Tag Archives: Chuck Hagel

Mike Hagel

November 9, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When Mike Hagel landed at Chicago O’Hare Airport back in 1970, he didn’t know what to expect.

“Get out and start life,” his mother Betty told her sons.

So Mike, then 20 years old, walked out into the Windy City with the gray Samsonite suitcases his mother had given him as a graduation gift, his art portfolio, and a dream.

“The YMCA,” Mike told the cab driver.

“North or South?” he asked.

“South,” Mike replied.

The cabby dropped him in a rough neighborhood. Every 15 minutes his room shook from the L train roaring past. That first night, there were two shootings with police officers showing up late into the night.

But this young man from the small Nebraska town of Columbus remained undeterred. The next day, he moved into a dingy apartment complex.

“I felt like I should have had a shotgun,” his brother Tom says. “It was such a tiny place I could almost reach out the window and touch the other building.”

It was freezing, so Mike slept with his clothes on and saw icy puffs of his own breath in the mornings. During the day, he hunted for illustrator jobs.

“I wasn’t going to accept no,” Mike says.

Mike had known what he wanted to do since his fresh- man year of high school. His brother, Tom, remembers Mike’s cartoon sketches were as “good as any in the newspaper and he was just this little kid.”

His art teacher at Columbus High encouraged Mike to further hone his craft. He spent countless hours creating, designing, and imagining projects under the basement stairs at his workbench. A block of wood transformed into an automobile with a quality paint job. And it earned him some scholarship money from General Motors.

Despite his love of cars, Mike was still drawn to the realistic Norman Rockwell ads. He attended the Colorado Institute of Art, taking classes during the summer to finish in two years. After Tom and his other brother Chuck returned from Vietnam, Mike knew it was time to draw his own history.

After about a week of searching, Mike landed an apprentice job for $50 a week with a graphic arts firm, Feldkamp-Malloy.

“I was just so pumped to get into the business,” Mike recalls. “It’s a very tough industry to get into for a young person.”

Accompanied by some smooth jazz and a cigarette, Mike would work late into the night. His bosses were akin to those in the show Mad Men, complete with liquid lunches.

Mike rarely bombed a job. His tenacity and creativity earned him a spot as staff illustrator for the board plus a pay increase of $100. By 1973, he was making $12,000 a year and thought he had the “world by the tail.”

He was soon landing bigger clients, such as Kellogg’s and Miller, and went on to work 47 years in the business (spending 24 years at ad agencies on Michigan Avenue in Chicago).

Now with a studio in Omaha, Mike points toward a lampshade purchased at an antique store. Mike told the owner he painted the Miller High Life Lady on the Moon, but she never believed him. He bought his own art for about $50.

He’s grown accustomed to seeing his work appear unexpectedly, for example: one of his portraits of lawyer Clarence Darrow on an episode of L.A. Law. His works have also been featured in the Strategic Air and Space Museum and the Pentagon. He is represented locally by the gallery Regency Parkway Art.

Mike works as an adjunct professor at Metropolitan Community College, where he teaches graphic design.

“Everyone can learn to draw if they have the desire to learn,” he believes. “The talent comes from the desire to learn.”

Mike calls himself an old dinosaur who still draws and paints without the assistance of CGI or computer tools commonly used today.

But Tom, a retired law professor from the University of Dayton School of Law, says Mike is uncommonly talented.

The younger Hagel brother is widely known for his aviation paintings, some of which hang in the Pentagon. His favorite is of a World War II battle titled Simpson Harbor. Mike knew the man who led the mission, and he calls Lieutenant General John Henebry “the finest man I ever knew.”

The painting depicts B-25 bombers in action over the blue waters of the South Pacific, attacking Japanese warships. Billows of smoke drift in blue skies and explosions are the backdrop. Henebry seems to fly out of the chillingly accurate portrayal, guns a-blazin’. He proudly shows off the signatures at the bottom of the painting, from the men who fought in the battle. Kathy, his wife of 10 years, calls his process “intense” and “inspired.” Mike did extensive research, read mission reports, and conducted interviews to ensure everything about the day was historically relevant right down to the altitude, atmosphere, and time of day.

Mike donated Simpson Harbor to the Air Force in 1990. It wasn’t his first artwork donation. In fact, he donated nearly a dozen aviation-themed paintings to the Air Force between 1977 and 1993.

Simpson Harbor used to hang in the office of Gen. Colin Powell at the Pentagon. Secretary of Defense James Mattis liked the painting so much that it now hangs in his office. And it hung outside the office when Chuck, the eldest Hagel brother, held the defense secretary position from 2013 to 2015. Mike jokes he was in the Pentagon years before Chuck.

