Tag Archives: Creighton University

The Closer

April 27, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The most nervous person on the field during David Gerber’s pitching debut for Creighton baseball in 2014 might have been his older brother, then senior outfielder Mike Gerber.

The Bluejays were down 6-2 late in a March game against Arkansas State. David was just a freshman, and the elder Gerber anxiously hoped his brother could start his college career off right.

David hit the first batter he faced, but Mike snagged two fly outs to end the inning, leaving the Bluejays unscathed. It was a brief debut, but a moment neither brother will forget.

“Not a lot of brothers have the opportunity to say that they got to be on the same field at the Division I level,” the pitcher says of his first time on the mound in a college game.

It was also the beginning of David’s career as one of the best relief pitchers in Creighton history. Now a senior, the side-winding closer has played an important leadership role on the 2017 Bluejays squad. He was named to the National College Baseball Writers Association 2017 Stopper of the Year Preseason Watch List amid expectations that he would finish his career as the all-time saves leader for Creighton.

A strong family bond brought David to Omaha, and a rare adaptability has set him up to succeed in the high-pressure closer role.

“His record speaks for itself,” says Creighton head coach Ed Servais of David. “He has taken advantage of every opportunity.”

The Gerber brothers’ father introduced them to baseball. “We saw his love for the game and adopted that,” David says. “It became the culture of our family.”

A 2 1/2-year age gap and mutual appreciation for baseball helped make the young Gerber boys inseparable. They maintained an allegiance to their favorite team, the St. Louis Cardinals, even after moving from Springfield, Missouri, to the Chicago suburb of Naperville, Illinois.

Tragedy struck the family when David was 14 years old. Their father, Michael (the elder brother’s namesake), died of kidney cancer. The loss tested the family, forging a tighter bond between the brothers and their mother, Karen.

“He doesn’t have Dad to call, so I try to be there for him in [rough] times,” Mike says, explaining his role as big brother.

The fraternal relationship was an important reason why David followed Mike to Creighton, where the older Gerber was already well on his way to being drafted by the Detroit Tigers organization.

“It was a family decision, along with the fact that I was comfortable with the coaching staff,” David says. “Mike and I were [going to be] in the same city, and our mom could take a trip up to see us.”

David didn’t see much action beyond his debut at Arkansas State during freshman year. Performance-wise, he was not ready. During that time, he focused on developing a rigorous mental and physical routine that served as the bedrock of his current success. At the beginning of his sophomore year, he also changed his pitching delivery from the traditional over-the-top style to the more irregular side-arm submarine delivery. 

“His velocity was probably around 84-85 [mph], and there are not a lot of guys that throw like that from the traditional arm slot,” coach Servais says, explaining the pitching style switch. “He is an unbelievably coachable player. Credit goes to him for being open-minded.”

The switch paid off. Following injuries to other players and multiple successful outings, including one at Kansas State, the Creighton coaches decided David was the best man to have at the back end of their bullpen.

“When I came in, it was a goal of mine to be a closer as a senior,” David says. “I don’t think coach ever expected me to be in that role as early as it happened. It is a tough situation. You are either the hero or the villain. There is no greater adrenaline rush than going out to close a game, and I can’t replicate how the mind works in that scenario, and how you go off into a different world, and your body takes over.”

After racking up 20 saves during his sophomore and junior seasons, he retained the closer job to finish out his Creighton career.

At the start of his senior season, David suddenly found himself in a role familiar to his older brother’s final year (in 2014). Both seasons featured overwhelmingly young rosters. Like Mike, David also had to play an essential leadership role. The 2017 squad had 16 freshmen, including those who red-shirted.

“He has done a good job one-on-one trying to pull guys aside and talk them through some things that he experienced as a freshman,” Servais says.

Despite being separated, with Mike chasing major league dreams in spring training as David began his final year at Creighton, the younger brother hopes to follow again in Mike’s footsteps.

The brothers who enjoyed a rare chance to share the collegiate field together still root for each other and cherish their friendship. 

“We talk on the phone all the time,” Mike says. “He is always there if I need anything, and I can tell him anything. I would be a totally different person if he wasn’t around.” 

Visit gocreighton.com for more information.

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

Anne Hindrey’s Helping Hands

March 2, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The Nonprofit Association of the Midlands is a resource dedicated to helping the thousands of nonprofit entities scattered across Nebraska and western Iowa.

CEO Anne Hindrey stands at the helm of the organization that connects so many disparate nonprofits—from sports (Omaha Fencing Club) to social services (United Way of the Midlands). Roughly 330 total nonprofits hold a registered membership to NAM. Each works to serve the community in its own way.

Hindery’s job involves helping nonprofits navigate the often sticky world of public policy. It is a role she is well-qualified to assist with.

She started her career as the law enforcement coordination specialist with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Omaha.

