Tag Archives: Doug Meigs

Heard by God

October 31, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann, 
Kellie Hatcher, and Keri Hatcher

The wait was torture. Six months of back-and-forth, missing documents, interviews, and paperwork. 

Finally, Ismail Ntakirutimana had a passport in his hands. Now all he needed was a student visa to the United States. 

But on July 10, the day he was supposed to have an interview with staff at the U.S. Embassy, he was turned away. “You aren’t in the system,” they told him. His appointment had vanished. 

“I felt like it was the end,” Ismail says. “When they told me that, I was really discouraged.”

With a heavy heart, he walked to the bus stop to catch a ride back to the apartment he shared with several other former street kids and orphans from the slums of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. 

Regardless of the application’s outcome, Ismail’s academic record is already a miracle. His impoverished upbringing, however, remains commonplace for youths growing up in the aftermath of the country’s 1994 genocide. 

His identity card says he’s 20 years old, but his actual age remains a mystery. Ismail’s father abandoned him and two younger siblings when Ismail was only 5 years old. His mother eventually gave Ismail and younger brother Isaac to a neighborhood orphanage, hoping to spare them from starvation.

If he received the student visa, Ismail would be able to continue his studies at Creighton University on a scholarship. “By the grace of God,” Ismail says he received conditional admission to half a dozen American universities. Of the possible schools, only Creighton was located in the Midwest, close to the adoptive family that had been sponsoring him for the past five years. 

Without the visa, he wouldn’t be attending any university in the U.S. He prayed for God’s mercy. But in this imperfect world of men, Ismail knew the student visa was not guaranteed. 

He heard rumors that the U.S. had become tight-fisted with foreign-student visas, and he was all too familiar with how his story attracted scornful looks from neighbors in the slums of Kigali’s Kimisagara district. 

Omaha, Nebraska—more than 8,000 miles away—seemed impossibly exotic from the tropical highlands of Rwanda. Ismail could imagine how embassy staff might view his case: a street kid with dreams bigger than his means.

He had never seen snow or traveled on an airplane, let alone left the country. Nevertheless, ever since his primary school days, Ismail had prayed for the opportunity to study overseas. Even when he was starving on the streets of Kimisagara.

The realization of that dream felt so close, yet so far. “Maybe it was just a fantasy after all,” he thought to himself, discouraged. 

The bus continued onward. Ismail returned his attention to prayer. 

“And the angel of the LORD said unto her, Behold, thou art with child, and shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael; because the LORD hath heard
thy affliction.”
(Genesis 16:11)

Ismail did not witness the Interahamwe militia shouting “Hutu Power!” as they rounded up his mother’s family for extermination. He did not see relatives butchered by neighbors, indoctrinated by a caste-like system of tribal identification that lingered from the days of Belgium’s colonial rule. 

Blood stained the streets, and the air stunk of rotting human flesh. 

The genocide in Rwanda lasted approximately 100 days, and the international community turned a blind eye. Meanwhile, Rwanda’s economy came to a standstill amid the government-sponsored killing spree to purge the nation’s Tutsi minority population. By some accounts, nearly 1 million Tutsi died in the genocide—roughly 18 percent of the total population in the small, landlocked, eastern Central African country. 

Ismail was not yet born when his homeland turned into hell on earth. But like so many young Rwandans, he would grow up under the crushing weight of trauma so heavy that his mother still struggles to get out of bed each April (the month when the 1994 genocide started). 

“She doesn’t talk, she doesn’t eat, and she is always crying,” Ismail says of his mother’s recurring post-traumatic episodes.

Among those murdered in the genocide was her first husband. The Interahamwe—men and boys, civilians with machetes, rifles, grenades, and deep hatred for Tutsi—had a list of all the people with Tutsi identity. It was a death list. Ismail says the name of his mother’s first husband was at the top of the document. 

From the side of the road, his mother saw her husband’s body piled in the back of a truck filled with corpses. “She only told us that she saw him,” Ismail says. “During the 1994 genocide, it was not easy to take someone who was dead to bury them or to have a funeral.” She saw his feet had been cut off, and other body parts were mutilated. Burns covered his body. She could assume his fate. “The bodies were put in trucks so they could throw them in the river,” Ismail says. 

She could not mourn. She escaped on foot, fleeing with their three children (Ismail’s half-siblings, with whom he does not have a relationship), as she had just enough money to bribe her way into Zaire, the country now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Horrific scenes repeated across the country. Elderly were slaughtered alongside adults and children. Infants were ripped from mothers’ arms and left for wild animals to devour. Men infected with HIV raped Tutsi women and girls. Hutu sympathizers and intertribal spouses met similar fates. Some were given the opportunity to pay for a swift death by gunfire rather than machete. But not all of the murderers would take payment, especially in the early days of the genocide. 

“Weed out the cockroaches,” urged the newspapers and radio stations. “Get rid of the cockroaches!” jeered the Interahamwe, hunting their countrymen in public. Terrified Tutsi refugee families gathered in stadiums and churches for safety. Interahamwe attacked them in confinement. They tossed grenades into the stadiums and bulldozed the churches filled with innocent people, massacring the huddled masses.

The bloodshed made no sense. Hutu and Tutsi people speak the same language, Kinyarwanda. They have intermarried for generations. They were neighbors and classmates. There were stereotypes that supposedly differentiated the groups: Hutus had wider noses, Tutsis were taller; Hutus were the working class, Tutsis were the royalty complicit in the old colonial system. But the reality wasn’t so simple.

Today, Rwanda is a model society in many respects. The economy is booming. International investment is pouring in. Kigali streets are clean and orderly. Meanwhile, President Paul Kagame has remained in power since his Rwandan Patriotic Front (a militia consisting of exiled Tutsi and sympathetic Hutu) overturned the extremist Hutu government in 1994.

The nation’s future appears bright, and discussing Hutu or Tutsi tribal identity has become taboo. Tribal divisions once enshrined in identification cards—dating back to the colonial era—have been wiped clean from public discourse.

In the early ’90s, regional massacres of Tutsi provided a testing ground for ethnic cleansing techniques and international reaction prior to the 1994 genocide. Bugesera was one of those regions. Imana Kids sponsors children from Bugesera (including students at this school).

“You can’t say Hutu or Tutsi in Rwanda at this time,” Ismail says. “At the moment, it is like it is illegal, because they want us to see ourselves as Rwandans in one shape. What we are taught is this: We are all Rwandans. No one has to belong to one of these [tribal] groups.”

Ismail only knows of his parent’s tribal affiliation from the few times his mother spoke about the dark days that preceded his birth. 

After the genocide, she returned to Rwanda from Congo. She began living with another as man and wife in Kigali. “She was Tutsi, and my father was a Hutu,” Ismail says. “After meeting him, she thought he was going to change her life.”

But her hopes never came to fruition. “Instead her life became worse, and that increased her trauma,” Ismail says. 

“Call me Ishmael.”
(Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, 1851)

In accordance with Rwandan custom, Ismail received his two names from his parents. One of his names, Ntakirutimana, means “nothing is greater than God” in Kinyarwanda. Traditionally, Rwandan families do not share surnames or pass them from parent to child. The names are meant to be unique.

His other given name translates from Arabic to “God will listen.” The choice indicates religious affiliation. His parents were Muslim, so Ismail received the Muslim spelling of “Ishmael.” In both Christian and Muslim accounts of Genesis, Ishmael is the firstborn son of Abraham and the ancestor of Muslim people. Ishmael is Abraham’s son by his wife’s servant in the Bible; the “wife’s servant” is Abraham’s second wife in the Quran.  

Although the Constitution of Rwanda explicitly defines marriage as monogamous, Ismail says having multiple wives is not unusual among the minority Muslim population of the predominantly Roman-Catholic nation. 

Ismail was the first son to his father’s third “wife.” They never officially married. Parents are supposed to list their offspring on their own identity cards, but Ismail’s father did not claim them.

With money from selling her previous husband’s home, Ismail’s father bought his third wife’s current mud hovel—located a 20-minute hike up a steep hillside on a treacherous path of broken cement and sandbags for stairs—overlooking the crowded Kimisagara slum that stretches across the valley. There was no running water. They had to haul jugs of potable water for cooking and cleaning. In the rainy season, the steep path became a torrential waterfall preventing access up or down. 

Ismail remembers his father leaving the family’s hillside home in 2002, but he returned after a while. “The oldest one of my father’s wives really hated us and didn’t want us to stay with him,” Ismail says. “I think she could be the one to tell him that he doesn’t need to come home.” 

His father left again in 2003 and never came back. That was the end of their family unit. Financial support disappeared with the father figure. Then came starvation. Meals were a luxury. Sugar cane was the only food in the house for a time, and there were days when they didn’t have that, either.

Paternal grandparents, aunts, and uncles turned their backs to the plight of the third wife. “Our dad’s family rejected us,” Ismail says. “They didn’t want us. Since then, I have carried a big burden in my heart. I was worried about my mother and younger siblings. This made me want to work harder so I can bring a big change in their lives.”

He knew academic success would be his path to change. But his mother could not afford fees for the local primary schools. Fortunately, a school in the area waived tuition for Ismail and his siblings. Walking several kilometers there and back on an empty stomach was still difficult, though.

“Most of the time, I had to go to classes without taking any food,” Ismail says. “Going to school was somehow easier, but turning back was really hard. Sometimes I had to sit on the street and wait until I regained the energy so that I could move on.”

After classes or during holidays, Ismail and Isaac made extra money for food; they gathered scrap metal or crafted little metal toys from fence wires. Life on the streets could be dangerous. Police would capture street kids and put them in jail. Some of their friends carried razorblades to slash the officers in order to escape. 

“When I was picking scrap metals, I had to communicate with my friends who were in the streets to give them what I had collected instead of going to the place,” Ismail says. “My friends on the streets were good at escaping the police. Then they would get the money and give me some.”

Adults in the neighborhood called him a “street kid” and “illegitimate.” The words stung his heart. Although Ismail slept at his mother’s home, he felt like one of the street kids. “I was on the streets most of the time, and many of my friends were street kids,” he says. “That’s why I felt rejected from society. I didn’t love the other kids from better families. I felt different, like the street kids were the only ones I could associate with.”

His mother converted to Christianity in 2008. Ismail and his siblings eventually followed her lead. Meanwhile, a makeshift orphanage sprang up on the hillside next to his mother’s home. The owner, Antoine, seized part of the family’s small plot of land for his orphanage. He also started offering Ismail and his family food. Without Antoine’s handouts, Ismail suspects they might have died. 

When the time came to take the national high school entry exam, Ismail received one of the region’s top scores. It was news in the community, and the achievement brought him into the spotlight for ridicule. His academic future was in limbo without enough money to even pay for the daily bus fare to attend high school, never mind the tuition fees.

“Everyone knew that I passed the national exam,” Ismail says. “People were making fun of me, saying I was a street kid from a really poor family, that I passed the national exams at the highest grade but I’m not going to high school. There were some adults who were being mean, because they had seen how we were living.”

Then, Ismail says, Antoine would only give them more food if they lived at the orphanage. He would also cover Ismail’s expenses associated with attending one of Rwanda’s top high schools, St. Andre College. Ismail couldn’t turn down the opportunity. He moved from his mother’s mud home into Antoine’s next-door orphanage with Isaac. The small building housed anywhere from 60 to 100 kids (depending on the day) in roughly a dozen cramped, cage-like rooms. 

He felt like an imposter. Ismail was a day-student at St. Andre because the boarding option was too expensive. When other students talked about their families, Ismail kept silent. He felt out of place at every turn, so he endured abuse from others without protest. Loneliness crept into his heart.   

Imana Kids purchased land in Bugesera to build Hope Village (a trauma-informed school, church, and foster care village). All of the “original Imana Kids” joined the land-dedication ceremony on July 18. Among the group was the first of the former orphans to be married. His wife joined, too, with their baby on her back.

“At St. Andre, I had a classmate that made fun of my name saying I am the son of a slave woman and saying that I’m an illegitimate kid,” Ismail says, comparing the at-school insult to the hurtful words hurled by adults in Kimisagara. “He [the classmate] didn’t know where I was from, but calling me that made me uncomfortable. The school was attended by many rich students from rich families, and this made me feel even more isolated.” He didn’t protest. He didn’t want to make a scene.

In those days, life at the orphanage was better than his mother’s home. At least there was food. But there’s no such thing as free lunch, Ismail learned. Antoine had the children make mud bricks, gather water, care for his cow, dispose of manure, and do other labor-intensive chores. When they misbehaved, Antoine would beat them or lock them in the dark without meals. 

Girls at the orphanage suffered worst of all, though Ismail says he did not learn of their trauma until the end of his time lodging there. Antoine had a prostitution ring on the side. He made some girls go home with men to perform sex acts.

There were times when Ismail considered running away from Rwanda to join one of the militias in the forests of Congo. Most of the time, though, he dreamed of enrolling at a foreign university, somewhere far from his Kimisagara slum and the troubles of daily life. 

Ismail turned back to his school books, and he prayed. 

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…”
(James 1:27)

The 2004 film Hotel Rwanda reminded the world of the country’s genocide. Nominated for an Academy Award, it tells the heroic story of the manager of Hôtel des Mille Collines giving shelter to more than 1,200 Tutsi refugees in Kigali. The hotel manager responsible was Hutu (the son of a Tutsi woman) and married a Tutsi woman.

A few years after the film’s theatrical release, Kara and Ryan Higgins were watching a DVD rental of the movie at their home in the suburbs of Kansas City. The experience set in motion a series of life-changing events for the married couple. 

“Initially, I was shocked that I didn’t know more about the genocide because I can remember seeing it on the news,” Kara says. “Later in the same week we watched the movie, the adoption agency we were in contact with told us about a new pilot program for adoption from Rwanda. We thought this must be a right fit, our kids must be in Rwanda.” 

“At the time, I didn’t think of it as the turning point for our family, but it definitely was,” Ryan adds.

Adoption was an ongoing discussion for the Higginses since before they had married. By the time they watched Hotel Rwanda in 2009, they had two biological children—6-year-old Molly and 4-year-old Blake—but complications during both pregnancies meant they couldn’t have more biological kids. 

Watching the movie, they realized a humanitarian crisis was looming over a new generation of Rwandan youth. The genocide had orphaned tens of thousands of children. Many were born to victims of rape during the ethnic cleansing. Some had watched the murder of their parents. Others—Hutu and Tutsi alike—were simply falling through the cracks of an overburdened child welfare system.  

The Higginses added their names to the waiting list for adopting Rwandan orphans as part of the new pilot program. After months of waiting, nuns with the Sisters of Charity at the Home of Hope Orphanage paired the couple with Etienne and Ezekiel. The nuns estimated Etienne was close to 3 years old and Ezekiel was about 18 months old.

Kara and Ryan didn’t hesitate. They jumped at the opportunity to complete their dream family. Flying to Rwanda for the first time, they arrived and fell in love with the country. The boys’ adjustment to the foreign, white American family was difficult, Kara admits, but worth the struggle.

“They were No. 7 and No. 8 to be adopted out of Rwanda,” Kara says. “The government closed international adoptions in 2012, so it’s a pretty small community in the U.S. of Rwandan-American adopted kids.”

Just before adopting the boys, the Higginses relocated to Council Bluffs to be closer to Kara’s family in Omaha. Ryan was teaching engineering at Abraham Lincoln High School. Kara was a midwife and nurse practitioner at OneWorld Community Health Center in South Omaha.

In the year that Rwanda closed foreign adoptions, destiny came calling again.   

Clockwise from left:
Blake, Molly, Ryan, Kara, Etienne, and Ezekiel Higgins (the founding family of Imana Kids)

“Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household.”
(Ephesians 2:19)

Visiting Orphans, a faith-oriented nonprofit out of Tennessee, wanted to know if the Higginses would lead a summer 2013 trip to volunteer at an orphanage in Kigali. The organization had learned of the Higgins family through Kara’s blog, Room4More, which had attracted a large following in the adoption community.

Eager to give more to the country that had completed their family, Kara and Ryan answered, “Yes.” But Kara gave one condition: “We wanted to go to the place with the greatest need.” The Visiting Orphans coordinator knew of just the place, a difficult-to-access orphanage in the slums of Kimisagara in Kigali. 

The Higginses’ daughter, Kara’s parents, an aunt from Omaha, friends of the family, and Kara’s midwife mentor (Manya Schmidt) joined Kara and Ryan’s first organized group to Rwanda. 

They had plans for a grand vacation bible school week, but the number of children they found crowded into Antoine’s dilapidated orphanage overwhelmed their plans. Most of the kids weren’t even going to school. Ismail was one of the few children even interested in studying. 

“That very first day, I knew that this is going to change the rest of our lives,” Kara says. She started collecting profiles of the kids with the help of a translator. They asked each child what they wanted to do when they grew up. Very few had answers. The struggle of living day-to-day fully occupied their minds. 

One of the older boys was Ferdinand. With broad strong shoulders, Ferdinand was one of the bigger kids. He was an orphan of the 1994 genocide. As an infant, his sister tossed him in a river to save him from killers. Then she jumped after him. She saved him, and she took care of him for several years—until she died of HIV-related illness, a result of being raped. 

When he was living on the streets, Ferdinand was one of those street kids carrying razor blades to escape police. He was one of those street kids tossed into jail. Eventually, he ended up under Antoine’s roof in Kimisagara.

Ananias (pictured in the center) joined the Hope Village dedication ceremony. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2019 with help from Omaha-based Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture

The orphanage, high on the hillside, was packed with children. Sewage seeped into where the kids played, and many suffered from serious health problems. Overwhelmed by the dire circumstances of the orphanage’s living conditions, the Higgins family and their group of foreign volunteers didn’t notice anything amiss, at least not yet. Kara says they were naive.

“On the first day, we learned a phrase that means, ‘See you tomorrow.’” The kids didn’t believe us that we would come back a second day,” Ryan says. They had seen foreign aid groups before, but none returned for a second day. The kids were overjoyed when the muzungu (slang for “white people” in Kinyarwanda) actually came back to the mud-walled and mud-floored orphanage the following day.

Their final day was a tear-jerker. “We can’t come back tomorrow, but we will see you again,” the Americans told the kids. “That last day was gut-wrenching. I remember getting on the bus and just sobbing,” Ryan says. Kara had never seen him cry like that.  

Discussions on how to help the kids began as soon as the volunteers returned to their hotel in Kigali, before they had even flown home. Back in the U.S., the Higginses and the rest of their team began researching how to start a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to the desperate children trapped in Antoine’s orphanage.  

By July 2013, about a month after returning home, they had formalized a nonprofit called Imana Kids, with headquarters at the Higginses’ dining room table. The first part of the name, Imana, translates to “of God” in Kinyarwanda. Their mission: “Love one child, change the world,” with a focus on building sustainable person-to-person relationships.

The first trip under the new nonprofit came in September. Ryan and Kara flew back to hire an in-country director, open a foreign Rwandan bank account, and find boarding schools for all the children. Most schools, however, declined to take “street kids” because of the potential liability. 

Before they could do anything more, Imana Kids needed a dependable translator. Kara and Ryan contacted the Rwandan husband-wife pastoring duo who had helped with translation during the previous Visiting Orphans trip. But they weren’t available on such short notice. Jane, the wife of Pastor Peter, suggested her brother—a born-again Christian named James Odongo. James would eventually become the team’s in-country director (also accountant, chaperone, father figure, mentor, disciplinarian, pastor, and friend to the kids).

James grew up in a Ugandan refugee camp. A Hutu-led revolution against Belgian colonialism overturned Rwanda’s monarchy and dispossessed the Tutsi ruling elite during the early 1960s. As persecution of Tutsis became a recurring threat in Rwanda, members of the minority group fled to neighboring countries. 