Mike has spent years drawing caricatures of his brother Chuck, the former Republican senator from Nebraska, who finally asked for an official portrait.

Mike started the process by taking 76 photos from different angles and poses. From there, he drew a number of color and pencil sketches. Chuck picked the final one he liked the best.

“It’s extremely accurate and realistic,” Chuck says. “I’m a big fan.”

Mike noticed other portraits of former secretaries had something of their service incorporated in the background. Chuck thought what set his apart was the Combat Infantry Badge in the left-hand corner of the portrait.

The Department of Defense unveiled the portrait at the Pentagon in May 2017.

“It will be something around long after I’m gone, which is a nice feeling,” Mike says.

It was the first official portrait of a secretary not paid for by the United States government. Mike and Chuck worked out a price.

“Two cases of PBR [Pabst Blue Ribbon] and 12 frozen DiGiorno’s pizzas,” Mike says, joking.

Mike, 68, isn’t resting on his laurels. In his free time, he likes collecting motorcycles, drinking beer, and shooting pool. Or spending time with his wife and three grown children. As a commercial artist, he was given a problem to solve, but now he uses his imagination. He starts with a blank canvas, a cup of coffee, then heads down to his studio in the mornings.

The studio showcases a melting pot of styles. A huge life-like Henry Fonda from the Grapes of Wrath sits in the center of the room, while an abstract Highway 20 Revisited is reminiscent of an impressionist painting with cool blues, dark greens, and bright yellow and oranges streaking next to a hot red highway.

Mike reclines in his paint-spattered leather chair, having traded corporate business attire for the comfort of jeans and a polo shirt. Next to him is a combination of realistic and abstract works: a cow with long horns and a surreal background. Mike has been playing with mixing new mediums.

“Tom, Chuck, and I—all three of us—have left a mark that we were here,” Mike says. “I can’t ask for more than that.”

Visit regencyparkwayart.com for the Omaha gallery representing Mike Hagel.

This article was printed in the November/December edition of Omaha Magazine.

American Heroes and Dreamers

October 26, 2017 by

“Chuck Hagel supported the war. His brother hated it. And in the jungles of Vietnam each was destined to save the other’s life.” The text blurb appears on the front cover of a new book by Daniel P. Bolger, Our Year of War: Two Brothers, Vietnam, and a Nation Divided.

An advance copy arrived in the mail while Omaha Magazine was deep in production on our November/December issue. A note from the publishing house explained that the book would be published on Nov. 7, in time for Veterans Day (Nov. 11).

Veterans Day was also the motivation for several military and veteran-themed stories in the full city edition of our latest issue. One of those stories is an artist profile about one of the Hagel brothers. But we didn’t write about the two highlighted in Bolger’s new book.

In 1968, Tom and Chuck Hagel fought the Tet Offensive, battled snipers in Saigon, and chased the enemy through the jungle. Years later, Tom became a law professor at the University of Dayton in Ohio. Chuck went on to represent Nebraska in the U.S. Senate for 12 years before serving as U.S. Defense Secretary from 2013 until 2015 under President Barrack Obama.

Their younger brother, Mike Hagel, was too young to serve in Vietnam. He would grow up to be a successful artist working in advertising and fine art. A portrait that he painted of his older brother now hangs in the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Our latest issue features Mike’s story, titled “Nebraska’s Painter in the Pentagon.”

Another military-focused article about local art is the story of the New Century Art Guild. The nonprofit is dedicated to helping veterans cope with post-traumatic stress disorder through artwork. The guild has a gallery displaying artworks at City Hall, organizes veteran art exhibitions around town, and also hosts workshops and classes. Twice a month, they even offer art classes to incarcerated vets suffering from PTSD.

Joyce Winfield, Ph.D., writes about the philanthropic work of Bill and Evonne Williams. The Williamses coordinated 11 honor flights from Nebraska (taking 3,235 veterans to the nation’s capital), culminating in The Final Mission. Joyce had previously written the cover story of Omaha Magazine’s May/June issue (excerpted from her book, Forever Heroes: A Collection of World War II Stories from Nebraska Veterans). Her husband, Doug, served in Vietnam and participated in The Final Mission. Her in-depth article in this issue explores the trip from the vantage of other Omaha-area Vietnam vets, and she explains the next phase of the Williamses’ efforts to memorialize members of the U.S. Armed Forces who sacrificed their lives in the years and wars following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Aside from these military stories, the November/December issue’s other major article addresses Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals from the perspective of the local youths. University of Nebraska-Omaha professor Thomas Sanchez, Ph.D., interviewed 10 anonymous DACA recipients, and Omaha Magazine reached out to five additional current, former, and would-be DACA recipients (who volunteered to support the story with their faces, names, and video interviews).

