Tag Archives: history

Lenore Benolken

November 19, 2017 by
Photography by Durham Museum (provided)

“The first one-man show to be exhibited at Joslyn Memorial by a woman is that of Lenore Benolhen, who paints more like a man than a woman,” wrote one local reporter.

The backhanded praise for the first solo exhibition by a woman at the venue (now known as Joslyn Art Museum) seems sexist by contemporary standards. Such gendered phrasing has faded from popular discourse—just like the artist herself.

Not much is known these days about the artist acclaimed for her “vigor, physical energy, and force” in the same Omaha World-Herald article published on Oct. 10, 1937.

Lenore (Ethel Williams) Benolken was born in Saskatchewan, Canada, in 1896. She moved to Omaha with her parents at age 3, when her father, the Rev. Arthur Llewellyn Williams, became coadjutor-bishop of the Omaha Episcopal Diocese. She attended Brownell Hall (now Brownell-Talbot School) and studied under the famous Irish-born Omaha painter J. Laurie Wallace.

In 1918, Lenore married Irving W. Benolken (who had studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, served overseas in the military during World War I, and taught at the American University in France). Settling into married life in Omaha, they both became notable influencers in the local arts scene.

After Lenore painted an 18-by-4-foot mural showcasing modes of modern transportation for the walls of the Milwaukee Road train ticketing office in Omaha, a patronizing 1929 World-Herald article mentions that the mural was a Christmas surprise for her husband “to earn her own Christmas money that year.” The reporter goes on to write that Lenore credited her husband as her “unconscious” instructor and her inspiration as she juggled “duties of being wife to an artist, and mother to an energetic and not very artistic 8-year-old boy.” (That boy, Arthur Benolken, would grow up to be a priest like Lenore’s bishop father.)

Both spouses kept studios in their home at 5415 Western Ave. The two-bedroom, one-bathroom house built in 1826 still stands today. Her obituary eventually described the home as a “center of interest for art lovers.” Her husband worked for 33 years at the Klopp Printing and Lithograph Company, ending his career as the company’s vice president. Irving also served as an elected trustee of the Society of Liberal Arts, which controlled the Joslyn Memorial.

On multiple occasions, Lenore was chosen by the Joslyn Memorial committee to be among the artists representing Nebraska at Rockefeller Center’s All-American exhibit of paintings in New York City. She had received the honor twice by 1937, when she became the first artist to have her work exhibited as a one-woman show at Joslyn Memorial.

Besides being a portrait and landscape painter, Lenore was a noted art teacher. She taught at the Bellevue vocational school, offered classes to soldiers at Joslyn, and lectured at Omaha University. She also organized the Brush and Pencil Club, a sort of salon for art students and professionals.

Lenore often painted portraits of friends and well-known Omahans. Unfortunately, many of these historically important portraits have vanished.

Her depiction of Dr. William H. Betz, after whom Betz Elementary School and Betz Road are named, once hung in a Bellevue public building. Another of Lenore’s popular paintings was “Devce [maiden] of Czechoslovakia.” It’s a portrait of Omaha pianist Miss Elsie M. Ptak, who became a music teacher at Omaha University.

Lenore completed a portrait of Mrs. Jane Sullivan in 1941, and it hung in the Joslyn Memorial before being sent to her son and daughter, Dr. M. M. Sullivan and Miss Hannah Sullivan, in Spalding, Nebraska. Painted with the aid of tintypes and authentic costumes of the period, the portrait supposedly shows Mrs. Sullivan as a young woman in her Sunday best. Phone calls to Spalding (a town of 487 people) did not yield any leads on the whereabouts of the Sullivans or the painting.

Lenore’s father, Bishop Williams, worked closely with Monsignor Bernard Sinne (pastor of St. Mary Magdalene Church from 1904 to 1961). Lenore painted the monsignor’s portrait, another of her notable portrayals of famous Omahans. It once hung in the Joslyn Memorial. But like these others, it has since disappeared.

The location of one important portrait is known. Lenore’s painting of Omaha businessman John Sullivan now hangs in the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney. This was a gift to the museum by Mary Ellen Mulcahy, who serves on MONA’s board of directors.

The more we learn about Lenore, the more we realize that so many of her portraits and paintings have been forgotten. A catalog of her known works and their location would help in restoring her place in Omaha’s art history.

