Tag Archives: Central High School

A Culinary Master in the Making

July 4, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The metal crank wouldn’t work. Witney Stanley had to think of a solution fast. The pressure heated up the kitchen at the Pinnacle Bank Expo Center in Grand Island. The clock ticked tauntingly.

Thirty minutes remaining. 

The SkillsUSA Culinary Arts Championship was on the line. Each participant had to present judges with an entrée from a fabricated whole chicken, a sauce, a vegetable, and a starch. Judges would be expecting a composed salad as well. Only items in the kitchen’s pantry were allowed to be used to create the dishes, and the dinner needed to be cooked in two hours and 30 minutes. Think Top Chef with high school students. 

But the crank was being…well…cranky. 

Witney, a senior at Omaha Central, wanted to win it all. Her competitive drive wouldn’t allow faulty equipment to squash her chances at a medal. After a frustrating five minutes, she grabbed a rolling pin instead to smooth out the dough for her tortellini. She cut it and filled it with spinach, garlic, tomato, and olive. 

Witney inserted the thin thermometer into her roasted chicken thighs. 

155 degrees. 

She rushed to the pantry for oil. The pastor’s daughter took a long deep breath and said a short prayer. Showtime. Only seven minutes, not nearly enough time to cook it completely in the oven. She finished off the chicken on the stovetop with a pan-fried sear. 

The white wine sauce created a challenge as well. Since Witney was only 18 and not legally old enough to drink, she needed to be creative. The young cook substituted white vinegar, onion, and homemade chicken stock. 

She sliced the (finally) cooked chicken, a technique she mastered in between school and tennis. She added Tuscan vegetables and tourné cut potatoes. 

Time.  

At the April 2018 competition, Witney came away with a bronze medal and a passion for competing. 

But her love of all things savory and sweet is deeply rooted in family heritage. When she was only 4 years old, as her sisters prepped for monthly church outreach banquets alongside their mother, Witney would stand on a stool washing cabbage or setting tables for guests. 

“My mom is a genius in the kitchen,” Witney explains. “She doesn’t trust anyone in there except her daughters.”

Her mother, Alyssa, enrolled all six of her children into cake-decorating classes at Michael’s. Witney, 10 years old at the time, started baking cakes whenever she could for birthdays or other special occasions. After a recommendation from a neighbor, the girls decided to sell their homemade yellow and devil’s food cupcakes with buttercream frosting at the Gifford Park Neighborhood Market. 

“I was hesitant at first,” Witney recalls. “Then I thought, what’s the worst that could happen? I could end up with a tray of cupcakes, and I could eat them.”

The money, though, wasn’t to buy more supplies, candy, or even toys. Instead, the sisters saved it for someone special. It took an entire year, and the older girls had to get side jobs, but it all went to purchase a bedroom set their mother had her eye on for a while. 

“From that point on, they were known for those cupcakes,” Alyssa says. “All just to surprise me with a Mother’s Day gift.” 

It turned into a business, Stanley Southern Sweeties. Each sister plays a role—whether creating roses, borders, or letters. 

Their mother saw something special in Witney and pushed her to cook for the family. She started experimenting even if it meant getting dinner to the table later than usual. 

In order to play tennis, Witney made the move from home-school to Central High School. Introverted and painfully shy, the teenager couldn’t fathom it all. So her sister Justine, who was taking online classes at Metropolitan Community College, went to every single class to watch out for Witney that first year. After taking the No. 1 spot in tennis, Witney soon made friends and discovered culinary classes. Entering her senior year, she started taking classes at the Omaha Public Schools Career Center for college credit. She continued practicing in the kitchen at every opportunity, soaking up knowledge like a sponge cake.

“She’s an example of what we should be seeing in every student,” says chef Perthedia Berry, a culinary instructor at Metro. 

Berry, sometimes referred to as the “female Gordon Ramsay,” can intimidate students. Witney prefers the tough love as it reminds her of her own upbringing. 

“I love the intensity. She [Berry] wants her students to do well. She’s preparing me for the future. If you can get through her, you can get through anything,” Witney says. 

The main issue for the aspiring cook is speaking up. Berry yells at her to stop worrying about offending people. Chefs should be concerned with getting dinner to hungry guests; save the politeness for later. 

With each class, Witney gained confidence. She earned the Best Beef Award at her first invitational (the Metropolitan Community College Institute for Culinary Arts High School Invitational in February 2017). In another competition, two teammates dropped out, but Witney took it upon herself to take all the responsibility. 

“Witney pushes forward, and she’ll be someone you know in this community,” Berry says. 

Her mother, originally from New Orleans, was a mentor for last year’s Metro invitational. So Witney simmered a New Orleans gumbo on the stove and, along with Omaha North’s Ajana Jones, took home the silver medal. 

Witney plans to open a restaurant or a bakery someday, maybe with her sisters. After she takes the accelerated Culinary Arts program at Metro, she plans to enroll at Creighton University for a business degree. The pitfalls are well-known, but that doesn’t stop her. 

“She’s fearless,” her mother says. 

For now, Witney is carefully measuring each step, weighing the consequences, and stirring in a pinch of prayer that her dream will become a reality.


Visit ccenter.ops.org for more information about culinary classes at the OPS Career Center and mccneb.edu for details on Metropolitan Community College’s Institute for the Culinary Arts.

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. 

Jennifer Castello

May 13, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Thirty-year-old Jennifer Castello lives by a simple philosophy: “Art is power.” As a writer, educator, and actor, the Omaha native has tapped into all areas of her deep imagination to carve out her path. She unequivocally believes creativity was put here to bring out a person’s voice, and that’s exactly what she’s doing.

“I think art has worked best when someone isn’t being listened to, then grabs the audience by the scruff of the neck, and through art that person says, ‘Shut up and look,’” she says. “When I’m teaching, it’s not about me. It’s about making sure that at the end of the session, residency, or workshop, the students are equipped to express themselves—be it in a story, in a song, or just in everyday life. Art is self-advocacy. Art is power. Art is resistance.”

Castello began her writing career at the ripe age of 4, when her grandmother discovered how often she was coming up with original stories.

“She pulled out a stack of papers, stapled them together, and told me to make a book,” she recalls. “The pride she took in the stories I told her made me feel like it was something special to be a writer. She was a teacher, and it was also through her and that pride that I realized I wanted to be a teacher, and make some other kid feel just as special as she made me feel.”

At 18 years old, Castello scored her first teaching job, participating in the Teacher Academy Project program at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, and eventually got her teaching license. Now, she freelances at a variety of local organizations, including the Omaha Community Playhouse. 

