Tag Archives: featured

Homer’s Manager Mike Fratt

August 2, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

I walked into the oldest business in the Old Market looking for Mike Fratt. My search for the general manager of Homer’s Music was blocked by towering racks of vinyl records and CDs.

Then I heard his voice. The voice that hosted a three-hour radio show called “Sunday Morning” for 10 years on 89.7 The River—until he got tired of getting up at 5 a.m. every Sunday. The radio show on the campus of Iowa Western was 16th in the ratings when he began. Several years later, ratings had zoomed to third place.

A bassist, Fratt has played in local bands for 30-plus years, touring to concerts in cities such as San Francisco and New York. (He harbors a special love for western swing and bluegrass.) He also has written about music for various publications.

Fratt has worked in the retail side of the music biz since his high school days in 1975, when he worked at Musicland at Crossroads Mall and the Record Shop at Westroads Mall.

The Omaha native has worked at Homer’s for 38 years. One of the few independent music stores still standing in the nation, Homers once had as many as 11 locations in Omaha and Lincoln. Now all that remains is the glass-front store in the Old Market boasting album covers and local shows.

“The ‘Walmarting’ of music, followed by the digital revolution, pushed independent music stores out of business,” says Fratt.

The recent resurgence of the popularity of vinyl records and their warmer sound have brought buyers back into the store. Record Store Day, a worldwide event held the third Saturday in April that was co-founded by the Coalition of Independent Music Stores (CIMS), also has created enthusiasm.

As a CIMS board member, Fratt helped organize Record Store Day. He is currently CIMS chairman.

It’s an exciting day for vinyl record fans. A line forms down Howard Street and around the corner, with people hoping to get a limited edition item. Some fans arrive at 3 a.m. The store doesn’t open until 10 a.m. This year, an estimated 500 people stood in line.

The scene is duplicated around the world. “In some cities, people start lining up the night before,”
Fratt says.

In 1985, a fire in an adjacent building destroyed the space Homer’s occupied at 1210 Howard Street. Homer’s moved to 1114 Howard after the fire, where the store did business for 25 years.

Homer’s returned to 1210 Howard in 2010, one of five locations the Old Market store has occupied in its 45-year history.

From a small shop in the middle of the country, Mike Fratt has made a nationwide impact. The Wall Street Journal featured him on its cover in November 2014 when he led a battle against moving Record Release Day from Tuesday to Friday.

“People already shop weekends,” says Fratt, who at the time served on the Music Business Association board of directors.

He lost that battle, but won another after organizing retailers to file an amicus brief before the U.S. Supreme Court supporting the right to sell used goods.

“Justice Breyer noted part of our brief in his decision,” he says. “That was a career highlight for me.”

Fratt also served on the board of directors of the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards. He organized the first multi-venue showcase in the Benson area, where he and his wife, Sarah, live.

About three to five percent of Homer’s sales happens online. Tourism is a healthy contributor to the bottom line, he adds.

“From April through October, one-third of our business is from tourists. They don’t have a store like this in their city, whether New York, Kansas City, or Chicago.”  Encounter

Visit homersmusic.com for more information.

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Jan Riggenbach

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Watch out for Jan Riggenbach’s green thumb. Gardening has been her passion since age 7.

She started writing a gardening column in 1974. That column, which she still writes weekly, is now syndicated in 12 newspapers, including the Omaha World-Herald, Chicago Daily Herald, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She also wrote a gardening column for Midwest Living magazine for 22 years.

Her husband, writer Don Riggenbach, talked her into writing the newspaper column in the early 1970s. “He worked for Northwestern Bell public relations and came home with garden questions from people he worked with,” she says.

She writes books. Her most recent from the University of Nebraska Press is Your Midwest Garden: An Owner’s Manual. She has collaborated on various books and as a plant writer for HGTV Landscape books, too.

Riggenbach also has helped people with horticultural therapy.

With what?

Horticultural therapy is just what it sounds like. “Just about any gardener will tell you gardening is therapeutic. No matter what’s bothering you, working the soil helps,” she says. “It was a new field when I got into it.”

She has consulted on horticultural therapy for the senior population and helped several nursing homes build wheelchair-accessible garden beds.

Until three years ago, Jan and Don lived on 30 acres near Glenwood, Iowa. Their land was home to 700 varieties of trees. She says the trees and gardens became a draw for visitors who didn’t always understand what they were looking at.