Abandoned by his father, James led a life of vice and adventure before devoting his life to the gospel. He served in Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front, pursued Hutu militias into Congo, and occupied high-ranking military positions with regional revolutionary armies. He even led a gang of robbers before finding redemption through Jesus Christ. 

He learned to speak English from the Lord. James says he never studied it, but could one day make sense of the foreign tongue like the Book of Acts (where the Holy Spirit descended to earth in flames, granting Jesus’ disciples the ability to speak in foreign unfamiliar languages).

Ryan returned over Christmas. He and James got the kids from the Kimisagara orphanage ready with assorted school supplies and mattresses for boarding school rooms. During the visit, Ryan discovered that the secondary school had unexpectedly blocked the orphans from enrollment. So, they had to find a replacement school.

The orphanage’s academic all-star, Ismail, soon joined the rest of the older kids for a fresh start at the high school known as Lyceé de Kicukiro Apade. American sponsors began stepping up to cover associated fees and expenses. Ryan’s parents became Ismail’s sponsor. Kara and Ryan sponsored another boy named Ananias (who they later flew to Omaha for surgery to correct the uneven length of his legs).

Kara and Ryan began alternating their trips to Kigali. In January 2014, two weeks after Ryan’s trip to finalize new school logistics, Kara and another Imana Kids board member flew back to tie up loose ends. 

They were worried about the younger kids trapped in the orphanage, not yet able to attend boarding school. But it was also on this trip when one of the older girls revealed a darker depravity of the Kimisagara orphanage. Antoine was forcing the older girls into prostitution. 

“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.”
(1 Corinthians 12:12-13)

“She told us in passing, ‘Now that I’m at school, I don’t have to do anything for a meal,’” Kara says. James began to probe with questions. “What do you mean?” She explained, “Well, I used to have to work for Antoine.” “What do you mean by work?” James continued. “I used to have sex, and then I would be able to get deodorant and things like that.”

The career midwife has seen many abused women in clinics. But she had never heard anything like this. “She was just sharing the facts like she was talking about the weather,” Kara says of the candid teenage girl.

Kara began reaching out to local representatives of International Justice Mission and the Rwandan government. “The law in Rwanda is that you need physical evidence of sexual assault crimes, and that was difficult for the girls who were underage,” Kara says. Four of the girls were willing to wear hidden cameras. 

But the Imana Kids leadership didn’t feel comfortable asking the girls to let themselves be abused. Before catching her flight home, James hired nannies to look after the younger kids. Kara gave stern instructions to the nannies and the older boys that they should protect the girls.

Meanwhile, Antoine was out recruiting new orphans for the spaces vacated by the children Imana Kids placed in boarding schools. The older orphans were safe in their boarding schools, and Kara only had to worry about them during school holidays or sick days when they were out of their school’s dorms. 

Back in the U.S., Kara persistently contacted officials who could close the orphanage. “We were calling or emailing weekly, but we weren’t getting anywhere,” she says.

To the left of Kara and Ryan Higgins, James Odongo preaches at the future site of Imana Kids’ Hope Village.

The first Imana Kids group trip was part volunteering, part Mission: Impossible. In July 2014, Kara and Ryan led a dozen board members, sponsors, and participants from the prior Visiting Orphans trip that the Higginses had led. 

“We had to tell that team what was going on in advance,” Kara says. “The environment was really tense. Antoine had put padlocks on the door, and he had a notification system where they rang a cowbell when cars arrived at the base of the hill. But Antoine still wanted us coming in because he wanted food for the kids, and thought he could get money from us. He didn’t want to lose the relationship with us.” 

In between time spent at the Kimisagara orphanage with children, Kara was trying to meet with government officials and aid groups. 

One night early in the visit, several Imana Kids board members organized a secret rescue mission to meet four older girls at a Kimisagara gas station. The girls were in beautician trade school and didn’t have a dorm like the boarding school students. Vulnerable and scared, they wanted out. James arranged for a safe house with friends in another neighborhood. 

The day before leaving Rwanda, Imana Kids rented a soccer field in the valley below the hillside to avoid the mounting tension and fear that pervaded the orphanage. Kids ran and frolicked away from Antoine’s surveillance.

Their group came back to say goodbyes the following day. When Antoine was out, Ferdinand surprised Kara by drawing the deadbolt on the door of the orphanage. He cornered her while other boys kept lookout. They needed privacy to discuss threats facing other girls. He also worried what would happen to everyone if the orphanage was successfully closed. Where would they go?

With their departing flight a few hours away, crying children followed the foreigners down the hillside to their rental bus. Just then, a fleet of expensive cars—shiny black BMWs and other luxury vehicles unusual for Kimisagara—pulled to the side of the road.   

 “It was like a movie,” Kara says. “The minister of the Office for Vulnerable Children, who I had been emailing every week since the previous winter—until I gave up in April—walked up to me and asked, ‘Are you karahmidwife@gmail.com? I just got your emails.’” 

The government official did not expect to find Imana Kids or Kara there. As the foreigners drove away from the coincidental encounter, authorities marched up the hill and closed the orphanage. It was a success and another crisis at the same time. Orphans scattered from Antoine’s building. Some ran away and were never found. Others were in school and found themselves without a home for the next school break. 

James tracked down kids with help from the older orphans. Imana Kids bankrolled a transitional home they called the Sparrows’ Nest (a reference to Psalms 84:3). Kara and Ryan found themselves continuing to take turns on return visits every few months. James found himself the 24-7 custodian for up to 50 kids at once, depending on the time of year. 

By 2017, Kara needed more time to focus on Imana Kids every week. She took a second job as a nurse-midwife in the Navy Reserve, a lieutenant position, which allowed extra hours for Imana Kids while working less at OneWorld in Omaha.

The reach of Imana Kids has grown steadily. By fall 2018, the nonprofit has led 10 groups to Rwanda. They have 173 sponsor kids, including orphans as well as underprivileged children throughout Kigali and nearby communities. Ages range from preschool up to older students in trade schools and universities in Rwanda.

The Higginses refer to all the children from Antoine’s orphanage as the “original Imana Kids,” and they have enjoyed watching them gain confidence and mature into adulthood. The first of the original Imana Kids got married in summer 2017; Ryan and Kara attended the ceremony in place of his parents. 

Cows are a traditional status symbol in Rwanda, and an important feature of wedding ceremonies. Kara and Ryan hired a herdsman to bring the sounds of a herd to the wedding (the actual cows were too expensive, so they paid him to walk through the service carrying a tape recorder with mooing on loop—a cheaper alternative that the herdsman suggested for their budget). 

The next major milestone for Imana Kids was to get one of the former street kids into an American university. “For the rest of the world, I think this would legitimize that what we are doing is working, that any kid can succeed,” Kara says. “They just need to be given a fair opportunity.” 

“And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful…”
(Genesis 17:20)

“From the very moment we met Ismail, we thought he could handle a university in America,” Kara says. During the wedding visit, she and Ryan started to lay out the steps that Ismail needed to follow. He had already finished high school and was volunteering for the country’s national service program as a census worker. 

After taking the necessary English proficiency exams, Ismail began sending applications to several dozen American universities. Creighton was always his No. 1 choice. But he tried not to get his hopes up. 

His first conditional acceptance to an American university came from Franklin Pierce University, a private school in New Hampshire. He was also accepted to a university in Rwanda, backup if he could not secure a U.S. student visa.

The Kimisagara district in Kigali, Rwanda

On the bus, after being unable to complete his first scheduled visa interview appointment at the U.S. embassy in Kigali, Ismail thought it was all over. Luckily, he had a guardian angel keeping tabs with the embassy from halfway around the world.

“I got on the bus and headed back home, feeling very discouraged,” Ismail says. “Then Kara sent me a message telling me to go back: ‘They said that you can meet someone there.’ I told the driver to stop. I was halfway home, so I took the moto [motorcycle taxi] and went back to the embassy.”

It was the middle of the night in the middle of America, but Kara Higgins was following up with the Rwandan U.S. embassy over the phone. She was texting updates back to Ismail in real time, and he followed her instructions. 

His motorcycle taxi driver sped through traffic, swerving around honking cars and trucks. He arrived back at the embassy, but was too late. Closing time. They told him to come back another day. “I was getting a little bit of hope,” Ismail admits with renewed optimism. He returned the next day, and the embassy gave him an interview (thanks to Kara’s persistent phone calls). 

Unfortunately, he still had to wait another week to receive confirmation of whether or not the visa would be approved or rejected. With the uncertainty hanging over Ismail’s visa hopes, Kara and Ryan embarked on their largest-ever group trip to Rwanda. The 24-person team consisted of board members, family  relatives, a married couple from Minnesota going to meet their sponsor daughter for the first time, pastors, college girls seeking missionary experience, and strangers from across the country who had only recently learned of Imana Kids on the internet.

Upon arriving in Kigali, the Imana Kids team hopped between boarding schools and preschools. A mountain of suitcases stuffed with crafts, sports equipment, and bible lessons traveled along with them. It was a weeklong, multi-stop vacation bible school for the younger kids (the sort the Higginses’ Visiting Orphans group had intended but were unable to accomplish). Older sponsor kids participated in workshops to build life skills. Every sponsor kid received a care package stuffed with goodies and a letter from their sponsor family.

Ismail’s day of reckoning at the embassy was scheduled for mid-week of the Imana Kids trip. If approved for a visa, Imana Kids would book his airfare to travel back to Omaha with the Higginses.

Though Ismail was anxious, Kara had no doubts. “Sure, he could be rejected,” Kara says. “But honestly, with every miracle that has happened for Imana Kids, I expected it. Because every idea and dream we planted, we have been able to watch unfold…although it hasn’t always been on the timeline we were hoping for.”

En route to the embassy with Kara and James, Ismail asked to stop by the old Kimisagara slum. He wanted to say goodbye to his mother. He might not see her again for four or five years, the length of his visa for undergraduate studies. 

Ismail led the way, wearing a blue Creighton T-shirt. They trudged up the steep hillside between ramshackle mud structures. Her home sat just above the old orphanage. Antoine was still in the neighborhood, James says, but he remains under surveillance. 

Entering inside the mud-walled home, Kara met Ismail’s mother for the first time. She thanked Kara and James, praising God, for everything they have done for her son. Tears poured down the face of Ismail’s mother. 

The minutes slipped away, and suddenly it was almost time for Ismail’s embassy appointment. If he received the visa, he told his mother, he would be leaving for a place called Nebraska. He might not see her for several years. Then he was off, back down the hillside with Kara and James to discover his fate. 

*  *  *  *  *

Their van speeds back to central Kigali for the appointment. A crowd of people hover outside the embassy’s entryway. When an officer announces names for appointments, Kara pushes Ismail to the start of the line.

An hour passes. Some of the people in line with Ismail begin exiting the embassy. Ismail was one of the first in, but he is one of the last to exit. Finally, he steps outside with a wide grin on his face. He’s holding a passport in his hand with the fresh visa page open. Kara screams and rushes to give him a big hug.  

When they meet back with the rest of the Imana Kids team at a local boarding school, everyone swarms around Ismail offering congratulations.

Kara and Ryan’s checklist for Imana Kids is making progress: Ismail’s miracle. Check. The next miracle on the agenda? Hope Village (a purpose-built, trauma-informed school, church, and foster care village in Bugesera, an hour south of Kigali). Imana Kids has already purchased the piece of land, which is empty except for bushes and wildflowers. Construction is slated to begin in July 2019 with help from Omaha-based Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture.

They take the team to Bugesera to bless the land, joined by all the original Imana Kids from Antoine’s orphanage. Everyone forms a circle, holding hands. James offers a prayer. The Americans and former street kids sing, dance, and pray until the sun comes down. Just before sunset, a herdsman pushes a herd of cattle over the property past the revelries. Cows moo along with the singing voices.

“We’ve seen too many coincidences for them to be mere coincidence,” Ryan says. Ismail says the cows are a sign of good luck.

Ismail’s brothers and sisters from the orphanage join the following day at the Kigali airport to say farewell.

On an airplane for the first time, he buckles in for a long haul—more than 28 hours with layovers in Burundi, Ethiopia, Ireland, and Washington, D.C. Many passengers try to sleep the time away. Not Ismail. He’s too excited to sleep.

At Dulles International Airport, he tastes his first American hamburger and samples sushi for the first time. 

His final connecting flight lands at Omaha Eppley Airfield in the afternoon of July 21. There is a crowd waiting to greet him with balloons. 

Ismail walks into his new life like a dream—and prayer—come true. 


The spring gala for Imana Kids—“Love One Child”—will feature a film screening and international speakers over three days, March 21-23. Visit imanakids.org for more information. 

This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Ismail Ntakirutimana

After Lights Out, Gene Leahy Mall Demolition Scheduled to Begin

October 24, 2018 by
Photography by Doug Meigs

Downtown Omaha turns extra magical the evening of Nov. 22, thanks to the annual ceremony for the Holiday Lights Festival. Festive lights will illuminate the mall until New Year’s Day.

The mall’s next transformation will follow the lights turning off, with the scenic landscape rising to street level. Demolition of the Gene Leahy Mall is scheduled to begin in the spring.

The mall’s sunken green slopes and paths leading down to the lagoon will disappear under a pile of dirt and new amenities, according to the current master plan for the Missouri Riverfront Revitalization Project (available at riverfrontrevitalization.com).

The famous American landscape architect Lawrence Halprin designed the mall in the ’60s, in conjunction with Omaha-based architectural firm BVH. Then known as the “Central Park Mall,” it was the first phase of City Planning Director Alden Aust’s vision for Omaha’s “return to the river,” an initiative funded by federal grants and informed by public consultation.

The Gene Leahy Mall is one of five areas targeted by the current public-private Missouri Riverfront Revitalization Project. Total cost for the project (including the mall) is anticipated at $290 million (with the bulk of funding coming from private and philanthropic investment). Mayor Jean Stothert has committed the city to $50 million on the project, which includes Lewis & Clark Landing and Heartland of America Park in Omaha. The rest of the development spans the Council Bluffs side of the Missouri River. 

Proponents of flattening the Gene Leahy Mall argue the mall in its current form disconnects the Old Market from north downtown and various developments there: the Holland Performing Arts Center, CHI Health Center Omaha, the new Capitol District area, and other proposed developments (including Kiewit’s new headquarters).

Flattening the mall, advocates say, will make the area safer for police to monitor while also creating more space for amenities and programming. In turn, the altered space will help make downtown more attractive for developers and residents, while also helping local corporations attract and retain talent. 

But the plan is not universally accepted by the community. Gary Bowen was one of the architects at BVH working with Halprin’s office to conceptualize and construct the Gene Leahy Mall. He applauds most of the Missouri Riverfront Revitalization’s master plan, but is concerned about the demolition of the mall outlined in the master plan announced June 12. 

“The remaining portion of the current proposed plan [east of the mall] is appropriate and worth the investment. That is the part of our downtown that needs help,” Bowen says. “But the Leahy Mall needs to be updated—not scrapped—to respond to the changing scene downtown.”

Bowen worked with Omaha Parks & Recreation staff and the Downtown Improvement District to create a 2014 proposal to update the mall (proposing the addition of an amphitheater, new activity spaces, an enlarged playground, and an additional pedestrian bridge across the mall). But the plans stalled without action from the city.

The 2014 plan from BVH would have preserved the integrity of the green space and lagoon while adding the new amenities at a projected cost of $20 million. Instead, the city pursued a less comprehensive update for $1.8 million that removed the mall’s walled sidewalk barriers to improve visibility for the sake of public safety.

“The original cost of creating the Gene Leahy mall exceeded $20 million. In today’s dollars, that value would be approximately $45-50 million, inflated at a modest 3 percent annually,” Bowen says. “To throw away that investment and add another proposed amount, will the end result justify that kind of cost? I think not.”

He continues: “The mall has become an iconic symbol of Omaha. How many times do we see it pictured on a website, a postcard, a calendar? People get married there, and people come from all over to enjoy the natural beauty. The current scenario seems eerily familiar to the attempt to take Elmwood Park for UNO parking, or taking Jobbers Canyon for ConAgra.”

But short of any public outcry in support of the mall’s conservation, the Gene Leahy Mall’s fate seems certain—buried. 

Read more of Bowen’s counterpoint to plans to demolish the Gene Leahy Mall online
here: http://omahamagazine.com/articles/goodbye-gene-leahy-mall/).


More Omaha Magazine Headlines

Omaha Magazine Joins CRMAs

Omaha Magazine is a new member of the City and Regional Magazine Association. Members must have an audited circulation (the audit period can take up to 15 months) and maintain editorial independence from advertisers.

Best of Omaha Soirée
(Thursday, Nov. 8)

Join us in celebrating winners of the Best of Omaha contest. The event will feature food and beverages from winners, and live entertainment. Location: Omaha Design Center. Dress code: business chic. Age restriction: 21 and older. Ticket price: $60 VIP (6-7 p.m. pre-entry with free valet parking), $40 general admission (7-10 p.m.). Purchase tickets at localstubs.com.


This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Escape on Wine Road

October 17, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Driving into the heart of wine country in Northern California, our chauffeur has to point out where last year’s devastation ravaged the landscape of Sonoma County. At first glance, we only see lush green hillsides. Upon closer inspection from the passing vehicle, the brownish limbs of damaged evergreens indicate where flames once danced over the freeway in October 2017. Occasional construction sites and empty lots reveal the former site of gas stations, fast food joints, and hotels consumed by wildfires. 

“After the recent rains, everything turned so green,” says the driver, Hugo, a resident of Santa Rosa (the largest city in Sonoma County). His neighborhood was almost entirely destroyed, and his home was among the few that survived. “It burned so fast that, as soon as the firefighters got there, everything was gone. The heat was so intense that it was melting aluminum from the wheels on cars.”

Luckily, “vineyards are a natural firebreak,” Hugo says. Hundreds of fires across Northern California destroyed some 8,900 buildings, causing upwards of $9.4 million in damage close to the time of harvest season. But most of Sonoma’s grapes had been picked by then. Although some late-harvest yields could carry a smoky flavor, we can only speculate (as that vintage had yet to begin pouring during our visit in May).

Wine production—the vineyards acting as a firebreak—didn’t merely slow the devastation; the industry and its associated tourism remain a critical part of the region’s economic recovery. As we drive deeper into the grape-producing hills of Sonoma County, evidence of the previous year’s inferno fades from view and memory. We are getting thirsty. Bring on the wine!

Our trip began with a direct flight from Omaha to San Francisco on the morning of Saturday, May 5. Joined by my family, wife Michele and 8-month-old Faye-Marie, it was our first foray into California’s wine country. Neither my wife nor I had much knowledge of fine wines (let alone Sonoma wines), but we eagerly welcomed the opportunity to drink, uh, I mean, “to learn.” Yes, this was an educational trip. 

After some light weekend sightseeing in San Francisco—and gaining firsthand appreciation for the apocryphal Mark Twain quote “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco”—Hugo’s sparkling Chevy Suburban from Pure Luxury Transportation arrived at our hotel. 

We left the foggy city and drove north through the Golden Gate Bridge, stopped for selfies, and (after another hour or so) were transported to the laid-back hillsides of Sonoma County to find perfect weather. It was all blue skies and 78 degrees Fahrenheit. The day before in San Francisco was about 20 degrees cooler (a common temperature differential between the two Northern California locales).

We were, literally, traveling the Wine Road. The association of wineries and lodgings in northern Sonoma County, known as Wine Road, had invited us on the trip and arranged our travel itinerary and accommodations. Wine Road even took into account a schedule that accommodated all our interests and limitations (i.e., maximum wining/dining for us with minimal whining from the baby). 

