iconic Nebraska author.

To manage their chaotic schedules, the couple sit together once a month to block off their shared Google calendar. Her husband, once an aspiring Nebraska politician, is now the president and CEO of Omaha-based Pioneer Energy Solutions and its 50 employees. He makes the long Hastings-to-Omaha commute even more frequently than his wife. “I keep trying to twist his arm to get a loft apartment in Omaha or Lincoln,” she says.

“When we started Bold, one of the things we wanted to do was to connect our rural communities—often rooted in agriculture, small family farms, and ranches—to the creative class in Omaha,” she says.

“There is a lot that we can learn from each other, and, from my perspective, there isn’t this ridiculous divide that everyone tries to say there is when you start visiting with people (rural vs. urban Nebraskans).”

Bold Nebraska organized a Neil Young and Willie Nelson concert last September. “Harvest the Hope” was situated in a cornfield near Neligh on the pipeline route. The event drew roughly 1,700 Omahans out of 8,500 spectators. A winter season passed, and Kleeb just completed a new creative action on the same cornfield where concertgoers had parked their vehicles.

Bold created a 15-acre crop art message for the White House, a replica of the presidential seal that reads “Climate Legacy #NOKXL.” “My body is still sore,” she says, recalling the previous week’s work of placing flags for the image’s tractor and laying landscape mulch fabric. “It was our way to tell the White House that the president’s climate legacy, which we know he cares deeply about, is directly tied to the rejection of the Keystone XL.”

Whenever Kleeb talks about Bold Nebraska’s progressive and populist mission for the state, she uses the first-person plural possessive: “our state.” Though not originally from Nebraska, she made it her permanent home in early 2007.

She grew up in south Florida. Both parents were staunch Republicans. Her stay-at-home mother led Broward County Right to Life. As a child, Kleeb often made posters, sat in the back of community meetings, or simply watched mom lead rallies. That was the beginning of her political awareness. Her father owned several Burger King franchises. The whole family would help during the weekends to slice pickles (they didn’t used to come pre-cut) and other chores. “I thought all families did that,” she says with a laugh.

She went to school in northern Florida then headed to Philadelphia and D.C. for the next decade. Despite voting for Bill Clinton and running an AmeriCorps program, she claims to have remained a registered Republican up until taking a job with Young Democrats of America. She became executive director in 2003 and worked with “Rock the Vote.”

A chance encounter at the 2005 Democratic Convention in Phoenix would eventually tie her fate to Nebraska. That’s where she met Scott. The handsome Yale graduate, a bull-riding grandson of a Western Nebraska rancher, was considering a bid for the state’s third congressional district.

“I thought he couldn’t get out of the Republican primary so he ran as a Democrat,” she says with a laugh, recalling her first impression of the man who would become her husband. Her admitted “very stereotypical view of Nebraska” changed after she became involved with Scott’s campaign. Her life changed when she first visited the Sandhills.

“I had this really fundamental shift when I came to visit Scott on the ranch,” she says. “Just talking with young and old ranchers, they have this beautiful view of family and the land—they know every blade of grass on their property, and they know the weather cycles, and they can name every cow that’s on their property.”

She fell in love with the aspiring politician and his state. Four months after the campaign ended in narrow defeat, they married in March 2007. Her immersion in Nebraska politics was just beginning.

The newlywed Kleeb took a political correspondent job with MTV during the 2008 presidential election. She also helped run her husband’s 2008 Senate campaign, which ended in a general election loss to Mike Johanns. Then, after Obama took the White House, the Service Employees International Union sponsored “Change that Works” to petition support for health care reform; Kleeb was named the organization’s Nebraska director. She mobilized community support across small towns and cities. She aggressively lobbied then-Senator Ben Nelson, and she found success. Nelson would eventually provide a crucial swing vote for Obamacare in exchange for the notorious “Cornhusker Kickback.”

“I knew (Change that Works) would end as soon as the bill got passed in Congress,” she says. “I looked around, and I didn’t see a statewide organization that was using creativity, that was aggressive online, and wasn’t afraid of throwing a punch to politicians who weren’t being accountable on issues we cared about. So, I thought that’s something that we needed to start.”