“I wanted to change the world, but I realized that, in government, every four years someone changes the world back,” says Hindery, a Missouri native with a bachelor’s degree from Creighton University and a Master of Public Administration from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Her previous job in the Nebraska branch of the Department of Justice involved writing grant applications. Her grant-writing experience carried over to her next role as program director at the Omaha Community Foundation. She served on boards, and deepened her involvement in the community. She eventually joined NAM in 2008.

“I was on the board for five minutes,” Hindery says, half-jokingly. “I took someone’s place on the board in November, and they just had a staff change. Because NAM had a good staff policy in place, they needed someone on the board to step in. I said I could do it, and after a time, I was hired full-time.”

Hindery and her staff at NAM develop relationships with various nonprofits. They offer assistance with human resources, insurance, and legal needs; create partnerships between advocacy and public policy groups; and provide tools and training to members. NAM is also part of the National Council of Nonprofits, which keeps Hindery at the forefront of industry trends and changes in public policy.

“We find our membership in the Nonprofit Association of the Midlands very beneficial,” says Peg Harriott, CEO and president of the Child Saving Institute. “We use the annual salary and benefits report to make sure that our salaries are competitive in the market, and we participate in the health insurance trust to help moderate the cost of health insurance for our employees.”

CSI’s 150 employees benefit from NAM’s insurance trust, but Hindrey and her team make sure they offer services to small nonprofits as well as large ones.

Joining NAM is not free, however. According to the organization’s website, the cost to register ranges in eight tiers from $50 (for nonprofits with an annual budget less than $49,999) to $1,000 (for nonprofits with an annual budget greater than $10 million).

The Inclusive Life Center offers Christian rituals to people who may not belong to a church but want a minister for a wedding, baptism, or funeral. The center’s staff of one says he has greatly benefited from belonging to NAM.

Chaplain Royal D. Carleton says, “We work off of donations, and it helps us to be mindful that we have to be very transparent and good stewards of the funds that are bestowed on us.”

“I went to my first NAM conference [in 2016], which was ‘Who’s telling your story?’” Carleton says. “I learned more that day about marketing than I have in some ways in six years [of running Inclusive Life]. There were very strategic marketing insights that I did not know before.”

He also learned that his audience is wider than he originally thought.

“I’ve never marketed to those who are religious, because I figured they have a church they belong to,” Carleton says. “I had people stand up and say, ‘Listen, I’m Catholic, but I have friends who are not religious, and I need to know who you are so I can share that resource with my friends.’ That was a big eye opener for me.”

That connection to people, and other nonprofits, is one of the biggest resources that NAM offers.

“We encourage our members to not reinvent the wheel,” Hindery says. “In many cases, someone has gone through the same problem, and the solution is already available. You may want to tweak it, but it’s there.”

Visit nonprofitam.org for more information.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

The Other World-Renowned Kobe

January 7, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Kobe Paras had never heard of Omaha when Creighton called this past summer.

He spent the first 15 years of his life in the Philippines before moving to Los Angeles to chase a basketball scholarship. At the time, Creighton was just one of dozens of prominent basketball programs in pursuit of the high-flying 6-foot-5-inch tall guard. Creighton head coach Greg McDermott had coveted Paras since he first spotted the native Filipino while recruiting his high school teammate. Paras had committed to UCLA at the time, but he withdrew from the school in early June after failure to meet academic requirements. With Paras back on the open market, McDermott wanted to make him a Bluejay.

During his July visit to Creighton’s campus, Paras toured the $13 million Championship Center and posed for pictures with McDermott’s Naismith player of the year trophy, but it was the personal connections Paras made that led him to pick Creighton as his future home.

“I got to bond with the coaches and my teammates, and it really felt right,” Paras says.

He will need those bonds. Paras enjoys celebrity status in his home country, as the basketball-obsessed nation looks to him as a potential NBA player. The Pacific archipelago has never produced a professional player in the world’s most coveted league.

“I am not a regular student-athlete,” he says. “I have a lot of people looking up to me.”

Paras’ earliest memories are of hoards of fans stopping to ask his father, Benjie Paras, for autographs and pictures. Benjie was a two-time MVP in the Philippine Basketball Association, and has since become an actor. His father’s fame caused the younger Paras to grow up in the limelight, but Benjie tried to instill a sense of perspective in his son.

“When he was my age, he had to do laundry for other people to have enough money,” says the younger Paras of his father. “He kept telling me how blessed I was.”

Basketball was not something Paras picked up until the third grade. Before that time, he played badminton and table tennis. A growth spurt in seventh grade helped the now-taller young man to fall in love with basketball. Meanwhile, basketball continued to grow in popularity throughout the Philippines.

“Basketball in the Philippines is a religion,” Paras says. “Wherever you go, you see people playing basketball.” 

