Tag Archives: Cornhusker

Chasing the Aurora Borealis

February 6, 2018 by , and
Photography by Derek Burdeny

Editor’s note: Derek Burdeny told this story to Omaha Magazine in an interview with Doug Meigs. Sydney Sheldrick adapted the interview transcript to this narrative.


The northern lights were a common sight during my childhood in Winnipeg, Canada. Sort of like the red Cornhusker flags so common across Nebraska, you stop noticing the display after a while.

I’ve always said that Nebraska is the farthest south I could ever live without melting. It took moving here to reawaken my wonder and appreciation for the aurora borealis, the ribbons of green and red that danced across the northern night sky.

Working as a musculoskeletal radiologist in Omaha for 21 years, I’ve led a life dedicated to photos. In my occupation, I work with the black and white images of MRIs. In my free time, I chase storms and the northern lights with a camera in hand.

My obsession with photographic adventure-seeking began about 10 years ago. Since then, I’ve traveled the Arctic—Alaska, Canada, Iceland, Finland, and Norway—to shoot auroras. There are many countries where the astronomical phenomenon is visible. But it is Norway that keeps pulling me back year after year.

Grotfjord, Norway (2016)

Auroras are caused by plasma energy streaming into the atmosphere and striking nitrogen and oxygen particles while interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field. This plasma energy gets to Earth as solar winds that blow off of the sun after a coronal mass ejection (which often follows a sunspot eruption or solar flare). The stronger the solar storm, the farther south the aurora is visible on Earth.

Charged particles blowing off the sun will take two days to reach Earth. As they get closer, they are attracted by our magnetic field and pulled into holes in the atmosphere. Color variation occurs when solar winds collide with atoms in the Earth’s atmosphere, mainly oxygen and nitrogen. The most common color we see is green—caused by atomic oxygen—while reaction with nitrogen produces reds and blues in the northern lights.

From time to time—coinciding with especially large solar storms—the northern lights reach all the way down to Nebraska. But on those rare occasions, the display is fairly low on the horizon. Cornhusker territory is about as far south as the northern lights will appear, and I’ve never personally witnessed auroras in Nebraska.

When I drive back to Winnipeg, however, they are like a homing beacon that greet me over the interstate through the Dakotas. It’s like I’m following the twisting celestial lights back home.

Winnipeg is near the center of the aurora belt, and I’ve become a bit of a tourist when I return home. While visiting friends from high school on a recent winter trip, they picked me up at the airport for dinner. But I couldn’t get in the car. I was frozen, transfixed by the night sky.

“Oh, look! There’s the aurora,” I gawked as we stood in the subzero temperatures. My friend’s response? “Oh, nice. Let’s get in the car.” But the display was just getting started. “Corona!” I exclaimed. (A corona occurs when the colors just burst over top of you, like beams of light showering to the ground.) My friend didn’t share my enthusiasm: “Oh, yeah. Nice. Let’s get in the car.” To him, it was like just another red flag with an “N” in Nebraska.

Sunrise over the Lofoten Islands (Reine, Norway)

The flat and tree-covered expanses of central Canada are rich in northern lights. But there isn’t much else of interest when composing a photograph. When I’m in photography mode, I want more than just the spectacular light display available in any other Arctic locale. That’s what draws me to Norway—a high likelihood of seeing auroras combined with breathtaking scenery, snow, mountains, icy seas, and fjords.

Unlike my storm chasing hobby, shooting the northern lights is much more sedentary. Dress warm. Set up the camera. Hope that bad weather doesn’t move in. Wait. Behold the lights. Snap. And if the weather doesn’t cooperate, stay in the hotel restaurant enjoying the delicious fish served in Norwegian cuisine.

Although there is a huge northern light tourism industry in Arctic countries, I avoid these crowds for a more personal experience. On my first trip to Norway (with a friend and his son), my companions were sure that we needed to go with a tour group for at least one day. “Not so,” I told them. I just needed a map. They didn’t believe me until I proved it.

We flew into the city of Tromsø, Norway (above the Arctic Circle). I found the small village of Sommarøy on a map. We loaded our equipment into a rental car, and we drove out. On the map, the settlements are only 35 miles apart, but because of the mountain roads, the trip requires about an hour driving from Tromsø.