Omaha Magazine’s publisher and associate publisher traveled to Sonoma a month earlier for photos, but they encountered rainy weather that left the hillsides nice and green for our subsequent reporting trip. Our timing, a few weeks before the Memorial Day tourist rush, seemed ideal. June through October is widely noted to be the best time to visit Sonoma, but tourism is also more packed during those five months heading into the grape-harvest season. 

Nine Sonoma wineries together established Wine Road in 1976. It now includes about 200 winery members (close to half of the vineyards in Sonoma) and roughly 50 associate lodging members. The Wine Road website describes its coalition as “a spirited constellation of nearly 200 wineries and 54 lodgings” that provides a resource to guide visitors and locals alike. Member vineyards range from modern and state-of-the-art to smaller boutique operations located throughout northern Sonoma’s Alexander, Dry Creek, and Russian River valleys. 

Sonoma is home to roughly 425 vineyards in total, including farmers who simply grow grapes for sale to larger companies, along with members-only vineyards where it can take years of being waitlisted before a would-be customer could even purchase a bottle, and everything in between. 

 Day 1: Arrival in Sonoma County

The wine country of Sonoma also offers the delicious paradox of mountain town atmosphere, rural farming interspersed with high luxury, and close proximity to expansive ocean shorelines. Just to the east is the neighboring, landlocked wine region of Napa County. Sonoma’s wine-producing regions cover roughly 65,000 acres, which is 25,000 more than neighboring Napa. 

Varied soil types and mild temperatures help make Sonoma a winegrower’s paradise. The county may be best known for its pinot noir and zinfandels, but it also produces a host of other varietals: chardonnay, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, shiraz, and petite sirah. Each subregion of Sonoma is known for particular grapes, and the Russian River Valley is widely considered to produce some of the world’s best pinot noir—the preferred varietal of the Paul Giamatti’s character in the 2004 film Sideways by Omaha director Alexander Payne. (Although the film was not shot in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, for the sake of the film’s protagonist, it probably should have been; the on-screen character’s obsession for pinot noir was associated with a spike in demand and price for pinot around the time of the film’s release.) The Russian River Valley is also notable for its chardonnay production.

Driving along River Road, we cross a bridge high over the Russian River. Happy kayakers float on the gentle river below (possibly with wine stashed in their vessels). Veering off the road, a steep driveway takes us up to our lodging nestled behind a wall of trees and dense foliage. We discover Sonoma Orchid Inn Bed and Breakfast—a cluster of cozy yellow cottages—to be a rustic, sun-soaked dream. Hummingbirds flit past multi-colored roses, and one of the property’s co-owners, Dana Murphy, welcomes us in the driveway.

Murphy offers a quick tour of the three-level main cottage. In addition to smaller standalone cottages outside, the main building features rooms for a range of price points. There is artwork and antique furniture throughout; a family-style dining room and living room on the main level with a library, fireplace, couches, floor-to-ceiling windows, and piano; and two kitchens, one for staff, one for guests. 

The nearby Russian River is a short walk from the lodging along Odd Fellows Park Road. The river takes its name from Russian explorers who established forts and planted apples in the area at the dawn of the 19th century. Then came Spanish missionaries, who introduced grapes to the Russian River Valley for personal consumption (making it the oldest wine-producing region of California). Formal annexation of California by the U.S. came in 1848, followed by the gold rush, logging and destruction of expansive redwood forests, Prohibition (which put local viticulture on hold), the rise and fall of hop farming, and eventual removal of apple orchards in recent decades. 

Sonoma’s history is fascinating, and the B&B site was originally the homestead of a prune/plumb/hops farmer who came out for the gold rush but missed the action. But I struggle to keep my focus from the mountain of chewy double-chocolate (gluten-free) cookies that Murphy—also the resident chef—had piled under a covered platter in the guest kitchen. 

The refrigerator is stocked with favorite wines from Sonoma, of course. To my surprise, the fridge is also packed with an ample selection of local craft beer and hard cider. Before becoming synonymous with wine country, Sonoma was famous for its production of Gravenstein apples and the hops necessary for beer. The high value of grapes in recent decades prompted growers to cultivate grapevines in place of orchards and hop farms. 

In recent years, however, the booming demand for craft beer and hard cider has led to resurgent use of these historic Sonoma agricultural products. Although the grapes remain more profitable per acre, the cyclical pattern of history in Sonoma agriculture feels poetic. But we are late for dinner (and I can only eat so many cookies before seeming like a rude guest).

Another driver picks us up, and we head into the quaint town of Guerneville. The small-town feel of the main drag belies the culinary delights waiting in the bars and restaurants. We stop at an uber-hip bistro, Boon Eat+Drink, to feast on roasted Brussels sprouts, a burger with truffle fries, and baked cod from a seasonally rotating menu (paired with Sonoma wine, of course, and a local Sonoma beer). Next door, we pop into the Guerneville Bank Club—a collective retail and art space in a restored historic bank—for a slice of spicy green chile apple pie with a scoop of lavender honeycomb ice cream. 

There is still sunlight, so we head over to the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve for a walk. Giant redwoods tower overhead, and we meander through the trees on a flat trail with occasional interpretive signs that explain how the patch of old-growth forest narrowly escaped loggers’ axes. We take the “Discovery Loop” trail to pay respects to Colonel Armstrong (a redwood tree that is more than 1,400 years old) and Parson Jones (the forest’s tallest tree at 310 feet).

Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve

Back at our lodging, our host explains that we made the right decision to skip Muir Woods National Monument on the way to Sonoma. Although Muir Woods is easily accessible north of San Francisco, the forest has become so crowded with tourists that reservations are needed to visit. We just showed up at Armstrong Redwoods, and we only encountered a few other couples and families hiking (there . 

 Day 2: Adventure and Gluttony

Experiencing local wineries fills the remainder of our trip. We have multiple chauffeurs during our tour, and I ask each driver to suggest the perfect number of wineries to visit on a trip to Sonoma. The answer varies. 

One middle-aged driver says that two or three at max is ideal per day. He sees too many visitors get sloshed early in the day and miss their dinner reservations to five-star restaurants. He’s been driving guests for many years, and his advice is solid. In contrast, another driver (in his 20s) insists that five wineries is the perfect number in a day. With youthful energy and/or high tolerance for alcohol, this could also work out well—so long as wine consumption is moderated at every stop, or there are no fancy dinner reservations in the evening that could be spoiled. 

There are vessels for spitting out wine at every winery. And staffers always assure us that this is perfectly normal. But I find it difficult to not swallow/guzzle great wine, so a less-ambitious winery tour is better for my waste-not attitude. Then again, I also want to sample as much as I can. Luckily, we experience a bit of both scheduling philosophies on our trip. 

We begin with a leisurely drinking day. But first, some adventure. My first full day in Sonoma begins at Sonoma Canopy Tours. Michele and the baby stay at the B&B as I head deep into the redwood forest. 

To check in, I must step on a scale to make sure I’m not over 250 pounds. A nearby television screen displays footage of helmeted humans screaming through the treetops hundreds of feet above the earth. Minutes later, I’m geared up and flying between the redwoods. My group’s lead guide, Bryan Hart, is a true comedian. Every stop on a platform high in the trees is master’s course in tree-related puns, i.e., Q: Why is this tree so healthy? A: Because of the antibodies (he points to the ants all over the tree). Hart’s assistant can’t help but roll his eyes at the constant barrage of puns (that he has no doubt heard a million times) about pirates, animals, wine, and celebri-trees. But I love it. 

Meanwhile, Michele is enjoying breakfast with travelers from as far away as Latvia and across the U.S. (including local Californians). Some are passing through on self-directed wine tours, others make the lodge a recurring destination for family trips. The co-owners, Murphy and Brian Siewert, are experts on Sonoma wineries, festivals, and activities. What’s more, they share their knowledge with a typical laid-back California fashion, absent of condescension (which we experienced all throughout Sonoma). They were helpful and informative without making us feel stupid about wine, which in all fairness, we were.

In an idyllic sun-soaked scene that could have been ripped from a Thomas Kinkade painting, I find Michele and the baby playing in the yard. Then we are off to our first winery, Korbel Champagne Cellars, which boasts of being the only producer of real champagne outside of France. Korbel’s operation in Sonoma was founded by three Czech brothers in 1882, a history that exempts it from a later international treaty that legally restricts use of the term “champagne” to sparkling wine produced in Champagne, France. 

Korbel provided the champagne for Ronald Reagan’s presidential inauguration. Of course a Californian would use “California Champagne,” and he set a tradition that has continued with the drink of choice in all subsequent U.S. presidential inaugurations. President Barack Obama received angry feedback from French wine lobbyists for his serving Korbel to no avail. His inauguration organizers more or less told the lobbyists to “put a cork in it.”

We visit the cellars, learn the company history, witness the stages of production, and linger in the tasting room until we’ve tried every variety (including several limited editions). Buzzed and late, we stop in the cafe for some fancy sandwiches to eat in the car. Had we not spent so much time in the tasting room, we would have taken our sandwiches to Armstrong Redwoods for a picnic. Never mind. We are off to our next destination, Iron Horse Vineyards. 

Iron Horse Vineyards’ tasting room consists of a cozy bar overlooking a sweeping vista of grapevines rolling downhill and out to the horizon. Iron Horse, like Korbel, was also a crucial drink for the Reagan administration. Iron Horse’s sparkling wine was served at his Perestroika meetings with the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev that ended the Cold War. Although famous for its sparkling wine (and we sample the 2013 Russian Cuvee that commemorates the Reagan-Gorbachev meeting), the vineyard produces much more—including some delightful chardonnay and pinot noir. 

We close out the bar in the late afternoon, and we head to Forestville (another of Sonoma’s quaint little towns) for dinner reservations at Backyard. Backyard is a farm-to-table restaurant. Chef and owner Daniel Kedan brings out a spectacular charcuterie board with ingredients sourced from his own garden along with local organic farms. Live music is playing, and we order several other dishes—pizza, pasta, and fried chicken—that are all wonderful. 

Beware. Travelers in wine country must be careful of overeating as well as overdrinking. By the time we leave Backyard, I am so full that I have to walk up and down the little main street a few times

 Day 3: Novelty and Heavy Drinking

Our first full day was a crash course in sparkling wine. Our second full day will introduce the broader spectrum of Sonoma wines from chardonnay to pinot to zinfandel (and more). Wine tours, we are told, should start with lighter-bodied wines—sparkling or chardonnay—and move into the heavier-bodied wines. Pinot is a very light-bodied red wine. Cabernet sauvignon, on the other hand, is robust and dominates one’s palate).

After a family-style breakfast at the B&B, I take a lesson from the previous day and remind myself not to overdo it. Today is our big day of drinking with four vineyards and a brewery all on the itinerary. We start with a stop at Sonoma-Cutrer in the Russian River Valley.

While the baby is sleeping in the stroller under the shade of our table’s umbrella, we sample three refreshing chardonnays and a pinot while munching on a local cheese spread. Each chardonnay exhibits a different flavor characteristic: one is more fruit forward on the tongue, another carries stronger oaky hints from the barrel, and the third has a stronger mineral taste. The pinot, without any cross-reference, I’d simply describe as delightful (a descriptor that applies to each chardonnay, too). 

Our table overlooks two croquet courts. Two elderly couples smack at balls on one court, and our server offers a quick tutorial. We play a few rounds as the baby sleeps nearby. Swinging the mallet between planted feet takes some getting used to, but it’s a fun way to putter around the grass while enjoying more wine. 

Next, we swing over to Healdsburg for lunch at Bear Republic Brewing Co. We order a Big Bear Black Stout and the barrel-aged flight set. For Sonoma’s historical integrity, the hoppy flight would have been another good choice, but we are trying to pace ourselves. We order garlic fries and a beet salad. Then we’re off to Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery in the Dry Creek Valley.

Ferrari-Carano’s palatial estate features sprawling gardens that are a tourist attraction independent of the winery, which employs a dozen or so full-time gardeners to care for flowers and hedgerows surrounding the mansion. There is even a special hotline (707-433-5349) for the public to inquire about the status of the tulips. The estate’s roughly 10,000 tulips and daffodils bloom in the spring. Owner Rhonda Carano designed all the gardens, and every year she chooses the colors of the tulips to surprise visitors. Roses are also found throughout the property (and in other Sonoma vineyards). Traditionally, roses served a purpose in vineyards by indicating to growers if pests were threatening the vines (the flowers were the first targets, though they now primarily serve an aesthetic role).

The vineyard has two tasting rooms: one on the main level, and one past the cellars downstairs. We start with tasting upstairs. Then, we head downstairs to experience a private sensory tasting where a sommelier has different canisters spread across a table in a dimly lit room. Each canister holds a different item: from fruits and herbs to spices and chocolate, paired with lighter wines first, followed by a succession of heavier-bodied wines. The exercise is meant to help strengthen one’s ability to articulate the sensory experience of the wine, as each person may experience a wine differently with different mental associations. 

By this point in the day, I’m thankful we have a driver. Our next stop is Fritz Underground. Founder Arthur Fritz started building the facility in the heat of the 1970s’ energy crisis. The production facility, cellar, and tasting room were all buried into a hillside in the Dry Creek Valley. By the time construction had completed, the energy crisis was over; however, the vineyard continues to yield the benefit of low utility bills and is ready in the event that America again faces an energy shortage. Touring the vineyard feels like descending into a futuristic bomb shelter, but the top-level tasting room feels like sitting in a church with the serving sommelier as the high priest. 

It’s Tuesday, and every Tuesday evening is the A Tavola dinner at Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville. We head over for the meal featuring actors serving dinner and drinks in a theatrical performance that comes directly to the table. 

Driving into the grounds, we keep an eye out for the red Tesla that the famous director and vineyard owner supposedly drives. We don’t see it. So we proceed to walk through the lavish grounds, past the expansive swimming pool area, toward the restaurant.

Waiting for our dinner reservation, we have time to peruse an expansive collection of memorabilia in the two-level Movie Gallery museum. There’s Don Corleone’s desk from the Godfather movies and vampire garb from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, along with other unforgettable props from Coppola films. There’s even a short-story dispenser that prints out short stories in three lengths (with a button for estimated reading time of one, three, or five minutes) from Zoetrope: All-Story, Coppola’s magazine of short stories and art. 

A very pregnant-looking hostess/actress takes us to our seat. There is a family patriarch in wife beater chastising waiters or running from his wife. Waiter-actors deliver multiple courses of pasta, pizza, and other Italian foods to our table (along with accompanying Coppola brand wines, of course). An accordion player sits at one end of the spacious room filled with tables of guests, and at different points of the evening, he is joined by other musicians. 

At some point, the family patriarch chases another man around the room with a knife. They run around outdoors and around the building. Then the antics resume indoors. By this point, it’s getting late and the baby starts to cry. The patriarch comes over and, still remaining in character, apologetically asks if the knife chase was too much. Not at all. But it has been a long day. We finish our meal and depart for much-needed  

 Day 4: Bitten by the Wine Bug

Feeling quite accomplished to wake up without a hangover, we enjoy one last breakfast with our host B&B and head to the final winery of our trip—DeLoach Vineyards in the Russian River Valley. Acquired by the Boisset Family of vineyards in 2003, the 25-acre vineyard continues the original DeLoach philosophy of sustainable winemaking. It is one of several Boisset vineyards in France, California, Italy, and Canada

As we approach DeLoach, our driver explains that this road is home to many “old vine” grape-bearing vines (35 to 40 years old, or older), discernible by the vines’ gnarled appearance and absence of modern trellis technology. When we sit down at the vineyard’s outdoor patio area, we have the opportunity to enjoy a range of DeLoach wines that includes both new-growth and old-growth vines produced by the property (and supplemented by neighboring vineyards).

A staffer gives us a tour of the grounds, the “biodynamic” eco-friendly garden that is home to various flowers, vegetable gardens, and animals (Faye-Marie is especially impressed with the goats and chickens). We also explore owner Jean-Charles Boisset’s party room—a James Bond-themed bar area with costumes, wigs, and sensory emitters (like what we had at Ferrari-Carano, but in squeezable perfume sprayers) decorating the walls. Our guide explains that each Boisset vineyard has a special party room with a different theme.

Our time in Sonoma is drawing to a close. We down our last glasses of DeLoach’s delicious old-vine wine, bid farewell to Sonoma, and our driver takes us back to San Francisco for an afternoon flight. Time to return to reality. 

The day after returning to Omaha, I can’t help but feel something is missing. I’m eating my lunch as I normally do, and it hits me: where’s my wine? Three and a half days of drinking some of the nation’s best wine can be habit-forming. And lunch is just not the same without it. 

Later that night, after shutting down the office, I head to the Costco near Omaha Magazine’s suburban office to pick up some groceries—and to see if I can find any of the wines we had tasted on our vineyard tour. Happily, I find a Sonoma Coast Chardonnay from Sonoma-Cutrer. 

The bottle is above the price point I would normally spend. But the purchase is worth it. After putting the baby to bed, we slice some cheese and uncork the bottle. Two glasses of the crisp and refreshing chardonnay later, we are transported back to the frivolous, sun-drenched morning of snacking and croquet while our baby sleeps peacefully.

Wine, it seems, truly has the power to teleport the sensory experiences of one memorable moment to the present. Would I like to travel back to Sonoma? Most definitely. Until the opportunity arises, the occasional Sonoma wine will do just fine. 


Visit wineroad.com for more information.

This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Iron Horse Vineyards in mid-March

Adam Devine Chugs the Big Red Kool-Aid

September 2, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

There is an all-out prank war in the office. After one of three slacker telemarketer friends/roommates got a big promotion, the other two conspired to humble his inflated ego (by stealing the car keys and clamping a bike lock around his neck before an important client meeting). 

While pretending to be busy as their distraught bud arrives late to the office, Adam Devine—playing his character Adam DeMamp in the Comedy Central series Workaholics—makes a passing reference to his home state over the phone: “I’m gonna go ahead and get two dozen throwing stars out to your residence in Bellevue, Nebraska. You’re gonna enjoy that, Mr. Johnson. Thank you, OK, I love you, too.” he says before hanging up. Then the on-screen office pranking escalates further.

The throwing stars reference was merely a small personal touch to the ridiculous storyline of  “The Promotion,” the fourth episode in season one of a series dedicated to zany office antics and often-intoxicated misadventures of three cubicle-mates (played by Devine and his real-life friends, roommates, and co-creators of the show). Name-dropping Bellevue was a subtlety to the script from Devine that connects his breakout role in the show back to his roots in The Good Life. 

“It’s just specificity,” Devine says. “In comedy, it really helps—instead of just saying some generic town or being vague—to use an exact place. I know a lot of Nebraska town names, and they’re always at the tip of my tongue. It’s always fun to rep Nebraska when you get a chance, too. Why not? Go Big Red!” 

Devine’s fans in Nebraska can delight from the occasional references to Nebraska littered throughout his creative works. Meanwhile, any media-consuming Nebraskans who are unaware that the actor grew up in Omaha are likely familiar with his characters in Workaholics, the Pitch Perfect franchise, or other notable roles.

Workaholics concluded its run after seven seasons in March 2017, as Devine and his partners decided it was time to move on to other projects. A cursory look at his TV and film credits, however, shows that Devine truly is a “workaholic.” 

Between 2013 and 2018, he appeared regularly on the ABC sitcom Modern Family as “Andy.” He starred in and co-wrote Adam Devine’s House Party on Comedy Central between 2013 and 2016 (a stand-up comedy show that he co-directed and co-created with fellow “Workaholic” Kyle Newacheck), starred in Pitch Perfect 1 and 2 as the egotistical leader of an all-male a cappella group (2012 and 2015), starred opposite Zac Efron in Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (2016), voiced a mammoth in the animated film Ice Age: Collision Course (2016), voiced the Flash in The Lego Batman Movie (2017), and hosted the 2017 MTV Movie & TV Awards. But that’s only naming a few of the projects from his young yet jam-packed filmography. 