“As visitors stood on the deck overlooking the wooded ravine on our Iowa acreage, now and then someone would point to a dead tree. ‘Do you know you have a dead tree?’ he or she would ask. We welcomed the chance to explain the value of leaving a few dead trees standing as long as they pose no danger to humans. Dead trees provide homes for many kinds of birds and other wildlife.”

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When planting trees, the Riggenbachs often spaced saplings only 10 or 12 feet apart to mimic the forests of nature.

“People more accustomed to parks and golf courses than to woodlands asked, ‘Don’t you know you’re planting your trees way too close together?’” Jan laughs.

The 30 acres made a perfect home for the family. Don’s passion is trees. Jan had room on the acreage for her gardens. Their three children had room to play. The two writers worked out of a separate building they called The Word Barn.

The couple moved to Omaha three years ago to make life easier for Don, who has Parkinson’s disease. They had lived on the land in Iowa located between Council Bluffs and Glenwood for 35 years.

In southwest Omaha, a scaled-down version of her garden continues to produce flowers, vegetables, dwarf trees, shrubs, berries, and herbs. Downsizing for the Riggenbachs means one acre to work instead of 30, still not everybody’s idea of retirement.

“I do all my vegetables on raised beds, an easier way to garden,” says Jan. “There’s less bending and with the raised beds, I don’t have to worry about soil contamination, and drainage is good.” 

Some of their three children and eight grandchildren share the passion that Jan and Don, who have been together for 53 years, have for gardening.

“My son, David, is bitten bad. There’s no grass in his yard and it’s packed with every possible plant he can find,” Jan says.

Also into gardening are grandsons Nate, who is now a junior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Jackson, who at age 13 has his own garden.

Jan became an organic gardener before most people knew what that was.

“Organic then was looked at like there was something wrong with you. So I never said, ‘This is organic.’  Today I give programs about organic gardening.” 

She says readers’ questions help her as a writer to understand how a novice gardener may not understand gardening jargon. Examples: “How do you pinch a plant and where do you pinch it?” and “What does deadheading mean?”

As Jan kept writing, her garden’s reputation grew. People lined up to visit, primarily from garden clubs and local schools. She grew almost everything on the Iowa acreage, from fruits and vegetables to flower gardens. 

Jan remembers a fellow hiker who showed her a smartphone photo of the columbines he found blooming in his new yard: “He said, ‘I thought they were really pretty, but if they’re wildflowers, I’ll have to pull them out.’ 

Although most gardeners welcome native plants in their gardens, some newcomers still equate wildflowers with weeds.” 

Jan says she harvested a story every time visitors came to the sprawling acreage they once owned in Iowa.

“While conducting a tour for children, my husband Don pointed out an American hophornbeam tree. ‘Now this is a hop tree,’ he began. One little girl’s eyes got really big. ‘How far does it hop?’ she asked.”

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OJs Enchilada

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ground beef and cottage cheese on an enchilada. The combination sounds strange, but it tastes amazing.

Creamy, melted cottage cheese oozes over hearty meat and shredded lettuce, tucked into a flour tortilla. Douse the whole plate with ladles of finely chopped hot salsa (made fresh every day), and dig in.

The menu warns in all-caps: “GUARANTEED A GUT-BUSTER!” It stretches across the plate like a log, coated with a blanket of cheddar and sprinkled with black olive slices. Twin mounds of rice and refried beans huddle beside the delicious monstrosity.

OJs1Ever since I learned of cottage cheese enchiladas, OJ’s Cafe on the edge of the Missouri River has called to me like a siren song for fat kids.

Mexican food is fairly common in the Midwest nowadays, but OJ’s Cafe was a trendsetter. Located next to the Florence Mill, just south of I-680’s 30th Street exit near the Mormon Bridge, OJ’s wood-paneled facade harkens back to the days of the Wild West.

The recipe for cheese and beef enchiladas belonged to the owner’s mother. The owner, 70-year-old Olga Jane Martinez (whose married name is Vlcek) was born in Anaheim, California. She opened the cafe 40 years ago. Vlcek says they added the Western-style facade a few years after opening.

Mexican food was hard to find in Omaha back then. The restaurant was situated in the site of a former dairy that sold milk, eggs, ice cream, hamburger, and cheeseburgers. At first, Vlcek followed suit. She kept the menu and added a daily special. Mexican dishes were the Thursday and Friday special.