The story of DACA recipients relates back to Chuck Hagel’s time in the U.S. Senate. He was the first Republican co-sponsor of the DREAM Act, a bipartisan bill that addressed the status of undocumented youths who grew up in the U.S. (aka “dreamers”). The DREAM Act never became law, which led to the policy of “deferred action” under Obama, and current uncertainty facing the youths in the wake of President Donald Trump’s announcement to terminate DACA.

This letter was printed in the November/December edition of Omaha Magazine.

Omaha Magazine Wins 2015 Great Plains Journalism Award

April 14, 2015 by

Photo above: Director of Photography Bill Sitzmann, Creative Director John Gawley, Managing Editor Robert Nelson, and Senior Graphic Designer Kristen Hoffman with our award-winning cover at the 2015 Great Plains Journalism Awards ceremony in Tulsa, Okla.

Omaha Magazine won best magazine cover at the prestigious 2015 Great Plains Journalism Awards, one of five categories in which the magazine was named among three finalists.

The Great Plains Journalism Awards annually recognize the best newspaper and magazine journalism in an eight-state region comprising of Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and South Dakota. The awards were presented during a luncheon April 13 at The Mayo Hotel in Tulsa, Okla.

Omaha Magazine won the top award in the Magazine Cover category for the January/February 2014 Best of Omaha issue, executed by Creative Director John Gawley, then-Junior Graphic Designer Paul Lukes, and Ben Lueders of Fruitful Design.

We received two of the three finalist slots in the Magazine Cover category. Gawley and Director of Photography Bill Sitzmann were nominated for our November/December 2014 cover featuring local radio legend Otis XII in a story written by Managing Editor Robert Nelson.

Nelson himself was a finalist in the Magazine Profile Writing category for his July/August 2014 cover story on then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and again in the Magazine Column Writing category for his September/October 2014 “The Closer” column, titled “Slogan Explosion.”

Sitzmann was recognized for his portrait of Jeff Toma accompanying the story “The Handyman Diaries” in the January/February 2014 issue of Omaha Home. That story was written by Executive Editor David Williams.

Mike Lang and Corey Hart of Spectral Chemist were recognized for their video supporting our September/October 2014 story “Cricket: The Grandfather of Baseball is Making a Comeback in Omaha,” written by Robyn Murray.

“I am proud of our talented staff and we are honored to tell the stories of the people of Omaha,” Omaha Magazine Publisher Todd Lemke says. “It’s great to be recognized by our peers as being right up there with the best of the best in an eight-state regional competition where Omaha Magazine was the only Nebraska magazine recognized as a finalist—let alone a winner. We also congratulate the Omaha World-Herald for their strong showing at the awards.”

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Peace is His Profession

February 5, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

How many times have moviegoers seen Washington, D.C. destroyed by a wayward nuke/seven-mile-wide comet/giant solar flare/fire-throwing robots/aliens/zombies or renegade paramilitary outfit, only to have a fearless pilot save the day at the last minute? Hollywood, at least since the Cold War, has thrived on channeling Americans’ apocalyptic fears, now more clearly defined since the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

While the causes of the onscreen cataclysmic events may be a little off-kilter, swooping in to rescue officials from the highest levels of government is no fantasy for a select group of pilots at Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, including Major Jon Grossrhode. A member of the 1st Airborne Command & Control Squadron and a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Grossrhode (pronounced GROSS-road-ee) flies one of the great wonders of the aeronautical world.

The military calls the highly modified Boeing 747-200 series the E-4B: its project name, Nightwatch. Civilians know it as the “Doomsday Plane,” but Grossrhode isn’t biting.

“Well, some people call it that,” the 34-year old Plattsmouth resident says quietly, clearly not comfortable surrendering the vital importance of Nightwatch to pop culture lingo.

If a worst-case scenario unfolds in Washington, “We will support the President and his national security team, the Secretary of Defense, and the Joint Chiefs,” explains Grossrhode. “The plane has been tested (to withstand) nuclear attacks.” Thus, Nightwatch becomes an airborne command post. Its ability to re-fuel in the air allows the plane to fly for days. The 165,000 pounds of electronics onboard keep the lines of communication open with forces on the ground.

There are actually four E-4Bs that rotate a maintenance schedule, leaving two planes on active duty at any given time. An E-4 is somewhere in the world on alert 24/7, 365 days a year. Since the planes are based at Offutt, Midlanders often look up in the sky, see an E-4 on a training mission between Omaha and Lincoln, and mistake it for its cousin, Air Force One.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (our July/August 2014 Omaha Magazine cover feature), a western Nebraska native and 1971 UNO graduate, already knows the E-4 quite well. He uses it for overseas trips, with Maj. Grossrhode one of three pilots at the controls.