NBA games were constantly broadcast throughout the country, which helped Paras, whose first name pays homage to the recently retired Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, become familiar with the sport’s biggest stars.

In 2013, an encounter with his favorite player, Lebron James, took Paras’ fame to a whole new level. During a trip to the Philippines, James took part in a camp for the country’s most promising young players. In a pre-game warm-up, Paras slammed home a one-handed dunk as James leapt to the side of him in a half-hearted effort to play defense.

“I didn’t really plan it,” says Paras about the moment. “My friends were like, ‘do you realize who you just dunked on?’”   

The original video of the dunk received over 2.5 million views. That clip would bring about a whole new level of fame for the then-15 year old.

Paras’ move stateside to aid his basketball skills would come just months after the dunk. It was at Cathedral High School, under the guidance of coach William Middlebrooks, that Paras, living away from his family, honed his leadership skills and focused on building his brand.

“I told him, now that you are here, your popularity can only grow,” says coach Middlebrooks. “Especially as people better understand Kobe Paras the person.”

Paras also developed as a basketball player with more than just raw athleticism. He will bring those skills to a Creighton team poised to make a run at an NCAA tournament bid.

“He already has the body to play at this level,” says McDermott of Paras. “He also really knows how to put the ball in the basket.” 

And even thousands of miles from the Philippines, Paras’ enthusiastic fans have been able to follow his every move.

“We found out pretty quick that the media in the Philippines was going to find him wherever he went,” says McDermott, who has spent many a Skype session this fall with the media outlets in Paras’ home country.

Paras also keeps in touch with many back home via social media. On Twitter he has over 114,000 followers and on Instagram he has more than 454,000 followers.

“On social media people always reach out to me,” Paras says. “Anywhere I am, I feel the support.”

Even though he knew almost nothing about Omaha before his visit in July, he has come to appreciate his new home. He says his favorite place is the gym, and he loves that there is less traffic here than in Los Angeles. He also knows that the start of basketball season means winter is coming.

“He is getting ready for that snow,” Middlebrooks says. “He called me and said, ‘coach, I think I need boots.’”

Visit gocreighton.com for more information.

kobe1

The Secret of the Shimmy

January 5, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Inhale. exhale.

The slow Middle Eastern music increases in tempo.

The ladies’ hips sway side to side in rapid repeat. All three wear black spandex pants and V-neck T-shirts. Scarves, loosely wrapped around their waists, accentuate their movements. Bells jingle in time with the rhythm of the beat.

“Don’t give away the secret,” Carol Wright warns as her hips pop. “If they want to know the secret to the shimmy, tell them to come and see Della.”

The other two women laugh as their torsos undulate. Wright closes her eyes in a losing-herself-to-the-music moment, hands on her rolling and rippling hips.

“Is this too fast?” instructor Della Bynum asks from the side of the room. She has been watching this improvisation for a while, a half-smile on her face, relishing the freedom and artistry of the belly dance.

“We will have to find out,” Wright says.

“This is where you just have fun exploring,” Bynum explains.

Anna Lewis, 22, struggles for a moment, “Which way should I go?” 

Lewis has been shaking her hips for about a year now. At 6 years old, she watched her mother and Della’s group perform for her Girl Scout troop. 

“My mom is re-inspired whenever she comes to visit and will always make sure she comes back to Della’s class,” Lewis says.

Bynum steps in to help Lewis and demonstrates a front and back roll to add to the dance. The women continue as a solid unit.

It isn’t the shimmy that is the secret, but it is this connection of women coming together to celebrate themselves and each other. Feeling that connection is one of the main reasons why Bynum stays in dance. Bynum, 67, believes belly dancing creates a bond regardless of age, ethnicity, or size.

bellydancingShe should know. She’s been dancing since she was 8 years old and aging hasn’t stopped her. It is a vivacious, beautiful, and uplifting experience.

“It makes you aware of your senses—how you see, hear,” Bynum believes.

Bynum began with traditional ballet, then shifted to modern dance. She moved from Baltimore at 19 to begin school at Creighton University. A business degree wasn’t important to Bynum. 

“Dance classes were my love,” she says. “But unless you are teaching dance, you are not assured a position to support yourself.”

She continued taking dance classes and studied ethnic forms of popular dances of the 1970s, including African, Polynesian, and belly dancing. In addition, she performed modern dance with the UNO Moving Company. In 1980, Bynum started teaching her first classes at the YWCA and continued to do so for the next 25 years. 

When Bynum retired seven years ago from her day job as a timekeeper for the Omaha Fire Department, she needed…well…something more.

“You need to move more as you age, not less. If you don’t move, you aren’t able to move as well,” Bynum believes.

“You should open up a studio,” a long-time friend and fellow dance instructor told her.