Recently, online streaming platforms have become an important avenue for finding his latest projects. Not only can viewers binge all seven seasons of Workaholics on Hulu, Netflix also released two films in 2018 that showcase his writing, producing, and directing in addition to his starring on the screen: the rom-com When We First Met (February) and the raunchy action-comedy Game Over, Man! (March). In August, after this edition of Omaha Magazine went to press, Netflix also planned to debut The Package, a film that Devine co-produced with Anders Holm, Blake Anderson, and Newacheck of Workaholics. The movie tells the story of teenagers on a camping trip that devolves into a mission to save their friend’s “most prized [anatomical] possession.” 

Of course, Devine was not always such a big-shot comedian/actor. In fact, he wasn’t even originally from Nebraska—though he considers Omaha his hometown (a fact that Omaha Magazine heartily endorses). He was born in Waterloo, Iowa, and moved to Millard when he was about 10 years old. 

“It was 1994, and we [Nebraska football] were just dominant at that time,” he says. “I remember watching the Orange Bowl with my dad and a bunch of his friends and just a bunch of people from the neighborhood, and just being in awe of how much people loved the Huskers and how much it meant for people and how exciting it was to put on all the gear [red-and-white shirts with the team’s logo] and watch the Huskers play.”

If the Huskers had sucked, Devine admits, he might not have been such an enthusiastic convert. But it was like watching Michael Jordan play for the Chicago Bulls. “It was fun to watch because we won absolutely every time, and you know, that solidified it for me,” he says. “And now I still watch every game. I’m waiting for us to regain our glory because I already drank the Big Red Kool-Aid. Once you drink it, there’s no going back.” 

When he first moved to Omaha, he was just a kid trying to fit in. Mom-dictated fashion choices didn’t help. He had previously attended a Catholic elementary school in eastern Iowa where uniforms were mandatory—navy blue pants with a shirt tucked in—and that’s what she made him wear for his first day of class at Millard Public Schools.

“After that, I was like, ‘I’ve got to do anything I can to fit in,’” he recalls. “I noticed Husker gear was a very popular thing to wear, so I was like, ‘I have to get decked out, Mom, and she was like, ‘You’re not even a Husker fan. We’re from Iowa,’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t care, we’re buying the gear. I’m not wearing the turtleneck again.’” 

The ’94 Orange Bowl came a few months after his family’s relocation. Devine made friends and settled into the start of a stereotypical suburban Omaha childhood. Until one summer day, a collision with destiny changed his life. Destiny, in this case, was a 42-ton truck that ran him over as he crossed the street to catch up with a friend going to buy candy at a neighborhood gas station. 

Devine’s world went black. He woke up two weeks later. “They told me that I probably would have died if I didn’t have my bike on the right-hand side of my body,” he says, adding that the local news coverage of the accident showed a gnarly scene with the bike crumpled like a pretzel. “I kind of fell underneath it and got spit out, as opposed to taking the full hit myself.” 

Physical recovery was many years in the making. Although disabled in the aftermath of the accident, Devine was a sponge for the sublime awesomeness of Nebraska football in its 1990s heyday. Tom Osborne’s Huskers squads helped sustain his soul. Bedridden and incapacitated during the ’95 national championship, he was limping around on crutches by the time the Huskers clinched another national championship in ’97. Thousands of fans once again gathered in the city’s major intersections to pump their fists and shout the “Go Big Red” call and response ad infinitum. Devine was there, and he loved it.

“It was the most mayhem I’d ever seen,” he says. “What I love about Omaha—and what I love about Nebraska and the Midwest in general—is that it was mayhem, and everyone was having a great time, but everyone was so cool and so polite and really open and giving. Here I am, a little boy on crutches, and I’m crutching around out there, and no one stole my crutches to use them as timber to start a fire [laughing], which I feel in most other cities it would have been, ‘Hey kid, give me that, I gotta bash in this window and quickly steal this TV as we start this liquor store on fire.’” 

His role with Workaholics and Adam Devine’s House Party on Comedy Central would eventually make partying a visible part of his on-screen persona. But the mass of Huskers fans celebrating a national championship was his first epic party (or at least, his first big party that did not involve rollerblades, bowling, and a lot of pizza). Women were flashing boobs in jubilation. He and his friends had sneaked beer from the cooler at home and felt buzzed for the first time. He was having the time of his life. “I was such a little kid,” he says. “I didn’t really know where I was. If I wasn’t on Millard Avenue, I was probably thinking, ‘Oh my, we are MILES from home. I’m in the big city!’”

Unfortunately, he never had a chance to explore his own athletic prowess in Omaha. The cement truck of destiny smashed Devine’s dreams of advancing from peewee football to the Blackshirts of UNL. Nevertheless, he kept his athletic ambition alive by lowering the rim of his driveway basketball hoop and pretending he was Michael Jordan. Then, every year of high school, he would try out for the Millard South basketball team. 

“I really just wanted to make the team, and I tried really hard,” he says. “But our team was pretty good throughout my high school life, and I ran like a 17-minute mile at that point because I was just relearning how to walk. So there was no way that I was going to make the cut. But I tried out every year…For whatever reason, players had to buy the shoes before you actually knew if you made the team or not, so I always bought the shoes. Finally, my senior year during tryouts, the coach yelled over to me like ‘Devine!’ and I was thinking, ‘Uh oh, he’s calling me up! He’s gonna say I’m the sixth man! I’m coming off the bench, here I go!’ and he’s like, ‘You don’t need to buy the shoes.’ I’m sure my mom appreciated the brutal honesty because she did not want to buy those shoes. I still think I did, though, I still think I got that last pair.” 

In his roles in Workaholics and Pitch Perfect, Devine played characters oozing with overconfidence. These performances were shaped by his own youthful experiences deflecting hostility from occasional bullies. Humor, he found, was the great defensive strategy. 

“The thing about bullies that always made me laugh is they’re usually the dumbest guy in the room; they’re never the smartest,” he says. “It’s funny, when playing a character like that, to have this braggadocio, that confidence, when you’re really an idiot masking all your insecurities. That’s what bullies are. They’re insecure about something, and that’s why they’re lashing out. Because they don’t want everyone to think they’re not cool, or to acknowledge whatever they’re insecure about. So they mask it by bullying someone else. I played that role a lot with Adam DeMamp on Workaholics. I created the character, and I loved playing it because he was so confident. But with his friends, he would cry in front of them and be super sad and be like, ‘No one likes me!’ because that’s what he’s really thinking. But when he goes out, he tries to act like the most confident, coolest guy, which usually backfires—which is what it does for most people when they try to act like something they’re not.” 

Making gag phone calls to a now-defunct Omaha radio station, KDGE-FM 101.9 “The Edge,” gave Devine his earliest exposure to comedic performance for the general public. He was just having fun, not thinking of it as any sort of career development. But it was. 

“After I had my accident, I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t do anything,” he says. “So I would call into The Edge every day and do different voices and impressions. The DJs liked it, so I kept calling back. I would be writing bits at school in class and run home, well, not ‘run’ but aggressively crutch home or have someone push me up a hill in a wheelchair home, and then do my bits on the radio. I remember they were like, ‘Hey, you’re calling every day, we want you to be a color commentary guy on the radio station. We’ll think of bits for you to do every day and we’ll pay you. This could be your job, you call in every day anyway.’ And I was like, ‘This is great!’ so I went down to The Edge headquarters in the Old Market. My mom had to drive me all the way down there, I was 12 or 13 years old at this point and in a wheelchair. My mom pushes me in, and the guys are like, ‘What, we thought you were an adult!’ Because I never talked with them out of character, I would just be in character 100 percent of the time, and they were like, ‘Well, we can’t hire you, but what we can do is give you free concert tickets and free CDs to any events we throw.’ For the next couple of years, I got dozens and dozens of free concert tickets, which, at that age—13 and 14 years old—is better than any amount of money that they could have given. I would roll to Rockfest, Edgefest, and all the local rock shows put on by The Edge with 15 to 20 people. Which was a good way to have kids not make fun of you or punk you, since I was just getting over being crippled.”

Doing the bits on the radio gave him ammunition to negate the would-be meanness of monstrous middle schoolers. After all, the only thing these kids wanted more than making fun of someone else was getting to go to a concert for free. He had the power, like Devine intervention.  

Three different telemarketing jobs during high school, likewise, gave him more unexpected fodder for his eventual foray into mainstream comedy and his role on Workaholics. But when he was working in his cubicle, he was just trying to pass the time. 

For Professional Research Consultants, he conducted surveys over the phone for health care companies. “It was pretty straight forward,” he says. “You just had to have a polite voice on the phone, and people for the most part were like, ‘Yeah, my hospital stay was good,’ and you could take it from there. That being said, I would definitely change my voice for which part of the country I was calling. If I was calling the South, I would have a Southern accent [he says with a Southern drawl], and then if I was calling New York [he says with a Bronx accent], I would use more of a East Coast thing, and I would change my name to sound more New York. I remember my boss took me in and was like, ‘You’re doing great, just don’t change your name and your voice. You should not do that. Use your regular voice everywhere that we’re calling.’” 

Selling meat for Omaha Steaks was more difficult. “Because as much as steaks are delicious and everyone likes steak, and Omaha Steaks is a great name brand, if you’re not hungry for steak, you’re not thinking, ‘Oh, I should buy $500 in steaks right now,’” Devine says. “So it was a lot of me taking a piece of paper and wiggling it in front of the phone and going, ‘What’s this?’ and then acting like I’m talking to someone else and going like, ‘Wow, I cannot believe this. The boss just brought this to me from upstairs’—there were no upstairs; it was a one-story building—‘and we are going to give you this amazing discount.’ It was the exact same discount we were going to give everybody else. But this was my sales technique, and it worked.” 

The third of his telemarketing jobs was the worst. It was a company that sold everything from knives to Time-Life Books over the phone. “That was the worst phone job because, have you ever wanted to buy a Time-Life Book in your life? No. No one has,” he says imagining the poor souls who got stuck receiving the books month after month and having to scatter them around the house everytime Grandma came to visit. Grandparents, it seems, were a solid target for sales.   

There were classes that helped his comedy and acting career along the way, too. He enrolled in the theater arts program at Millard South during his freshman year. But it wasn’t until his junior year that he began to take the school’s theater program more seriously.

“My drama teacher at Millard South High School, Robin Baker, was just awesome,” Devine says. “She was cool, and she knew people that were actually working actors in Hollywood and people who were producers and writers and people that were actually doing it—not just on the small level, but actually making careers out of it.” 

Baker helped him to believe that he could do it, too. She saw that Devine enjoyed making videos, and she encouraged him by showing the videos during classes or at rehearsals. He had focused only on comedy in his first three years of high school. But, at her urging, he began to branch out from comedy to dramatic roles in his senior year.

“OK, this is what I want to do,” he realized. “My legs aren’t going to suddenly super-heal, and I’m not going to be the freak athlete that I once thought I was, so I should do something else.” So, Devine took parts in five plays his senior year. 

“She was like, ‘For comedians, the reason they’re usually funny is they have a depth of emotion that they can easily tap into, and that lends itself to being a good dramatic actor,’” Devine says of his high school drama teacher. “She gave me a shot at doing some more dramatic stuff, so I ran with it. She gave me the confidence to move out to Hollywood and pursue a real career. And to her credit, during my senior year, when I was telling my parents that I wanted to move to L.A. and try to give acting and comedy a real go, she told them that she thought that I had the chops to make it. And that gave my parents the confidence to allow me to go.”

Off to California he went. Devine applied to UCLA and was accepted, but didn’t have enough money to cover tuition. He ended up studying at Orange Coast Community College, thinking he might transfer the credits to another California university afterward. Soon after enrolling at the community college, Devine met Blake Anderson and Kyle Newacheck (two of the four core members of Workaholics).

“On day one of improv class at the community college, I just kind of clicked with them,” Devine says. “Blake, as you know from Workaholics, ends up having these long, beautiful, luscious locks that the ladies just adore. But at that time he had the cutest little afro, very Justin Guarini-esque, and he was super funny, so I kind of latched on to him and we started writing comedy together. After a couple years, I realized that I didn’t want to go to school. I wanted to do comedy full-time. Kyle, who plays Carl the drug dealer on Workaholics, who directed many of the episodes for us on Workaholics, he moved up [to L.A. from Orange County] to go to film school, and at that time I was like, ‘I’m going to move up as well and really start to take my comedy/acting career seriously.’”

Devine never graduated from Orange Coast Community College, though he speaks highly of the school. He didn’t want to take the math and science credits needed to complete a degree. He only took improv, creative writing, screenwriting, and the classes that he thought would make him better at the job he actually wanted to do. 

That strategy doesn’t work out for everyone, he admits: “I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone. But I really put my nose down. I was determined that this is what I’m gonna do, and I’m gonna do it full-steam ahead. Luckily things kind of clicked into place for me.” 

Devine intervention strikes again. Two years after moving to Orange County, the 20-year-old aspiring comedian took a job at the Hollywood Improv Comedy Club in L.A. He was just answering phones and working the door. Nevertheless, he considers it to be his first break. 

“Even though it’s not like a true Hollywood break, I got to see comics like Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Fortune Feimster, Daniel Tosh, and all these guys from all different walks of life at the top of their game, these A-list comedians,” he says. “Second City, at that time, was connected to the Improv. It was right next door. If you worked at the Improv, you got half off of classes at Second City. So I was like, ‘This is perfect!’ I took as many classes over there as I possibly could.”

In the Second City musical improv class, Devine met Anders Holm, the fourth member of the yet-to-assemble Workaholics squad. A troupe associated with the class was planning to go on tour and do corporate gigs. Singing musical improv at the Mead Paper Corp. turned out to be Devine’s first paying comedy gig.

Devine found Holm to be like the yin to his yang, or vice versa. “He actually was the first person I met who was a writer that was serious about writing,” Devine says. “He was more serious about writing than performing, and I was kind of the other way. I was performing so often and doing stand-up every night. I think he wanted to be more of a performer, and I wanted to be more of a writer, and we sort of helped each other. We started writing together, and then he joined my class, and we started to perform together.” 

YouTube was still a new phenomenon on the internet, and Devine saw an opportunity for his comedian friends to assemble like Voltron. “So I call my old friends Blake Anderson and Kyle Newacheck. I was living with Kyle at the time,” Devine says. “I was like, ‘We need to start making videos,’” as the only comedy-focused videos he was seeing on YouTube were from Andy Samberg’s Lonely Island crew. 

“I think we came out with about 80 videos in about two years,” Devine says, “That’s when we started to get the attention of Comedy Central, because we were putting out so much stuff, and at the same time, I was doing stand-up and I started to catch the attention of Comedy Central. They had me on Live at Gotham, which was the new faces show before Adam Devine’s House Party. So that was my first TV stand-up show.” 

The Comedy Central execs started watching all of their material on YouTube—which remains available under their group’s channel, Mail Order Comedy—then Devine says they were approached: “‘Oh, you guys can actually create something. Do you have any ideas for shows?’ And we were like, ‘We sure do.’” 

Gangster-rapping wizards were going to be the next big thing in comedy. Almost. “We went through a weird period where we created an entire album of us as gangster-rapping wizards from another realm,” he says. “I mean, you can buy the album, it’s called Purple Magic, I believe it’s on iTunes still. We thought it was awesome, and we were getting great feedback, and those were our first videos that went really viral. That was right around the same time Comedy Central asked about show ideas.”

They also had done a Mail Order Comedy web series that Devine says “was basically Workaholics before Workaholics,” and the executives had expressed interest in that concept of the guys living together and working together and getting into hijinks, “and we’re like, ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea, but what’s a better idea is us as gangster-rapping wizards from another realm that come to this realm to take over the rap game.’ And they’re like, ‘What? No. That’s a horrible idea. We do not want that.’ But we kept pitching it anyway. We pitched the lower level execs; they were like, ‘Great, don’t pitch that when you go to the vice president.’ So we’re like, ‘OK,’ and then we pitch it to the vice president, and they’re like, ‘Great, you’re going to pitch the president next week, do not pitch the wizard rap,’ So then we go there and we pitch Workaholics; she’s loving it, she’s like, ‘This is a really great idea. We’re excited about this.’ Then we pull the rug out from under ourselves, and we’re like, ‘Well, it’s great you’re excited about that, but what we really wanna do is…’ and pitch her the wizards. And she’s like, ‘No, we’re not doing that.’ Well, thank God the execs at Comedy Central were nice enough to just not go, ‘OK, you know what, just leave. Don’t come back. We’re trying to give you your shot, but you won’t shut up about wizards.’”

Whether or not the gangster-rapping wizards concept ever magically resurrects itself, Devine has remained plenty busy with other projects—minus his wand and Gandalf beard. “I’m coming off a whirlwind,” he says. “Last year I shot three movies and did a stand-up tour, a huge tour, and then I just promoted a bunch of those movies and was all over the country promoting, and went on a USO tour with my dad this last Christmas to Iraq and Afghanistan, and then went on a stand-up tour to Japan and Australia for about a month, and then here I am. This is like the first gasp of air these last couple weeks.” 

Back in his regular routine, he’s still on the grind. He describes a regular day as, “Waking up, then I usually have an interview or two, then some meetings with someone, and then I chug coffee and go do shows. I usually try to do a couple shows a night still.” 

His stand-up push is fodder for his next goal for his comedy career—a Netflix special, which Devine will be shooting this fall at the Orpheum Theater in Omaha. The discussion with Netflix was still under negotiation over the summer when Devine spoke with Omaha Magazine for this article. His desire to film the potential comedy special back in his Homaha once again demonstrates his genuine love of Nebraska. 

But that’s not all on the horizon for him. With an anticipated 2019 release on Disney’s new streaming platform, Devine stars in the upcoming family-friendly Disney film Magic Camp, where he plays a banker returning to the magic camp of his youth. 

Meanwhile, in July, HBO announced plans for a pilot for a new comedy series titled The Righteous Gemstones about a conflicted televangelist family by the name of Gemstone. Devine is signed on for the role of the family patriarch’s hardcore fundamentalist son bent on destroying Satan. 

Devine says he has several other undisclosed projects percolating, and he doesn’t see the term “workaholic” as a negative in his personal circumstances: “It’s not like I’m working so hard that I’m ignoring my family and not making it to a birthday dinner for someone I love, like ‘Sorry, he’s too busy working,’ while I’m just in the other room aggressively writing dick and fart jokes. Like, ‘I can’t make your birthday dinner! I must finish this perfect dick analogy!’ But no, I do work very hard, and that comes from being from the Midwest and having that mentality.” 

He attributes his work ethic to Midwestern parents and upbringing: “Seeing how hard my parents worked to take care of me and my sister, I knew in order to get this career up off the ground, I needed to work as hard as I possibly could. It really just comes down to, surround yourself with people that you think are smarter and more talented than you are, and then try to outwork anyone that you know. If you do that, even if you’re not the smartest or most talented, but you’re willing to work harder than anyone else you know, you can get smarter and you can get more talented. As long as you’re willing to put in the extra work. A lot of people aren’t. I used to work with some people who I thought, ‘These are the funniest people I’ve met in my life!’ and now they’re not even in the business because they weren’t willing to do the 15 shows a week and stay out until 4 a.m. driving around the country doing shows and staying up late to finish that script.”