“I go out into schools and community spaces and engage students in creating something,” she explains. “If that’s creating a clever way to win a drama game, learning how to make their own characters with makeup on their faces, or write their very own script, that’s where my heart is. When I was a kid in Omaha, teachers reached out to me and taught me that my brain had a purpose and a worth, and I’m always trying to pay it forward.”

In terms of her acting, Castello credits her father.

“He signed me up for a class at the Emmy Gifford Theatre,” she says. “Then when the Emmy Gifford turned into The Rose, he made me audition for one of the main stage plays and I got in. It was a community for me to hold onto when things got rough, and I’ll forever be grateful for that community.“

As an author, the Central High School grad was compelled to write The Messiah of Howard Street when she was still an undergrad at DePaul University in Chicago. It was inspired by the colorful characters that have become a staple of the Old Market district.

“I had read My Antonia in my American English class,” she explains. “This wasn’t the first time I read it, I’d read it at Central High my junior year of high school. But comparing and contrasting a Chicago classroom to an Omaha classroom, I realized how fantasized Nebraska is in the minds of people who don’t live here. I mean, there are some obvious stereotypes we’ve all heard, but also the idea that there are rolling fields, and peace, and nature, and all that, it was just weird.”

Like so many other Central High teenagers, the Old Market was Castello’s meeting spot during adolescence. But over the years, she had many other experiences on and around Howard Street that helped shape her life.

“One of my first tastes of freedom was walking down to the Old Market and going to all the shops, getting Ted & Wally’s, and eating way too much spaghetti. Mom would take me to Little King before a dance recital, my best friends held my 18th birthday party as Zio’s, I sang and performed there, and I actually had my first date with my husband at Spaghetti Works.”

Armed with a Master of Science in secondary education from UNO and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, Maine, she recently held a one-act festival, finished a semester-long scriptwriting residency at Central High, and has become a member of the Nebraska Arts Council teaching roster. In short, Castello stays busy.

“In undergrad, my professor warned me I might not be able to make a living in the arts,” she says. “But being a teaching artist and an arts educator has been something I truly enjoy. I really appreciate being able to do it every day. I get to help kids play pretend. That’s like…the dream.”


To learn more about Castello’s work, visit jennifercastello.com

This article appears in the May/June 2018 edition of Encounter.

Leprosy, Communist Revolutionaries, and a Gun to Her Back

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In 1948, Barbara Entz’s family moved to Omaha after a blind evangelist from the city, J.J. Esau, told her father to become a minister. Esau was in public relations with the nondenominational Grace Bible Institute when he inspired the Entz family to relocate from New Port, Washington. 

After graduating from Central High School, Barbara attended what would later become Grace University, where she met her husband, Paul. Their shared calling to the missionary field propelled them across the ocean to Ethiopia in September 1957.

Education was important for Barbara during her time in Africa. She educated local women at her home, and she taught at an elementary school. Shortly after arriving in Ethiopia, Paul and Barbara were placed in charge of a leprosarium. Barbara explains, “When we came, we said, ‘There’s no need for some of these to be here a lifetime. Let’s make a two-year program.’” During the two years of the program designed by the young couple, patients would work and receive an education before returning to their communities. The former leprosy patients were no longer outcasts; their education transformed them into respected teachers.

However, not everyone was receptive to outsiders. The communist movement in Ethiopia soon took advantage of widespread famine to spark outrage against the government and foreign visitors. “That’s when they began talking about Americans,” Barbara explains, “[They were saying] ‘Yankees go home!’ And teachers [at] the schools were being accused of things.”

Because of the rising tensions, the Entzes moved to another town to help with famine relief efforts. Even then, they weren’t safe. Emperor Haile Selassie was assassinated and the transition to a communist government began. One night, Barbara went outside with her two daughters. She remembers vividly, “I saw these men with the guns right in my face. Two thoughts came to my mind: get that gun out of my face and let somebody know you’re in trouble.” As she pushed the gun away, it went off, and 33 shotgun pellets found their way into Barbara’s back. Miraculously, none of them hit her spinal column or any organs.

After the attack, in 1976, the Entz family left Ethiopia. Paul and Barbara moved first to Nigeria and then to Kenya (in 1979) to create radio programs, broadcasting the Bible back to Ethiopia. The married missionaries had five children, several of whom were born in Africa. In 1992, they returned to a more stable Ethiopia before finally retiring to Omaha in 1996.

In Omaha, Barbara remains dedicated to improving the community around her. She’s helped immigrants learn English and founded the International Women’s Club to create a new community for foreign women. Hadeel Haidar (originally from Iraq) describes the support the club provides: “One of the ladies here, she’s from Egypt, and she was delivering a baby. Two of those ladies went to the hospital and spent the night with her because she doesn’t have a family.”

Barbara doesn’t seek praise or recognition to motivate her community work. “I don’t need an article about me to give me self-worth; I have that in my status with God. I have such a great family and their love, and so many friends of all nationalities—I am content and happy with my life.”

Her living room is a museum of items showcasing her past: metal crosses on the wall, photo albums, carved wooden statues of African animals, and mugs printed with religious art and Ethiopia’s Amharic alphabet.

She may have left Africa, but her lifelong mission to help others remains active.


Omaha International Women’s Club meets every other Thursday, usually at The Bible Church (9001 Q St.), 9:30 a.m. to noon. The organization also maintains a Facebook page.

This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

2017 May/June Giving Calendar

May 1, 2017 by and

*May 1

Youth Emergency Services’ Golf Outing (10 a.m.-7 p.m.)
Benefitting: Youth Emergency Services
Location: The Players Club at Deer Creek
yesomaha.org

May 2

50th Annual Boys Town Booster Banquet (5:30-9 p.m.)
Benefitting: Boys Town sports
Location: Embassy Suites, La Vista
boystown.org/boosters

Countdown to Cinco de Mayo (5:30-9:30 p.m.)
Benefitting: OneWorld Community Health
Location: Livestock Exchange Building
oneworldomaha.org

May 3

Memories for Kids 2017 Guild Luncheon (11 a.m.-1 p.m.)
Benefitting: Memories for Kids
Location: Champions Run
memoriesforkids.org

May 4

Heartland Heroes, A Centennial Celebration (6-7 p.m.)
Benefitting: American Red Cross
Location: CenturyLink Center
redcross.org/neia

May 5

Leaders for Life Luncheon (11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.)
Benefitting: Creighton University’s female student-athletes
Location: Ryan Athletic Center
gocreighton.com

Run for the Wet Noses: Talk Derby to Me (5:30-9 p.m.)
Benefitting: Midlands Humane Society
Location: Mid-America Center, Council Bluffs
midlandshumanesociety.org