“Hmm…that’s what people do when they are young,” Bynum replied.

With some help from her friend, Bynum did the unthinkable by opening her first studio. After three years, Bynum realized the ceiling was too low for the wavy and slinky arm movements of belly dance. After searching, she discovered a spot in the Center Mall on 42nd Street. After that, it was just a matter of finding economical ways to create a studio.

Bynum teaches four days a week and her crew puts on performances for The Durham Museum, Omaha Performing Arts, Renaissance fairs, and other organizations. The women sew their own costumes for a variety of different styles including tribal, folkloric, and Oriental belly dancing. 

A six-year attendee, Michelle Widhalm, 50, says Bynum is holistic in her approach. It is emotional and spiritualistic.

Bynum’s mantra: breathe. 

“When I tell people I belly dance, it is interesting to see their reaction. Eyebrows raise,” Widhalm says. “Western culture sexualized the dance. For me, it is about the female connection.”

Widhalm was surprised the older generation seemed more open to the idea, commenting only on how it must be a good form of exercise. In fact, a 2003 study in the New England Journal of Medicine reported social dancing lowered the risk of dementia in the elderly by 76 percent—more than reading. It also reduces stress, releases serotonin, and improves overall physical health.

Bynum’s parents passed away in their 50s, which has motivated her to keep exercising. If someone likes it, he/she will keep active. Belly dancing is multi-generational. 

“It’s more of an ageless environment,” Bynum says.

Her oldest client started when she was 80 and quit at 90 due to arthritis.

When Shakira entered the scene in the 2000s, shaking those hips that don’t lie, the belly dancing industry boomed.

So what about those ripped abs?

“I had those when I was young,” Bynum says tapping her black-stockinged feet on the floor to the beat of the music. “But it isn’t about that for me anymore.”

Bynum steps in the front of the class in black leggings with a bright orange scarf tied to her waist, a dark blue shirt, and a whole lot of confidence.

Bynum works with the three women on choreographed moves based on an old saying she modified. 

Walk forward, beauty before us.

Walk backward, beauty behind us.

It continues with the side, upward, and downward until the climax.

Beauty within us.

Wright squeals at the end in time with the music, arms raised, and all of them laugh together. 

Oh, and the secret to that shimmy?

Bending the knees, breathing, and relaxing.

Visit delladancing.com for more information.

Joan Neuhaus

December 27, 2016 by
Photography by Keith Binder

“A good education is critical, but a lot of it is learning as you go and moving into opportunities as they present themselves,” she says. “If someone had said, ‘do you know how to conduct strategic planning?’ I would have said, ‘No. But I am eager to learn and willing to do my best. So let’s give it a shot.’”

-Joan Neuhaus

 Joan Neuhaus didn’t set out to become a health care executive after graduating with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Creighton University in the early 1980s. But when she landed a marketing position at Bergan Mercy Hospital, she quickly discovered she had an affinity and passion for the health care industry and its chief mission—helping people.

“I have been with CHI Health or one of its legacy organizations (such as Bergan Mercy) for 31 years,” the Omaha native says. “It has been a tremendous opportunity to work with an operation whose values mirror my own.”

These values run deeper than the typical business values of honesty, integrity, and hard work, says Neuhaus, now a senior vice president and the chief operating officer for CHI Health. CHI values, she says, create a healing environment that’s faithful to the ministry of Jesus Christ.

“It’s respect for the dignity of every person, treating every patient as an individual and respecting their choices, positions, and background. Having that value set and coming to an organization that respects and preserves that in every interaction has been very powerful for me.”

Enabling Connections
As CHI Health’s COO, Neuhaus manages the operations of 15 hospitals, lines of health care services outside of hospitals, and 7,000 to 8,000 of the health care organization’s 12,000 employees. That awesome responsibility requires a strong leadership philosophy that ensures the best-possible health care for patients while achieving the organization’s financial goals.

In complex organizations such as CHI, leadership is about mobilizing employees to take on tough problems, she says, tapping employees’ intelligence and other talents.

“My role is as an enabler. I make the connections between the parts of the organization that need to come together to figure out a problem,” she says. “It’s messy; it’s a little chaotic. It’s trusting that you have the right people in place and that you connect the right people to the right people.”

The key, Neuhaus says, is to just set the direction and not micromanage. Leaders need to give people clear direction and then let them go to work.

Take Risks, Always Learn
As a woman, hurdles must be overcome to reach the executive suite. After all, that’s why the phrase “glass ceiling” was coined.

Neuhaus offers simple recommendations for leadership success: eagerly take on new opportunities, deal with conflict productively, read and learn as much as you can, and most importantly, focus on building relationships every step of the way.

“A good education is critical, but a lot of it is learning as you go and moving into opportunities as they present themselves,” she says. “If someone had said, ‘do you know how to conduct planning?’ I would have said, ‘No. But I am eager to learn and willing to do my best. So let’s give it a shot.’”