“Then customers started asking for more Mexican food,” Vlcek says. “I said, ‘You know what? I am going to try to make a business of this.’ So, I cut everything else (about a year after opening).”

OJ’s now offers a full menu with tacos, burritos, vegetarian options, nachos, and a wide range of Mexican fare. The kitchen will even switch out flour tortillas for corn upon request.

Walk inside OJ’s today and find heavy wooden lacquer tables and booths. Kitschy decorations abound. Ceramic suns cover one wall. Promotional mirrors for imported Mexican beer cover another. There’s a stained glass window with cacti and a sombrero, a crucifix, family photos, and lots of other trinkets contributing to the down-home atmosphere.

A waitress asks for our order. I know what I want, but ask her suggestion anyway. She recommends the cottage cheese and chicken enchilada. I pause for a moment. I didn’t know the meat choice could be switched. I take a risk. Chicken and cottage cheese it is.

When I order a plate of tortilla chips, I ask for a mix of corn and flour ($3.75) and a Pacifico on-tap ($3.75 glass) from an ample selection of Mexican beers. The beer arrives in a frosty mug. A margarita ($4) with salt on the rim follows with the entrée.

Word to the wise couple: Those with smaller appetites should consider splitting the enchilada ($10.25). After essentially chugging half of the dish, I slow to contemplate the merits of beef vs. chicken and cottage cheese. The chicken is fairly bland, aside from the rich cheesiness common to both. I still prefer the beef (which seems more savory, possibly cooked with more seasoning); however, I’m not disappointed. Being perfectly honest, I dump so much homemade salsa on my plate that it probably doesn’t matter what I’m eating.

OJs3To wrap up the meal, a sombrero ($5.50) arrives. Luckily, I’m eating with a dinner companion. We share the two heaping scoops of vanilla ice cream towering over a cinnamon and sugar-coated tortilla, all drizzled with Mexican caramel. 

Completely stuffed, I wonder about the origins of my favorite enchilada. Who better to ask than Olga Jane Vlcek herself. She still works at her namesake restaurant every day (OJ’s is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., with a mid-day break that closes the cafe from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.)

“That’s my signature enchilada,” Vlcek says of the beef and cottage cheese enchilada, which happens to be her favorite, too. The cottage cheese and beef enchilada was on the menu in the early days of OJ’s, but it wasn’t popular. “Ironically enough, I couldn’t sell them,” she says with a laugh. “People wouldn’t buy them, so I took it off the menu.” She made a commitment to herself that if her restaurant became established, she would bring back her mom’s enchilada recipe. And that’s exactly what she did. Omaha Magazine

Sam Parker

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Sam Parker wants to help his patrons find that feeling—the rush of emotion that happens when people lose themselves in a song.

A true-to-form millennial, Parker has pursued passion projects and labors of love from city to city. Originally a transplant from the Washington, D.C., area, he came to Omaha some years ago to study business marketing. He later left to work with Paper & Plastick Records in Florida and returned to find that Omaha’s creatives were ready to put his business savvy to good use.

If you are a musician or an artist in town, you have likely crossed paths with Parker. Though he sits at the helm of a couple major operations and has his hands in even more, he is quick to state that nothing he does is a solo effort: “I have a very solid group of people surrounding me in every project that I’m doing. I really couldn’t do any of this without them.”

SamParker1That collaborative vision is a thread weaving through all the enterprises Parker is involved with, from his role as co-founder of production company Perpetual Nerves, to his position as talent buyer for the music festival Lincoln Calling, to his work at Hi-Fi House, a vinyl record musicology lab/library (founded by Kate Dussault). Parker wants his ventures to foster connection and further the movement for social progress. His new music venue, Milk Run, is no exception.

Milk Run, which opened last fall, defines itself as an all-ages community space. Primarily hosting concerts, the site is on Leavenworth Street, tucked between Shucks and Club Vibe. On the front door is a yellow sign which reads “Safe Space,” signifying an inclusive ideology that welcomes all.

Stepping into Milk Run feels a bit like visiting your cool grandma’s house, with black and white walls and a string of lights behind the performance area. It is intimate, modest, and entirely unpretentious. The space invites you to be yourself.