May 6

For the Kids Benefit: A Day at the Races, a Night on the Town (5-9:30 p.m.)
Benefitting: Omaha Children’s Museum
Location: Omaha Children’s Museum
ocm.org

May 9

D.J.’s Hero Awards Luncheon (11:45 a.m.-1:15 p.m.)
Benefitting: Salvation Army
Location: CenturyLink Center Omaha
salarmyomaha.org

May 11

Evening with Friends (6-9 p.m.)
Benefitting: CHI Health Midlands
Location: CHI Health Midlands Hospital
mychihealth.com/foundation

May 12

An Evening in the Garden (6-9:30 p.m.)
Benefitting: Brownell Talbot School
Location: Brownell Talbot Campus
brownell.edu/giving/gala

Man & Woman of the Year Grand Finale Gala (6-10 p.m.)
Benefitting: Leukemia & Lymphoma Society
Location: Embassy Suites, La Vista
mwoy.org/ne

On the Road to the Big Easy 2017 (5:30 p.m.-midnight)
Benefitting: Boys & Girls Clubs of the Midlands
Location: Omaha Design Center
bgcomaha.org/bigeasy

May 13

Cabaret (6-9:30 p.m.)
Benefitting: The Child Saving Institute
Location: Hilton Omaha
childsaving.org

14th Annual Wear Yellow Ride, Fun Run & Walk (7 a.m.-2 p.m.)
Benefitting: Wear Yellow Nebraska
Location: Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum
supportwyn.org/WYR

2017 Omaha Heart Walk (8 a.m.)
Benefitting: American Heart Association
Location: Miller’s Landing
heartwalk.org

May 15

Ronald McDonald House in Omaha Golf Tournament (noon)
Benefitting: Ronald McDonald House Charities in Omaha
Location: The Players Club at Deer Creek
rmhcomaha.org

Chip in for Children Golf Tournament (11 a.m.)
Benefitting: Children’s Square USA
Location: Council Bluffs Country Club
childrenssquare.org

May 18

SAVE Program Graduation Dinner (5:30-9 p.m.)
Benefitting: SAVE
Location: Champion’s Run
saveprogram.org

Breathe and Brew Spring Yoga Series (6:30-7:30 p.m.)
Benefitting: American Lung Association
Location: Lucky Bucket Brewery
lung.org

May 19

Golf Scramble (noon-6 p.m.)
Benefitting: Senior Health Foundation
Location: Shoreline Golf Course
seniorhealthfoundation.org

May 20

Great Strides (9:30 a.m.-noon)
Benefitting: Cystic Fibrosis Foundation
Location: Stinson Park
fightcf.cff.org

May 22

Children’s Charity Golf Classic (11 a.m.-5 p.m.)
Benefitting: Children’s Hospital & Medical Center Foundation
Location: Champions Run
childrensclassic.com

May 24

Omaha Gives! (midnight-11:59 p.m.)
Benefitting: more than 1,000 Omaha nonprofits
Location: online
omahagives24.org

May 25

Bland Cares Angels Among Us Golf Outing (10:30 a.m.-7 p.m.)
Benefitting: Angels Among Us
Location: Tiburon Golf Club
blandcares.org

May 27

19th Annual Remembrance Walk (9-11 a.m.)
Benefitting: Grief’s Journey
Location: Miller’s Landing/Pedestrian Bridge
griefsjourney.org

June 1

Pinot, Pigs & Poets (6-10 p.m.)
Benefitting: Completely KIDS
Location: Happy Hollow Club
pinotandpigs.org

June 2

Grand Slam! (6:30-11 p.m.)
Benefitting: Methodist Hospital
Location: Werner Park
methodisthospitalfoundation.org

Run for the Young (7-8:30 p.m.)
Benefitting: Children’s Square USA
Location: Peak Performance
childrenssquare.org

June 3

Annual Gala (6:30-11 p.m.)
Benefitting: Joslyn Art Museum Association
Location: Joslyn Art Museum
joslyn.org

Ollie’s Dream Gala 2017 (6:30-10 p.m.)
Benefitting: Ollie Webb Center
Location: Hilton Omaha
olliewebbinc.org

June 5

Central High Foundation Golf Outing (7:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m.)
Benefitting: Central High School
Location: Field Club of Omaha
chsfomaha.org

CHI Health Golf Outing (10:30 a.m.-4 p.m.)
Benefitting: CHI Health Foundation
Location: The Players Club at Deer Creek
chihealth.com/foundation

June 7

CHANCE Luncheon (11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.)
Benefitting: Children’s Scholarship Fund of Omaha
Location: CenturyLink Center
csfomaha.org

June 8

Tee It Up Fore Sight Annual Golf Tournament (10:30 a.m.-3 p.m.)
Benefitting: Outlook Nebraska, Inc.
Location: Indian Creek Golf Course
outlooknebraska.org

June 9

Sand in the City (10 a.m.-4 p.m.)
Benefitting: Nebraska Children’s Home Society
Location: Baxter Arena
nchs.org

June 10

Child Saving Institute Kids 4 Kids (7:30 p.m.)
Benefitting: The Child Saving Institute
Location: Sumter Amphitheater
childsaving.org

Vets & Pets Blackjack Run (9 a.m.-5 p.m.)
Benefitting: Midlands Humane Society
Location: American Legion
midlandshumanesociety.org

Centennial Gala (7-9 p.m.)
Benefitting: American Red Cross
Location: CenturyLink Center
redcross.org/local/nebraska

June 11

Monroe-Meyer Guild Garden Walk (9 a.m.-4 p.m.)
Benefitting: Munroe-Meyer Institute
Location: 150th Street and West Dodge Road to 168th and Harrison streets
events.unmc.edu

June 12

15th Annual Hope Center for Kids Golf Classic (10:30 a.m.-6 p.m.)
Benefitting: Hope Center for Kids
Location: Champions Run Golf Course
hopecenterforkids.org

Third Annual Golf Tournament (11 a.m.-6 p.m.)
Benefitting: First Responders Foundation
Location: Oak Hills Country Club
firstrespondersomaha.org/events

Hit the Links and Drive Against Disabilities Golf Tournament (11:30 a.m.-7 p.m.)
Benefitting: United Cerebral Palsy of Nebraska
Location: The Player’s Club at Deer Creek
ucpnebraska.org

June 13

Project Harmony Golf Invitational (11 a.m.-6 p.m.)
Benefitting: Project Harmony
Location: Indian Creek Golf Course
projectharmony.com

WCA Tribute to Women (11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.)
Benefitting: Women’s Center for Advancement
Location: Hilton Omaha
wcaomaha.org

June 14

Hops for Harmony (5:30-8:30 p.m.)
Benefitting: Project Harmony
Location: Werner Park
projectharmony.com