“We’ll fly from Offutt to Andrews (Air Force Base) and he meets us there,” explains Grossrhode. What are the odds (all due respect to Tom Cruise and Top Gun) that two UNO Mavericks would find commonality aboard a plane also manned by a Nebraska-based crew?

“I knew he had gone to UNO, but you just can’t go up to the Secretary of Defense and say, ‘Hey, what’s up? How’s it going?’” says Grossrhode, showing a flash of humor. “His staff introduced me to him.” The two men have since formed a bond, often chatting about Omaha and Offutt.

“[Hagel] comes up to the flight deck, puts on a headset and thanks us every time,” Grossrhode says, adding, “He’s very personable.”

A tour of the E-4B shows a plane short on amenities but huge on technology, with conference rooms, offices, and space for a full complement of media. Hagel’s quarters are spartan compared to the facilities on the President’s plane. He has a bunk bed, several chairs, and a small bathroom with a sink, but no shower, making a 15-hour flight from Beijing to D.C. challenging. Nightwatch can reach a top speed of 602 mph but “with a good tail wind, it can be faster,” says Grossrhode.

The son of a career Air Force dentist and a high school guidance counselor who are both from the Omaha area, Maj. Grossrhode grew up on several bases around the country. He knew early on that he wanted to honor his father’s legacy by becoming an Air Force pilot. He even looks the part of a man entrusted with the Air Force’s last line of defense. Tall and lanky with close-cropped hair, the soft-spoken Grossrhode has to bend his head way down to enter the E-4 cockpit, which is literally covered from top to bottom in switches and doo-dads of all stripes. Already a seasoned pilot by the time he trained on the E-4, Maj. Grossrhode credits his college experience with giving him a solid foundation.

“I wanted to live near my aunts, uncles and cousins, so I chose to go to UNO,” he explains. As a student at the school’s Aviation Institute, a gem of a program but little-known outside aviation circles, Grossrhode trained at Eppley Airfield and earned his private pilot’s license by the time he graduated in 2002. He arrived at Offutt in 2007 after serving as an instructor pilot in Oklahoma.

He has enjoyed every day since he arrived back home seven years ago.

“I’m living my dream,” he says. “I wanted to be a pilot for as long as I can remember, since I was a little boy. I grew up on Air Force bases watching air shows, getting to know the pilots. Now I get to come to work and fly every day.

“And I get paid for it!”

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War and Peace

July 10, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann,

On March 8, 2013, a young man biked to the gates of the Afghan Defense Ministry and detonated a bomb strapped to his chest. The massive explosion, which killed nine civilians, shook a nearby building in which then-new U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was meeting with military officials.

“This attack was a message to him,” a Taliban spokesman emailed to reporters soon afterwards.
Hagel wasn’t listening. Inside a briefing room, the twice-wounded Vietnam vet appeared more curious than concerned as the building rocked. Within seconds, he was back on task, discussing the intricacies of winding down the longest war in U.S. history.

“No kidding — he barely flinched,” says Hagel’s former press secretary, George Little, who was in the room at the time. “That’s just who he is. He’s so focused on goals that nothing fazes him.”
Those goals, if attained, will make history. The former U.S. Senator from Nebraska will guide the U.S. Armed Forces through the transition from an unpopular two-front war he famously opposed into a lean, nimble, cutting-edge force poised for 21st century challenges. High-tech weaponry and cyber defenses designed to defend against more advanced foes will be increased. The Pacific Rim will receive more focus. Aging, cumbersome machines of war will be mothballed.

But Hagel hopes to leave more than a legacy of hardware, strategy, and efficient power projection. He wants his legacy to be a sort of antithesis to Vietnam. Empathetic leadership. Conflict seen as only a wicked necessity. A fighting force that can skirt quagmires, disrupt and disable from a distance, and better armor flesh and blood.

All this amid constant criticism, political dysfunction, and ever-shapeshifting crises. An unstable Ukraine. Putin. Syria. Mosul. The screwball menace of Kim Jong-un. “The Middle East in flames,” Hagel adds. Domestically: The VA scandal. The Bergdahl controversy. The sexual assault scandal. Controversy after controversy.

And he also runs a department with more than three million employees. “You’ll never know all of it, you can never know all of it,” he says from his office at the Pentagon. “What you must do is not get dragged down into the underbrush with stuff that’s not a top priority to know.”

You must remain calm. Keep studying, he says. Know your history. Learn from the mistakes of history and the lessons of your own history. Talk candidly with everyone from generals to privates, warriors to desk jockeys. Always listen, he says. Always be empathetic.