Milk Run was founded on Parker’s desire, and that of his colleagues, to help grow Omaha’s music scene; he says they “wanted to see more bands come to town, including artists who are under the radar.” When asked whether he thinks Omaha is ready to support eccentric creators, his stance is confident: “There are a lot of people who want change.”

As with all of Parker’s projects, Milk Run does more than promote musicians. They also provide organizations like Omaha Zine Fest and Feminist Book Club with a space to meet when needed. “We get so many different kinds of people walking through these doors, I feel like I’m constantly learning.”

Ultimately, that’s what he cultivates: opportunities for folks to experience something new and to connect over live music. “It’s cool to see people come together. Omaha is an evolving city, and I want to be a part of that.” It is clear that Parker has already begun to influence our city’s evolution, pointing us toward a more dynamic future, one great show at a time. 

Visit facebook.com/milkrunomaha or @milkrunomaha on Twitter, for more information. Encounter

Junk Bonds

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It doesn’t take long to discover some dirty business in Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov’s past—and that’s a good thing.

More than a century ago, Polikov’s paternal grandfather, Benjamin, left a small village outside Kiev, Ukraine, and came to the United States. A peddler in his native land, he did similar work here, earning enough to bring his wife and three children to the United States as well.

Eventually, Benjamin began Aksarben Junk Co. at 13th and Webster streets. His son Abraham—Lee’s father—joined the business.

Lee remembers accompanying him on the half-Saturdays his father would work. “We’d sit and watch the scale,” he says. Mostly, though, his father wanted him to “stay out of the way.”

Abraham wanted something different for his son: “Get an education, assimilate, adapt, and grow,” Polikov says.

Polikov has done that and more, establishing a career peddling justice rather than junk.

Lee-Polikov1He’s done so as Sarpy County’s attorney since 1999. He was first appointed to the position but has since earned re-election four times.

“I’ve had a fortunate career, both in law enforcement and prosecution as the chief law enforcement officer,” he says. “It gives me a lot of satisfaction.”

Even if it’s not the career he  initially envisioned.

A 1966 Omaha Westside graduate, Polikov earned a business degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a commission as first lieutenant with the U.S. Army while serving in ROTC. Next came a degree from UNL College of Law.

“My goal, my ambition, was to do federal law enforcement,” he says.

But the feds, he recalls, were under a hiring freeze then. Instead, Polikov made his way to Sarpy County, where Pat Thomas had taken over the sheriff’s office. Polikov joined him as an administrative assistant, but with an agreement that he’d be there just a year until he started looking again for a federal gig.

“That just never happened,” says Polikov, who eventually became chief deputy and counsel in the office.

Pat Thomas remained Sarpy County Sheriff for 32 years. Polikov stayed with him until he was appointed to his current post. Today, he manages a staff that includes 23 attorneys and 75 support staff. “Which is really a rather large law firm,” he says. “I’ve got a great team. We feel we’ve been able to provide a good, safe community for people.”

Polikov is 67 now and has been Sarpy County’s attorney for 17 years. A great time, perhaps, to call it quits and spend days of leisure with his wife of nearly 40 years, longtime Mannheim Steamroller director of communications Terry Calek?

Polikov says he has no plans to retire.

“It’s a great job. I enjoy it immensely,” he says. “I like the association with the staff and what we do, and those successes go beyond putting people in prison or setting people up to go to prison. It’s helping people that need help.”

Visit sarpy.com/attorney for more information. Sixty-Plus in Omaha

Matthew Hansen and Sarah Baker Hansen

August 1, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

All memorable stories, written or otherwise, are filled with turning points. Moments when the next step becomes unmistakably clear. Moments when life’s twists and turns, wins and losses, hopes and heartbreaks, serve up the next chapter.

A few moments for Sarah Baker Hansen and Matthew Hansen defined not only their life together, but also their life’s work. Today, they are a literary power couple, both writing prominent columns for the Omaha World-Herald.

Their pivotal moment together took a while, more than five years after their first date. The couple met in 2000 while working at The Daily Nebraskan, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s student newspaper. Although they acted friendly to each other, a relationship was far from their minds.   

Their first official date wouldn’t happen for another year. It was 2001. Sarah had since graduated from college and was living back home in Omaha following an internship at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Matthew was finishing up his studies at UNL. A 100-year reunion for The Daily Nebraskan was near, which meant Matthew might see Sarah soon.