June 16

Strike a Chord (6-9 p.m.)
Benefitting: Heartland Family Service
Location: Mid-America Center
heartlandfamilyservice.org/events

June 19

Golf Fore Kids (11 a.m.-6 p.m.)
Benefitting: Child Saving Institute
Location: The Players Club at Deer Creek
childsaving.org

June 21

The Longest Day, an individualized fundraiser (all day)
Benefitting: Alzheimer’s Association
Location: Donor’s choice
alz.org/thelongestday

June 24

Wheels of Courage (11 a.m.-4 p.m.)
Benefitting: the Jennie Edmundson Foundation
Location: Quaker Steak & Lube, Council Bluffs
jehfoundation.org

June 30

ALS in the Heartland’s 2017 Golf Classic (11 a.m.-8 p.m.)
Benefitting: ALS in the Heartland
Location: Tiburon Golf Club
alsintheheartland.org


This calendar is published as shown in the print edition

We welcome you to submit events to our print calendar. Please email event details and a 300 ppi photograph three months in advance to: editintern@omahamagazine.com


*Times and dates may change. Check the website, or with the event coordinator.

Nebraska’s Capital

January 25, 2017 by
Photography by Contributed

When Nebraska achieved statehood on March 1, 1867, it was the turning point in a 12-year-long, bitter, and sometimes violent struggle to move the capital from Omaha to…well, anywhere except Omaha.

“Divisiveness festered the moment Congress organized the Nebraska Territory on May 30, 1854. The first territorial governor, Francis Burt, arrived in October to determine the capital’s location. In ill health, Burt was besieged by “every influential man in the territory”—especially those with large landholdings in fledgling towns near the Missouri River. Though Burt appeared to favor Bellevue, a more established settlement predating Omaha, he died just 10 days later and “sought in the grave that repose which it was evident he could never find in Nebraska,” according to James Savage and John Bell in their 1894 book, History of Omaha.

“Our pioneer urban developers knew getting the seat of government would help drive their community’s economy. There was no tax base, and they needed all the federal money they could get,” says Harl Dalstrom, retired history professor, University of Nebraska at Omaha. “Even today we may complain about federal spending, but it becomes legitimate and welcome when the dollars come our way.”

The battle for the capital took shape on both sides of the Platte River, a geographical barrier for people north and south of it, and a political dividing line. The Kansas-Nebraska Act that created the Nebraska Territory also focused on slavery’s expansion. The act would destroy Democratic unity in 1860; it split the U.S. into two political parties, with Republicans primarily in the north and Democrats in the south.

Using the Platte as a line of demarcation, Thomas Cuming, territorial secretary and acting governor, divided the Nebraska Territory into eight counties: four north and four south of the river. Although a census showed more people lived south of the Platte, Cuming announced the first legislative session would convene in Omaha.

capital

A rising young Iowa Democrat, Cuming undoubtedly was influenced by his ties to Council Bluffs and his landholdings in Omaha. “Both cities were interdependent as the West expanded. It’s unlikely Omaha would have existed without its ties to Council Bluffs,” says Dalstrom. The Council Bluffs and Nebraska Ferry Co. supported Cuming’s decision, offering its meeting house on Ninth Street between Farnam and Douglas streets for the session beginning Jan. 16, 1855.

Rancor soon was apparent, with delegates from Bellevue and south of the Platte arriving dressed as Indians, wearing red blankets “to indicate their ‘savage’ intentions toward Cuming,” according to Upstream: An Urban Biography of Metropolis Omaha & Council Bluffs, co-authored by Lawrence Larsen, Barbara Cottrell, and Harl and Kay Calame Dalstrom.

Cuming ignored the blanketed delegates. A.J. Hanscom, unofficial leader of the Omaha delegation, was elected Speaker of the House, supported by his friend, Andrew Jackson Poppleton, a master of debate and parliamentary skill. Buoyed by rich Omahans who bribed delegates with money, land, and promises, the two led a joint resolution on Feb. 22, 1855, naming Omaha the capital, with the ferry company’s meeting house becoming the first capitol building.

The second territorial capitol was built in 1857 on the site of today’s Central High School at 20th and Dodge streets. Scarcely had the mortar set when Omaha’s adversaries introduced a bill in January 1858 that would move the capital to a new, non-existent town. Omaha did not have enough votes to stop it, so Hanscom and Poppleton began a carefully orchestrated showdown using parliamentary procedure, writes David Bristow in A Dirty, Wicked Town: Tales of 19th Century Omaha.

Through a technicality, Poppleton succeeded in getting Nebraska City’s James Decker, the new House Speaker and an Omaha foe, out of the speaker’s chair, and temporarily replaced him with J. Sterling Morton, an Omaha ally. Intending to filibuster until time ran out on the session’s remaining eight days, the Omaha contingent drew the wrath of Decker, who vowed to regain the chair “or die trying.”

Decker attempted to pry the gavel from the chair’s occupant, then tried to tip him out. Hanscom engaged Decker in a tug-of-war, igniting a brawl with bloody noses and black eyes too numerous to mention, writes Bristow. On the following morning, the anti-Omaha crowd adjourned to Florence (then its own city) and carried a motion to move the legislature there. However, Acting Governor Cuming refused to recognize the Florence legislature, supported by incoming Gov. William Richardson.

The struggle to relocate the capital continued year after year until December 1866, when the U.S. Congress passed a resolution naming Nebraska as the country’s 37th state, effective March 1, 1867. President Andrew Johnson opposed the statehood and vetoed the bill. But Congress overrode it, the only time in U.S. history that a statehood bill became law over a presidential veto, writes Tammy Partsch in It Happened in Nebraska: Remarkable Events that Shaped History.

To placate those south of the Platte River who were considering annexation to Kansas, the legislature voted to place the capital city in Lancaster County. Prior to the vote, Omaha Sen. J.N.H. Patrick attempted to thwart the move by naming the future capital city after recently assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. It was assumed Democrats would not support a capital named after the Republican president, but the Removal Act successfully passed in May 1867.

Gov. David Butler and others toured sites and, by September, had zeroed in on the village of Lancaster, renaming it Lincoln. The state capitol building was completed Dec. 1, 1868, but despite the intervening months, nothing had been done in Omaha to prepare for the move. Many officials, including Butler, didn’t believe Omaha’s citizens would let the capital go.

So, during an evening snowstorm in late December 1868, men surreptitiously entered the Omaha capitol and cleared it of all documents, deeds, and certificates related to the governance of Nebraska, writes Partsch. By midnight the men and pack horses departed, spiriting the documents to Lincoln’s new capitol building, where the Nebraska Legislature would meet within a month. Like the history preceding it, the change was made under a cloud of politics and controversy.