And somehow, remain unbowed by the bombs exploding around you.

“Chuck is singularly prepared for a job like this,” says former U.S. Senator and Nebraska Gov. Bob Kerrey, a fellow decorated Vietnam vet. “He’s focused, he believes in what he’s doing, he has an amazing ability to stay positive through tough times. Add to all that his life experience. He was an enlisted man, he’s seen it all. He knows what it’s like, and what it means, to actually be there.”

Two photos hang on the family room wall in Tom Hagel’s home in Dayton, Ohio. One shows Tom and his older brother Chuck dressed in their altar boy gowns standing in front of a modest Catholic church in Ainsworth, Neb. (“That brick you see was just a façade on a Quonset Hut,” Tom says). The irony of the photo isn’t lost on the brothers. “I was not a choir boy,” Tom says. “We were very different people,” says Chuck.

The Hagel Brothers as Altar Boys

The second photo shows Tom and Chuck with arms around each other, drinks in hand, at a party held at their rental house in North Omaha not long after they returned from Vietnam. Tom still keeps the photo close, both because of what it shows and what it doesn’t.

“All buddy-buddy, right?” explains Tom, an attorney, law professor, and judge in Dayton. “Oh man. In a flash, we’d be after each other. Couple words about Vietnam. A minute after that photo we were in a fistfight, smashing beds, knocking doors off.

“Somebody called the cops. Once the cops got there we were immediately all buddy-buddy and we had each other’s back again. That’s how it was in a nutshell.”

Tom and Chuck Hagel

Tom believed Vietnam was a disaster orchestrated for all the wrong reasons. Chuck believed Vietnam was a geopolitical necessity.

Chuck was also the proverbial Good Son. He was a quarterback and class president at St. Bonaventure High School in Columbus (now Columbus Central Catholic). He was driven. He always dressed for success in his still-beloved pleated khakis. “He’s been running for president since he was 16,” Tom says.

In some ways, Chuck’s ship-shape persona was a cover. As he advanced in high school, his father’s alcoholism and downward spiral advanced. Before settling in Columbus, Charlie Hagel bounced his family through numerous towns in western Nebraska. Ainsworth, Rushville, Scottsbluff, Terrytown, York. The jobs got smaller. The houses got smaller—if there was a house. One summer the four Hagel brothers slept in a chicken dormer. Life got more and more unstable. Chuck picked up the slack, stayed focused on goals. Tom rebelled. But Tom still views his father more as a tragic figure than anything else.

“I talked to some of his old buddies in Ainsworth, people who knew him before he went off to World War II,” Tom says. “They said the war changed him—he was a different person when he came back. I think he was a beat-up manic-depressive who was self-medicating. But back then there wasn’t any help. There was just the stigma.”

Charlie died suddenly at age 39 on Christmas morning, 1962. Chuck was 16. So, Chuck became the man of the house, helping his mother watch over the five younger Hagel children. It was hard, but the family always found a way to make do. Chuck says he learned leadership skills at a very young age.

“When my dad died, my youngest brother, Jim, was only in second grade,” Chuck says. “I started coaching his little league teams. I basically became a surrogate father to him.”

After high school, Chuck went off to try his hand at college. Things didn’t work out. He enlisted. Around that time, Tom graduated high school—somehow. “I mean, (Tom) may have gotten enough C’s to graduate,” Chuck says. “But it was probably just a good arrangement for everyone involved to let him out of high school.”

Like Chuck, Tom chose to enlist instead of wait for the draft. “You’re going anyway,” Tom says. “Just as well volunteer and get it over with.”

After training, Chuck was sent to Vietnam. At the time, Tom was stationed in Germany waiting for his orders. Then Tom came up with a plan. Knowing that the U.S. military didn’t allow brothers to serve beside each other in battle (termed the “Sole Survivor Policy”), Tom volunteered to go to Vietnam. He knew he was going anyway. Why not help out his big brother in the process. Chuck, he thought, would get sent home early.

But, SNAFU. “I got there and nobody knew what I was talking about,”

Tom says. Then, in a chain of events that still baffle the brothers, Tom, apparently by coincidence, ended up northwest of Saigon, not only in the same division as Chuck, but in the same squad of the same platoon of the same company. In time, they literally were walking point together.

So the Hagel brothers, it is widely believed, became the only brothers to serve side-by-side in combat in the Vietnam War.

Tom, a scrappy 160-pound teen who liked the outdoors, was better built for jungle warfare than Chuck. “His size worked against him,” Tom says. “I was a wimpy little burnout, but I could move in the mud—I was more comfortable in that environment than he was. I really felt sorry for him. He was a fish out of water.”