The concept for Bold Nebraska was born. She met with Omaha philanthropist Dick Holland, a powerful contributor to progressive Democratic causes and candidates. Kleeb pitched her idea. Inspired, Holland offered start-up funds, and she transitioned from health care reform to her ultimate, bold ambition for Nebraska: “to change the political landscape of our state.” But she still had no idea her life was about to plunge into a pipeline-induced rabbit hole.

“About three months after we started, I got a phone call about the pipeline. It was from a friend who works at an environmental group, and he said, ‘Have you heard about this? It’s going to cut across the Sandhills,’” Kleeb says of her first introduction to the Keystone XL.

“I’d never worked on an environmental issue. I didn’t know anything about eminent domain or what the tar sands were. But I was intrigued because it was going to cross the Sandhills—and it still will—and that’s where my husband’s family all homesteaded, where I fell in love with Nebraska. So I was like, okay, I’ll go to the meeting.”

She traveled to York for a State Department meeting in May 2010. She listened to Nebraska farmers and ranchers voice concerns about threats to livestock, crops, and water supplies. She saw a clear example of “right and wrong,” and Bold Nebraska found its first big cause.

Pipeline advocates have alleged that Keystone XL opposition is linked to backing from Omaha’s Warren Buffet and Berkshire Hathaway. Some believe that oil transport by rail rather than pipeline would benefit Berkshire-owned BNSF Railway. Bold’s early key donor—Dick Holland—is a major Berkshire shareholder and made a fortune investing in Warren Buffet. But Kleeb says the critique is misleading; Buffet has expressed support for the Keystone XL.

“That’s a conspiracy theory,” she says. “I wish I had Warren Buffet money. I’ve asked. Life is not that filled with conspiracy. But the conspiracy theory about the FBI secretly taping us, that turned out to be true [and was reported by The Guardian and The New York Times].” The FBI and TransCanada had been advising law enforcement how anti-terrorism laws and tactics could be used against pipeline activists. After completing her latest crop art project, Kleeb filed a Freedom of Information Act request to find out what the FBI has on file for her.

Weighing the danger of rail versus pipeline, both are risky. “But they are different risks,” she says. “There are more accidents on rail, but they spill less oil. Pipelines have fewer accidents each year, but when they spill, they spill more oil into the ground and water. So it’s not either/or for me. Both need to be made safer.”

As Kleeb’s pipeline fight drags on, Omaha continues to play an important staging ground. The locally headquartered Domina Law Group is representing landowners and Bold Nebraska. In January, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that the proposed Keystone XL route could remain in place; however, attorneys with Domina are ready to file lawsuits contesting TransCanada’s eminent domain. Final say on the permit must be determined at the federal level. At the time of publication, the State Department’s analysis of the pipeline remained underway, and Kleeb anticipated that President Obama would reject the pipeline permit. “We think that we will prevail. Because it’s a very clear constitutional question,” she says.

Several Omaha musicians were featured on a Stopping the Pipeline Rocks album recorded last spring in a solar barn on the Keystone XL route. Over the summer, Kleeb and Bold Nebraska’s team organized a solidarity event at the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge as climate marchers passed into Iowa on their walk from California to Washington D.C.

During the fall election season, Kleeb and the Cowboy Indian Alliance canvased Omaha neighborhoods door-to-door on horseback. They pushed hard to prevent reelection of Republican Congressman Lee Terry, a vocal advocate of the Keystone XL. His replacement, Democrat Brad Ashford, is, much to Kleeb’s dismay, also a pipeline proponent of the Keystone XL.

“Brad Ashford says he is concerned about climate change. But you can’t be concerned about climate change and then want to expand the tar sands, which is one of the dirtiest forms of oil,” she says.

Keystone XL has fractured political alliances along fascinating lines. While labor unions and corporate interests generally endorse the pipeline, many libertarians oppose it on the grounds of government taking private land while environmentalists oppose it for ecological reasons. “It is definitely an unlikely alliance,” Kleeb says, noting that some of Bold’s regular donors are conservative Republicans.

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National polls by CBS News, the Pew Research Center, USA Today and the Princeton Survey Research Associates International found that between 56 and 60 percent of the American public supported the Keystone XL. Kleeb says that Bold Nebraska’s polls for Omaha specifically have found support/opposition split closer to 50-50.