He has worked as a comedian, writer, actor, voice actor, producer, and director for various projects over the years. But how would he like to be seen? “The thing is, I like doing all of it. I wouldn’t want to do just one thing,” he says. “I have friends that only do stand-up, that’s all they do. To me, I would get bored if I didn’t have other avenues to go down. I love acting. I love playing different roles. I would love to play some more dramatic roles, and do like Robin Williams did toward the end of his career. 

But then I also love producing, I love taking other people’s projects and ideas and using my connections that I’ve made through the years and helping them find money for the projects and actually helping get them made. I also would like to direct movies and have control over making a creative vision come to life. I love writing and coming up with this little nugget of an idea, this little morsel, and seeing it become a full-fledged movie or a TV show that has a life of its own. That is really gratifying, a very cool experience.” 

While experimenting in all aspects of creative production appeals to Devine, he also doesn’t mind letting it all hang out. Literally. As evidenced by his dropping his pants and jumping buck naked from a closet to surprise the armed mercenaries in Game Over, Man!, the Netflix film that Devine and all of his fellow Workaholics co-creators put together as a team. 

The concept for Game Over, Man! evolved from their writing “Office Campout,” their third episode of Workaholics, which first aired seven years ago on Comedy Central. The episode featured an attempted defense of their cubicle maze from nighttime invaders—inspired by the film Die Hard with psychedelic mushrooms. The plot of the Netflix film drives home the Die Hard inspiration even harder (with the trio working as hotel janitorial staff rather than telemarketers) with action combat scenes, mercenaries with automatic weapons, and a big boss, plus illicit substances. 

Did he get any grief from his parents over his family jewels flashing? “No,” he says. “I love my parents. They’re the best, they’re so supportive. My mom was sitting by me at the premiere. I was sitting in front of her actually. I didn’t want to sit right next to her. Then, as it’s happening [as his penis is bouncing on the screen], she’s going ‘Aww’ [in an affectionate motherly way], and then she kept going, ‘Well, this is funny. This is funny,’ which I think is her nervous way of not being like, ‘Ew, gross, why is my son’s dick out?’” 

Around the time that Game Over, Man! debuted on Netflix in spring 2018, the HBO series Westworld started its second season. One of the male actors in Westworld, Simon Quarterman, dropped his pants in the first episode for a full-frontal nude scene. Quarterman told New York Magazine’s Vulture that the experience was liberating and he urged other actors to try it. Well, Devine is all over that trend like a dog humping a leg. “We don’t coast,” as Omaha’s official slogan insists. We’re ahead of the curve. 

“Yeah, yeah we are,” he says with a laugh. “I’m not afraid to let it all hang out.” 

No one in the audience of the premiere was cheering “Go Big Red!” but it would have been a cute way to welcome the actor’s manicured manparts on the big screen.

Like any true Nebraskan, Devine remains a Husker fan in spite of the program’s struggles in recent years. He even had an opportunity to come and work out with the Huskers in 2016 while promoting the film Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates.

“I love going to Nebraska to promote movies,” he says. “It’s just fun for me, especially when I get to do cool stuff like going on the field and retrieving some punts—which was really much harder than it looks. Turns out, those guys are freak athletes. They gave me a jersey with my name on it, I got to run up and down the field, I got to take the passes, retrieve some punts, and I also got to go in the gym and get my swole on with the weight-training staff. Big shout-out to them, and thanks for the free gym membership. We were doing push-ups, stuff with the medicine ball, and they told me I could come back any time. I have yet to take them up on it, but I kind of want to go back for just a month and really abuse my privileges [laughing] make them be like, ‘You gotta go. We’re trying to work out here.’”

During that promo visit, he had a chance to talk one-on-one with then-Coach Mike Riley. The coach sat the actor down in his office for the recruitment talk. It was likely the closest Devine will ever comes to realizing his dream of playing for the Cornhuskers. 

“He’s a super nice guy,” he says of Riley. “You know, it’s sad because I don’t like it when people lose their jobs—they’ve got family they’re supporting, so that’s never a good thing—but at the same time, it just wasn’t clicking. It wasn’t working out…Coming off of Scott Frost’s [undefeated 2017] season at Central Florida, I think this was the right time to make the move.”  

A die-hard fan, Devine can’t conceal his excitement about coach Frost’s shakeup of the storied football program, even if it’s merely for the morale of the fans. “Who knows what’s going to happen, especially the first couple seasons,” he says. “I think we have to give him time to adjust, but just as far as excitement about the team, thinking we have a shot, that goes a long way. We’re the Huskers, baby. You can’t count us out. It’s a Frost Warning!”

He’s not alone in his outlook on the 2018 season. Devine has witnessed the excitement from fellow roving residents of the Husker Nation all around the country, even overseas. He received a reminder in his adopted home in Southern California.

“This is going to sound like I’m a fancy asshole, but I have a beach house and have a Husker flag at the end of my dock,” he says, “and just the other day, this guy kept driving past and screaming something. I didn’t know what he was screaming. Finally, after he passed the fourth time, I hear him shout, ‘GOHHHHHHHHH BIHHHHHHG REHHHHHHHD,’ and then me and all my friends—I keep a real tight Nebraska/Omaha crew—we all hollered back with the classic call and response: Go Big Red!” 


Follow Adam Devine on Instagram (@andybovine) and Twitter (@adamdevine).

This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

#WeDontCoast

August 20, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

We Don’t Coast. That’s the official slogan of Omaha.

Here at Omaha Magazine, we don’t coast so hard that we will announce the 2019 winners of the city’s definitive “Best Of” contest in November 2018.

Although subscribers will receive the complete Best of Omaha book by January—with nearly 350 categories—you can catch a sneak peek of the winners list at the Best of Omaha Soirée on Thursday, Nov. 8 at the Omaha Design Center. 

It is going to be a fancy evening of celebrating the Best of Omaha. The dress code is business-chic. But everyone age 21 and older is invited to join the party. Purchase tickets at localstubs.com. 

From 7-10 p.m., folks can enjoy food from Best of Omaha winners, entertainment from a DJ and circus performances, and two drink tokens free with event admission; there will also be a cash bar. The evening will kick off at 6 p.m. with a special VIP networking hour with free-flowing liquor, wine, and beer. 

The Best of Omaha Soirée will take the place of the Best of Omaha Festival that we hosted for four years (2014-2017). We might bring the festival back again in later years. For now, however, we wanted to try a fresh approach to celebrating the Best of Omaha for 2019. After all, these businesses don’t coast. And neither do we. 

“We Don’t Coast” is not a rip on less landlocked locales, according to the brand explanation from the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce (the impetus for the brand). We don’t begrudge those wayward Omahans who have found success away from Home-aha.

Look no further than Adam Devine and Sarah Rose Summers. These superstars from Omaha have achieved international celebrity status. Devine is a big-shot comedian and actor returning to his hometown for a Netflix comedy special (to be filmed at the Orpheum this fall). Summers, aka Miss Nebraska, was crowned Miss USA in May. (She will be vying for the Miss Universe title in December.)

Their stories—and much more—are featured in the full city edition of Omaha Magazine sold at local bookstores and mailed to subscribers. 

This September/October issue, in fact, is full of stories about Omahans with coastal tendencies. Look no further than the Arts + Culture section; we profile Q. Smith (a North High School grad making waves on Broadway) and Omaha-based artist Stephen Cornelius Roberts (who has exhibited work on both coasts). 

All of these Omahans have made their city proud, and they don’t coast when it comes to resting on their laurels. 

The “We Don’t Coast” slogan is wonderful for social media hashtags emphasizing what Omahans do great: #WeDontCoast #WeCreateOpportunitiesWhereverWeGo.

To see how the slogan works so well, consider #WeDontCoast #WeImpact. The hashtag campaign was associated with the Omaha Chamber’s #24HoursOfImpact campaign on July 27, which Omaha Magazine staff joined. We bought school supplies and donated cash to the nonprofit Completely KIDS. 

This hashtag formula makes a great shareable gimmick for any campaign, i.e., #WeDontCoast #WeInsertVerbHere.

But sometimes, I’ll admit, I do wish Omaha would lift its foot off the gas pedal and coast for a bit. Especially when it comes to our notorious “talent” in dealing with historic properties. City and civic leaders have a rich history of tearing down historic buildings: #WeDontCoast #WeBulldoze?

Just consider the history of Jobber’s Canyon (the nation’s largest National Register of Historic Places district sacrificed to ConAgra), the Clarinda-Page Apartments (which remains an empty lot near Midtown Crossing), and more recent proposals from Douglas County to demolish a historic brick structure for a juvenile detention center, or the city’s plot to flatten the iconic Gene Leahy Mall and dump a philanthropy-backed fortune into a sprawling riverfront region that lacks fundamental infrastructure/road access.

There is not a category in the Best of Omaha contest for “Best Historic Demolition,” but—this being Omaha—maybe we should consider adding it for the 2020 contest.

Note: The online version of this editor’s letter has been modified to reflect updated schedule and features at the Best of Omaha Soirée.


Purchase tickets to the Best of Omaha Soirée hereThis letter was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Book Review: This River Beneath the Sky

April 27, 2018 by
Photography by Nebraska Game & Parks

This River Beneath the Sky reads like an ode to sandhill cranes in the style of Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. How fitting. Leopold was born in Iowa but produced his seminal work of ecological prose in Wisconsin. Doreen Pfost was likewise a transplant on the sandy banks of Nebraska’s Platte River.

Pfost moved to south-central Nebraska with her husband’s career. She admits an initial lack of appreciation for her new home. To escape a depressive funk, she began volunteering at the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary between Grand Island and Kearney—a place of crucial importance to sandhill crane conservation and tourism—situated along the Platte River, a “dreary, inconstant river that as if through lack of initiative, followed the route of the interstate system.”

Her initial attitude soon changes. Pfost embraces fly-over country and comes to perceive the central Platte as a sort of essential “airport” hub on the bustling Central Flyway Migration Corridor. Her ensuing book is a beautiful work of woven memoir, ecology, journalism, history, and literature braided together (much like the braided stream of the Platte where Willa Cather’s Lucy Gayheart met her demise. Pfost even refers to Leopold and Cather alike.)

The bugling hubbub of sandhill cranes ignites Pfost’s passion for the once-seemingly dreary landscape: “This is how spring arrives at the Platte—not with the flip of a calendar page, but from the little clouds blown in on a southerly wind,” she writes of the cranes’ springtime arrival, which quickly amplifies from a “sprinkle” to a torrential “shower.”

She vividly captures the cranes’ sunrise wakeup call at the peak of their layover, a raucous tumult that echoes across the horizon as tens of thousands of large birds simultaneously burst from sandbar roosts midstream and blacken the sky before landing in nearby cornfields to refuel on grubs and grains.

Pfost’s book is organized into 12 chapters corresponding roughly to the calendar. Her first chapter concludes with an afternoon departure of cranes for Arctic summering grounds and a call for environmental stewardship: “The cranes will go north—for now—and those of us who stay behind will keep an eye on the river.”

Throughout most of her book, sandhill cranes are absent in seasonal migrations to the north or south. Yet their presence always seems near, even when Pfost is writing about bison, whooping cranes, bobolinks, or annelids. After the cranes’ departure from the Platte, Pfost mulls over the history of pioneer trails, human settlement along the river, and the taming of the once-unpredictable river to meet incessant water demands from hydroelectric power, reservoirs, and agriculture.

Pfost’s earnest dedication to botanical and zoological minutiae emerges in rich descriptions of the environment while she hikes and jogs along the river. Also fascinating are anecdotes of people-watching at the Rowe Sanctuary, where “gossamer threads” bind birdwatchers and cranes along the “wild, dancing stream that used to be.”

River Beneath the Sky follows a journalistic path providing the backstory of sandhill crane conservation in Nebraska, its necessary infrastructure projects, local grassroots opposition, and the families of homesteaders, concluding, appropriately, with the close of another migratory passing of sandhill cranes through the Rowe Sanctuary. The Aldo Leopold Foundation’s website reveals that Pfost has migrated onward, now living in Wisconsin and giving tours at the Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm—a site of resurgent sandhill crane populations some 80 years after Leopold mused about the birds’ potential extinction. Although a migrant in Nebraska, much of Pfost’s writing resonates with my sense of personal connection to ancestors who homesteaded along the Platte and the sandhill cranes’ primordial staging grounds.

When I first read her book in the spring, sandhill cranes were passing through Nebraska in record number. Yet I was stuck in Omaha, the place of my birth, with the cranes’ cacophonous chorus echoing in my memory from past trips to the river.

The Platte may not be visible from my home in urban Omaha, as the river curves south and around the city to meet the Missouri, yet I am always drawn to its presence. It nurtured my maternal ancestors, immigrants from Germany, and it nurtured me on childhood visits to the family farm.

In 2014, I had proposed to my wife after a trip to view the sandhill cranes at the Rowe Sanctuary. Like Pfost, my wife is a newcomer to Nebraska. Sometimes Nebraska can be difficult to appreciate through all four seasons. With the gift of this book, I hope the author’s enthusiasm may be contagious.

 


A version of this review was originally published in the summer 2017 edition of Western American Literature (Vol. 52, No. 2), the journal of the Western Literature Association published by University of Nebraska Press.

This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. Read author Doreen Pfost’s new essay about sandhill cranes also in the issue: “A Gathering of Water & Cranes: How Sandhill Cranes Unite Residents And Travelers Along Migratory Routes.” 

Tribute to Eric Stoakes

February 21, 2018 by and
Photography by Debra S. Kaplan, Contributed by friends

Omaha’s journalistic and creative community is a poorer place without Eric Stoakes. We lost a beloved friend, an editor, our “Big Daddy” (as many knew him).

His funeral took place on Thursday, Feb. 22, at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Wahoo, Nebraska (504 W. Eighth St.). A celebration of his life will be planned for a later time to be held in Omaha.

After an unexpected hospitalization, Eric was absent from the office of Omaha Magazine for nearly a month as he fought to regain his health on a ventilator, enduring tests, tracheotomy, antibiotics, and more. He fought hard. But on Friday, Feb. 16, Eric left this earthly realm surrounded by his family. He was 51 years old.

He was born in Omaha on March 19, 1966, to parents Norman and Sharon Stoakes. He was part of the high school newspaper at Millard South High School and graduated in 1984. He went on to graduate with honors from the University of Nebraska-Omaha after serving as the editor of the university’s student-run Gateway newspaper.

Eric started his professional journalism career as the graphics editor for Kidz Magazine, and through that role joined the Omaha World-Herald. He was the editor-in-chief at Omaha Magazine from the late ’90s through the early 2000s. He then went on to co-create Medium Magazine, followed by a run of over 10 years as promotions and creative director at The Reader. He held various jobs with other local media outlets over the years, too, and returned to the Omaha Magazine family in 2016 to become the managing editor of Encounter Magazine.

Aside from his journalistic endeavors, he was also an event coordinator in the local creative community with his Puppy Pageant (benefiting the Council Bluffs Humane Society), Goth Ball, along with many other unforgettable events.

He leaves behind his three beloved Chihuahuas—Petey, Bullet, and Coco Chanel—and will be remembered as a talented writer, loving son, brother, and uncle. His obituary posted online at Svoboda Funeral Home states that he “believed in aspiring artists of all kinds and made a positive impact on the art, performance, film, and music scene in the Omaha area.”

A fundraiser on gofundme.com is gathering money to help cover medical bills associated with his prolonged hospitalization.

Here are some stories and anecdotes about Eric from some of the friends and former co-workers who miss him.



Mary Lichtenwalter

KPTM Fox 42, Writer/Producer

I had the privilege of knowing Eric for over 25 years. From the moment I met him, I liked him. He was charismatic, enthusiastic, loyal, helpful, and always there. One time Eric was helping me with an all-ages benefit concert at the Slowdown for the Omaha Food Bank. We were having a meeting at The Varsity and Eric came in with his eyes wide and sparkling. “I’ve got it! We will have models walk between the bands. I’ll bring in a DJ, and we can get donations from thrift stores. It will be AMAZING!” His exuberance and excitement caught everyone at the table by surprise. From that moment on, every benefit concert he helped me with had to feature a fashion segment. His enthusiasm was so contagious it spread to everyone there.

In fact, any time I was putting together an event, working with a charity, or even helping with my daughter’s drama club, Eric would jump in and help. His creativity when we collaborated brought my events to another level. I could never thank him enough for all he did. Both my daughters and I will miss him terribly. Omaha lost an amazing talent.


Andrew Norman

Rabble Mill (formerly Hear Nebraska), COO/Co-founder
Former managing editor at The Reader and City Weekly

My heart hurts knowing this rare, generous, sassy, talented human is no longer with us. Eric Stoakes literally launched my career (as he did countless others), giving me my first post-college real job as the managing editor of a new alt-weekly startup, despite my being hugely under-qualified for the position. Over the next six years, I spent countless hours working with him—in the office and the bar—to tell Omaha’s subcultural story. I learned so much from him about healthy work-life balance, creative thinking, relationship building, and event production. He genuinely had—and shared—one of the biggest hearts I’ve ever known while managing a high-wire balance of being as, let’s say, prickly as he could possibly get away with and still net die-hard, loyal friendships. I love Big Daddy, and will miss the hell out of him.


Melanie Clark

President of Clark Creative Group

I met Eric Stoakes in 1986. We were both 20 and majoring in journalism at UNO. I recognized a kindred spirit immediately. Who knew then that we’d work on publications together for the next 30 years?

In the late 1980s we were both editors at UNO’s Gateway. I remember late nights writing lengthy features together as a team—something I never could do with anyone else. Somehow, Eric and I had a way of writing together that just flowed.

My most poignant memory of those days is our story on gang violence. Gangs were exploding in Omaha in the ’80s, and somehow Eric found a couple of gang members for us to interview. I was terrified, but quickly learned they were just scared kids. Eric and I stayed up all night writing that story to make the deadline, and it was some of the best writing either of us has ever done.

A couple years later, I brought Eric into my new job at Kidz Magazine, and soon we were pasting up the magazine—with a waxer—late at night. Of course, we’d take frequent breaks at the Pipeline bar, where Eric and I spent countless hours solving all the world’s problems over pitchers of Bud Light.

When I got married, Eric was a groomsman. Through my struggles with infertility, Eric was there, keeping me positive and even figuring out how to order fertility drugs over the (new) internet from England. When I found out I was pregnant with triplets, he was elated.

Eric saved the day when I had to get the premier issue of a new magazine to press from my hospital room, where I spent two months before our babies were born. Eric and I did that magazine, Today’s Omaha Woman, together for 20 years.

Eric featured Clark & Company, our triplets’ band, in his last publication, which I find comforting. It was his last gift to me because, of course, it’s gorgeous. Eric’s launch party for that January/February issue of Encounter on Jan. 10 was the last time I saw him upright and healthy.

Omaha has lost an amazing talent and huge fan—Eric loved this city and the people in it. He loved his family and the diverse family of friends he created. He believed in equality and “love is love.”

Eric believed in all of us, even more than we believed in ourselves.


Michael Braunstein

The Reader, Heartland Healing columnist

Eric Stoakes gave me courage. When I wanted to publish a hard copy magazine version of Heartland Healing in April of 2004, I had no idea where to start. But then there was Eric. He could do all the things that I couldn’t and knew all the things about graphics and layout that I didn’t know. He shared. He cared about what I was trying to do, and without him it would never have happened. I watched Eric give all that he had, time and again, to whatever project he embraced—fashion, pet rescues, art, performances, causes, friendships. He never held back.