The brothers began to lose friends, witnessing horrific scenes that scar both of them still.
While on patrol one morning in 1968, a soldier walking point in front of the Hagels stepped on a landmine. Shrapnel hit Tom’s arm. A larger piece lodged in Chuck’s chest. Tom dropped to his brother’s side and bound him with compression bandages to stop the bleeding.

A month later, Chuck dragged Tom from a burning armored personnel carrier. Blood poured from Tom’s ears. Chuck’s face was severely burned.

The Hagels returned home to Nebraska with five Purple Hearts between them (Chuck received two, Tom received three). They returned having had nearly identical experiences. Yet, the two men viewed life and their experiences through very different lenses.

They, did, however, have something very much in common, Chuck Hagel says.
“We both still had no idea what we wanted to do.”

The University of Nebraska—Omaha has provided college educations to thousands of veterans through the G.I. Bill. The school, Chuck Hagel notes, has a long history and strong reputation for helping vets not only get degrees, but also find their way in life. “It really is one of the premier bootstrap universities in the country,” Chuck says. Both Chuck and Tom found professors who inspired and guided them.

Both brothers flourished. Tom angled toward law. “I wanted to save the world,” he says. Chuck moved toward government and politics. He went to Washington, D.C., knocked on doors throughout the city, and finally landed a part-time job on the staff of Nebraska Rep. John McCollister. McCollister, an old-school Nebraska conservative who served from 1971 to 1977, may have influenced Chuck Hagel’s politics, and honed his political acumen, more than any other person in his life. Hagel called McCollister, who died last year at age 92, “the finest public servant I have ever known.”

Through the 1970s, thanks to McCollister, Hagel increasingly found himself in close proximity to the Republican Party elite. In 1980, Hagel campaigned for the Ronald Reagan. Once elected, Reagan decided Hagel was a natural for a veterans-related post. He was nominated for the job of deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration.

Before taking that post, though, Hagel was asked to take over the planning and construction of the 1982 World’s Fair, which, at the time, was on a path to disaster. “I told them I’d never even been to a World’s Fair,” Hagel says. “I had been to a carnival in Beaver Crossing. That’s it.” But, no matter. Hagel went and lived in Knoxville, Tenn., and worked day and night for six months. In the end, the World’s Fair was a success, and Hagel had made a name for himself in the Republican Party. Hagel remembers well flying to the opening event on Air Force One with Reagan. It was May 1, 1982. Hagel rattles off the date without pause. To be sure, Reagan also was a major influence on the future senator’s brand of conservatism.

Besides building his party cred, Hagel learned he could successfully run a large operation. “It was the first big organizational job I had in my life,” he says.

And so, the education of Chuck Hagel continued. After the World’s Fair stint, he took that job with the Veteran’s Administration. Soon, though, he found himself embroiled in controversy. Also, he found himself, for the first time, having to put his career on the line for his beliefs.

In 1982, VA administrator Robert Nimmo made several inflammatory comments about veterans during his push to cut funding for VA programs. Nimmo called veterans groups “greedy” and described the effects of Agent Orange as not much worse than “a little teenage acne.”

Both Hagel brothers had suffered breathing problems after significant contact with Agent Orange. Tom’s current heart problems are blamed on Agent Orange. (“We walked together through areas that looked like moonscapes because of the stuff,” Tom says). Later in the 1980s, the brothers sat on a congressional commission that investigated Agent Orange use in Vietnam.

Chuck resigned amid the flap. He was finished with politics…at least for a while.

From 1982 to 1996, Chuck Hagel was a businessman. A few friends who were in the cable TV business asked Hagel to join them in a new business venture based on a strange new technology—“cellular telephony.” Hagel was asked to invest $5,000. He had little money to show for those seemingly fancy government titles he had held. To raise the money, he cashed in his life insurance policy and sold his 1978 Buick Skylark.

Three years later, Vanguard Cellular Systems was one of the largest cell phone companies in the country. He was quickly a multi-millionaire.

Then: President and CEO of the United Service Organizations. Deputy director of the Private Sector Council. COO of the 1990 G7 Summit. On the board of directors of the American Red Cross.
Although some pushed for Hagel to seek to become Governor of Virginia, he moved back to Nebraska in 1992 to become president of the investment-banking firm, The McCarthy Group, LLC. He also served as CEO of what became Election Systems & Software.

In what Tom describes as a move “that was a long time coming,” Chuck finally ran for office. In 1996, he started as a mostly-unknown underdog to replace Jim Exon in the U.S. Senate. But he rose quickly to win in a landslide in the Republican primary, and then upset Ben Nelson in the general election. He quickly became a darling of the Republican Party, amassing one of the most conservative voting records in the Senate. In 2000, he was on the short list of George W. Bush’s picks to be his running mate.