In spite of her affiliation with the Democratic Party, Kleeb would like to see Bold Nebraska straddle bipartisan politics. Growing numbers of registered independent Nebraskan voters gives her hope. “My mom and dad raised me as a Republican,” says Kleeb. “That’s why when I see the majority of Republicans in our state, including Omaha, it never deters me that someone in our state with populist and progressive ideas cannot get elected.”

During the course of the one-hour interview with Omaha Magazine, Kleeb never once checks the time. She has been speaking confidently and eloquently about her life, her politics, and the Keystone XL until minutes before the start of “Politics and Pints” and the launching of “In the Neb.” The interview concludes, and Kleeb has to leave. She heads to her minivan. She picks up another pile of signs and flyers. She walks down to the Farnam House Brewing Company.

The bar is packed. Petitions, surveys, and tickets for complimentary beers float freely. Kleeb stands amid the chattering crowd and calls for attention. Silence. Her stage presence exudes the same sense of friendly, genuine sincerity that she has practiced as a pundit on Fox News and in one-on-one conversations across Nebraska.

Kleeb introduces the current status of the pipeline. Other speakers from labor unions and environmental groups take the floor: opposing the Trans Pacific Partnership, lamenting out-of-state fracking waste disposal proposals in western Nebraska, introducing Bold Nebraska’s “In the Neb.” project.

Enthusiastic clapping follows each call for change. Especially boisterous applause comes from 64-year-old Deirdre Evans of the Joslyn Castle neighborhood. A regular at Bold Nebraska events, Evans even went to Washington D.C. in 2011 to be arrested for the first time while protesting the Keystone XL outside the White House. “Jane is my hero,” says Evans after the speakers conclude.

As Kleeb chats with glowing admirers, her ascendance in regional progressive politics becomes apparent. But her compatibility with the general electorate has yet to be tested.

In 2010, she was elected as a school board member in Hastings on a platform of healthy lunches, “which prompted the GOP in Nebraska to run robocalls telling voters I wanted to make their kids vegetarians,” she says, noting that she loved serving on the school board.

An important question remains. What are Kleeb’s future political ambitions? Does she see herself elected someday to represent Nebraskan constituents in the state or national capitol? She responded to the follow-up question by e-mail without delay:

“If I run for office, it will be focused on a platform of ending eminent domain for private gain and working towards energy projects that protect our land and water. I still also deeply care and worry about the lack of residential treatment facilities in our state for eating disorders and other mental illnesses that need that type of care for folks to recover.

“So, yes, I am considering running. When, where, and for what office—that I am not sure about. Right now, I keep listening to folks to see where we can make the most impact to keep showing the rest of the country what Nebraskans are made of—grit, creativity, and the resolve to get things done.”

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The Zen of Downsizing

February 24, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally published in March/April 2015 Omaha Home magazine.

Anne Ginn’s epiphany came when she was ankle-deep in a pile of leaves.

“It came to me while I was raking,” says Ginn. “I was filling the last bag of leaves of the season and decided that it would also be the last bag of leaves of my life.”

So Anne, whose husband, Bob, had passed away in 2012, sold her Loveland-area home and packed her belongings. Well, some of them anyway. “One of the things that wasn’t negotiable were my art books,” she says. “We had hundreds of books…voracious readers…but I kept only my art books.”

It’s no surprise that Ginn, who now lives at Riverfront Place, could not part with the source of such creative inspiration. Ginn was a co-owner of the now-closed String of Purls knitting shop. She is, of course, an accomplished knitter, but she is also an artist in her own right and is perhaps best known for her wildly imaginative pattern designs for sweaters, scarves, and accessories.

Another grouping that would make the move with Ginn was her marble collection. The much-travelled Ginn, who also scours the globe in search of the most spectacular of scuba spots, amassed the collection one country at a time.

 

“They are just little works of art in glass,” Ginn says. “Besides being things of great beauty, they are storytellers. Each one reminds me of where I’ve been. They are almost like little sacred objects, all with a meaning and story of their own.”