Both Tromsø and Sommarøy are dead-center in the aurora belt, the fluctuating strip of geographical space where auroras are visible. The closer you are to the center of this belt, the stronger the auroras are. No matter how weak the aurora is, as long as you have clear skies, you will be able to see and photograph the lights. For truly amazing photos, all we needed was a strong solar storm and clear skies. Both of these conditions were predicted for our first day in Norway. Sure enough, just outside the village, we witnessed an amazing aurora.

Ever since that first Norwegian trip, I go back to Sommarøy every year. In fact, I have two trips to Tromsø planned in 2018. On one of these trips, I hope to do some exploring to identify another beautiful spot like Sommarøy.

An average aurora on a clear night in Asheim, Norway.

There is a science and method behind my trips. I plan many of them around February or March to guarantee enough daylight to prepare and scout (with hopes that there will be snow on the ground for my photo composition). As a general rule, the fall and spring equinoxes are optimal times for watching the northern lights. But a solar storm can occur at any time. Although March is an equinox month, there is still incredible solar activity in February (and snow on the ground). I have gone in November before, but the days were much too short to explore new beaches and compositions. I always make sure I am there for two weeks, that way I’m almost guaranteed to see an aurora, around the times they are most common.

By making flight and car rental arrangements several months in advance, I make sure that my travel logistics are ready when I land overseas. I also check multiple websites for weather and solar activity updates in the areas before and during my travel. Solar eruptions—which cause the solar wind and storms that produce auroras—take about two days to reach the Earth, so keeping up to date on this activity during your trip could help you to witness some spectacular solar storms.

The longer you spend the better your chance to capture that epic image. Over the course of my two-week-long trips, I’ll usually come home with what I feel are two or three excellent shots.

But it’s hard to anticipate sometimes. One night in Tromsø, when we were snowed in, we met an Australian pilot who had been coming there with his wife for six weeks total. But he was coming for only a week at a time, and he still hadn’t seen the northern lights. We showed him some pictures from our cameras, and he was just shaking his head.

A Tromso Bridge and Tromsoysund Church (aka the “Cathedral of the Arctic Sea”) under the aurora borealis in 2016.

In addition to making the time investment, it helps to always have a camera ready. I remember driving through the mountains of Norway, when all of a sudden, a beautiful aurora spread across the sky. I slammed on the brakes and pulled to the side of the road. You never know how long the display will last. I grabbed my camera, set up my tripod, and got a couple beautiful photos. If I had to dig gear from my bags, I would have missed the window of opportunity.

For the exposure of my northern light photos, I set my camera’s ISO to 8,000 with an aperture of 2.8 and a shutter speed of 10-30 seconds. Any longer than 30 seconds will produce star trails in the sky. Even a really boring aurora will appear as a darker green at 30 seconds, but if the aurora is active with spikes and movement, the lights will smear into a big blob. For this reason, my default shutter speed is 10 seconds, and I’ll use a shutter speed of 1-to-4 seconds when the lights are really dancing.

Sometimes, the images will surprise you long after the trip is over. Some of my favorite images were shots that I thought might have been duds until I sat down at the computer to review. And it’s another opportunity to relive the adventure.

For some of the online resources used by the author to plan his Norwegian photo trips, visit the University of Alaska-Fairbanks Geophysical Institute’s aurora borealis forecasting site (gi.alaska.edu/auroraforecast), a solar storm and flare monitoring site (spaceweather.com), and a European site featuring a solar wind gauge for chasing the northern lights in Europe (aurora-service.eu). View the author’s photography at derekburdenyphotography.com. The author himself is pictured below.

This article is printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Her Fountain of Youth

July 11, 2017 by
Illustration by Derek Joy

Few visitors who sneak a peak at Betty Davis’ treasure trove of soda fountain collectibles can appreciate their impact on generations of Americans who grew up before the 1950s.

The ice cream molds, dippers, five-headed malt mixers, banana bowls, trays, tall glasses, tin Coca-Cola signs, and a 12-foot-long counter with a gray marble top and marble frontage—stored in Davis’ spacious Council Bluffs home and garage—recall a more innocent age: a time when a boy and girl slipped two straws into one ice cream float and sipped as they leaned toward each other, and when soda jerks, in their white jackets and bow ties, had more swagger than Tom Cruise’s character in the movie Cocktail.