It’s the advice Neuhaus and her husband give their 30-year-old daughter.

“Take some risks, take some initiative in areas you might not be comfortable with, and develop the relationships you need to be successful,” Neuhaus says. “Life is not a solo sport.”

Visit chihealth.com for more information.

Joan Neuhaus

Joan Neuhaus

Beauty & the Cyborg Beast

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Less than three years ago, it dawned on scientist Jorge Zuniga why a childhood friend wanted nothing more than to play baseball.

It was odd. Growing up in Santiago, Chile, there were not many baseball fans. Just the one, as far as Zuniga knew (after all, soccer reigns supreme in Chile). Even more curious, Zuniga’s friend had just one hand.

Why baseball?

“There’s not one baseball field in the whole country,” Zuniga says, laughing at the exaggeration, “but this one kid without a hand wants to be a baseball player.”

Then, 20-odd years later, Zuniga and his 7-year-old son are playing catch in the long shadows of the front yard. Zuniga remembers his one-armed friend and his inexplicable love of baseball. Then it hits him.

“Oh,” Zuniga says, “I bet this kid that didn’t have a hand just wanted to do what every kid wants to do.” He yearned to play catch.

Biomedical2Earlier that same day, he had listened to a radio news report about “Robohand,” a project in South Africa that creates 3D-printed prosthetics for children. Zuniga—with a doctorate in exercise physiology and a lab at Creighton University—wanted to know more about the Robohand. But he had difficulty connecting with the researchers involved.

After several attempts to reach the people in South Africa, he relied on his own knowledge, resources, and expertise to make a prosthetic on his own. It took several months to perfect his prototype, but Zuniga’s journey highlights how the health care industry is utilizing new breakthroughs in 3D printing technology.

Nothing is more personal than health care. And few things are more customizable than the 3D-printed object. The field of prosthetics represents just one obvious medical application for the technology, one with many advantages: to provide a custom-fitted solution for an amputee; to shave thousands off the cost of traditional prosthetic limbs; to negate the financial burden if insurance doesn’t cover the device; and especially for children, to provide a fast solution to wear, tear, and outgrowing the artificial body part. 

But prosthetics only scratch the surface of possibilities awaiting biomedical 3D printing. The FDA, for example, recently approved the first 3D printed drug—an incredibly fast-acting seizure medication that dissolves in seconds thanks to a structure only possible through 3D printing.

Improvements to medical devices that were once too expensive to contemplate can be prototyped on the cheap. Zuniga, who now (as of August 15) works out of the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Biomechanics Research Building, says he has printed the model of a fetus for a blind mother who wanted to “see” her unborn baby. He has also worked with physicians at Omaha Children’s Hospital to print three-dimensional models of patient hearts so surgeons can study the organ long before they pick up a scalpel.

Zuniga’s use of 3D printing carries immediate significance and practicality. A glance at the more fantastic applications, however, can be found at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. There, biomedical engineer Bin Duan is heading up a new bioprinting unit that is printing and growing bone and cartilage for regenerative purposes. Later this year, Duan and his team will implant small plugs of printed bone into animals that should eventually integrate with the animal’s existing tissue.

Bioprinting works by printing with at least two different materials. First, a biocompatible polymer creates a scaffold or lattice in the desired shape of the tissue, such as an ear or a piece of bone. The second material, living cells, are printed onto the scaffold. The cells cling to the structure, and over the course of several weeks they live and multiply as the scaffold slowly degrades and disappears. Eventually, the scaffold material is gone, but the tissue remains.

One potential application of UNMC’s bone tests could be used to help future children born with certain defects. A printed bone implant made from the child’s stem cells would then grow with the child, eliminating the need for multiple surgeries.

In a more distant future, an organ transplant might not be from a random donor, but from the patient’s own stem cells: a new, perfect organ printed when it is needed, and far less prone to rejection. Skin grafts and bone regeneration, all of it made with a patient’s personal cells.

UNMC’s bioprinting program is still in its infancy, so a breakthrough with more complex systems will likely come from a place like Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Widely regarded as the national leader for 3D bioprinting, researchers there have already printed skin, blood vessels, bladders, and muscle—some of them implanted in humans. But complex organs like the heart, kidneys, and liver remain unsolved puzzles…for now.

In the here and now, researchers like Zuniga can make accessible what was once out of reach for many.

When he finished his first 3D-printed prosthetic arm, he showed it to his young son. The elder Zuniga expected to impress his son with the level of realism it held. The boy was not impressed.

“He said, ‘If that’s for children, that’s not gonna work,’” Zuniga says. “’Daddy, that hand is too real. You need something cooler than that.’”