Kyle Eustice

Omaha Publications, Contributing Writer

Eric Stoakes was one of those people who just made you feel good to be around. Since my humble beginnings in journalism over 15 years ago, Eric was a figure of constant support. He encouraged me and often called me his favorite writer. He told me to never give up. We stopped working together for a couple of years, but as soon as he was able to, he recruited me again to contribute to Encounter Magazine. After I sent in my first story, he said, “I’m so happy to have you back.” I felt so honored he valued me so much. I was ecstatic to be working with him again, too. I can’t believe I’ll never get another email from him or a funny Facebook message about Bullet and Petey. We both have chihuahuas and always bonded over that. Much love Eric. I’ll never forget you.


Derrick Schott

Pioneer Publishing, Web Developer/Designer

I first met Eric in December of 2009 at his annual Sexy Santa party at The Tavern in the Old Market. I noticed this guy that the crowd just moved around and decided to make conversation. He ended up giving me his business card from The Reader and told this fresh-faced college graduate to get in contact for a possible internship.

Eric, that proved to be one of the most pivotal moments of my life. Without a doubt, you set the course for the rest of my professional career. Thank you.
For six years we “worked” together. Through all the late nights to meet the press deadlines with sleep-deprived weekends spent learning “how to do the web,” it never truly felt like work. I loved every minute of it with you.

But we didn’t just work together. I still remember the first beer you bought me at The Attic; our “Brunch Bunch” days; picking up Petey’s poo…next to my desk no less; lunchcapades; jokes; music; and so much more. No, we didn’t just work together, we lived life together.

The most bittersweet memory I have left with you now was getting to see you one last time in the hospital and letting you know, after all these years, how much you still mean to me. Love you, Big Daddy.


Tricia “Shor-T” Pugsley

Power 106.9, On-Air Radio Personality

Eric Stoakes, you will be missed and remembered my friend. I will never forget all the times you brought me out of my comfort zone knowing I’d rock it, even when I wasn’t so sure. You had me spinning all Mötley Crüe during a fashion show, booked me to play six hours of rock at biker party, and booked me for my first photo shoot complete with several shirtless dudes. I loved your creativity, your sense of humor, how much you cared, and how hard you worked when it came to bringing your ideas to life. Your support and friendship have meant so much to me over the years. Rest In Peace.


Photo by Dave Weaver 


Sarah Wengert

Omaha Publications, Contributing Writer
Medical Solutions, Senior Creative Content Wordsmith
Former managing editor at The Reader

Eric Stoakes was a wonderful friend, incredible teammate, and inspiring creative collaborator to me and so many others. Just being in his proximity as a colleague, he taught me endless unscripted lessons about publishing, journalism, creativity, communication, kindness, grit, the ability to always just “make it work” no matter what, and so much more. And, very importantly, he made me belly laugh more times than I can count. He was hilarious.

If you had the pleasure to know him you’re likely aware that Eric’s substantial impact on Omaha’s creative community went far beyond his own prolific personal contributions—because of his extraordinary knack for uncovering and nurturing talent in others. He was a true original, and championing others so effectively was just one special part of his magic. One hopeful thought that’s comforted me in the cheerless wake of his loss is that Eric’s vision, creativity, and spirit will continue to live on in all of us whom he developed, mentored, and lifted up. You touched us all and we love you, Eric. You’ll never be forgotten because you live on in all of us. Cheers, Big Daddy!


Sean McCarthy

Omaha Publications, Contributing Writer
West Corporation, User Experience Designer

Upon hearing the heartbreaking news of Eric Stoakes passing, I went into Gmail to see if I could post an amusing anecdote or quip from Eric. None were to be found. All of his responses were straight-up professional. All asked the right questions.

What I did notice was an unmistakable pattern. Over the last decade, the stories that I enjoyed working on the most (a profile of Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop; an article about Dixie Quicks’ move from Omaha to Council Bluffs; and a story about Trey and Lallaya Lalley of Brothers Lounge) all had Eric’s fingerprints on them. The Omaha Press Club states that their hall of fame honors “journalists who have made notable contributions to Omaha-area journalism.” There are few that fit that description better than Eric.


Kara Schweiss

Omaha Publications, Contributing Writer
Schweiss Communication Services, Owner
Former editor of Millard South Tomahawk

I have to recognize that our friendship was inevitable.

I was a 14-year-old high school freshman in 1983 when I joined the Millard South Tomahawk. Eric was a section editor and two years ahead of me—a significant disparity then—but even then he made people feel welcome and valuable. His talent as a writer and illustrator became evident early on, but he always had a special enthusiasm for design, which was much more complex in those pre-desktop publishing days. As a senior, he spearheaded a complete redesign of the paper that netted multiple awards. It was a joy to see him continue on to become a successful college journalist and launch his career locally.

The night after my college graduation, I inexplicably chose to celebrate at a pub far from my usual hangouts. As kismet would have it, there was Eric. He’d been following my work in the UNO Gateway and offered me my first freelance assignments on the spot.

We stayed connected through several publications and other professional projects. (I confess that we indulged in a lot of amusing gossip about our host of shared friends and acquaintances, too.) At what we didn’t know would be our last mini-reunion with high school friends, we perused old Tomahawks and talked of both the past and our plans for the future.

I will miss Eric’s irreverent humor as much as his professional support and admirable talent. It shocked a few people when Eric referred to me as his “first bitch,” but the two of us would always get a chuckle out of it. My friend, it was an honor.


Jody Lovallo

High school and college friend
Co-edited a short-lived Omaha entertainment magazine, Contempo, with Eric Stoakes in 1986

As we have come to find out, Eric had circles and circles of friends. I knew him as editor of our high school newspaper and chief of all things outrageous to do on those crazy ’80s weekends. In his passing, many of us are meeting for the first time. We all went to school with him or worked with him, and we all seem to have a general understanding of that special something that was Eric Stoakes. He was a bright star, yet a subdued mellow soul. Eric was as comfortable in a five-star restaurant as he was in a little dive bar on Underwood Avenue or in a hidden Mexican lunch place on a side street in South O. There was an incredible dynamic of quiet and loud with Eric. He was a working journalist who preferred not to have a byline or even a masthead if he could. Yet, he never shied away from loud controversial topics in his work (and certainly his fashion). His humor was big and loud and outrageous, but he worried very much about never hurting people’s feelings or coming across as crass.

If there is a slow-motion movie that runs in my mind, it was the day we found out our high school newspaper had been recognized for several awards. We couldn’t stop cheering and jumping. Our feet were barely on the ground that day. It was an important day, a revelation. It springboarded Eric to major in journalism as he went onto UNO. The early success gave Eric encouragement and a pathway to his hard-fought career as a local journalist. But all in all, Eric seemed to have a reputation for encouraging others to do things. His praise was like a magic power he had. It was heartfelt. He always praised my writing and encouraged it, but I never dreamed I’d have to write this.

I went into a drugstore about an hour after I heard the news of his death and over the loudspeaker was Donna Summer singing “She Works Hard For The Money.” And I am 100 percent positive that was Eric playing that for me, that song was one of our ’80s anthems that he would blast loudly in his car when it came on the radio. Since then, another friend has told me that she too heard the same song playing in an unexpected place. To your Donna Summer, Eric, I send back to you…doves are crying…and I want to thank you for giving me the best days of my life.


Melissa Seffens

KPTM Fox 42, Creative Director

Eric Stoakes brought a sense of fashion to everything he did. He knew what was in style and how to bring style and class to everything he touched. Whether he was coordinating a fashion show or managing a puppy pageant, he knew how to make a statement.


Tessa Jeffers

Premier Guitar, Managing Editor
Former arts editor at The Reader
Former editor at Today’s Omaha Woman

A dear friend and beautiful soul entered the great beyond last week. I’m still in disbelief, but one thing is for sure: Eric Stoakes was a special person who impacted my life deeply. I’ve been in shock and trying to find the words to express how truly good he was. When you’re blessed with a friend like Eric, it’s all about unconditional love. Our work relationship quickly blossomed into a camaraderie and creative back and forth where we exchanged advice. Our best ideas often came after work hours when we were just dishing on various projects, art, culture, life…everything. Most of the good ideas were Eric’s though—he was definitely the mentor in this scenario. We hung out virtually every day for years, and working with him made long hours at a small, scrappy newspaper bearable. Eric was someone I could count on. He supported me and I him, and my life in Omaha wouldn’t have been full without him. He was extended family to me, and I loved being around him. I wish I was hanging out with him right now. Eric was an artist, and he remains one of my favorite people ever to conceive a vision with on a project. Some might not realize that he was also extremely talented in knowing the pulse of things, and he was a brilliant writer, too. For all of his fabulous color and original magic, he also had a keen reporter’s nose and business side. When it came to journalism, he wanted to do the right thing, to make a difference. He wanted to tell a good story but he also wanted to tell the truth. He always helped me figure things out when I was working on a stressful article. He had this way about him, where even though he didn’t want to be the center of attention, he wasn’t afraid to go against the grain if he believed in it. And so even though I live far away now, I feel his absence in the Omaha community. My heart goes out to all those who knew Eric. Grieving never stops. We’ll be missing him forever, but in these times of sadness, that’s when he’ll be there, helping us to remember the good times. I’ll never forget him.


Tara Spencer

Omaha Magazine, Editor-at-Large

There is really nothing I can write that will do him justice. Larger than life, with a heart 10 sizes too big—too caring, too trusting, too much. Beloved by most everyone who knew him, (and if you didn’t like him, question your judgment) it’s a damn shame not everyone could.

There are many events, projects, and writers that wouldn’t be around today had he not helped create, promote, and push them toward success. He helped so many people meet their full potential, sometimes at a cost to himself, but he never complained. Seeing others succeed truly made him happy, and he didn’t hold a grudge if they forgot what he’d done for them. (That’s my job.)

While working with him was beneficial, you were really fortunate if you had his friendship. With his friendship came unwavering support. His praise was empowering and his criticism thoughtful and motivating. He didn’t just tell you it was wrong, he showed you why and how to fix it. His patience was infinite, no matter how many stupid questions you asked. (A lot, in my case.)

The idea of Project: Puppy Pageant was his favorite pet project (oh, so punny). It combined two of his great loves—fashion and puppies. He considered all dogs puppies, by the way. There was no distinction between young and old. Typical Eric. He never fully grew up, thankfully. His childlike enthusiasm, optimism, and energy were catching and never dwindled, no matter how old he got.

For those who didn’t know him, I am very sorry. But for those who did, hang on to those memories and remember his spirit. Strive to put that same kind of positivity into the world. Don’t let haters diminish your power. Have fun with abandon, and don’t let anyone shame you for your choices. They are yours. Own them and be proud. If they were bad, learn from them and keep going. If they were good, keep working to make better ones. Most importantly, don’t be bored, because that’s boring. And we’re going to need all the extra-ness and fabulousity we can muster now that the world lost this beautiful, thoughtful, creative, supportive, never-boring man.


Remembering the Battle of the Bulge

April 25, 2017 by
Photography by Doug Meigs

The following interview presents my grandfather’s recollections of World War II.

A transcript of the interview, conducted in May 2005, is collected by the Library of Congress American Folklife Center’s Veterans History Project (memory.loc.gov/diglib/vhp/bib/loc.natlib.afc2001001.52021). Omaha Magazine’s version of the transcript has been updated with minor edits for clarity and accuracy.

Robert Wesley Meigs was born Oct. 11, 1922. He graduated from Twin Falls High School in Twin Falls, Idaho and was drafted on Jan. 16, 1943. After enlistment, Grandpa entered into the Army Specialized Training Program before the program was emptied to fill the 99th Infantry Division. He was honorably discharged on Jan. 6, 1946, after being awarded numerous distinctions, including a Purple Heart. Grandpa enrolled at University of Colorado through the G.I. Bill, graduated in 1950, became an engineer for Phillips Petroleum, and raised four children, including my father, John Meigs. All of Grandpa’s children would graduate from high school in Omaha.

Doug Meigs: Dad told me about how you were in the officer corps, and they were short on soldiers, so they emptied out the training colleges for infantry. Is that right?

Robert Meigs: Well, it was called ASTP, the Army Specialized Training Program. We were never told that was what it was—it was understood. But before that, I went into the service as a clerk typist, I went to a clerk typist school. Then from there I went to the ASTP, and from there into the 99th Infantry Division.

D: Had you graduated from high school yet?

R: Yes.

D: So you were just out of high school and thinking about college?

R: No, I was an assistant manager at F. W. Woolworth’s in Twin Falls, Idaho.

D: Why clerk typist?

R: Well, that was what I was qualified to do based on the entry tests. When I was inducted, we had a series of tests.

D: Aptitude tests?

R: Yes, aptitude tests, and they put me in. We didn’t know anything about what was going on. They took a big mass of people and then took their scores. I ended up in Camp Maxey, Texas.

D: Basic training was at Camp Maxey, Texas?

R: As soon as we got out of basic training, I went into the ASTP.

D: What would you have done if you were a clerk typist?

R: I would have been a company clerk. Well, I don’t know, actually. I was also in medical training. I could have also been a medical typist.

D: It would have been office work then?

R: Yes, office work: keeping records and checking on stuff like that.

D: Was there any sort of catalyst or reason why they emptied out the ASTP?

R: Oh, I don’t know. We had heard that they had closed the program down. That was about the time when we were into heavy casualties. I assume—but I don’t know anything about it—that it was for filling up the new divisions just being activated.

D: When you got in the 99th Infantry Division, did you have to be retrained?

R: Yes, we went from ASTP, clerk typist school at Camp Barkeley, Texas—where the typist school was—to Camp Maxey, Texas, which was for the infantry.

D: What was it like going through basic training a second time?

R: Just more involved. It was infantry basic training while the other was close-order drills, learning your general orders for the Army, getting acquainted with the Army, and indoctrination.

D: When they put you in the infantry, what were you thinking?

R: Oh my god!

D: I think I remember you saying a line about mushrooms and the infantry.

R: Well, that was not my quote. But some soldiers would say, “They treat you like a mushroom. They keep you in the dark and feed you B.S.”

D: So, you’re down in Camp Maxey doing infantry training, and these are the guys that you’re going to Germany with?

R: Yes, they had just activated a new division, the 99th Infantry Division. We were the fill-in for the people who were in there and had casualties, and we were put in the service of that company to fill out some divisions so that they could activate.

D: So there were a bunch of other people in similar situations?

R: Definitely. Most of the people in my squad or my platoon were ASTP people. We had enough of the original people who had been with the 99th for training and all, and some older people, but most of the group I went over with were in the same category I was.

D: What was the general atmosphere of the camp? Were folks scared?

R: No, it was just military training.

D: Was it frightening to know you were preparing to go into war?

R: No, because young people don’t have an idea what war is about. And it was the Army, and Army training was disciplined—a lot of discipline.

D: So, once you left Camp Maxey, did you go straight to Europe or did you go back to Idaho?

R: From Camp Maxey, we were sent to Boston where we departed for Europe as a unit.

D: Were there U-boats prowling the Atlantic when you crossed over?

R: Not that I knew of. They were out, but not in the area where we were. Some guys said they saw some. But I never saw any. We went over in a convoy.

D: Where did you land in Europe?

R: We landed in Firth of Clyde in Scotland, and from there down to some resort area on the coast of England—I can’t remember the name of it—and we departed from there to the continent. And we replaced the 2nd Infantry Division on the front line.

D: And then you were in Belgium?

R: Belgium, along the border of Germany. We came to the Belgian city of Buchenbach first.

D: Do you remember your first day on the front line?

R: Not really. We were taken down, and it was snowy.

D: I know you were in the Battle of the Bulge. That occurred while you were in Belgium?

R: That occurred when we went on line. We went on line in December. It was

Dec. 16, 1944, the first night of the Bulge. The action started in the morning where we were. It may have started before, but when they came through our area, I think it was the 16th.

D: How long had you been in Belgium by that point?

R: Several weeks.

D: So it was pretty soon?

R: Oh, yeah.

D: Did you have much combat between when you got there and the Battle of the Bulge?

R: No.

D: When you got to the front line, what was the atmosphere like?

R: It was in the winter, and we were in line. We had our positions. I think the division was spread out over several miles, 25 miles maybe. We were living in foxholes, and living on the edge of the woods. We had our company headquarters—units were out. And right across the valley were the Germans with a kind of stalemate—nobody would move. And in the Battle of the Bulge, they broke through our division and an adjoining division. They rolled right on back.

D: How many people are in a division?

R: 15,000.

D: So there were two groups of 15,000 and they broke through your lines? How close were you to the breakthrough?

R: I don’t know—pretty close. It was close enough that we were in a quasi-retreat. Then we got cut off, and we were behind enemy lines for a couple days as a unit. And going back up was, of course, after the first instants of the Bulge.

D: So, what was it like when you got surrounded?

R: Well, you didn’t know who was where.

D: Was there a lot of hiding? Or were you fighting? Could you see Germans marching by? It’s hard for me to even picture it.

R: It’s hard to describe because everything was so convoluted. We weren’t into any hand-to-hand; it was mostly artillery duels and patrols to find out where the other side was. On the morning of the breakthrough, it was just bedlam.

D: Did you wake up to gunfire?

R: Yes, we were under artillery most of the night.

D: So, did you basically not sleep while you were in combat?

R: We slept the most we could. We had four or five guys in a dugout, a foxhole.

D: How deep were these foxholes?

R: They were deep enough to where you had to stoop to get in—maybe 6 feet by 6 feet.

D: So when you were in the Battle of the Bulge, was the ground frozen or was it muddy?

R: It wasn’t frozen. There was a lot of snow, a lot of rain. It was extremely muddy. We were in the Ardennes Forest. The snow would pack in on the trees, and it would melt. But the water would be dripping off the trees for days. It could be a bright day but it would still be wet. The 99th Division was also called the “trenchfoot division.” Trenchfoot occurs from too much moisture on your feet and not enough circulation. They don’t really turn frozen, but they turn black.

D: Kind of like gangrene and frost-bite mixed together?

R: Yeah, there were a lot of amputees and toes lost.

D: Did you have any problem with trenchfoot?

R: Not trenchfoot. I think I froze my feet one time.

D: How did your feet freeze?

R: Just exposure.

D: Was it any particular incident when you were stuck or stranded?

R: Just living out in the winter. It was in December, with a lot of snow and a lot of inclement weather. One of the problems was the Air Force couldn’t fly to attack the Germans from the air because of the overcast.

D: You said prior to the battle it was just a lot of artillery. Do you have any personal stories, like the foxhole you were in being hit?

R: No, not a direct hit, but it came close. The first morning of the Bulge, we sent out patrols, and every company had a command post, and every command post along our regiment took direct hits. Before that, a lot of patrolling went on. We were patrolling on the enemy side, and they were coming back. So, they knew all the locations.

D: Were you on any of those patrols the night before the Bulge?

R: Yes, I was on a couple.

D: Was it like a different atmosphere, like you knew something was going to happen the next day?

R: Oh no. That patrol was days before the Bulge. We were trying to get prisoners and vice versa, but the Germans didn’t capture any of our men. 

D: Did you ever capture any Germans?

R: Yes.

D: What was that like?

R: They would give up since we had tanks. This was after the Bulge and we were beginning to move forward and advance. We’d find these pockets and then our guys would surround them and they’d take prisoners and we’d take them to the rear.

D: Were there any times when you were taking prisoners that you remember in particular?

R: No.

D: Back to the Battle of the Bulge, when every command post had direct hits, how did you know what to do?

R: At first, we didn’t know what to do, but we just followed our officers, and the leaders. After that was when they pulled on by us, and left us behind the lines. That period of time is kind of fuzzy, hazy in my memory,

D: What was the hierarchy of units, in terms of division, platoon, etc?

R: It goes division, ahead of the division is the corps, then it goes into what you called “triangular divisions,” and each division had three regiments, and each regiment had three battalions, and each battalion had three companies, and then you have your squads.