“The soda jerks were what bartenders are today,” says Davis, retired executive director of the Douglas County Historical Society in Omaha. “They knew everybody, they listened, they gave everyone personal service—mixing the concoction in front of you. They were the biggest big shots in town,” she says with a laugh.

From the early 1900s through the soda fountain’s heyday in the Depression-era 1930s, most jerks were men (no kidding!), until women filled in during World War II. “They got the name when they jerked the pull handles of the carbonated water in two different directions to regulate the flow into the flavored syrups,” she explains.

An unabashed romantic about the era, Davis grew up across the river listening to stories about how her parents “courted at the soda fountain” at Oard’s Drug Store, now Oard-Ross, on 16th Avenue in Council Bluffs. And she vividly remembers holding the hand of her “tall, Danish” grandfather as they walked to the drug store to get ice cream.

Years later, in the late 1980s, while volunteering at the old Western Heritage Museum in what is now Omaha’s Durham Museum, those memories came flooding back when a group of former “fizzicians” from the region gathered for a reunion around the museum’s established soda fountain.

“Over 500 people showed,” she marvels. “I discovered that the soda fountain was implanted in people’s memories. The public came just to look at the soda jerks and talk to them. It was magic.”

The overwhelming success of that first reunion led Davis in 1990 to found the National Association of Soda Jerks. The association grew quickly, swelling to more than 1,000 members in less than two years. “I got a personal letter postmarked Washington, D.C., from a former soda jerk. It was from [former U.S. Senator from Kansas] Bob Dole. He’s a member.”

But age has caught up with the dwindling ranks of soda jerks, as it has with Betty Davis. Now 83 and experiencing mobility difficulties, she realizes the window of opportunity to open a soda fountain museum showcasing her happy hobby has closed. “This is of no value to me locked in a garage,” she reasons quietly.

After months of searching for a “worthy” home for her collection, Davis heard about a multi-pronged, ambitious nonprofit headquartered just a few blocks north of the Historical Society, where she worked for many years.

The mission of No More Empty Pots, located on North 30th Street in the historic Florence neighborhood of north Omaha, revolves around food. The organization not only provides access to locally grown, affordable, nutritious food, it offers culinary arts training in one of two commercial-grade kitchens, located in the labyrinthine basement of the renovated turn-of-the-20th-century row of buildings.

Another component of this food hub, the Community Café at 8503 N. 30th St., slated to open to the public in the fall, caught Davis’ attention on many levels because of its parallels to the soda fountains.

“Betty told us how drug stores started selling sodas and ice cream to draw people into the store to buy things, and the fountain was never meant to be a moneymaker,” says Nancy Williams, co-founder and executive director of No More Empty Pots. “This cafe will help our employees learn how to converse with people and really serve them, and not just with food. That will translate into many different career paths.”

Believing the cafe can become “a beacon…to unite all the ethnic differences we have,” Davis signed over her soda fountain collection and the trademarked National Association of Soda Jerks to Williams and No More Empty Pots. A display case in the middle of the cafe will house Davis’ relics of the soda fountain era, her contribution to the preservation of an American tradition.

The 12-foot-long World War I-era soda bar, which Davis picked up years ago in Soldier, Iowa, will stand behind the large windows of the storefront, beckoning people to come in, enjoy a freshly made soda, and socialize.

“We’re going to make our own soda syrups and extracts from seasonal fruits and herbs and then add the carbonated seltzer water,” Williams says. “And we’ll have local seasonal ice cream.”

Confident that her goals and the mission of No More Empty Pots align, Davis sees her soda fountain breaking barriers, inspiring conversation, and making people happy for many years to come.

Visit nmepomaha.org for more information about the nonprofit receiving the soda fountain and memorabilia.

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition of 60Plus.

Niles Paul

October 14, 2016 by
Photography by Robert Nelson

It was ugly, it was depressing, and it really, really hurt…I was told I might be done. But here we are.