Inspired by his son’s insight, Zuniga created “Cyborg Beast,” a brightly colored, prosthetic, cybernetic hand that more closely resembles something out of a science fiction movie than a human limb. The plans and instructions on how to use them are open and free to anyone with access to a 3D printer.

“You’d be surprised at how many people around the world have access to (3D printing) machines,” Zuniga says. “…It’s like the start of a revolution.”

An artificial limb that once cost $4,000, can now be had for about $50—about the cost of a trip to the ballpark.

Visit cyborgbeast.org to learn more. B2B

Constitutional Law Professor G. Michael Fenner

July 14, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Among the diplomas, plaques, commendations, papers, family portraits, artifacts from a life well-traveled, and tons of books that decorate G. Michael Fenner’s office at Creighton University School of Law, one photo in particular triggers a double take. Inscribed “To my dear friend Mike, I simply love spending time with you,” the photo is signed “Clarence.”

The friendship between the law professor and Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Clarence Thomas goes back many years. “His wife (Virginia Lamp of Omaha) was one of my law students and we met him when he was just Clarence Thomas,” Fenner explains. “Every other year here in Omaha I co-teach a seminar on the Supreme Court with Justice Thomas.”

Fenner has focused his professional life on our fundamental freedoms. Along the way he has gained a national reputation as a constitutional scholar—a reputation that has allowed him to get to know jurists such as Thomas as people, allowed him to understand their points of view, and respect their decisions, whether he agrees with them or not.

“My wife, Anne, and I spend about a week with him when he and Virginia return to Nebraska,” Fenner says. “He’s really a very likable guy.”

Teaching the supreme law of the land, which Fenner has done for 44 years at Creighton, can be fraught with pitfalls because even the Constitution inspires division. Should interpretation be guided by what our Founding Fathers meant, or should it be seen as a living document, changing with the spirit of the times? How does Fenner balance the two?

“I teach the cases without teaching a particular preference or point of view,” says Fenner, a past president of the Nebraska State Bar Association. “I occasionally have the students argue a case we’re reading, so they understand both sides.”

Then, in his quiet, thoughtful way, Fenner continues, “Personally, it seems to me the Founding Fathers were smart enough to know that they weren’t smart enough to know everything…they were writing rules that would need interpretation in the future.”

Fenner’s even-handed approach to the most divisive issues facing our judicial system not only wins the respect of colleagues, his students revere him as well.

“The Supreme Court isn’t easy to understand, but he’s able to break it down so you do understand it,” says Tyler Seals, a second-year law student. “He’s objective. He explains what the high court says, not his ideological beliefs.”

A belief in basic human dignity took root early in the professor’s childhood. The eldest of three sons born to a dairyman and his wife, Fenner grew up in St. Joseph, Missouri. His father, George, after whom Fenner is named, had a business membership to the local country club. Whenever the family went to the club for dinner, “My father would walk into the kitchen and talk to the wait staff and cooks. They were the only African Americans there.”

Fenner’s father still looms large, years after his death from Parkinson’s disease. “He was honest and quiet, a lot like those western stars from my childhood.”

It wasn’t Marshall Matt Dillon who inspired Fenner to go into law; it was Gregory Peck. To Kill A Mockingbird had a profound affect on him. After graduating from the University of Kansas in 1966, Fenner obtained his law degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. In fact, the Fenner boys hit the legal trifecta. His brother, U.S. District Court Judge Gary Fenner, presides in Kansas City, while the youngest sibling, Robert, recently retired as chief counsel for a federal agency in Washington, D.C.

Professor Fenner also worked in D.C. as a trial lawyer for the Justice Department, taking the job right after he and Anne married. Following the birth of their daughter, Hilary, now the general counsel for Patagonia outdoor clothing and equipment, the couple decided to move back to the Midwest, where “I’d be able to see my baby instead of commuting,” he says. His son, Ben, was born following the move to Omaha. Ben now works for a law firm in D.C. that represents Native Americans. 

The current vacancy on the Supreme Court following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia poses a real challenge, both politically and judicially, Fenner believes. With big cases looming that deal with abortion, freedom of speech, and affirmative action, the possibility of a “no decision” ruling could very well occur with the court split 4-4. “There’s a reason for nine justices,” Fenner says. “There can be no ties.”

The political vitriol regarding any nomination to succeed Justice Scalia dismays Fenner, but he also sees the unfolding confrontation as an inevitable part of history. “There will not be an Obama nominee who gets confirmed, who gets a hearing, or who even gets a handshake,” Fenner intones. “I don’t know who he could put forward to change that.”

But what fodder for discussion in a constitutional law class…

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Nichol Mason Lazenby

April 22, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When Nichol Mason Lazenby left the L.A. Contemporary Dance Company to relocate to Omaha less than two years ago, she knew nothing of her new home and had decidedly low expectations regarding the breadth and depth of any opportunities that might await.