Joining the construction of Gallup’s headquarters and the National Parks Regional Headquarters, Riverfront Place was the residential keystone of the city’s first major NoDo riverfront development. The Phase 1 tower, where Anne rents her space from the unit’s owners, was completed in 2007 along with an adjoining block of 57 townhomes. Phase 2, completed in 2011, added a second tower and an additional 50 townhomes.

Ginn’s end-cap condo offers floor-to-ceiling exposure to the East, South, and West. The three-fold orientation, she says, offers almost perfect symmetry. Ginn begins her day in the glow of a cobalt-blue sunrise on one side of her condo and, after the shortest of commutes, ends the day basking in the flame-red sunsets on the opposite side.

Riverfront Place boasts some of the most dramatic sightlines of any downtown living space. Looming below is the towering Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, whose base is grounded by a plaza featuring a popular, get-your-feet-wet water feature.

By June, the plaza will also have a removable stage and will increasingly become the home of evening concerts in the shadow of “The Bob,” Omaha’s signature structure.

Her 9th floor perch happens to place her at eye-level with flocks of soaring Canada geese. It’s also the perfect vantage point for taking in the breathtaking fireworks that light up the night sky during the holidays, the NCAA College World Series, and other special events. On the day of the interview, perfectly round orbs of ice swirled as they elbowed their way downstream in the river below. It was an ethereal, otherworldly sight, one not unlike a work of abstract art that had come to life. The mesmerizing ice dance mirrored images of the undulating, slow motion ballet performed by the jellyfish at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium.

“I worried that this [Riverfront Place] would be too remote,” says Ginn of the site that isn’t exactly downtown and isn’t exactly at the core NoDo. “But it turned out to be just the opposite. I’m not in the middle of anything, but I’m sort of in the middle of everything. Just look,” she says with a sweep of a hand in gesturing to the river, bridge, TD Ameritrade Park Omaha, CenturyLink Center Omaha, and the city’s skyline.

Ginn’s move to condo living was something of an experiment for her. Now she says she’s considering buying a condo at Riverfront once her lease expires.

“This has become the perfect place me,” she says. “Add to that all the amenities [indoor parking, concierge service, health clubs, access to miles of hiking trails on both sides of the river, and more] and I am just really enjoying life here.”

Ginn is an avid disciple of Bikram yoga who teaches at Creighton University during the summer. She is also a spiritual director, one who has taken a decidedly Zen-like approach to downsizing.

“Things—physical things, belongings, stuff—require care and maintenance,” she explains. “There is a weight to them, both physical and mental, that occupies and distracts the mind. The kind of weightiness I now seek is in other, more meaningful aspects of my life.”

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24 Hours

October 23, 2014 by

Julie and I have had our grandchildren overnight a good number of times. When working as a tag team, we’re old pros at caring for and entertaining Easton (4) and Barrett (3). A recent weekend presented my first opportunity (That’s the proper word for it, isn’t it? “Opportunity?”) to fly solo in caring for the kids. Julie was off to Des Moines to visit family while the boys’ parents, Lauren and Eric, were cultivating sunburns in lazily floating down a river somewhere on the periphery of the metro.

This chronology of events meant that I would be left alone with the kids for a mere 24 hours or so. Protestations of “Are you sure you can handle this?” and “We could always find some other solution to childcare,” had a downright infantilizing effect and called into question the amount of confidence my loved ones had in me. Me!

Did they forget that I’m a big boy? Did they forget that I had a hand in raising three kids of my own? Sure, that was back when The Gipper was in the Whitehouse but, c’mon, can’t a guy get at least a little respect?

If TV sitcoms are any barometer, American families are often led by a stumbling, fumbling oaf. The airwaves are crowded with such buffoons. Put that man in a kitchen with young kids when mom is away, for example, and it’s almost certain to result in a clichéd scene involving flour, eggs, and milk coating every surface of the room. And its inhabitants.

But I’m not that guy…am I?

My plan was a simple one. I would occupy the kids by taking them to the zoo. On the way home we would stick close to the river and stroll across the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge after splashing around in the water feature at the base of that span. Wear ‘em out while having fun. That was the plan.