Visit nebraskahistory.org for more information.

Clarence Wigington

December 15, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When she lived a block away, Linda Williams would pass the Broomfield duplex at 25th and Lake streets almost every day. That was a little more than a decade ago.

As she walked past the duplex, she remembers thinking, “There is something interesting about that building…something I really like.” She liked the diamond shapes inside the top border, the hints of classical style in the columns in the front, as well as the rhythm and symmetry in the arched windows.

She did not know what made the building so special until a 2002 trip to the Great Plains Black History Museum.

clarencewigington2It turned out that the Broomfield duplex, built in 1913, was indeed special. In 1909, it won first prize for “best two-family brick dwelling” in a national competition sponsored by Good Housekeeping magazine. The duplex’s 2502-2504 Lake St. address was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, too.

But what made it particularly significant was that it was one of many residential structures in the area designed by Nebraska’s first African-American architect and also the nation’s first African-American municipal architect—Clarence W. “Cap” Wigington.

Williams was shocked. She had a Bachelor of Science in design from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Architecture, and this was the first time she had ever heard about Wigington.

“I thought, ‘If I’m educated and I don’t know about him, there are a lot of other people who don’t know about him,’” Williams says. “So ever since then, I’ve been spreading the word about him.”

Williams, who works in the architecture field, has spent the last several years working to shine light onto Wigington’s work. She has presented seminars about Wigington for the Douglas County Historical Society and currently leads Restoration Exchange Omaha’s North 24th Street Walking Tour, which highlights three of Wigington’s significant Omaha buildings.

Wigington was born in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1883 and his family moved to Omaha shortly thereafter. Wigington graduated from Central High School (then Omaha High School) at age 15 and worked for the prominent Nebraska architect Thomas Kimball for six years before opening his own office. While he was in Omaha, he designed almost a dozen homes by independent commission, mostly in his North Omaha neighborhood. In 1914, he and his family moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he served as a senior designer for the City of St. Paul for 34 years. He designed several municipal buildings as well as monumental ice palaces for the St. Paul Winter Carnival in the 1930s and 1940s. He passed away in Kansas City in 1967 at age 84.

While Williams highlights several structures on her 24th Street tour, including Kimball’s Black History Museum and the Jewel Building (designed by F.A. Henninger), she spends a significant amount of time and effort explaining the three buildings on the route by Wigington.

She talks about the Broomfield duplex and the fact that it was actually one of two identical duplexes on the corner designed by Wigington. The second, called the Crutchfield duplex, was destroyed by a fire in the 1980s. Williams talks about Zion Baptist Church at 2215 Grant St., another structure on the National Register with big classical columns, original stained glass windows, and a cornerstone with Wigington’s name. And she talks about the prairie style and craftsman elements of St. John’s African Methodist Episcopal Church at 617 N. 18th St., which Wigington helped remodel.

“I thought, ‘If I’m educated and I don’t know about him, there are a lot of other people who don’t know about him. So ever since then, I’ve been spreading the word about him.”  -Linda Williams

Williams’ dedication has so far caught the attention of architecture and preservation aficionados in Omaha and nationwide. In 2015, she won a diversity scholarship through Historic New England and she was recently named a Diversity Scholar by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Another recent honor was particularly significant to Williams, even though it was not even for her. In October, the Central High Alumni Association inducted Wigington into their hall of fame. Since no one from Wigington’s family was able to accept the award, Williams was asked to accept on their behalf. Williams plans to deliver the award to the family, who live in Chicago, this year.

It was a humbling honor to accept the award and a humbling duty to continue sharing Wigington’s legacy with everyone who will listen. She says it is important for people to know not only what he did, but that he accomplished so much during a time in history when black men faced significant challenges.

“When you think about that particular time and era, there was Jim Crowism going on,” says Ethel Mitchell, current owner of the Broomfield duplex. “To have this black man do what he did and design this type of building was just unheard of. It’s hard to put words to that—it’s just outstanding.”

Visit restorationexchange.org/events/walking-tours to learn more.

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Embellishing the Truth

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Distinctive elements of a residence in the Aksarben neighborhood attracted architects Eric and Trina Westman when they were house hunting.

Since purchasing the home in 2006, the Westmans have been both fascinated and puzzled by the architectural embellishments of their 742-square-foot brick house. Those features—including brown sandstone trim around the front door and decorative plaster crown moldings in the foyer, living room, and dining room—seemed out of place for a small dwelling.

Maag2While the couple sat in their living room, they would look up at the plaster cornices and contemplate.

“I sat here staring at the walls a lot,” says Eric, a project architect at Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture. Trina adds, “We literally stared at it for 10 years, thinking, ‘Why? Where? Who?’” Visiting friends and colleagues were equally mystified. Why would a house of this size, in this neighborhood, have such grand features?

After the Westmans agreed to include their home on Restoration Exchange Omaha’s Fall Neighborhood Tour, they started piecing together the answers.

Maag1Restoration Exchange Omaha (REO) rewards those who open up their homes with a portfolio containing information and newspaper clips about the home’s architecture, history, and occupants. Last fall, University of Nebraska at Omaha honors students conducted research on the homes in the Aksarben neighborhood as part of a service-learning project for REO. UNO junior Justin Korth prepared the research for the Westman home.

Korth’s research detailed the history of the original residents who lived at 1310 S. 63rd St. Edwin and Regina James built the home in 1939 and lived there for 25 years. Edwin was an assistant dean at Omaha University. His father, W. Gilbert James, was twice the acting president of the university and its first dean of the School of Fine Arts.

Regina James was a librarian at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine. Her parents were Freida Maag and her husband, master craftsman Jacob Maag.

Trina read the report, which included an extensive obituary of Jacob, and began a quest to find out more about him. “I started reading a little more and went down to the library that same week. They had a file on him, a couple of articles and some pictures of him carving,” she says. She also ran across a document called “Mallet and Chisel: A Fifty Year Saga of Architectural Sculpture by Jacob Maag.” Primarily a transcript of a 1962 interview with Maag by members of the Greater Omaha Historical Society (now the Douglas County Historical Society), the document includes an in-depth interview with Maag and listings of his stone carving and ornamental plaster work.

Maag4“I think now we have an answer, and it makes sense,” says Trina, who works for the City of Omaha Planning Department. “His daughter, her first home— she was building it in 1938 and that’s when he was doing this kind of work. ‘Sure, your little 742-square-foot house, I’ll put up some fancy plaster work and stone trim,’” she imagines Maag saying.

Maag held impressive credentials. His training included a four-year apprenticeship in Baden, Switzerland, where he earned top marks in his class. Maag then attended the Art Academy in Milan, Italy, and worked for sculptor Angelo Magnioni. He returned to Switzerland and then came to Omaha at the urging of his uncle, John B. Kuony, one of Omaha’s earliest pioneers.