Then, once again, war.

But by 2003, Hagel had, in part thanks to being privy for two decades to countless previously-classified documents related to the Vietnam War, was much more leery of using force—and much less trusting of intelligence sources— than most of his Republican colleagues.

As the country ramped up for an invasion of Iraq, Tom says, he and his brother were no longer diametrically opposed on many issues. “I had moderated, I think he had, too,” Tom says. “Chuck has always been thoughtful, don’t get me wrong. But he learned more about the mistakes of the past through the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. He’s very careful now and nuanced in his thinking when others often aren’t.”

Kerrey, who served alongside Chuck in the Senate in the late ‘90s, agrees with Tom Hagel’s assessment of his brother’s mindset at the point Chuck went to battle with his own party over Iraq. “Chuck has experienced so much, he knew the issues inside and out,” Kerrey says. “He knew that people were being fed complete inaccuracies. He knew that things on the ground in Iraq were much more complicated than what people were being told. “When people get wildly enthusiastic about war—which was the case then— there has to be someone like Chuck who is willing to stand up and say, ‘Are you sure?’ He took an immense amount of criticism from Republicans during that time. It took real courage to do what he did.”

Hagel still bristles at the idea he somehow turned traitor on his party. “I am the guy who brought then-President Bush to Omaha to kick off his Immigration Reform effort. I’m the guy who brought President Bush to Omaha to kick off his Social Security reform effort. I was as much of a leader in the Senate on both of those Bush initiatives, but yet, at the same time, I was seriously questioning his policies on Iraq and…why we went to Iraq.”

In 2004, Hagel said he was considering a run at the presidency. But, in 2007, he seemed to run out of patience with the political sphere. His continued verbal lashings of the Bush administration made him fiercely unpopular with many Republicans. Many, most notably John McCain, who had long been a fan of Hagel, fired back. The war of words escalated. In November of 2007, Hagel gave this famous assessment of the Bush administration when he ranked it “the lowest in capacity, in capability, in policy, in consensus—almost every area” of any presidency in the previous 40 years.
That same year, Hagel declined to run for a third term in the Senate. He stepped into academia, joining the staff of Georgetown University. To those watching from the outside, it looked like Hagel was retiring into the role of wise old sage.

But he quickly found himself on the board of a dizzying array of private and governmental advisory committees. Among his nine commitments, he was co-chairman of President Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board.

George Little, Hagel’s former press secretary, says that Obama has long been influenced by Hagel’s opinions in military and foreign policy matters. For one, Hagel accompanied Obama during the then-senator’s first trip to the Middle East. Hagel, Little suggests, has likely shaped Obama’s views on foreign policy matters “as much as anyone.”

Kerrey agrees. “Obama and Chuck have significant overlap in how they think and what their values are. Beyond their policy views, they are both clearly men who care deeply about people and care deeply about their country. I can see why they want to work together and why they would work very well together.”

In January of last year, President Obama nominated Hagel to succeed Leon Panetta as U.S. Secretary of Defense. Over thenext several weeks, Hagel would slog through some of the most outrageous accusations and insults he had faced in his entire career in politics.

Tom was there for one of the hearings.

Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz “was suggesting that Chuck was somehow receiving money from terrorists,” he recounts. “It was just crazy hatred. Unbelievable.”

“There was a lot of ugliness,” Kerrey says. “Chuck never should have had to go through that.”

But Hagel powered through the process. Once he was asked to take the job, he says, he was determined to do the job. He believed he had a unique mix of experiences—battle, VA work, running major projects and companies, 12 years as a senator—to do the job uniquely well. He says he believed it was his duty to his country, and particularly those serving their country, to help mold an efficient, effective, and enlightened modern fighting force.

The details of the job are dizzying in scope. To run a department so massive, to deal with so many issues from so many directions, you must try to quickly corral a broad understanding of the issues while not being dragged down by minutia, Hagel says.

As Hagel has worked to gain an understanding of all he could possibly hope to understand, he’s also tried to maintain a strategic mindset. Remember the past; focus on the future, he says.
When it comes to strategy, Hagel can’t help but point to Husker football and one of his heroes of strategic planning, Tom Osborne.

“Tom Osborne is one of the best thinkers I’ve ever dealt with,” Hagel says. “You have to think through those four quarters. Where do you want to be in the fourth quarter? Where do I want to be after four years in the Pentagon?

“The other part of what Tom Osborne always talked about is making adjustments. You’ve got to be prepared and build yourself some margin to always adjust to the realities that are going to be confronting you.”