“A fellow DN staffer said Sarah had a crush on me years earlier, so then I started emailing her,” Matthew recalls with a smile.

Emails were exchanged, and a little bit of flirting even took place. Sarah missed the reunion, but Matthew eventually asked her out.

Sarah chose the French Café, one of her favorite Old Market eateries. It would become the same spot where Matthew would propose to Sarah, and a venue that would emphasize their vastly different backgrounds.

“I was a dorky, small town sports guy,” says Matthew, a native of Red Cloud.

Matthew found Sarah’s Omaha roots, her affinity for food, and her love of art and culture attractive. But such interest was also met with some trepidation that evening. On their first date, Matthew recalls having a “very quiet, very polite panic attack around the idea of ordering a drink. We sat at the French Café bar. I never had a cocktail that was fancier than Jack and Coke.”

Sarah had already developed an adventurous palate: “I grew up with parents who were foodies before that was a thing. They had these really elaborate dinner parties in the 1980s, and it was a real treat for me to stay up and eat the pâté, watch my dad make the chocolate mousse. And the Cornish hens. And the bone-in pork rib roast with the booties.”

Sarah and Matthew’s first date at the French Café lumbered on somewhat awkwardly. A few days later, Matthew phoned Sarah for a second date. She passed, suggesting that the two remain just friends.

Fast forward five years. Sarah and her sister were in Lincoln at Duffy’s Tavern for a concert. She went for the live music—and to meet a new guy.

Matthew got there first.

The two chatted, catching up over the past five years. The new guy eventually showed up…with another girl in tow. Matthew, Sarah, and their mutual friends made their way to O’Rourke’s Tavern. They talked the whole night.

It was then that Sarah trusted her gut: she offered Matthew her phone number. “That night in Lincoln, there was definitely a connection,” Sarah says.

The following week, the two were practically inseparable. About a year later, they were living together in Omaha.

“We were just entirely comfortable with each other from that day forward,” Sarah explains.

They were engaged in 2008 and married in 2009. This fall marks 10 years since that fateful second date.

Matthew worked previously at the Lincoln Journal Star, while Sarah held public relations posts at the Nebraska Tourism Commission and the Sheldon Museum of Art. Years of freelancing for The Reader and writing her first book, The Insider’s Guide to Omaha and Lincoln, laid the groundwork for her position at the Omaha World-Herald. And traveling Nebraska for her tourism work yielded something else entirely unexpected.

“Working in PR at the state tourism office allowed me to understand Matthew a bit more,” Sarah says. “I didn’t know much about Nebraska. The first time I went to Red Cloud with Matthew was the first time I was ever on a farm. That changed me in a lot of ways.”

Matthew said he was changed not only by moving to Omaha, but by becoming immersed in local art and food alongside Sarah. He’s involved with Hear Nebraska, founded by Sarah’s UNL classmate Andrew Norman. And Red Cloud left its mark on Sarah; she now serves on the Willa Cather Foundation Board of Governors.

The couple can often be spotted at La Buvette, one of their most beloved Old Market establishments, talking about the newspaper industry, reality television, the Chicago Cubs, or their latest meal. As downtown Omaha residents for the past several years, they have found comfort in their urban neighborhood, walking to and from work together each day. They often explore of the greater metro area through restaurants that Sarah is assigned to cover. (Yes, in many cases, Matthew is her plus one.)

There was a time not too long ago when Matthew and Sarah found themselves at a bar in New York City. An opportunity presented itself that would have allowed the couple to pack their things, their roots, and their cat for new lives in the Big Apple.

“We could do this,” Sarah recalls, weighing their options. “We could do this and be happy and successful (in New York City). But we could do things that are meaningful in Omaha, that have a real impact.”

Together, they returned to Omaha. During the following year, Matthew was named an Omaha World-Herald columnist. Sarah was hired as the paper’s food critic.

“We said, let’s try to do something impactful to this place where we’re choosing to be, that we care so much about,” she says. “I feel that’s the path we chose to take.

Visit omaha.com to read their work.

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Bringing it Home

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Hordes of the nation’s top triathletes will descend on Carter Lake this summer. They will compete for a national title at the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships on Aug. 13-14.