-Niles Paul

Tight end Niles Paul cuts hard right off of his left foot and bursts across the middle of the Washington Redskins’ practice field during a Friday practice in preparation for a Monday night matchup with the Steelers. His clean catch of a coach’s soft toss is an afterthought. It’s that Tron-like right turn and Tesla acceleration that matter. Not only are these skills top-shelf for NFL tight ends, they were unthinkable for Paul just one year ago.

That’s because the Omaha North legend, Cornhusker star, and fan favorite (on the verge of starting for the Redskins at the end of training camp last year) after a breakout 2014 season, suffered a broken and sprained left ankle that his surgeon described as “bad as I have ever seen.”

Just Google the close-up photo of Paul falling to the ground during that 2015 pre-season game against the Browns. His lower left leg is contorted like that of a post-impact crash-test dummy. It was Theismann-esque in its skeletal aberrance.

“It was ugly, it was depressing, and it really, really hurt,” says the impressively-bearded Paul as he sits in front of his locker after practice, cutting the athletic tape from that ankle. “I was told I might be done. But here we are. It feels so good to be here. I appreciate it all even more after all that’s happened.”

He’s talking about his almost mystical recovery, driven by obsessive rehab and weight-room work. He arguably benefitted from a youthful tinge of hubris: “I was doing more than my doctors and trainers were telling me to do,” he says. “I know my body. Maybe it wasn’t that smart. But I wanted it so badly, and I feel like I know what my own body can take.”

nilespaul2Now he is stronger than he’s ever been (“I lived in the weight room,” he says) while 10 pounds lighter than he was last year. At a listed 242 pounds (he looks lighter than that), he’s still considerably more yoked than the wiry 210-pound kid that Husker fans knew as a fleet wide receiver. Omaha sports fans knew him as a three-sport superstar at Omaha North and one of the most highly touted athletes in recent Omaha preps history.

He talks briefly and in a muted tone about his fairly limited multi-purpose role beginning the season behind star tight ends Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis. “I will do anything needed of me,” he says. But quickly the conversation turns to the Thursday night NFL game he watched the night before: The Denver-Carolina game in which former Husker fullback and Gretna hero Andy Janovich ran his first NFL touch in for a touchdown.

Paul beams—he’s straight-up boyish giddy: “Oh, that was awesome!” he says. “Nebraska boy. A Husker fullback! That was so much fun to see.”

Paul has made it big-time, but, as he says, his heart is still in Nebraska, particularly with his alma mater, Omaha North. Paul’s mother passed away when he was 12. He was starting to get in trouble during his adolescent years living in Virginia. His father, who “pushed me hard, maybe too hard sometimes,” moved the family to Omaha. Once he reached high school, North coaches quickly realized they had a diamond in the rough.

“He was strong-minded and hard-headed when he was just starting here,” says North football coach Larry Martin. “But as he grew as a player, he emerged as this phenomenal young man. With all his gifts, he has a tremendously big heart and is so genuine.

“He gives back in a big way, too,” Martin continues. “Niles has given so much back to North and the kids here. You should see how much he’s loved when he comes back.”

Since going pro in 2011, Paul has purchased the jerseys for Omaha North’s football team, on top of holding camps for players and other youth in North Omaha. In 2014, he began giving players one of the most cost-prohibitive accessories for football families: cleats.

“I played my whole high school career in one pair of cleats,” Paul says as he unwraps the athletic tape from his ankle. “I kept those cleats together with this same kind of tape.”

“I grew up not having much,” he says. “I know what it’s like. If you’re able to give back, you have to give back. I just hope I’m doing some good.”

Visit redskins.com for more information.

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Gridiron Hero Becomes Mentor and Coach

August 27, 2013 by
Photography by Eric Francis Photography and Ted Kirk

What former Nebraska Cornhusker Steven Warren remembers most from his days playing football is not a particular game or plays, but rather the camaraderie among his teammates—along with key tenants such as persistence, integrity, and trustworthiness. These were experiences and traits that would serve Warren well later in life.

Recruited out of Springfield, Mo., he recalls Nebraska Head Coach Tom Osborne paying Warren and his family a visit in their living room the same week Big Red won the 1995 national championship. Warren accepted a UNL football scholarship and packed his bags for Lincoln.

Warren (96) delivers a bone-crushing hit back in his playing days for Big Red.

Warren (96) delivers a bone-crushing hit back in his playing days for Big Red.