Maag left his mark on some of Nebraska’s most impressive and enduring buildings. He created stone carvings for St. Cecilia Cathedral, Central High School, the University of Nebraska Stadium, the Scottish Rite Cathedral, and dozens of others. He created ornamental plaster moldings for Union Station (now Durham Museum), the State Capitol, and Burlington Station, among many others. He could carve wood and inscribe metal. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a material Maag could not manipulate into some artistic statement. A true Renaissance man, he even wrote poetry.

Maag moved to Albion, Michigan, in 1961 to live with his younger daughter, Jacqueline. He continued to fashion works, mostly in alabaster and marble, in his retirement. He died at age 98 in 1980.

To date, no documentation of the archway or plaster cornices at the Westman home has been found. There is mention in “Mallet and Chisel” of a cast cement fireplace in the home, one of many Maag fashioned. The fireplace is no longer there, though the Westmans see evidence of where it once stood on the north wall of their living room. They speculate that Edwin and Regina James took it with them when they moved to Texas in 1965.

The Westmans plan to build an addition in the next few years and may include a stone fireplace on the far wall.

Maag railed against modern architecture and its “straight up and down” look. He called the new buildings of the day “crackerboxes with holes.” He told the Omaha World-Herald in 1961, “I believe a person should remember the arch over the door he enters.”

Thanks to Jacob Maag, the Westmans can remember the arch over their door and other impressions he left behind. 

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Restoration Exchange Omaha’s 2016 Fall Tour: The Aksarben Neighborhood

Date: Sunday, Oct. 2
Time: Noon-5 p.m.

Eric and Trina Westman’s home is one of 11 sites on the tour, which features a variety of residences in the Aksarben neighborhood (between Leavenworth and Center streets, running from 50th to 72nd streets). Styles include Tudor revival, bungalow, Spanish colonial, and foursquare. The starting point, Mount Calvary Lutheran Church, is also featured.

Tour sites:

  • 5525 Leavenworth St., Mount Calvary Lutheran Church
  • 5501 Leavenworth St., owned by Jennifer Bauer
  • 1301 S. 52nd St., owned by Sarah Cavanagh
  • 5848 Hickory St., owned by Scott Swanson
  • 5844 Pine St., owned by Royce Cannerley
  • 1310 S. 63rd St., owned by Eric and Trina Westman
  • 6239 Poppleton Ave., owned by Kim Riege
  • 6024 Poppleton Ave., owned by Katie Blesener and John Royster
  • 5611 Leavenworth St., owned by Rebecca Anderson
  • 5522 Marcy St., owned by Steven and Amy Thompson
  • 5542 Marcy St., owned by Russell Hollendieck

Tickets are $15 apiece or two for $25, with a discount available for Restoration Exchange Omaha members. Tickets can be purchased the day of the tour at Mount Calvary. They include a tour booklet with the histories of the tour sites and a history of the neighborhood. The route is 2.6 miles and accessible by walking, bicycling, or driving. A free shuttle to the locations will also be provided.

Visit restorationexchange.org for more information. OmahaHome

Girl on Fire

August 13, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Haunting melodies float on a summer breeze. Anna McClellan is practicing on the grand piano;  her melancholy lyrics and precise keystrokes are muffled by walls of her friend’s house in the Dundee neighborhood. Step inside the house and it becomes clear: the calm singer-songwriter with oversized eyeglasses is on fire.

AnnaMcClellan2McClellan, 23, is preparing for several shows scheduled across town in the coming days and weeks. She is also preparing for a two-week, cross-country tour to California. Her destination: Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, a free festival on the first weekend of October at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. She is booking her own gigs for the trip there and back.

The Omaha-born musician will take the stage with another famous local singer-songwriter, Conor Oberst. One of the festival’s seven stages is called “Conor Brings Friends.”

Oberst contributed vocals to McClellan’s most successful single, “Fire Flames,” also the title of her 2015 album (Fire Flames was a cassette tape released simultaneously in digital format by Majestic Litter).

McClellan has played several times at Oberst’s Pageturners Lounge in Dundee. “He’s very supportive of a lot of people around town,” she says. “It’s nice in Omaha, because it’s such a tight-knit community of people (making music). It’s really easy to get help.”

She wrote the song “Fire Flames” in a single sitting, which McClellan says is unusual for her. The lyrics exemplify a recurring theme in her music: “It is such a universal idea to want to be a part of what’s going on, and what the world is, and also being scared of it. But knowing that even though you’re scared of it, if you don’t jump in and try to be a part of it, you won’t be satisfied.”

In conversation, her demeanor is so chill. But she’s a hustler behind the scenes. She works two jobs (one at Joslyn Art Museum, another at The Blackstone Meatball) and plays shows around town by night. She’s speaking to Omaha Magazine on her day off.

AnnaMcClellan3McClellan began studying piano at age 8 through the Omaha Conservatory of Music. She credits the tutelage of Anne Madison for inspiring her passion for piano. Playing the saxophone in jazz band, concert band, and marching band (while a student at Central High School) helped her break out of her comfort zone: “I tend toward structure, where everything’s pre-planned and you know what you are going to do. To be taken out of that comfort zone, and then pushed into solos, made me better, more daring.”

Her mother, former KETV newscaster Carol Kloss, also provided crucial encouragement. They performed together in church musicals, and Kloss included McClellan—the younger of her two daughters—in several Omaha Press Club Show performances.

McClellan first began experimenting with songwriting while studying abroad in Denmark during her junior year of high school. She was in a band called Howard after returning to Omaha, then went solo in 2013. Last year she moved to New York City for three months, working and performing, eventually catching a break to go on tour as the opener for the band Frankie Cosmos. 

Now, she’s working on a new album with Ben Brodin (the Omaha producer of Fire Flames). “We recorded new demos last Sunday for the new record,” McClellan says in July. “It’s going to be a little different. All of the songs that were in Fire Flames were written over this long period (some dating back to high school) more like a collection, but this will be more cohesive.”

“A lot of it is about relationships of two people…and romantic relationships in general, and then, fear,” she says, laughing. “I think it’s easy to get worked up over being scared, so I tend to do that a lot, even for the sake of the song.”

Visit annamcclellan.bandcamp.com for more information. Omaha Magazine

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Bravissimo! The Holland Performing Arts Center

August 10, 2016 by
Photography by provided

Dick and Mary Holland didn’t sit in their well shaded home all summer, waiting for the grand opening of the performing arts center that bears their names. By early May, they’d toured construction progress a dozen times.