Top finishers in the two-day event’s Olympic-Distance National Championship (Aug. 13) and the Sprint National Championship (Aug. 14) will be invited to join Team USA at the 2017 world championships in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

Although the running, biking, and swimming events will revolve around Carter Lake, Omaha was the force behind the successful bid to host the event for 2016 and 2017. Triathletes will be reminded of Omaha’s national sports hub status as the running course turns around inside TD Ameritrade Park, home of the College World Series.

Coordination and collaboration of services among the Mayor’s Office; Fire, Police, and Public Works Departments; and other city infrastructure players were vital in landing this event—USA Triathlon’s largest and longest-running national championships event—as well as other major sporting events throughout the past decade.

This triathlon is expected to bring roughly 10,000 people and an estimated $10-12 million in hotel and food sales to metro Omaha during the weekend.

Triathlon1Race Omaha, which pitched Omaha as a future host site more than two years ago (when the event was celebrating year two of its three years in Milwaukee), has been the major coordinating force behind Omaha’s bid since the beginning.

Because of past and current events, USA Triathlon—which sponsors the championship—knew the metro area could more than support an event of this caliber. Those events include the College World Series, Olympic Swimming Trials, NCAA basketball, NCAA volleyball, and the U.S. Figure
Skating Championships.

“Because we’ve successfully brought in and held big events in the past, there was no doubt we could handle an event like U.S. Age Group National Championships,” says former Race Omaha Race Director Kurt Beisch. “We have this event this year and next year, and then USA Triathlon will decide where to take it next. We just want everyone coming to town for this event to have a great experience and learn what a great community we have here.”

The cooperation of city services was only one of many incentives that lured the triathlon and other events to the metro over the past decade (or in the case of the College World Series, since 1950).

According to USA Triathlon National Events Senior Manager Brian D’Amico, there were multiple factors that went into choosing Omaha over several other cities: geographic location, accommodations, and the history of hosting successful national sporting events.

But in his and USA Triathlon’s expert opinions, there is one intangible that drew them to Omaha: the people.

“We love Omaha’s central location in the United States, which makes it easily accessible from both coasts as well as the entire country,” D’Amico says. “We love that Carter Lake (site of the event headquarters and venue for the swimming leg of the triathlon) is so close to the airport, and the city has worked so hard to welcome us.

“But what we really noticed during our site visit was how friendly and welcoming everyone in Omaha is. We love how supportive the community has always been of the College World Series, Swim Trials, and other events. They really enjoy having visitors in town, and they go out of their way to make them feel welcome. That’s something you can’t measure or control, so it’s a definite advantage.”

The two-day event is divided into two race distances—Olympic on Saturday and sprint on Sunday. These distances both feature the traditional legs of a triathlon: a swim (at Carter Lake), followed by biking, and finally, a run through Omaha’s city streets, culminating with a turn at TD Ameritrade Park before returning to Carter Lake.

The Olympic portion features a 1,500-meter open water swim, followed by a 40K bike ride with a 10K run. Sunday’s sprint version is half the distance of all three legs.

Race Omaha founder Alan Kohll says whether you have attended or participated in previous triathlons, many things will help keep spectators and fans engaged—including an expo near the event headquarters.

As a perk, Oriental Trading Co. will hand out cowbells and thunder sticks to spectators who will motivate the athletes as they traverse through the course by water, bike, and foot. There will also be 5k and 1k runs on Friday night for everyone not participating in the triathlons.

Kohll says the triathlon events will definitely carry an Omaha flavor.

“We’re not attempting to mimic what’s been done in Milwaukee or past cities that hosted this event,” Kohll says. He and Beisch are both competitive triathletes.

“We want people from other parts of the country to leave Omaha having learned more about what makes the community special—the zoo, Berkshire Hathaway, and Omaha Steaks, among many others. These are some things Omaha is known for, and we want to emphasize them.”

Visit raceomaha.com for more information.

Being True Blue to Friends Old and New

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

True Blue Goods and Gifts looks a bit like the popular web-based store Etsy set up a storefront in NoDo. True Blue is a retail store stocked with handcrafted goods from local and regional makers, as well as national vendors creating products not found elsewhere in Omaha. Jewelry, quirky handmade cards, vases, and baby onesies promoting “The Good Life” line shelves.