“I had no familiarity with the Midwest, let alone Omaha, and I panicked a bit at the thought of moving here,” says the southern California dancer/choreographer who had been a professor at the University of Arizona and now teaches at the Omaha Academy of Ballet. So Mason Lazenby decided to send out some feeler emails to the usual suspects in the dance community here. Less than 30 minutes later in some cases, she recalls, replies came pouring in from the likes of Creighton University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Omaha may have been a big fat question mark for her, but no question mark is needed when assessing the immediate impact she has made on the local scene.

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This winter found her in performances with both the Omaha Dance Project (at Marian High School’s new Mary Joy and Tal Anderson Performing Arts Center) and the tbd Dance Collective in “Making Space II: An Evening of Curated Choreography” (at KANEKO).

In April she had a hand in choreographing “Vive Paris” at Creighton University and “Evenings of Dance” at UNL. In May she’ll choreograph Heathers The Musical at the Blue Barn Theatre. And she is now preparing for a yet-to-be-named performance of her work in Motion41’s Encore space as a result of her winning last year’s OMAHAgraphy competition.

“I’ve been fortunate to be embraced by the dance community this way,” Mason Lazenby says, “especially the women of tbd.”

She was a guest artist last year when tbd took the Encore stage for its own OMAHAgraphy gig. Lazenby’s “Strange Mercy,” a solo work that she both choreographed and danced, was the showstopper of the evening and drew the loudest and most sustained applause.

“Lazenby’s movements,” this reviewer wrote at the time, “had me conjuring images of Anna Pavlova dancing Mikhail Fokine’s ‘The Dying Swan.’ Except that Pavlova was dancing all the wrong steps. And that she was thoroughly, over-the-top insane. And on acid.”

The art form has always had an intractable power over me. My most spine-tingling encounters with the genre, as was the case with Mason Lazenby and “Strange Mercy” and just as it is with any theater or performance art or opera or visual art that pushes boundaries and pushes buttons, runs along the lines of “I’m not exactly sure how to process what I just saw…but I love it.”

“That’s what’s amazing about modern dance, Mason Lazenby says. It is innate…primal. It can be just as percussive and frantic as it is sinewy, graceful, and luxuriously indulgent.” The key, she adds, is that modern dance is thoroughly experiential. It can be no other way.

“Every audience member will react in their own way,” she says. “It’s a form of communication…a movement-based form of communication. Every dancer communicates in a way that translates their world. And every audience member will experience those movements as framed by their world.”

Visit nicholmason.com to see her work.

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Choreographing a Modern Life

April 7, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Patti Zukaitis often does what is termed plié relevé. The 64-year-old bends her legs down, keeping her knees in alignment over her feet, then she stretches up, up onto her toes as high as she can.

She has reached many heights in her 40-plus years as a dancer, yet she doesn’t see herself a star.

“Patti’s not the type of person who looks to be in the spotlight very much,” says Patrick Roddy, who heads Creighton University’s dance department, where Zukaitis is the other professor.

Zukaitis began classes at age 9, but discovered her true passion for dance as a college student. She studied at Creighton with her longtime teacher Valerie Roche and became one of the first graduates of the dance program.

Roche, a professional ballerina since age 12, drove Omaha dance from the beginnings of Omaha Regional Ballet Academy in spring 1964 into the early years of the now Omaha Academy of Ballet and beyond.

Zukaitis became a teacher at Creighton’s dance program while a student.

“Valerie kind of pushed me in this direction, and I fell into it,” Zukaitis says. “I didn’t have a dream to be a ballerina.”

It was at Creighton that Zukaitis discovered modern dance, a form she has loved and performed since with Creighton and local companies DanceScape and Omaha Modern Dance Collective.

In 1982, Zukaitis’ husband, John, had just finished medical school and obtained a job in New York City, partially because living in New York was a dream of Patti’s. She wanted to attend New York University, and true to form, she entered their prestigious Tisch School of the Arts in a nontraditional way.

“I was so naive,” Zukaitis says. “I called and said, ‘I’d like to enroll.’ I got a secretary who said, ‘Oh. People have been auditioning all spring for this.’”

Heartbroken, her brain pirouetting from the rejection, Zukaitis called her mother, who told her to just march down there and prove to them she was worthy of being in the program.

Zukaitis went to the campus and spoke to the director, who told her to come down for the first day of classes. As it turned out, one student had been accepted, but had not yet committed to the program. “I took a ballet class and I took a modern class,” Zukaitis says. “I was auditioning, but I didn’t realize it.” At the end of that first day, the director offered her the final position in the program.

Their first daughter, Kathryn, now 30, was born while she was in school. Even with a young baby, Zukaitis earned a Master of Fine Arts in dance in 1986.