Lenore’s work also traveled through Nebraska. The Nebraska State Journal on Oct. 30, 1939, mentions two of her paintings displayed at Morrill Hall on the campus of the University of Nebraska- Lincoln. Their titles were Deserted Quarry (Near Louisville) and River Scows (A Flat-Bottomed Boat). The next year, she had a show of 21 paintings in the Treasure House at Coryell Park in Lincoln. And her painting Interior of a Nebraska Kitchen was displayed at the 51st annual show of the Nebraska Arts Association in Lincoln (mentioned in a review by the Lincoln Sunday Journal and Star on March, 2, 1941).

Lenore died from pneumonia around the age of 47. Six months after her death, a memorial featuring 33 of her paintings went on display at the Joslyn Memorial. The whereabouts of the show’s paintings—as well as those displayed in the Coryvell Park show—remain a mystery.

A World-Herald article from April 9, 1944, about her final Joslyn exhibition explains that the show consisted of canvases left in her studio when she stopped painting, “and her last finished picture is among them, a portrait called My Husband.”

In a twist of artistic irony, Lenore’s husband remarried in the year following her death. Nancy
Powel Hulst became Nancy Benolken in 1944. A prominent figure in the Omaha arts scene, Nancy remained involved in planning concerts, musicals, and working on committees at the Joslyn from the 1940s through the 1980s.

After Irving Benolken died in 1954, a fund at the Joslyn Memorial purchased artworks in his memory. Paintings included Robert Henri’s Portrait of Fi in 1957 (Henri was the famous creator of the Ashcan School of painting, and his father founded the Nebraska town of Cozad).

Today, many of the purchased tributes to Irving still hang in the Joslyn; however, the museum does not display a single painting by Lenore. Joslyn staff informed Omaha Magazine that the only artwork of hers in their collection is an undated oil painting titled Indian Princess.

In a letter to the World-Herald’s “Public Pulse” soon after her death, the Nebraska artist Walter Buckingham Swan wrote: “Mrs. Benolken, an artist of rare ability, will always be remembered by her legion of friends and many pupils… We have suffered an irreparable loss. Omaha needed her. She had scarcely reached middle life when the hand of death took her from us. How to find a competent successor to carry on her work we do not know.”

At the turn of the 21st century, references to the artist gradually fade into oblivion. The last mention of her name in the public record seems to have been in 2011—an obituary for Pauline Lenore Buckley; she had lived in Council Bluffs, attended the “Lenore Benolken Art School” before the University of Omaha, and died in Walla Walla, Washington.

We know something of what Lenore looked like from photographs of her in the Omaha World-Herald. Like all newspaper photographs of the time, they are black-and-white and grainy. Unfortunately, the woman who painted so many portraits of others does not have any known portrait remaining to memorialize her for the ages.

A self-portrait of the artist appears to have been included among the works shown in her posthumous Joslyn exhibition (printed in the newspaper’s full-page coverage of the tribute in 1944), but its whereabouts are unknown. It very well may be lost.

If readers have knowledge of any long-lost paintings by Lenore Benolken, please contact Omaha Magazine at editor@omahamagazine.com or reach us on social media (@OmahaMagazine) at Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

This article was printed in the November/December 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

John Sullivan’s portrait by Lenore Benolken, courtesy of the Museum of Nebraska Art.

Fancy Food in Historic Buildings

November 17, 2017 by
Photography by Michael Langfeldt

When Jennifer Coco and business partner Tom Simmons started thinking about opening a new restaurant somewhere in town, they considered a historic building in Dundee.

After all, the local celebrity chef’s namesake, J. Coco (at 5203 Leavenworth St.), has flourished in the charming ambiance of a location rich with local history—for 74 years, the space housed Omaha’s oldest grocery store, Wohlner’s.

“Everybody’s got stories about this building,” Coco says, adding that many customers will reminisce about how they used to get candy on grocery store visits with parents or grandparents in the structure that J. Coco currently occupies alongside Legends Comics.

J. Coco at 5203 Leavenworth St.

The concept of the new restaurant was to be quite different from J. Coco, with a more casual, grab-and-go feel. “The loose concept was a late-night lounge with food during bar hours,” Coco explains.

But buildings appearing on the National Register of Historic Places require special consideration as far as what changes can be made to the structure, and the limitations can be daunting to would-be business owners at these locations.

Coco says that she and Simmons were aware of what they were getting themselves into with a historic building. They did their due diligence with research and went through all the proper channels.