D: Were the companies broken up?

R: No, we were pretty much all together as a company. But people were all over the place trying to find their units. You’d meet a guy and he’d want to know where the unit was that was in that area, and they’d try and direct him to where they were located now.

D: Did you ever get separated?

R: Not really. We stayed together as a unit.

D: Then you guys got up to some sort of elevated or mountainous area? Dad told me you had taken refuge there.

R: Our division was in what you call the Elsenborn. Our unit was in reserve, at Elsenborn Ridge. We weren’t directly on line; we were waiting to replace somebody.

D: What was the process? You got up to the ridge, and could you see the German Army trudging forward?

R: No, we knew they were on the edge of the forest, they had their gun emplacements and they had their troops there.

D: Was the Bulge like they had a huge mass that just broke through all at once and then you saw the mop-up coming while your guys tried to regroup and find each other?

R: Pretty much. Our groups would try to hold up the main elements. In fact, it wasn’t our particular unit, but a lot of units in the 99th Division held up the German advance. You read an awful lot of history, and you read about the 99th and how keen they were in holding it.

D: Were there really heavy casualties in your area?

R: I used to have statistics, but I’m not certain. We probably had 20 to 30 percent casualties.

D: What was your role in your unit?

R: I had the Browning Automatic Rifle.

D: Once you realized the Germans were coming through, did you guys set up and put your tripod down for the B.A.R.?

R: No, it wasn’t that kind of fighting. They ran through. And we more or less retreated. Why? I wasn’t in on the decision-making. While we were on the line, it was kind of interesting; we had built corduroy roads for evacuation.

D: Corduroy?

R: We cut out trees and used the trunks for roads to keep out of the mud and the snow. And while we were on the line before the Bulge, that was mostly what we were doing and stakeouts, setting up ambushes, and patrols.

D: When you say “on the line,” you guys were at the very front?

R: The very front.

D: Up at the Elsenborn, when did you know the tide was turning and the Germans weren’t going to breakthrough and get the oil and all that.

R: I’m not sure, but at some point, all the units that could move were put up in trucks, and we were rushed to the Remagen Bridge.

D: So, you had already been put under Gen. George Patton by that point?

R: You know I’m not even sure, but that’s what I heard later. I didn’t even realize we were under Hodges’ command, but somebody told me we were under British command for a while, too.

D: So, you go from the Elsenborn Ridge on trucks to the Remagen Bridge?

R: After the German breakthrough with the Battle of the Bulge in December, we started north, then they trucked us south to the Remagen Bridge in March. We made the Rhine crossing at Remagen. In fact our unit, I think, was the very first unit across the Remagen. Our platoon was about 30 or 40 guys.

D: Where would you be in the placement of men crossing?

R: Somewhere in the first 50.

D: Could you see the first guy going across?

R: Yes, I think I followed him.

D: What was it like? Were you in groups waiting for artillery bursts, and just ran you across the bridge?

R: What happened was the Germans were trying to blow up the bridge, but the artillery couldn’t reach it. It could reach the west side, the side away from Germany. Then somebody, a sergeant or someone, timed it and figured out they were coming in bursts. And those bursts would hit the entrance to the bridge, so when we got that worked out, after a burst, they would shove people across, and once you got on the bridge you weren’t in any danger of artillery fire, but you were in danger from small arms fire.

D: The artillery was landing where you would get on the bridge?

R: Close enough.

D: Was that where you got shrapnel in your shoulder?

R: No, I got shrapnel on the other side, after I crossed the bridge. I don’t remember if it was a day or two after crossing, when we were going forward.

D: While troops were crossing the bridge, were there a lot of casualties?

R: Yes, but like I said, because of the position of the artillery, to my knowledge I don’t think we lost that many people there. But once we got in on the other side, then we were in the rear of the retreating German army, and they hit us with small arms fire.

D: You get across the bridge, then they get your platoon across, and then the company, then the Luftwaffe bombed the bridge, but the engineers built another bridge. Is that right?

R: Yes. When I was wounded, we went back to the hospital in, I think it was Liege, Belgium, and we crossed the river on a pontoon bridge. I came back to the hospital for some time, and then I rejoined the unit. By the time I rejoined, they had started mopping up what was called the Ruhr Pocket.

D: What was the Ruhr Pocket?

R: The landscape was pretty much the plains. We were like pincers—going around and surrounding German troops, getting all the Germans. The Ruhr Pocket was a big area. The U.S. captured thousands upon thousands of prisoners.

D: What exactly happened when you were wounded?

R: It was artillery. There was shrapnel. There were two other guys—two or three other guys who were killed. And I got small shrapnel in my arm, which is still there.

D: What were you guys doing, doing mop-up activities or patrolling?

R: Going forward, we were pushing the Germans back.

D: So, were you firing at the time, running and firing?

R: Just going forward, having the artillery fire at me.

D: Were you aware that artillery was firing at you at that point?

R: Oh yeah.

D: Were these two guys people who had been with you since ASTP, were they clerk typists too?

R: No, they were in our unit. That’s the thing—I don’t recall their names.

D: Was that a really traumatic incident, when the artillery hit you, was it really destructive on your bodies, were you really close together?

R: They shielded it.

D: So, you were on a corner?

R: I was on the outside, they were just advancing.

D: When you got hit, did you retreat with your wounds, or did somebody come and get you?

R: They sent a medic, a medic came up and looked at you, and they sent you back to the medical evacuation.

D: Were these other two guys in really bad shape?

R: I heard that they were gone.

D: You guys didn’t have any conversation after being hit?

R: No.

D: Were you close enough to speak to one another or were you spread out?

R: Spread out. I’m not even sure of the number of casualties, I just know there were casualties.

D: Do you remember lying on the ground with a shrapnel wound?

R: I remember when the shrapnel hit, and somebody called the medic up.

D: Were you standing at that time?

R: No, crawling on our hands and knees.

D: Oh, so you were advancing on your hands and stomach and it hit you in the left arm?

R: Previous to that when we were on the line, we had some casualties, but have you ever heard of a buzz bomb? They were ram-jet powered bombs Germany fired mainly at England. The engine would stop and it would glide. The target was London but they didn’t have the sophisticated guidance technology. One day, one broke over our line, and their warheads were wrapped in wire. When it exploded, it spread shrapnel. I remember poor old Ned Potter, and he was on line, and he was hit, right across here, and it made a couple marks across his penis.

D: Was it deadly for Ned?

R: He had to go back to the hospital, and he wasn’t in the hospital I was in. This happened before I was there. But he finally came back and he was telling about it, and they put a curtain around his bed, and all the nurses and everybody would come over because they wanted to see the guy with the wounded penis.

D: Were those buzz bombs pretty heavy-duty then?

R: Oh yeah, they were huge, and I’ve heard that was what it was that hit us. But I couldn’t even tell you. If it was, it was one that didn’t reach its destinations. It just fell short. But when it hit, it really exploded.

D: How much of an area would it have taken off?

R: Oh gosh, I have no idea.

D: So, after you got wounded, troops took you across the pontoon bridge. Then, after you recovered and returned, heavy fighting still raged?

R: Oh yeah, we took a lot of our casualties then. There we were destabilizing pockets of resistance.

D: In the Ruhr Pocket, what was the largest group of Germans you captured?

R: I didn’t have to force any of them to surrender. I think the most I had to take back to the rear was two or three.

D: What was it like walking with these Germans as prisoners? Were they tied up?

R: No. You had your gun pointed at them out in front of you.

D: Did you ever have any try to take off or some that wanted to escape?

R: No. They were pretty anxious to get out of there.

D: Any Germans speak English over there?

R: Oh, probably in some of the camps. I don’t remember. Some of them spoke pidgin English, some of us spoke pidgin German.

D: Were many of your friends injured in the mop-up?

R: Several of them were. A guy lost an eye. While we were going forward, I saw this sergeant crouched in front. He’d direct the guys where he wanted them and about that time I heard a “kerplunk.” There was a sniper who had got him right in the gut. He just begged for us to shoot him. We called the medics, but he didn’t make it back. Then, I think the same sniper shot at my unit. They missed me luckily but finally one of our guys figured out where he was.

D: Dad mentioned how you were out with a platoon, and a sniper was picking off guys and you had to play dead until nightfall.

R: Well, that was the same time with this sniper.

D: So it started with the sniper hitting your sergeant in the stomach, then did you guys all fall to the ground?

R: Yes. We were all down, trying to get where we weren’t targets.

D: So, you got down and got away to the edge of things?

R: Yeah, after they had neutralized the sniper, then they came out and evacuated.

D: That sergeant got hit, and he was down a couple hours, and the medics came but he had to wait?

R: There was some wait I don’t remember how long it was. We were moving so fast, the memories go. What I should have done was kept a diary.

D: Did you send letters to Grandma Maddy?

R: Oh, yeah. There was a special mail that you could send back.

D: About how often did you mail her?

R: Madeline said it wasn’t very often, but it seemed to me like it was quite often.

D: So, what was the last German city you remember?

R: Wurzburg is where we ended up. It was on the Main River. And that was after the war was over, and we were occupying. We were there for about two months after March of 1945. We also spent a lot of time occupying the town of Randersacker waiting to be transferred to Japan.

D: And that’s where you heard about the bomb?

R: And when Roosevelt died.

D: What was it like occupying the town?

R: We did guard duty.

D: Were the residents unhappy?

R: Yes. We would take over homes for billets. We’d take over two or three buildings to sleep, like barracks, and we had our mess hall. And we’d go into Wurzburg for assigned duties. After they dropped the bomb, the war was over as far as we were concerned.

D: So, what happened next for you?

R: From there we went to what they called “cigarette camps,” where we were deployed back to the U.S. They were back in France. Before the bomb, we were told we would be shipped from Germany through the Panama Canal to Japan. But that was only rumor. So when the war was over, we were redeployed to the cigarette camps. And from there we were assigned points according to how many days we were in combat, how many days we were overseas, and they added them up until you could be shipped back overseas.

D: Did you have to wait around long?

R: I must have waited around. The war ended in the spring—May 8, 1945—and I got back in November.

D: Were you eager to get home?

R: Sure, everybody was. I wish I kept a diary. We didn’t do much of that. I didn’t, at least, and I don’t think many of the guys did.

D: Did you run across any concentration camps while you were in Germany?

R: Yes. Our unit relieved one. We came in and opened it up. They made the mistake of opening the gates, and these inmates went nuts over the countryside and were going into farms and picking up rabbits and anything they could get. I remember one had a rabbit by the neck and a bayonet. It was pretty horrible. Then, at night, you’d see all these little fires around where they were squatting.

D: Was it like a refugee camp all around?

R: Eventually, when they rounded them up again. For a while they were on their own.

D: Were you aware of the concentration camps?

R: Yes.

D: What was your role on the liberation of the camp?

R: Support troops.

D: What was the atmosphere when you heard the first atomic bomb was dropped?

R: Relief. The war was ending for all practical purposes.

D: Was there a different attitude from the first to the second bomb?

R: I don’t remember. It just meant there was a good chance we wouldn’t be going to Japan. When the war ended in Europe, the war was still going on in Japan, and they were still sending troops in to meet the Japanese. After the bombs dropped and they surrendered, there was no need for the big armies of Europe to go to Japan. Then the problem of redeployment came up, and we went from Germany to the cigarette camps in France before we were shipped out and landed in New York. When you think of it, there were 12 to 13 million people in uniform. There was always something going on. There were huge movements of people.

D: You have a lot of medals. What are they from?

R: Most of those were for campaigns and a Purple Heart. We also got a unit citation from Belgium for our defense of Belgium before and after the Bulge.

D: Was it pleasant in France after the war ended?

R: No. It was cold. We had these big barracks and cots. Are you familiar with meat wrapping paper? We’d sleep on these cots, and the cold would come from underneath, and it was bitter. So, we’d go down to the meat market and get rolls of the meat wrapping paper and make them a pile thick to insulate the cots. I remember that, but everything moved so fast.

Doug Meigs is the executive editor of Omaha Publications.

A Portrait of the Filmmaker as a Young Man

March 14, 2017 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Knights in shining armor go searching for a legendary spoon. That was the concept of Sam Senser’s entry to the Canadian-based 50-Hour Film Competition. The contest’s theme was “twisted fairytale,” and all entries had to use a wooden spoon prop and include the phrase “you fool!”

His short film, “The Quest for Excalispoon,” won for best costume. A re-edited version is the 20-year-old Senser’s third short film to be accepted and screened at the Omaha Film Festival. The 2017 festival takes place March 7-12.

In 2016, Senser received honorable mention in the festival’s “Best Nebraska Short Film” category—a juried prize—for his comedic heist film “Van Man and Truck Boy 2” (also known as “The Adventures of Van Man and Truck Boy”). Senser’s younger brother Wrenn, the sidekick in “The Quest for Excalispoon,” also plays Truck Boy.

The up-and-coming filmmaker is accumulating an impressive collection of awards. In 2015, Senser won a national anti-texting-and-driving competition—Project Yellow Light—with his short video, “It’s Not Safe for Anyone.”

His advertisement, set in the dark of night, featured a distracted youth crossing a remote country road while looking down and texting on his phone. An oncoming car screeches to a halt. The kid looks up, caught in the headlights. The camera cuts to the vehicle. A deer sits behind the steering wheel, driving the car. Then the kid bolts, running into the darkness.

Surely, the deer-caught-in-the-headlights scenario is a familiar nighttime danger for drivers in Senser’s neighborhood, on the rural fringe of the Omaha metro. The simple danger captures his aesthetic.

“It’s a simpler life in a small town, and I like simple films,” says Senser, who is taking a class at Metropolitan Community College and keeps busy year-round with commissioned video work.

He hasn’t gone to film school (and probably doesn’t need to). He actually paid for his first camera with money from a freelance project for his grandfather’s insurance company. Then, during his senior year of high school, instead of seeking parental help with college tuition, Senser emptied his college fund to upgrade his camera to a $5,500 Canon C-100.

“It was a little bit of a risk, but that’s what he was passionate about,” says his father, John Senser. “He immediately went and bought the camera, and it paid off.”

The first thing he shot was the PSA with the driving deer. An early edit won a contest hosted by WOWT Channel 6 News for Omaha-area schools; the finished version earned $5,000 in prize money from Project Yellow Light.

When he won, Senser and his parents received free airfare to New York City. He stayed for free at the Waldorf Astoria. They had to scramble to find tuxedos and formal attire for the black-tie Ad Council Public Service Award Dinner (which normally costs $3,000 per seat to attend).

Then in 2016, Senser entered the contest again. He also helped his brother enter a video. Coincidentally, the Senser brothers were arriving in Boston for a family vacation with their uncle the night before Project Yellow Light announced the 2016 winners at Times Square in New York City.

After flying from Omaha to Boston, their uncle drove them four hours to the outskirts of the Big Apple. They learned the good news in-person when their videos played on the Times Square Jumbotron on the morning of Friday, July 8.

Senser won the college division for the second year in a row with his next entry, “The Cost of Distracted Driving.” Wrenn also won in the high school division. So, they swept the contest and each took home another $5,000.

The expensive camera had proven itself a wise investment for the family.

Senser says he has been making movies constantly since he was a little kid—maybe third grade, maybe fifth grade. He can’t remember exactly when he started in earnest. “They used to be stupid little short films that we’d do for fun on our family’s camcorders,” he recalls. “We wouldn’t do any editing. I’d hit record, stop it, put it up on the TV, and we’d watch it.”

The young filmmaker lives with his parents at the YMCA’s Camp Kitaki (his dad is a property manager on the grounds, and they are the only folks living year-round at the camp), which is located between Platte River State Park and South Bend.

He still documents his surroundings. In fact, he has made several promotional videos for Camp Kitaki (where he works in the summer, making slideshows for campers).

To make a big deal of Senser’s relative youth would seem patronizing. When it comes to filmmaking, Senser isn’t so much “on his way” as “already there” in terms of skill. His films would prove notable for an auteur of any vintage.

Audiences feel likewise. “His crowd reaction has been fantastic over the last several years,” says Marc Longbrake, program director of the Omaha Film Festival.

The Omaha Film Festival exhibits new independent films and lauded cinematic masterpieces alike. The event organizers also offer educational programming related to film (including a two-day academy geared toward high school students and open to the public); though Senser was never a participant.

Senser’s age did not factor into the festival’s decision to exhibit his work, Longbrake says.

“Based on its own merits early on, Sam’s films were doing well competition-wise compared to the other Nebraska filmmakers,” Longbrake says. “The fact that he was young and in college at the time that he submitted his first film doesn’t play into it. The fact that he was making quality films was the thing that we dug.”

Perfectly executed farce drew Omaha Film Festival jury members to his winning submission last year. “His movies are kind of ridiculous, but in a hilarious way,” Longbrake explains. “And you can screw that up. If you go to a comedy that’s sort of a farce, if it’s done poorly, it’s a struggle. For some reason, he hit the right beats and the right notes with the first couple films that we saw of his.”

“Van Man and Truckboy 2,” focuses on a small-town crime-fighting duo working to apprehend a villain who robbed the local bank with a drone. The film features gorgeous aerial and long shots of southeastern Nebraska countryside. To capture such breathtaking views, Senser worked with Wrenn (who recently completed Navy bootcamp), to operate a camera mounted on a drone.

Along with Wrenn as Truck Boy, Senser’s friend Jake Bruce was Van Man, and Senser’s father was the villain. All of Senser’s films so far have been collaborations with friends and family.

His editing is crisp, coherent, and expertly timed. The acting is understated and natural, sure to keep audiences laughing with wonderfully absurd exchanges like:

“The bank’s been robbed … by a drone … there were explosives, probably two pounds of C-185 trinitrotoluene wrapped in a flaked hydro-combustion chamber with a powder organic nitrate packed inside.”

“The red kind?”

“Yes.”

“Oh no. That’s the worst kind.”

Devoid of condescending parody, both of Senser’s “Van Man and Truck Boy” films offer up a recognizable, slyly humorous small-town Midwestern sensibility, where someone could earn a lasting nickname for the flimsiest of reasons, like having a truck. They’re worth a watch (and are available on his personal website).

Where is Senser headed? He says he plans to make a larger-scale short film this spring and summer to submit to festivals around the country. But he’d really like to direct a feature-length film—hopefully around here.

“I don’t know if California would be my thing,” Senser says. “But if they called—if I needed to—I would do it. Although, I’d rather make movies with this kind of setting. I just like the whole small-town feel, forests, open space, ranches, farms. It’s just simpler. Plus I know it. I grew up here. So I kind of know how things work.”

Visit senserfilms.com for more information.

Sam Senser at Camp Kitaki

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

Ice Age Tusks vs. Blood Ivory

December 22, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann and Doug Meigs

The buried remains of Ice Age mammoths hold secrets to the story of climate change and the rise of mankind.

Mammoths vanished from Earth some 11,000 years ago at the end of the geological epoch known as the Pleistocene, but their story grows increasingly significant today with contemporary discussions of global warming and the alarming rate of wildlife species extinctions worldwide.

As the United States and China crack down on legal channels for buying and selling African elephant ivory— due to a quirk of international treaty regulations—Chinese ivory traders have begun turning to tusks from prehistoric woolly mammoths.

Traditional Chinese ivory craftsmanship has a history dating back thousands of years. Ironically, the continuation of the ancient Chinese art form could become dependent on supplies of ivory from extinct woolly mammoths.

Mammoths are the ancient relatives of modern elephants. Although their closest living relative is the Asian elephant, they also share the biological family “Elephantidae” with African elephants. Paleontologists have excavated their long-nosed (i.e., proboscidean) kin on nearly every continent, except for Antarctica and Australia.