But the privilege of joining them on a progress tour in late August proved that they see the great effort with fresh eyes on each visit. Both Dick and Mary asked pointed questions of project manager Steve Smayda, and Holland had friendly greetings for the men laboring on the job.

He’d recently treated the workers to ice cream, hiring three of those ding-dong trucks and sending them to the 11th and Dodge work entrance. “I’ve never been around guys so damn proud
of what they are doing,” he says. He’d long since donned his yellow hard hat to become the first to sing from the new concert hall stage.

“La Donna Mobile?” “No, something from Faust,” he jokes, but more like scales. The former member of the Opera Omaha chorus then offered a few baritone notes.

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Make no mistake, the Hollands are enjoying their singular involvement, starting with a major gift and a hand in planning the $92 million Holland Performing Arts Center at 13th and Douglas. Any discomfort comes from their more specific roles in that Oct. 21 grand opening performance, emceed by Oscar-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss.

A news story reported that Dreyfuss was chosen partly because of starring in the movie, “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” That got a groaning “I hope not” from Omaha’s Mr. Holland. As for that opening night, “We’re certainly going to be there, but I haven’t asked for anything.”

Such reluctance won’t surprise anyone who has followed the story of the Hollands and their “enormously successful” investment with Warren Buffett. When the Omaha World-Herald ran a big spread on their philanthropy (“Giving Their All”) a few years ago, it was noted that they don’t talk about their fortune “and declined to be interviewed” for the article.

When questioned by this writer last year for the University of Nebraska at Omaha magazine Alum, Dick added to the basic account in a Buffett biography. Married a month after his 1948 graduation from then Omaha U., Holland took over his father’s advertising agency and the newlyweds moved into their present home near 80th and Pacific in 1957.

That left him short of funds when he found Buffett, the first person he’d met whose investment ideas “made sense.” So Dick borrowed $10,000 on his life insurance policy and Mary contributed a “significant” amount from her own resources. The rest is history oft-told by biographers of “the Oracle of Omaha”: The insightful ones who invested $10,000 with Buffett in 1957 and let it ride through the founding of Berkshire Hathaway, Inc., saw it grow to roughly $280 million.

Still, the Hollands remained in that same modest house, but gave away millions to causes ranging from the fight against poverty to arts organizations. Last year, $43 million remained in their charitable foundation, despite the many gifts.

Anyone tempted to second-guess their large contribution to the Holland Center must challenge two points: “Our top giving goal is to raise a whole lot of people,” especially children, “out of poverty.” And they both place great importance on the arts.

Born in Dundee and a graduate of Brownell Hall, Mary majored in childcare at Mills College in California. Dick, who grew up near 60th and Pacific, and Mary had attended the same Brownell dances, but didn’t meet until after World War II, when he returned to studies at Omaha U. “Mary still loves to dance,” Dick says, “and she’ll dance till the stars fall out of the sky.”

On music, “We’re all over the map,” he observes. “I like the modern Russians, Mozart, Brahms, some Beethoven. Mary likes some things I don’t particularly like, those compositions full of approaching doom. We go to some Broadway shows twice. We always go to Fiddler on the Roof twice, but this last time we were in Arizona.”

Mary puts it this way: “Life isn’t just reading, writing and arithmetic. It’s more than that. Music penetrates the soul. It causes us to reflect. Painting, dance and creative writing work that way, too. Observe the joy it brings. Not just the applause and cheers, but the quiet pleasure.”

Though Dick’s singing in the Opera Omaha chorus was his most recent performance participation in local arts activity, he came close to a career as an artist. His father, Lewis, had been a talented painter, and Dick won an art award while playing football at Central High School.

“Growing up,” he recalled, “I was nuts about Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. Now I like the contemporary—the Jackson Pollock is the best art at Joslyn.”

He started college planning to be a chemical engineer, like his older brother William, but military duty in that field turned him to art on his return to the classroom at Omaha University, the alma mater of Dick and his three siblings. “I never carried it far enough,” Holland explained. “I was just learning to draw, to paint, but I was still an amateur.”

He dreamed of going to the Art Students League in New York City, but then met Mary. “She wasn’t going with me, and I needed to make money” to support her “in even half the style to which she was accustomed.”

That explains the goal, one he now calls “tasteless,” that ran beneath his senior photo in the university yearbook: “To have money and a business in art and advertising.”

That business, for many years, was known as Holland, Dreves and Reilly, second only to Bozell and Jacobs in its advertising/public relations heyday. (Valmont, UniRoyal and Omaha National Bank were prime accounts.)

Dick didn’t entirely abandon art when he delved into vocal music. He tried some life drawing, some painting. “The thing about it,” he notes, “is I’m just so totally into myself when working on canvas,
so absorbed.”

But football and fencing gave way to golf. The tall man shot in the upper 70s in his prime at the Omaha Country Club, and freely advised fellow golfers. And painting gave way to five years of voice lessons, studying with the Germanic Josie Whaley.

“She’d say, ‘Meester Holland, if you keep doing the baaaa, the scales, you’ll have a remarkable voice.” In Dick’s words, “Keep training and your range is raised a hell of a lot.”

In the course of their board work and their contributions to the opera and the symphony, the Hollands and others developed a vision that led to the Performing Arts Center opening in October. Joan Squires, in her third year as president of Omaha Performing Arts, cites that vision and “Dick’s perseverance for eight years or more” as a key to the center’s completion.

She has toured construction with the Hollands and “wished I had a tape recorder and a camera. It’s a thrill every time thru with them.” She joined them again, along with their daughter, Andy, when this writer shared the experience.

In particular, Squires recalls Dick’s first reaction to the downtown center: “It’s so big.”

Yes, that was a surprise, he admits, having viewed it first in model form. He’d visited other arts centers and the committee headed by World-Herald publisher John Gottschalk added sites as far as Vienna and Lucerne to their tours.

The Hollands helped engage architects famed for the renovation of Carnegie Hall and design of the Clinton presidential library, along with the Fisher Dachs Associates as theater consultants who’d done work for the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and the Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Even more intriguing were the acousticians from Kirkegaard Associates.

“I had to learn how to pronounce AK-u-stishun,” Holland noted. And, of course, to test their talents by singing that passage from “Faust.”

He stood on that 64 by 48 feet stage in the classic shoebox configuration of the main concert hall, 80 feet wide by 180 feet deep, where 2,000 will hear sounds ranging from soloists to full orchestras. Later, the Hollands will sit sans hard hats in what the architects call a surrounding of “warm, fine-grained woodwork.”

Concert-goers won’t see that the hall is “sheathed in zinc,” but before entering they’ll eye the great illuminated glass lantern above and they’ll see that the acoustically isolated hall is clad in limestone. A thousand will sit at orchestra level, with 400 in the mezzanine, and 600 in the upper balcony.