“The plans were drawn and submitted, and the state had approved them,” she says. “It was federal where it got hung up.”

Before receiving final approval for renovations, she heard back from the state that city codes had changed again. So, if she wanted to move forward, she was essentially back at stage one.

“The whole process is not made easy. If it were easier, we’d see a lot more businesses around [in historic buildings],” she says.

Though frustrated, Coco and Simmons surely did not want to upset the Dundee neighborhood in which the building is located. “We just hit a wall, so we said let somebody else have their dream here,” she says of the location at 4949 Underwood Ave.

At another historic location downtown, Flatiron Cafe manager Joe Jamrozy agrees that historic buildings have their challenges. But he insists that the charm of a heritage-rich space outweighs the drawbacks.

Flatiron Cafe

“This building has an extremely fun history,” Jamrozy says. “Tom Dennison opened the Flatiron Hotel and used it as a safe house for mobsters from Chicago and Kansas City who got in trouble. He was never mayor of Omaha, but he had his hands in everything.”

Jamrozy admits that they have to deal with “old building problems” such as plumbing and the upkeep, but without hesitation he says that he would never trade the wedge-shaped edifice for a newer, state-of-the-art facility.

Among the issues facing historic buildings are the shadows of the past that never quite seem to disperse. “Anybody who has been here long enough will say we have ghosts. There is an energy here late at night in the basement; it doesn’t always seem like you’re alone,” he says.

With the building’s colorful mob history, Jamrozy says he sometimes wonders what the basement walls have seen over the years. His voice trails off: “If these walls could talk…”

Sarah Wallace, general manager of 801 Chophouse, says that she sees ample benefits to their historical location in The Paxton downtown. “The building itself draws people in,” she says. “It’s a cool place for Omaha to have. Older people come in and remember attending dances in the ballroom when they were younger.”

Because of The Paxton’s historical significance, a board oversees the building and approves or denies any requests for changes to it. Wallace sees this more as a benefit than a hurdle. “If there were not a board in place, the building might lose character quickly because nobody’s looking out for the building.”

She remembers the long process of trying to get additional signage on the exterior of The Paxton for 801 Chophouse—the board was deeply involved and offered ample guidance. “The board must approve everything,” she says, adding that she is grateful for the care they take in making decisions.

A fan of old buildings and art deco architecture, Wallace feels right at home at The Paxton. “We’re lucky to be in a building that people seek out for the nostalgia factor,” she says. “When storms roll through, we all joke that we’re safe in such a strong building.”

801 Chophouse staff and guests claim their ghost is a tall gentleman in a suit, rumored to be a man murdered in the lobby of the hotel by his mistress. Wallace says the ghost has never been mischievous or caused any problems as far as she knows, so she doesn’t pay the matter much mind.

Like Jamrozy of the Flatiron Cafe, she says that she wouldn’t trade 801 Chophouse’s location for a newer building. “The building itself is a benefit to us,” she says.

Visit J. Coco (jcocoomaha.com), 801 Chophouse (801chophouse.com/omaha), and Flatiron Cafe (theflatironcafe.com) to learn more about the historic dining locations.

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

La Famiglia di Firma

August 8, 2017 by
Photography by Contributed

Like a good book title, the names of the Firmature brothers’ bars and restaurants could almost paint a picture of what awaited customers.

At The Gas Lamp, you could savor a prime rib and listen to a live ragtime band from your marble-top table (provided you wore a suit or a nice dress during its early years of operation). A Sidewalk Cafe offered diners a chance to people-watch at Regency while they ate a crab salad. The Ticker Tape Lounge gave downtowners a brief respite from work and prominently featured an antique stock market ticker tape. And if you really had a rough day, you could always drop by Brothers Lounge, get a cocktail, and flop down on a couch or a rocking chair.

With the exception of Brothers Lounge at 38th and Farnam streets, none of these places exist anymore. When Robert Firmature turned Brothers Lounge over to current owners Trey and Lallaya Lalley in 1998, it ended nearly 70 years where the Firmature family had a major presence in the Omaha restaurant community.

In the early 1930s, Helen and Sam Firmature opened Trentino’s, an Italian restaurant, at 10th and Pacific streets (which would later become Angie’s Restaurant). The restaurateur family also consisted of Sam’s brother, Joseph, and his wife, Barbara, along with their three sons: Robert “Bob,” Jay, and Ernest “Ernie.”