The zoo was, as always, a magnificent trek spanning all seven continents. We rode the train. We galloped along on the merry-go-round. Slithering reptiles winked at us through alien eyes. An obliging gorilla even flung some feces—always a hit with my doody-obsessed grandkids.

But Easton was flagging fast at the three-hour mark as we made our way back to the car. I felt naps would be in order before we conquered the bridge, so homeward we went. I had no idea as to the extent of Easton’s discomfort until he—without a hint of warning—projectile vomited directly into a basket of fresh laundry that awaited folding. The only good news was that I had very little mess to clean up from the new-ish rug before trudging down to the basement with a putrid load to confront a machine that had every right to mock me with a taunt of “Back so soon?”

After a four-hour nap (Four hours! A new family record!) Easton was magically back to being his old bouncing-off-the-walls self again. There was still plenty of daylight for meandering over the bridge suspended above the swirling eddies of what Barrett calls the “Chocolate River.”

The whole experience reminded me of an old magazine photo feature (Life? Look?) that involved placing the legendary Olympian Jesse Owens in the home of a toddler. His challenge was to ape every movement the small boy made. So the star of the 1936 Olympic Games bounced and crawled and scaled and slithered right alongside the small lad. Until, that is, the greatest athlete on the planet crashed at about the two-hour mark.

So it was with a certain sense of self-satisfaction that I gently laid the kids to bed that night. The doddering old fool that nobody trusted had not only survived, but had thrived—save for a little upchuck—in his assigned duties.

The fact that my bedtime followed only minutes later, even before dusk could yield to a blanket of stars, was completely irrelevant.

Completely.

Perpetual Motion

March 2, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Jorge Ambriz has been moving his whole life—as a dancer, that is. The 36-year-old HR Manager of Omaha Steel Castings trained as a child in Mexican folkloric dance. No matter where he has lived, he always found a dance company so he could keep in motion. For the past seven years it’s been with University of Nebraska-Omaha’s The Moving Company, perhaps the area’s leading practitioners of 20th-century and contemporary dance.

But Ambriz isn’t affiliated with the university. A common misperception is that The Moving Company is for students only. The troupe, which was established in 1935 and is one of the oldest university dance companies in continuous existence in the world, draws people of all ages from all walks of life. “People usually think it’s for UNO,” remarks Ambriz. “That’s not the case. Out of 30-plus members, less than 10 are probably students.”

The company’s director, Josie Metal-Corbin, elaborates, “We are not a student organization. UNL has a dance major, UNK a dance minor. But what we have is a dance company. We are under the auspices of the College of Education and the School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation. We’re very grateful that the College values what we do. We’ve been in existence off the blood, sweat, and tears of a lot of people.”

Dancers range in age from 18-50, and all members audition for a limited number of spaces. While some dancers are professional and maintain their own studios, others have included an ornithologist from the Henry Doorly Zoo and a CEO of a cement company. “The Moving Company welcomes all backgrounds of dance,” Ambriz explains. “It’s very diverse and has all ethnicities, all ages, and all levels of dance.”

Even though the company is dedicated to modern dance, choreographers incorporate other styles, such as swing and salsa. “One of the beautiful things about The Moving Company,” Ambriz says, “is that it opens the door to different dance.”

Performances take place at UNO, but the troupe also does site-specific choreography through its community outreach and partners with numerous area organizations. Over the years, performances have taken place at such venues as the Omaha Community Playhouse, the Durham Museum, Harrah’s Casino, area high schools, St. Cecilia’s Cathedral, and even in the Joslyn Art Museum’s fountain court. “We love to collaborate and do partnerships,” remarks Metal-Corbin. “It’s very fulfilling. Dancers move out into the world and
people interact.”

This spring The Moving Company will notably take to the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge to celebrate National Water Dance Day. “The movements deal with water,” says Metal-Corbin. “Our theme is drought, and we will move across 3,000 feet [of the bridge] with musicians and dancers.”

For Ambriz, these kinds of experiences are enriching. “The Moving Company,” he says, “allows us to use our full potential.”