TrueBlue3It is beyond Etsy, though. Not even a year old, the store one-ups the online site with a gallery of rotating shows and regular classes offered for adults and children. Owned by Omahans Melissa Williams, Jessica Mogis, and Jodie McGill, the store is set up to showcase local artisans, providing them with a brick and mortar outlet in which to sell their wares that eliminated shipping costs.

A stack of soy candles by The Wild Woodsmen are made by a 12-year-old boy named Nic. Nearby lays jewelry by Heather Kita. Kita’s jewelry is one of the most popular items in the store. “She’s become a good friend,” says Williams.

Friendship’s a theme that carries throughout the store. “We had a lot of help from people—friends and family,” says Mogis. They sell bags made by Cody Medina, a friend who also built their display tables. The hanging pots in the front window are by their pal Andrew Bauer. The owners convinced Bauer to sell his goods at their store after seeing one of his handmade gifts.

The three women are first time entrepreneurs—Mogis was a teacher and Williams worked in hospice. McGill continues her law practice. “We wanted a change,” says Mogis.

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The setting, located in the Saddlecreek Records complex, fits their needs and personalities. The shop’s loft doubles as inventory storage and a holding corral to entertain the owners’ children while their moms manage the shop downstairs.

The storeowners started out selling goods from their friends—who happened to be talented artists—and creatives they encountered at different markets. Artists now approach True Blue with their wares.

TrueBlue4Williams, Mogis, and McGill curate their store with the eyes and minds of art gallery owners, intentionally maintaining the vibe of a boutique from the coasts. A rotating gallery of fine art fills one wall of the store. Each showing is kicked off with an opening night event.

Like artwork, many items sold at the store have “Meet Your Maker” signage explaining the artists’ backgrounds. The ladies behind the counter will fill in the missing details as you shop, explaining how the collage-maker from Ashland used pages from an old dictionary found at Bud Olson’s Bar, or how the store’s popular Brucie Bags are handmade by Williams’ dad.

The jovial relationships the storeowners have forged with their vendors also extends to customers. On a recent afternoon, a woman walked into the store and Williams cheerfully greeted her like an old friend. There’s no long history between the two—she’s a regular customer who’s been folded into the family that is True Blue.

Visit truebluegoodsandgifts.com for more information.

l-r, Jodie McGill, Melissa Williams, Jessica Mogis

l-r, Jodie McGill, Melissa Williams, Jessica Mogis

Villa Springs

July 29, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Drive about three miles south of Springfield, Nebraska, and you’ll find Villa Springs on the north shore of the Platte River, a private neighborhood more or less enclosed by a ring of cottonwood trees. If you drive around the neighborhood, you’ll find all manner of houses in an eclectic mix of colors, styles, and designs.

Many of the houses do feature one thing in common: boats in the driveways.

That is because Villa Springs is a lake community, sitting on the banks of a sandpit lake.

“It’s about a 40-acre lake, good for skiing, swimming, fishing,” says Gary Partusch, 50, president of the Villa Springs Homeowners Association.

Villa-Springs1

Partusch, who is married with four kids and works for a dairy company in Omaha, has lived in the neighborhood since 2001. The property lots, ranging in size from about a half acre to two acres in size, are spread out, making Villa Springs unique for a lake community.

“It makes it very nice to be spread out [and] have room,” he says. “More yard to mow, more stuff like that.”

The average house in the neighborhood costs about $300,000-$500,000. There are 90 homeowners on the lake, Partusch says, and they are a mixed group. Some are older people who are retired and spend their winters in warmer climates, while others are younger.

“People are very friendly, very nice,” he says. “[You] take walks and boat rides and see people on the lake and talk. It’s a good living community.”

The neighborhood has an annual picnic as well as a Christmas party. There’s also a spring cleanup in which all the neighbors pitch in to help keep the lake beautiful. Many people enjoy fishing, and last year, the community held a fishing tournament. The lake contains a great deal of fish, including large-mouth bass, bluegill, walleye, and catfish.

“We stock it with fish,” Partusch says, most of which are catch-and-release. “We take pride in having a good fishing lake.”

One can also find a great many birds in the neighborhood—turkeys, ducks, bald eagles, and migrating pelicans. A few families of geese with new babies are making their home there currently. There’s also some deer and a beaver in the lake. 

I got three walnut trees,” Partusch says. “I see lots of squirrels.”

In many ways, though, Partusch says, Villa Springs is a regular sort of neighborhood.