Ernie cut his teeth bartending at Trentino’s and at a motor inn (The Prom Town House, which was destroyed in the 1975 tornado) before he opened The Gas Lamp in 1961. He also briefly managed a club called the 64 Club in Council Bluffs.

Located in the predominantly middle-class neighborhood of 30th and Leavenworth streets, The Gas Lamp was a destination spot for anniversaries, promotions, and proposals. Flocked wallpaper, antique lamps, and Victorian velvet furniture was the décor. Live ragtime was the music. Prime rib and duck à l’orange were the specialties. In an era where female roles in restaurants were still primarily as waitresses and hostesses, The Gas Lamp had two women with head chef-style status. Katie Gamble oversaw the kitchen. And Ernie and Betty’s son, Steve Firmature, and daughter, Jaye, were routinely corralled to help with clean-up—the cost of living in a restaurant family.

The Italian family name was originally “Firmaturi.” A popular account of the spelling change involves a bygone relative trying to make their name more “Americanized.” After researching family history, Steve suspects the name changed as a result of a documentation error—a mistaken “e” in place of the final vowel. Steve says those style of errors were common back then (due to errors in ship manifests or as depicted in a scene from the movie The Godfather: Part II).

Before she was even a teenager, Jaye Firmature McCoy was tasked with cleaning the chandeliers and booths. While cleaning, she would occasionally dig inside booths for any money that may have accidentally been left by a customer. At 10, she was promoted to hat check girl. At 14, she was the hostess. Steve did everything from bus tables to help in the kitchen.

“Back in those days, we didn’t have titles for people that cooked. Today, I think we’d call them a sous chef and a chef. We had two cooks,” Steve says with a laugh.

In the early ’60s, Ernie enforced a dress code for customers.

“When we first started, a gentleman couldn’t come in without a coat and tie. A woman couldn’t come in wearing pants [dresses only],” Jaye says.

The dress code (which eased in the late ’60s) may have been formal, but the restaurant retained a friendly atmosphere where some patrons returned weekly.

William and Martha Ellis were regulars. Speaking with Omaha Magazine over the phone from their home in Scottsdale, Arizona, they recalled going to The Gas Lamp almost every weekend. They became good friends with Ernie, to the point where all three of their children eventually worked for the Firmature brothers (mainly at A Sidewalk Cafe).

“Ernie wanted you to think he was this sort of tough Italian mobster, but he was really sort of amusing,” Martha says.

The Gas Lamp came to an abrupt end in 1980 when a fire destroyed the restaurant. It was ruled as arson, but a suspect was never caught. Instead of rebuilding, the family decided to “transfer” some of the signature dishes of The Gas Lamp to A Sidewalk Cafe. The Firmature brothers had purchased the restaurant from Willy Theisen in 1977.

Along with the three brothers, another Firmature, Jim (Helen and Sam’s son), was also a partner in owning A Sidewalk Cafe. Bob spent much of his time managing Brothers Lounge. Ernie managed A Sidewalk Cafe until he retired. Jim and Jay also helped manage the place. Jay (who is the only surviving member of the three) primarily worked in the business area. He was brought in by Ernie from Mutual of Omaha.

“He always said, ‘I should have stayed at Mutual,’” Steve says with a laugh.

Though not as formal as The Gas Lamp, A Sidewalk Cafe was still a destination spot. Located in the heart of the Regency neighborhood, the cafe aimed to pull in people who may have assumed Regency was out of their price range. Still, the cafe maintained an upper-end dining experience. DJ Dave Wingert, who now hosts a morning show on Boomer Radio, would routinely take radio guests to the Sidewalk Cafe in the ’80s. One guest was comedian and co-host of the NBC pre-reality show hit Real People—the late Skip Stephenson.

“I remember the booth we were sitting in, and telling him about being shot at Club 89,” Wingert says.

Since A Sidewalk Cafe closed its doors in the late ’90s, Omaha’s food scene has only grown in regard to available dining options and national recognition. Wingert says A Sidewalk Cafe would fit with today’s culinary landscape. Jaye agrees.

“It was probably the one [restaurant] that was the most survivable, I think,” she says.

Jaye has left the restaurant business. She is now owner and president of FirstLight Home Care, an in-home health care business. Though the industries are vastly different, Jaye says much of her experience with the restaurants has carried over to health care.

“Restaurants and bars are something that get into your blood,” she says. “It’s about the people and taking care of people.”