How to Ride the River City Star

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The strains of “Folsom Prison Blues” as played by a one-man band is the perfect soundtrack to a riverboat tour. I bet there’s rich folks eating/In a fancy dining car/They’re probably drinkin’ coffee/And smokin’ big cigars. You are not those rich people, and this is not their sophisticated evening. This is where you embrace the river rat heritage bestowed upon you by dint of being in Omaha.

For the past eight years, the River City Star has hosted 60- and 90-minute cruises up and down the Missouri River from early April through mid-October. Just north of the Lewis and Clark Visitors Center and off of Gallup Drive, plastic palm trees and tropical trinkets guide you down a gangplank to a two-story riverboat. On blistering summer days, the kitschy décor fits.

Sightseeing tours happen every Sunday, no reservations required (but you really should anyway). Lunch and dinner cruises do require reservations and feature a cash bar and live entertainment, either by Win Lander or Joey Gulizia. Bartender Katie serves up Watermelons, exactly the drink that was so popular at the now-closed Anchor Inn. “It’s the drink on the river,” says Tami Bader, director of sales. “And there’s not a bit of watermelon in it.” Vodka and a few other liquors form the secret recipe.20130515_bs_6243_Web

Arrive. Early. If your dinner cruise is at 6:30 p.m., that means the River City Star pulls away from the dock at 6:30 p.m. Get there 15 minutes ahead of time to pick up your tickets at the office and get settled on the boat. Top floor definitely, if it’s a sunny day.

Take the time to soak in your surroundings. Stand at the back of the boat as it pushes off and watch as the twin John Deere diesel jet-drive engines froth up the water for the first time. If there’s a speaker on the sightseeing tour or live music during the dinner cruise, listen to it all. Try to get Lander to tell you why he doesn’t play Elvis.

The River City Star chugs north on the Missouri past the Illinois Central swing bridge, now permanently swung open. “The only way to see it now is from the boat,” Bader says. At Narrows River Park in Council Bluffs, the boat turns south to go underneath the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, breeze past the Downtown Omaha riverfront, and make a final turn just before Harrah’s Casino.

Captain Stephen Hosch.

Captain Stephen Hosch.

Depending on the day, your captain might be Stephen Hosch or Ken Merlin. Captain Hosch isn’t shy about divulging his knowledge of the river. As the River City Star trundles past Freedom Park within the first few minutes of the cruise, he waves his hand to encompass the variety of navy relics on the Nebraska shore. “That’s the Marlin there,” Captain Hosch says. “A ’50s training sub. And the Hazard over there, that’s a minesweeper from World War II. It supported a convoy in Okinawa. It was one of the few steel sweepers.” Incidentally, the USS Hazard is listing a tad these days, after floating on the 2011 flood that reached her on-shore resting place. When the flood finally receded, the Hazard settled back down at a bit of a tilt.

The Missouri is an adaptable lady, but if you look closely, you can still see the damage from the flood a couple years ago. Captain Hosch points out that the eddies swirling between manmade jetties and flood-deposits of sand may produce holes 20 feet deep underneath the river’s surface.

The Loess Hills are in perfect view at this point of the cruise, all golden with evening sun and accented by the earthy smell of the Missouri. As the River City Star turns south, a completely different view presents itself, the Downtown Omaha skyline.20130515_bs_6355_Web

It’s about this time that you should really head down to the buffet (if you’re on a dinner or lunch cruise) to enjoy some grilled barbecue chicken or roast beef, roasted potatoes or perhaps green beans with almonds. If you eat quickly, you can be done in time to see pedestrian reactions when Captain Hosch lets a kid sound the foghorn underneath the Pedestrian Bridge. Stay above deck to see how many swallows’ nests you can count, neatly lined up in the hundreds underneath the lip of the I-480 overpass.

On the way back north to the River City Star’s dock, Captain Hosch points out a channel cut into the Iowa bank. It may look like one of the Missouri’s natural changes in character, but the captain says it’s manmade, a place for catfish and sturgeon to lay eggs in safety. He’s seen deer, beaver, catfish, and huge paddlefish on his many tours up and down Omaha’s section of the river. “And have you seen all these geese?” he asks. “Looks like they’re all out dating tonight.”

The River City Star is inspected by the Coast Guard annually and certified for 149 passengers. Find the latest information on cruise times and prices at rivercitystar.com.