A second daughter, Lucy, was born in 1988. When their son Jack was due in 1991, the Zukaitis family, cramped into a one-bedroom apartment, moved back to Omaha. Patti returned to Creighton.

“It was almost as though I never left,” she says. “I just contacted Valerie and she said come on over.”

A third daughter, Julie Rose, came along in 1994. 

The professor and mom also taught for Omaha Academy of Ballet with Roche until 2002, when Roche retired after 40 years with the school.

“I told Valerie, OK, I’ll do it [be the director], but I want a co-director,” Zukaitis says.  She and co-director Sheila Nelson led the school for 14 years. They had big slippers to fill. Roche had taken the OAB from a small ballet company to a well-respected academy with a separate performing company.

Zukaitis stepped into the role gracefully and stretched the organization even further. A big part of the job, one which was important to Zukaitis as well as the school, was examinations.

The OAB is the only school in Omaha which uses the rigorous Imperial Society of Teacher of Dancing qualifications. Zukaitis holds an associate diploma through the ISTD and  brought in examiners each year to keep the school ISTD qualified.

Most importantly, the school became an environment where people wanted to bring their children to learn.

Roddy believes Zukaitis herself was one of the big factors in this.

“I think she’s one of the best ballet teachers in town, and she’s one of the nicest people I know.  She’s been an incredible friend and colleague.”

He would know. The two met when he was in high school attending advanced ballet classes at Creighton.

“She uses her knowledge and talents in the best way possible to get her technique across to all ages of people from very young to adults,” he says. “Her musicality is excellent, beyond reproach.”

He considers Zukaitis herself one of his very good friends, and that means a lot to her.

“I used to say when I was younger I wanted to grow up and work with my best friends, and that’s really what I’ve done,” Zukaitis  says. “I love the people I work with, and I have been very fortunate to have worked with them to build the dance community in Omaha.”

This past year, Zukaitis stepped down as OAB director to be with her family. Her daughters are all pursuing performing arts careers while Jack is training to be a firefighter.

“I hope they can make a living doing what they love,” Zukaitis says.

They should succeed.  After all, they have a successful role model.

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Peter Cales

March 3, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Peter Cales sits on a comfortable couch and rests a glass of orange juice on a coffee table. Nearby sit shelves and shelves of record albums, and atop and beside the albums sit record carriers made by Cales.

He created the table as a summer project while attending college.  The rustic, yet sophisticated, piece foretold his career.

“I alternated between fine arts and English in college [at Creighton], but I didn’t see a clear path between that and making a living,” Cales says of discovering how to meld fine arts and woodworking.

“My father always had a woodshop,” Cales recalls fondly. “I just decided to make furniture. I wanted to do something artistic that had a practical application.”

Cales worked part-time for noted Creighton Associate Professor of Sculpture Littleton Alston, who helped him obtain studio space and taught Cales about the process of building things. He became fascinated by the beauty of woodworking. It didn’t take long for him to realize that he belonged in the woodshop.

In 2009, he became a full time wood artist in launching his studio, Measure Cut Cut. Cales’ process of woodworking turns nature into refined beauty. He finds working out, and on, details meditative. He finds inspiration in music, especially pop and rock ’n roll from the 1960s and 1970s.

Cales says. “I think it’s inspiring hearing something that someone put together perfectly. “I do a lot of furniture design, but I don’t identify as a designer because I think that could be offensive to people who went to school and studied it,” Cales says. “But I also have a hard time identifying as an artist.”

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Along with hand-crafted wood pieces, Cales also sells a line of ceramic hot air balloons.

“I just love how it was the first form of flight, and so much scientific development went on through ballooning,” Cales explains. “My parents took us [Cales and his sister] to a hot air balloon international festival around 1990. It definitely left a mark on my brain.”

Customers won’t see a similar mass production of furniture.

“Furniture is furniture to me,” Cales continues. “It’s the process of making something for someone else. That’s why I’ve never done lines of furniture. There’s nothing personal about that for me.”

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Personalizing pieces is vital to Cales’ craft. When he meets with clients he asks them about their lifestyle and what is important to them. He asks to hear stories, particularly those involving events or locations. From that meeting Cales selects materials from significant locations, particularly reclaimed materials when available.

“I like working with people and creating something that will be in their house for a long time,” Cales says. “It’s a reflection of my brief relationship with them.”

Designs are never repeated. Much thought is put into what will happen to a piece of furniture long-term. Cales wants his work to be retained, to perhaps be passed down to future generations, and he seeks clients who share his aesthetic and personal values.

Keeping these principles creates lasting relationships with the clients.

“Most of the commissions I like I have made for people I ended up being friends with. They were relationship starters.”

Leaving a lasting impression—creating a lasting relationship—that’s the essence of Cales.

Visit measurecutcut.com to learn more.

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