The Secretary of Defense job, done well or done poorly, is surely one of the most taxing in the country, particularly under current conditions. It takes a special personality to thrive in the position. Kerrey says that Hagel is built as well as anyone for such a task.

“I do think it matters that he has that sort of Midwestern, good-natured, can-do attitude,” Kerrey says. “I’m quite sure he’s not necessarily enjoying the job, but I think he has the attitude to keep going and keep doing a good job.”

Hagel plays down any idea that the relentless, pressing, messy issues with which he is tasked daily take a toll on him. His staff says he is generally relaxed and good-natured through tense times. “He definitely has a sense of humor,” one of his assistants says. He keeps his stress down by swimming every day “no matter where he is,” his brother says. Hagel himself says he tries to make sure he gets enough sleep and eats right.

That said, although Chuck denies it, his brother wonders if, in fact, the job is taking a toll. It’s difficult not to agree with Tom’s assessment. There’s visual confirmation.

“My God, compare a picture from December of last year to now,” Tom says. “His hair is white, his eyes are tired. I worry about him. He’ll tell you all day that he’s fine. I just hope he’s telling the truth.”
The concern of those around him is that, driven toward such lofty goals through such intense fires, he might not be aware of the dangers to his own health.

Hagel himself brushes off the idea that the rigors of the job have worn him down. But, he doesn’t deny that he may push himself too hard sometimes toward the goals he has established. After all, the goals are monumental. And they are goals forged from grave national mistakes that personally wounded him and took the lives of many friends. For Hagel, the job of Secretary of Defense is much more than just eye-candy on a resume.

“Somebody could go through the motions,” Hagel says. “But (that attitude) would fail your people; fail your country. I do not want to do that. There’s too much at stake. This is much, much too important.”

Omaha Press Club

October 29, 2013 by
Illustration by Jim Horan

While other city clubs have closed in defeat, the Omaha Press Club marks its 42nd anniversary on the 22nd floor of the First National Center in Downtown Omaha.

Does the club stay open because of the spectacular view from windows stretching to the ceiling? The glowing copper fireplace? The food?

Executive Director Steve Villamonte explains the club’s durability, even through a recession: “There is something going on all the time. The club offers events from lunch-and-learn opportunities to wine dinners to holiday buffets.”

Retired WOWT newscaster Gary Kerr and his committee hold monthly educational events. Sports forums at noon feature such topics as Nebraska football and 
Creighton basketball.

Each year, journalists are inducted into the OPC Hall of Fame. Their names are engraved on a plaque in the club’s Hall of History. Among the first inducted in 2008 were Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown (read more on Brown), NBC-TV’s Floyd Kalber, and legendary radio sportscaster Lyell Bremser.

The OPC Foundation’s annual Omaha Press Club Show, which raises funds for journalism scholarships, will be held next year on April 3.

The space’s premier event is the ‘Face on the Barroom Floor’ dinner. When the club’s restaurant opened in 1971, members decided to celebrate the people who give journalists something to write about. Walls are now covered with caricature drawings of 
newsmakers’ faces.

The satirical artwork by artist Jim Horan (full disclosure…yes, the author is Jim’s wife, and she also serves on the organization’s board) is presented in fun as friends roast the subject. A zinger directed to Larry the Cable Guy is a sample of the teasing that honorees endure: “I’m happy to say fame has not gone to his [Larry’s] head, only to his waistline.”

The most recent honoree was Omaha Magazine publisher Todd Lemke.

The first caricature was that of fun-loving Omaha Mayor Gene Leahy. Nebraska football coach Bob Devaney followed him in 1972. Also that year, Vice President Spiro T. Agnew dropped by the club to see his ‘Face.’

Agnew had a love-hate relationship with the press, whom he once famously described as “nattering nabobs of negativism.” So it was with tongues in cheek that Omaha Press Club officers named a private room at the club the “Spiro Agnew Room.”

Among other well-known ‘Faces’ hanging on the club’s walls are Bob Gibson, Chuck Hagel, Tom Osborne, and Johnny Carson.

Horan said that his drawing of Warren Buffett is his favorite because of the billionaire’s unruly hair: “Warren looked at his caricature the night he roasted Walter Scott at a ‘Face’ event and quipped, ‘I’ve got to rethink that 25 cent tip for my barber.’”

The disappearance of Buffett’s ‘Face on the Barroom Floor’ became national news in 2008. The New York Times and Forbes magazine were among media that published stories about the missing artwork. Omaha heaved a sigh of relief when the drawing was finally found.

On Sept. 9, the Lauritzen Room was dedicated to honor the First National Bank family that helped open the club 42 years ago.

“Without their continuing support,” Villamonte says, “it would have been difficult for us to succeed.”