Nebraska has an especially rich history of elephants. In fact, the mammoth is Nebraska’s official state fossil. Mammoths or mastodons have been uncovered in all but three of Nebraska’s 93 counties (every one except Grant, Arthur, and Wayne counties).

“Our elephants first come over about 14 million years ago into North America, and Nebraska is probably the only place in the country where you can find a complete sequence until their demise in the late Ice Age, 10-12,000 years ago. Nebraska is probably one of the few places where you can document the entire history of the Proboscidea in North America,” says George Corner, collection manager at Morrill Hall, the University of Nebraska State Museum in Lincoln.

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Nebraska’s State Fossil

Mammoths were mythical creatures to the young Corner. As a kid growing up in rural Blue Hill, his family would travel to the capital every year for the state basketball tournament. Across from the Nebraska Coliseum (the tournament’s home prior to the Devaney Center’s construction) was Morrill Hall.

He would resort to temper tantrums if his father wouldn’t let him “go look at the elephants” during their Lincoln visits, Corner says with a laugh.

The paleontologist (who turned 69 in January) stands in the middle of “Elephant Hall,” where gigantic specimens of the state’s rich proboscidean history loom overhead. He has spent 47 years working for the museum—starting with field studies as an undergraduate student of geology, and with the museum’s highway salvage project during and after his master’s in geology.

Corner, who jokes about being as old as the creatures on display, credits the bulk of the collection to Erwin H. Barbour. In 1891, the Ohio-raised Barbour came to the University of Nebraska to head its geology department. Within a year of landing in Lincoln, Barbour had taken charge of curating the museum; he served as its director for roughly 50 years.

The crown jewel of the museum’s Elephant Hall goes by the nickname Archie. That’s short for Archidiskodon imperator maibeni. Archie is a Columbian mammoth (a southern branch of the mammoth genus, which may have lacked the shaggy-coat of its northern woolly mammoth relatives). Both Columbian and woolly mammoths once roamed the grasslands of Nebraska.

“We like to claim that Archie is the largest mounted mammoth in the world, but I’ll show you one thing that Barbour did,” Corner says. “Look at his toes. He’s mounted on his tippy-toes. Now, you can’t tell me that an elephant of that size could stand on his tippy-toes.” (Archie would have likely weighed in the realm of 8,400 kilograms, the size of a large bull African elephant plus 20 percent.) “But Barbour wanted as much height as possible.”

Archie stands in a semi-circle of proboscidean specimens that stretch from prehistoric non-elephants into modern-day varieties—from long-jawed mastodons, to stegomastodons, to mastodons, to the elephant family: mammoths (though a woolly mammoth is not on display at the museum) and culminating in modern Asian and African elephants.

“Some of these critters came over to North America as they were, so there wasn’t a lot of evolution in place. Most of the evolution probably took place in the Old World and then migrated over in the late Miocene,” Corner says, explaining how elephants traveled to Nebraska via the Bering land bridge that once linked northeastern Russia to Alaska.

Asian and African elephants have only recently ventured into Nebraska with help from modern man.

The museum’s Asian elephant specimens came from two that died when a Campbell Brothers Circus train caught fire at Pawnee City in 1904 (only to be excavated by Barbour’s graduate student two years later). The museum’s African elephants on display include the skeleton of an African elephant that had died in a German zoo—acquired before the construction of Morrill Hall in 1927—and taxidermy mounts shot during a 1920s safari by Adam Breede, the publisher of the Hastings Tribune (who contributed most of the museum’s collection of African taxidermy).

“In Nebraska, mammoths became extinct along with 85 percent of all animals larger than the size of a jackrabbit 10-12,000 years ago. And I can’t tell you why,” Corner says, who speculates that climate change, disease, maybe an asteroid, or any combination of such factors, could have driven Nebraska’s mammoths to extinction at approximately the same time that mammoths went extinct worldwide.

Early humans lived alongside mammoths in the landscape that would eventually become the state of Nebraska. But Corner doubts that mankind could have been entirely responsible for the demise of mammoths: “Early Nebraskans witnessed the extinction of these animals, and they were opportunists; they hunted them—but I do not think they were the final cause.”

On remote islands, isolated pockets of woolly mammoths lingered past the species’ mass die-off. The last known living woolly mammoths went extinct on Wrangel Island (a secluded Russian territory in the Arctic Ocean) as recently as 3,700 years ago.

Why did mammoths go extinct? “That’s the big question in paleontology,” Corner says. “Go to the African savannah—we had analogs in the New World to all these animals. In Nebraska, we had elephants, rhinoceros, and camels. Why did all those big game animals become extinct here when they managed to survive in Africa—where there were more humans hunting them? Why? We don’t know.”

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Remains of more than 10,000 extinct elephants have been found in Nebraska, but far less than 1 percent of the state has been carefully explored for fossils.

Elephant and Mammoth Ivory

Modern elephants in Africa face persistent pressure from poachers and conflict with human settlements that encroach on an evermore limited range of habitat.

To address the poaching crisis, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (which went into effect in 1975) banned the ivory trade in 1989. But African elephant populations had already collapsed during the decade leading up to the ban, falling from roughly 1.3 million to 600,000 elephants.

mammoth4Despite decades of coordinated international efforts to protect African elephants, grim statistics remain a reality today: “An elephant is killed every 15 minutes,” according to The Ivory Game, Netflix’s original documentary released in November 2016. The vast majority of that blood ivory is destined for China.

The CITES ban has allowed several technical loopholes for African elephant ivory. For example: pre-Convention and pre-ban (antique) ivory could be bought or sold, as could ivory harvested from African safari hunts.

After Beijing declared traditional Chinese ivory carving to be an “intangible cultural heritage” in 2006, China participated in a one-off purchase of 108 tons of ivory sourced from naturally deceased elephants in 2008. The sale raised $15 million for African conservation, and the Chinese government has been slowly allocating the stockpile to licensed factories for sale only in the domestic Chinese market. Many environmentalists view the sale as a failure for stimulating demand and providing a front for the laundering of “blood ivory.”

Mammoth ivory is an entirely different beast. CITES does not regulate the trade in fossils or extinct animals. Prehistoric ivory is a way around the global regulation of elephant ivory.

Most of the world’s untouched mammoth ivory remains locked in the frozen permafrost of Siberia. When snows melt during the brief Arctic summer (from mid-July to mid-September), riverbanks often reveal prehistoric remains. Warmer summers means the permafrost is thawed longer every year. That means more and more mammoth tusks are protruding from the ground every year.

Indigenous locals, seasonal tusk hunters, and Russian gangs aggregate the raw tusks in Siberia. Officially, the tusks must be approved for export by the government authorities, but traders (and smugglers) are increasingly taking their purchases directly into mainland China over the land border with Russia, Mongolia, or neighboring countries.

Chinese demand for mammoth ivory has pros and cons. The trade is potentially beneficial for identification of excavation sites—hunting of tusks is incentivized, so tusks are saved that would otherwise be destroyed from exposure to the elements after millennia underground; however, the trade destroys the integrity of excavation sites disrupted by tusk hunters.

According to John E. Scanlon, the Secretary-General of CITES, more than 90 percent of Russian mammoth ivory exports went to China (including Hong Kong) in the past 10 years, with total Chinese imports surpassing 80 tons annually from 2010 to 2015 according to the official trade database of the United Nations.

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Nebraska’s state fossil is not just ancient history. The mammoth is an important player in the global ivory trade today.

Changing Regulatory Landscapes

Today, on the crowded streets of Hong Kong’s tourist districts, there are roughly half a dozen storefronts that advertise mammoth ivory products for sale. Signs visible outside the mammoth shops promote the legality of prehistoric ivory—tusks of extinct woolly mammoths harvested from the frozen permafrost of Russian Siberia.

Hong Kong played a crucial role in developing China’s niche mammoth ivory market. Before and after the CITES ban, the former-British colony (which became a special administrative region of China in 1997) also served as a key transit hub for elephant ivory—legal and illegal—entering the mainland Chinese market.

Implementation of the 1989 elephant ivory ban brought about major declines in Hong Kong’s ivory carving industry. During the same time period, however, the mainland Chinese economy enjoyed rapid economic growth—boosting demand for luxurious ivory products among the nation’s nouveau riche.

As demand for ivory intensified in China, the government implemented an extensive licensing system, mandatory certification cards for legal elephant ivory products, stiff penalties, and a crackdown on smuggling. Despite the risks, black market ivory dealers continued to cash in on Chinese market conditions to maintain the country’s status as the world’s primary destination for black market elephant ivory (followed next by the United States).

mammoth5Destructions of seized ivory stockpiles followed. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service crushed more than 6 tons of confiscated ivory in Denver, Colorado, in November 2013. Then, two months later, Chinese authorities crushed more than 6 tons of its own seized ivory in Guangzhou province. Over the course of 2014-2016, Hong Kong’s government followed suit with the incineration of 28.86 tons, nearly all of its seizure stockpile—the world’s largest ivory burn until Kenya torched 105 tons ($172 million worth) of ivory in 2016.

During a September 2015 meeting in Washington, D.C., President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to enact “nearly complete bans on ivory import and export, including significant and timely restrictions on the import of ivory as hunting trophies, and to take significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory.”

In the U.S., tightened elephant ivory laws went into effect in July of 2016 to close loopholes for pre-ban ivory, antiques, and hunting trophies.

Cheryl Lo, a senior wildlife crime officer with the World Wildlife Fund in Hong Kong told Omaha Magazine in late November that she expected Beijing to reveal China’s implementation plan sometime in December. No status update had been released as of the magazine’s press deadline. Hong Kong officials had already announced the implementation plan for the territory’s more stringent ivory regulation in June 2016.

Lo says her research for the WWF found that Hong Kong’s registered elephant ivory stockpile has remained level for many years, indicating that traders were likely replenishing with black market stocks.

She says more research on mammoth ivory in Hong Kong is needed. At this moment, she says there is no evidence to prove systematic laundering or smuggling of African elephant ivory into China under the guise of mammoth tusks. “The current concern is probably at the individual store level—shops that intentionally or accidentally misrepresent or mislabel to consumers that elephant ivory is mammoth,” Lo says, noting that the potential for wrongdoing should still be monitored.

In the future, China’s implementation of stricter ivory regulations will likely increase market pressure on the prehistoric ivory stocks. Being able to tell the difference, then, becomes paramount. Sometimes the difference can be difficult to identify—especially in tusks that are heavily processed or scrimshawed with ink.

Mammoth tusks sometimes exhibit a rocky/mineralized exterior, discoloration from being underground, with denser consistency than elephant tusks. But this generalization does not always apply to high quality tusks gathered from the permafrost.

Likewise, tusks from adult male mammoths are generally larger with greater spiral curvature than African elephant tusks. “But this is not true of all mammoth tusks. Some very much resemble tusks of elephants,” says University of Michigan professor Daniel Fisher, one of the world’s foremost experts on mammoths and mammoth tusks. “There are, of course, juvenile mammoths whose tusks are not large at all, and female mammoths whose tusks do not show much spiral curvature.”

While forensic methods can certify a tusk as belonging to a mammoth, the procedures could damage the specimen or require specialized lab equipment. The most certain means of verification requires a polished cross-section of the tusk. Close inspection of such a surface reveals intersecting spiral curves called “Schreger lines.” Elephant tusks exhibit Schreger lines that intersect with an angle greater than 115 degrees, while mammoth tusks exhibit an angle of less than 90 degrees.

NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA Paleontologists estimate that at least 3,000 elephant fossils remain buried in the average square mile of Nebraska countryside.

Chinese Mammoth Ivory Dealers

Daniel Chan—the owner of Lise Carving & Jewellery in Hong Kong—claims to have first introduced mammoth ivory to the market.

“I began buying mammoth tusks from suppliers in Alaska and Canada in 1983. That was a very busy time for [elephant] ivory. In 1983, nobody wanted to use the prehistoric material, only me. I bought and kept it,” Chan says. “In the early ’90s, nobody was using this material. I was the first Hong Kong person to visit Moscow looking for mammoth tusks.”

In his Hong Kong factory/warehouse, several craftsmen are working at a long carving table. Whirring electrical tools spit ivory dust in the air as they carve Buddhist figures and trinkets from ancient material. There is even a baby mammoth skeleton in the corner of the room. It faces a mountain of mammoth tusks stored in shelves and piled on the floor. 

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Chan pioneered the supply chain from Siberia to Hong Kong via Moscow. Competition followed. Other ivory dealers moved into his market niche and demand for mammoth ivory steadily grew. Mainland Chinese smugglers buying direct from Siberia and transporting their stocks over the land border with Russia became a major annoyance, undercutting his business.

mammoth3-2One of Chan’s peers, carving master Chu Chung-shing says, “I can carve on any materials. I don’t need to break the law to make a living.” Chu owns two upscale shops that exclusively sell mammoth tusk artwork in Hong Kong’s most popular tourist districts.

Chu’s Prestige Crafts storefronts glisten with ostentatious carvings, which stretch up and around gigantic, spiraling mammoth tusks. His work was exhibited at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, and he has had large exhibitions promoted by committees of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

Chan and Chu shared similar experiences in their search for elephant ivory alternatives.

“The ban was a huge blow to me. I even carved out of ox bone, but only for a short time. Everybody was trying something new after the ban,” Chu says, who eventually found an ideal substitute in mammoth ivory, even though the prehistoric tusks are denser and more prone to cracking than contemporary elephant tusks.

Both ivory insiders emphasize that any new ivory ban from the government should not impact the mammoth ivory trade because of the fundamental difference between the two products.

In Beijing, the China Association of Mammoth Ivory Art Research issues cards to authenticate mammoth ivory products, similar to the system mandated by the Chinese government for elephant ivory carvings. However, use of the mammoth registration cards is voluntary.

Chen Shu, the president of the association, maintains an extensive showroom of mammoth carving arts at his home. Large polished mammoth tusks join examples of historic schools of traditional Chinese ivory carving—from Canton ivory balls carved with impossibly intricate concentric spheres, to Beijing-style painted ivory carvings, and even delicate modern jewelry designs.

Many domestic buyers consider mammoth ivory to be a commodity investment, while others have used the expensive carvings to bribe or otherwise buy influence.

Chen watched prices skyrocket for prehistoric ivory in the past decade. The growth far outpaced changes in elephant ivory prices. He says raw elephant ivory increased from roughly 1,000-2,000 yuan per kilogram in 2003 to 8,000-12,000 yuan per kilogram in 2013; over the same timespan, raw mammoth tusks that once sold for hundreds of yuan rose in price to 30,000-40,000 yuan per raw kilogram.

In the summer of 2016, Chen says that the mammoth ivory market was experiencing a downturn following the central government’s anti-corruption campaign, a slowing Chinese economy, and the Sino-U.S. agreement to strengthen regulation of the world’s two largest markets for black market ivory.

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One mastodon is discovered for every 10 mammoths in the state.

Regulation of Mammoth Ivory

Mammoth tusks occupy an awkward place between opposing views on the global ivory trade. In the view of Chinese traders, mammoth ivory is an alternative to African elephant ivory that sustains their traditional craftsmanship.


Many environmental activists, on the other hand, view the mammoth ivory trade as a means of sustaining a hated industry.

Currently, India is the only country to have banned the sale of mammoth ivory. In the United States, four states have bans on the sale and purchase of mammoth ivory: New York, New Jersey, California, and Hawaii.

Nevertheless, Esmond Martin, one of the world’s leading elephant conservationists has cited mammoth ivory as a possible beneficial alternative to elephant ivory (so long as mammoth carvings are produced on a large enough scale that they can be easily differentiated from elephant carvings). Unfortunately for mammoth traders who buy bulk quantities that often include fragments and lower-grade tusks, such scale is not always financially viable.

Mammoth ivory was recently addressed at the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties in South Africa from Sept. 24 through Oct. 5, when national representatives gathered to discuss the state of global wildlife regulations.

In response to the “indirect threat” to elephant populations through the potential for laundering, a draft resolution from Israel urged monitoring of specimens and new mammoth ivory regulations. But the CITES secretariat ruled against the resolution, in part, due to the anecdotal nature of evidence.

Evidence published during the prior year included a 10-month undercover investigation by the Elephant Action League in Hong Kong and Beijing. The undercover report claimed that the Beijing-based Beijing Mammoth Art Co. Ltd had manipulated its connections in Hong Kong to avoid Chinese ivory regulations.

Hong Kong’s environmental groups have mounted a vocal campaign against the territory’s ivory traders. A coalition of local school children protested the Chinese state-owned retail chain Chinese Arts & Crafts (which has outlets across the mainland and Hong Kong), and in 2014, the retailer responded with an announcement that it would sell only mammoth ivory. The commitment did not apply across mainland China, however; the Beijing arm of the company—an enormous shopping mall located near the historic city center—continued to sell both elephant and mammoth ivory products in summer of 2016.

“After the Hong Kong government bans elephant ivory in the new year, Hong Kong’s trade in mammoth ivory will also need a closer look,” says Alex Hofford, an environmental activist and WildAid wildlife campaigner, who alleges that prehistoric ivory trade is a “cynical laundering mechanism for freshly poached elephant ivory.”

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The sale or purchase of mammoth ivory is not regulated in the state of Nebraska.

A Precious Scientific Commodity

University of Michigan professor Daniel Fisher says that China’s mammoth ivory supply chain is cutting into a precious scientific resource.

“Tusks hold the history of a mammoth’s life,” Fisher says. “Tusks are highly specialized incisor teeth, and they grow by adding thin layers of material, only 10-20 microns thick, for every day of the animal’s life. The composition and density of new tusk material varies with the seasons, in an annual cycle, so that a tusk also ends up showing annual layers that are, in principle, something like the rings of a tree.”

Cross-sections of tusks analyzed under a microscope can reveal the mammoth’s reproductive cycles, daily behavior, and might even offer clues into the secrets of global warming through changes in the creature’s diet. “We’re also looking at how they responded to human expansion into the Arctic, so this is also a story of our history,” he says.

For the past 18 years, Fisher has made annual trips to study mammoth excavation sites in Siberia. While exploring the most desolate corners of the Russian tundra, he has traveled by helicopter, boat, reindeer sled, and even hovercraft. But most of his fieldwork is done on foot.

“In many cases, I was following in the footsteps of the ivory hunters, and they are getting all they can. Even if some ivory doesn’t fetch a prime price, it might be worth something, and they don’t leave much behind,” he says.

Sometimes the modern mammoth hunters discover tusks from places where ancient human hunters stored carcass parts. Removing specimens from these sites destroys the archeological context, which scientists could otherwise study. Sometimes, he says the Russian Academy of Sciences will flag tusks for scientific retention. But that’s still rare, and by the time they do, site-specific data is already lost.

Fisher’s research has taken him all over the world. Even Nebraska. In 2006, he examined the Crawford mammoths (then-housed at Morrill Hall in Lincoln). The fighting mammoths, locked in eternal battle, are now on display at Fort Robinson’s Trailside Museum in the northwestern corner of the state.

George Corner remembers Fisher’s visit, and he laments that most of the tusks recovered with Nebraska’s mammoths are in no suitable shape for carving.

“You don’t hear a lot about fossil ivory in Nebraska. Special conditions preserve the tusks, like the frozen permafrost of Alaska or Siberia,” Corner says. “If you were to pick up a tusk from the loess soil around Omaha, you would just have a pile of tusk fragments.”

NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA “We find elephant remains all the time in Nebraska. But it’s rare to find a skeleton or even a partial skeleton anymore. That’s because of a change in road construction practice. Instead of letting road cuts lay open, the Roads Department will immediately grass them over or seed them with hay. So, we don’t have a lot of time anymore to look at road cuts.”

– George Corner

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