Squires is quick to remind that the $75 to $150 tickets are just for opening night, with early activities including two or three free events, plus tours, and other performances in the $35 and $45 range.

The “black box” recital hall will seat 450, and the terraced courtyard, designated as a third performance venue, will hold 1,000. The Holland Center will house parties and educational activities as well. The Orpheum, fully equipped with stage rigging, will remain home for Broadway musicals and other events.

Squires, who came to Omaha from the Phoenix Symphony, commented on the wide range of upcoming performances. “One of the reasons it’s a joy to work with the Hollands is because they bring such broad understanding and interests,” she says. “They’re eclectic, but don’t impose their taste. It’s a low key, quiet influence, and we respect their desire to stay out of the spotlight.”

“We won’t attend all the early events,” Dick adds, “but there are some we’ll definitely see.” They especially anticipate Renée Fleming’s appearance with the Omaha Symphony on Dec. 9. “I was president of Opera Omaha when she first sang here.” He also takes pride in their presenting of the great Beverly Sills, but notes that the biggest local paycheck of $100,000 went to Placido Domingo.

But now comes that grand opening with Dreyfuss, the other “Mr. Holland,” and a program that includes Oscar winner Alexander Payne, U.S. poet laureate Ted Kooser, bandleader Branford Marsalis and others, including the symphony and the opera chorus. Squires takes pains to point out even this higher-priced event is not black tie, but cocktail attire.

Tickets went on sale in mid-August and began to sell quickly. A pre-event cocktail party sold out almost immediately.

Lest purists fear that Dick Holland’s brief aria was the only pre-testing of the acoustical marvels, it must be noted that an extensive “tuning” process gave professional musicians ample opportunities to experiment with the new concert hall, even before a long rehearsal period.

During the run-up to the grand opening, acousticians “tuned” the hall. Musical ensembles of varying size and style (classical, symphonic, chamber, pop, rock and jazz) performed during the weeks of late September. At each performance, acousticians positioned each of the moveable acoustic reflectors and panels, matching the reverberations to the size and sound of each group. The positions were locked into preset configurations, which could be used for future performances with ensembles of that size and style.

That’s fine by Holland who recalls his first piano lesson: “Auto stop, I’m the cop, drivers take warning.” The memory brings a smile and makes him happy to give the stage to the pros while he sits back with Mary in Row P of the Holland Center and enjoys their talents.

It’s not just a new asset for the performing arts. It enriches the city where both were born and where they stayed to make good use of their “enormously successful” investment.

The Gillaspie Family

May 13, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The satellite dish outside Mark and Dianne Gillaspie’s west Omaha home beams in more than movies; it lets them dial up their sons’ latest swings, scoops, and slides on the baseball diamond, a scenario many people dream about but rarely experience. The couple multiplies by two the thrills and agonies of watching their children play professional ball.

Their older son, Conor, 28, has returned to the San Francisco Giants, while Casey, 23, advances through the minor league levels of the Tampa Bay Rays organization. Talk about beating the odds: According to an NCAA study, the chances of a high school player making the big leagues is one in 6,600. But then, the Gillaspie (pronounced Gillespie) family has beaten the odds before. Conor and Casey’s base path to success mirrors their father’s.

“I was drafted by the San Diego Padres in 1981, my senior year at Mississippi State,” says Mark, an All-American right fielder who taught himself to switch hit on the sandlots of Omaha. “I played ball with my friends all the time, from morning ’til night,” he recalls of his “good” childhood, when summers also meant sitting in the old Rosenblatt Stadium watching the College World Series. “My senior year we were able to make it to the CWS, winning our first game.

“I miss Rosenblatt. I think most baseball fans do,” he says.

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Before Mark reported to rookie ball in Walla Walla, Washington, he became engaged to a pretty softball player studying physical therapy at MSU. He and Dianne bridged the time apart the old fashioned way.

“He wrote me a letter every single day,” says Dianne, smiling. “There were no cell phones back then.”

Mark’s letters, no doubt, filled Dianne in about his teammates drafted in the same class, names now part of baseball lore: All-Star outfielder/first baseman-turned-ESPN analyst John Kruk (Mark’s roommate), and the man who would become “Mr. Padre,” the late, great Tony Gwynn. Mark still chuckles when he remembers the first day of practice.

“We’re in our ugly Padres uniforms, hanging around the batting cage, snickering at this really large kid from Los Angeles who didn’t look like an athlete at all. Well, our first game, he hits four balls off the wall. Two weeks later, he was called up to the next level.”

In fact, within a year, Tony Gwynn would make it to the Show.

Mark reached his ceiling at Triple-A. The Padres, so rich in talent during the ’80s, never had a place for him. Accepting reality, especially since he now had Conor, Mark pursued his second interest—law enforcement.

An Omaha police officer for almost 20 years, Mark currently serves as the school resource officer at his alma mater, Central High School. He has no regrets. “I’ve met the best people in my life,” he says of his fellow officers. “These are my brothers. I would do anything for them.”

Mark and Dianne never prodded or pushed their children into a life of sports, even though the natural athletic skills of all three, including daughter Makenzie, rose to the surface early.

“Makenzie is the best athlete in the family, “ says her proud dad. “She won all-state honors in softball and soccer at Elkhorn.” She’s now a soccer coach in Kansas City.

Luckily for her brothers, she didn’t compete in baseball.

“Conor told me when he was four years old he was going to be in the big leagues,” Dianne recalls. He stayed true to his word.

Conor and Casey willingly and happily put the backyard batting cage to use when they wanted to practice their swings, with dad often throwing pitches. They played in Little League. They both went to Millard North High School and Wichita State. Each caught the eye of scouts their junior year, earning first-round draft pick honors. The similarity ends with their personalities.

At 6 feet 5 inches and 240 pounds, Casey “is our teddy bear—a big, lovable kid, real easy going,” says his mom.  Adds Mark, “Somebody that big who can hit the ball out of the park from both sides of the plate attracts a lot of interest.”

Disciplined, strong-willed, and hardworking characterize Conor, who slugged his way to a big league call-up that eluded his father. He won a World Series ring in 2012 as a part-time third baseman with the Giants, only to be traded to the White Sox the next year.

“He had a good first year with the Sox, but the second year his production trailed off,” says Mark. “He’s now back with the team that drafted him.”  Mark, who spent eight years in the minors, knows all too well that, “baseball is a game of failure. You’re going to screw up.”

That’s why he and Dianne don’t pay attention to what fans say or write about either son. They just call the kids on the phone and talk about “normal family stuff.” For the Gillaspies, family is what really matters.

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