“Nebraska football was No. 1; it was everywhere,” Warren recalls. “And being a part of it was like being a part of The Beatles.”

Freshman year was both a culture shock and an athletic shock for Warren: rigorous practices alongside the fame of being a Cornhusker. “There was so much temptation because of what you were part of. But you also had to learn time management,” he adds.

While playing for Nebraska, Warren found himself developing close friendships with other players and families in and around Lincoln. Oftentimes, parents would seek Warren out to speak with their children about setting goals, planning for the future, and living one’s dream.

Warren left Nebraska as a 3rd round pick of the Green Bay Packers in the 2000 NFL Draft. Thirteen weeks into his rookie year, Warren was sidelined with an injury and told he would miss the remainder of the season. He stayed in Green Bay, undergoing rigorous rehabilitation and training. He returned to the Packers for one more season before moving to the AFL, first playing for the San Jose Sabercats and, later, the Arizona Rattlers. At each of his AFL stints, Warren suffered separate injuries. “That’s when I realized my body was trying to tell me something,” he recalls.

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Warren returned to University of Nebraska-Lincoln and finished his sociology degree in 2004. After graduation, he had a decision to make. His wife, Heidi, is from Columbus, so staying in Nebraska certainly seemed like an option. And being a Nebraska alumni opened many doors for Warren. Former Huskers often pursued successful careers after leaving the field.

But a sales job or related opportunities just didn’t feel right.

“I always liked helping others, and I worked with mentors while at Nebraska,” Warren shares. At his Lincoln home near 30th and Y streets, some of Warren’s fondest memories were sitting on his porch and talking with children and teens who lived in the neighborhood.

That feeling never left him, which is why today he is president and founder of D.R.E.A.M. (Developing Relationships through Education, Athletics, Mentoring). It’s an Omaha-based nonprofit mentoring organization that reaches out to young men enrolled in middle school.

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“Seven years ago, everything for D.R.E.A.M. just fell into place: the pieces, the people. It was meant to be,” Warren says.

D.R.E.A.M. began in 2006 as an after-school program at Walnut Hill Elementary School at 43rd and Charles streets. Five volunteers met regularly with 20 at-risk students. Today, the program has expanded to several Omaha schools and added a chapter in Springfield, Mo., Warren’s hometown. In all, the program serves about 300 boys.

D.R.E.A.M. finds its success from 40 volunteers who spend three to five hours each week at an assigned school throughout the academic year. The theme is simple: becoming a man.

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“Our volunteers work with seventh- and eighth-grade students each school year teaching them the positive attributes of being a man: respect, responsibility, relationship building, establishing rapport,” Warren says. “All of these lessons I learned from football at Nebraska and our peer counseling.”

D.R.E.A.M. teaches young men that it’s okay (even encouraged) to be successful in school. College-age mentors serve as living, breathing examples of the success that comes with hard work, dedication, and diligence.

Teena Foster, an Omaha Public Schools site director at McMillan Magnet Center Middle School, has worked alongside Warren and his college-age volunteers since last fall. Foster says she continues to see growth in the seventh- and eighth-grade students who participate in D.R.E.A.M. each week. And she knows Warren is the driving force.

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“Steve is dedicated to mentoring these young students,” Foster explains. “He’s always smiling, is always pleasant. So are his volunteers. They build great relationships with our students. Mentors are extremely important in these young lives.”

Warren’s belief in mentorship yielded a second program that also occupies much of his time. From his experiences as a student athlete, Warren launched Warren Academy in 2010. It’s designed to provide students (from elementary and middle school to high school and college) with leadership skills and character-building through athletics.

Warren Academy, however, isn’t just for students. Coaches and other leaders also participate to improve and refine a variety of leadership skills, both on and off of the field. Warren Academy programs include training sessions, camps, coaching clinics, nutritional counseling, education assistance, and mentoring. The athletic training component features speed, strength, and agility training programs. Warren says that once the organization has its own facility, Warren Academy’s offerings will expand to include fitness for adults and children of all ages.

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“Our goal is to become the primary training resource for field sports,” Warren adds. “That includes baseball, football, track, soccer, and lacrosse.”

Seems Warren’s best playing position is that of teacher. And he’s loving every minute of it.