“People have difference of opinions,” he says. “It’s hard to have 85…people, different families, agree on everything.

“I think that’s with any community.”

Like any other community, it has its share of garden-variety neighborly disputes; though, true to character, some of the neighborhood’s disputes revolve around how to make the best use of the lake.

“There’s a group of people who…couldn’t care less about fishing,” Partusch says. “And there’s a group of people who love to fish. And then there’s also people [who]…want to waterski or swim or tube or whatever. And there’s some other people that don’t even own a boat.”

The lake adds value to the community, and at the same time, each homeowner feels some personal ownership in regard to it. However, he says, the neighborhood mostly manages to accommodate everyone’s wishes.

“I think we have a pretty good balance.”

The most surprising thing about living here, Partusch says, is how quiet and peaceful it is.

“The quietness of being out of the city,” he says. “You can sit there on a Sunday afternoon and just sit out on the lake.”

Villa-Springs2

Indeed, that is the big impression one gets when driving down Cottonwood Lane, the blacktop road that circles the lake. There are people out and about on a Saturday afternoon, but generally the area is pretty quiet. More than anything, drivers want to appreciate just how nice everything looks. The neighborhood boasts a robust number of cottonwood, elm, and ash trees due to its proximity to the river, making the scene shine with green and gold, especially when the sun peaks out. There are several spots along the road where people can stop, look to one side, and catch a view of the Platte River through the tree line. On the other side is the lake, the wind rippling on its surface.

“I really think it’s a really great place to live,” Partusch says. “I really have no intentions of going anywhere.”

Visit villaspringslake.com for more information.

Flying Over Hollywood

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Jim Fields is a self-taught auteur, a busy English teacher, and a Nebraska-nice filmmaker trying to finish his latest project whenever he can find time. The film, Life After Ex, is a romantic comedy about a gay couple’s divorce.

Fields’ Objectif49 Films—named after the film society that spurred the French New Wave—has been busy for more than a decade making independent films with a Midwestern vibe. If Fields’ name doesn’t resonate as loudly as Mr. Payne’s, give it time.

His oeuvre of films includes one that should be on every Husker fan’s watch list: Bugeaters, a documentary about the first decade of Nebraska football. Not only entertaining and informative (having taken a year to research), Bugeaters won Best Documentary at the 2011 Estes Park Film Festival in Colorado.

In 2006, Fields released his first documentary, Preserve Me a Seat, about the preservation and demolition of historic movie theaters throughout America. It began as a film about the impending demolition of Fields’ first love, the majestic Indian Hills Theater—now a parking lot near 84th and Dodge streets.

JimFields1“Going to the Indian Hills in the mid-`60s to `70s made a big impact on me,” says Fields. “Reserved seats, ultra-wide screen, souvenir programs. When I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm, it was the first time I had seen a film as opposed to a movie. I saw it over and over. It’s my favorite.”

Back then, Fields says the public expected films to be made in Hollywood, not Nebraska.

“You had to go to film school out there or in New York. The thought that someone could make low-budget movies in Nebraska seemed impossible. I went to Chicago in 1984 and didn’t even last a semester. I had no concept of how expensive it was going to be.”

Fields thought his dream was dead after a brutal Windy City eviction on Thanksgiving Day put him and his belongings on the street. He came back to Omaha, forlorn but resilient. A decade passed before he rekindled his dream in the late `90s.

“When digital video was invented, I got really excited,” Fields says. “I started doing research on it and went to a lot of workshops.”

At the world-famous Donna Reed Festival, Fields met and struck up a correspondence with Gary Graver, cinematographer on Orson Welles’ unfinished The Other Side of the Wind.

“He was a great resource,” Fields says. “You couldn’t research these things like today. There were no YouTube videos on making a film. He was very encouraging and gave me great advice.”

Fields’ 2004 documentary 416 (about Nebraska’s constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage) won Best Feature and the coveted Audience Award at the Central Nebraska Film Festival, Best Documentary of 2004 at Hardacre Film Festival, and was the Fargo Film Festival’s Second Place Documentary in 2005.

His other films include a comedy-drama called Flyover Country about a friendship between two college students, one straight and one gay, and how they are perceived. A definite release date for his latest film, Life After Ex, has not been announced.

Not bad for a man with deferred dreams of film school.

Visit objectif49films.com for more information.