Find the last remnant of the Firmature family bar and restaurant empire at @brothersloungeomaha on Facebook.

From left: Ernie, Robert “Bobby”, and Jay Firmature

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

We Can’t Drive 55

June 8, 2017 by

I have a little pinback button with a red flag emblazoned with the words “Safety First.” It was produced in 1915 by the Nebraska Safety League, which seems to have been one of a number of grassroots efforts to improve public safety.

This was in response to the nationwide development of a group called the National Council for Industrial Safety, which initially focused on workplace safety, but expanded its scope in the next few years to include traffic and home concerns (changing its name to the National Safety Council).

About that time, Omaha’s city commissioner, John J. Ryder, visited New York and discovered something called the “American Museum of Safety,” which functioned, in part, to instruct school children about street safety. He was enamored with this idea and advocated for a local version.

Both recommendations came at the end of an era of almost unbridled carnage in the streets. To read the newspapers of the era, crossing the street sometimes sounded like a game of Frogger, with pedestrians dodging carriages, streetcars, automobiles, and runaway horses. Auto fatalities had skyrocketed—a total of 54 people had died in crashes in 1900, but by 1915 nearly 7,000 Americans had been killed on the roads.

The first talk of speed limits in Omaha seems to have occurred as far back as 1903, when an automobile ordinance was proposed. There weren’t many car owners in town, and they tended to be wealthy, and tended to get their way as a result. When the ordinance suggested a low speed limit of six-to-eight miles per hour, the car owners rebelled. Included among them was Gurdon Wattles, who made his fortune in transportation. He complained that cars only went two speeds, slow and fast, and slow was too slow to be much good, and fast was too fast for the speed limit. He suggested 12 miles per hour would be satisfactory.

They got their way, but almost immediately advances in auto technology rendered this limit moot. By 1905, cars were speeding around Omaha at 40 miles per hour, and police were complaining it was nearly impossible to enforce the limit—to tell a car’s speed, police had to watch a car travel from one area to the next and count seconds, and then do some quick math. In 1909, there was even a proposal to reduce the speed limit again, back down to six miles per hour, to discourage cars driving at dangerous speeds.

Instead, the speed limit crept upward. By 1911, it was 15 miles per hour. By the 1920s, with the advent of highways built specifically for automobiles, the maximum speed jumped to 25 miles per hour. By 1935, it was 35. And in 1969, speeds on the highways leapt to 60 miles per hour.

So it has been ever since, but for a brief period in the 1970s when, in response to spiking oil prices, there was a national maximum speed limit off 55 miles per hour, which proved unpopular enough for Sammy Hagar to enjoy chart success with a song titled “I Can’t Drive 55.”

The federal limits were repealed in 1995. Currently, the maximum speed limit in Nebraska is 75 miles per hour, a speed that Gurdon Wattles probably would have enjoyed.

This article was printed in the May/June edition of 60 Plus.

A New Day Arisen

June 7, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Kelly Hill stands on the corner of 30th and Lake streets admiring Salem Baptist Church’s towering cross, which looms over the landscape. A member of the church for more than 15 years, Kelly grew up in the now-demolished Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects not far from the area. He can remember a time before Salem sat atop the hill, when the Hilltop Homes housing projects occupied the area.

“I left Omaha to join the military in 1975, and I didn’t return until 1995. I missed all of the gangs and bad stuff in Hilltop,” Hill remembers. “When I was a kid, it wasn’t a bad area at all. Me and my sister would play around there all the time.”

Within those 20 years, Hill was fortunate to have missed Hilltop’s downfall, as it would eventually become one of Omaha’s most notorious housing projects.

A major blight on North Omaha’s image in the 1980s to mid-1990s, Hilltop Homes would eventually be the second major housing project demolished in the metro area after Logan Fontenelle.

Before Hilltop Home’s razing in 1995—which had the unfortunate consequence of displacing many lower-income minority residents—the plague of drugs, murders, and gang activity had turned the area’s housing projects into a localized war zone.

It was a far cry from their humble beginnings as proud housing tenements for Omaha’s burgeoning minority population that exploded in the 1940s.

Edwin Benson

Built around Omaha’s oldest pioneer resting place, the neighborhood takes its name from Prospect Hill Cemetery on 32nd and Parker streets. Prospect Place was repurposed by the U.S. government to house a large influx of minority and low-income residents, mostly African-Americans, who migrated to Omaha seeking opportunities outside the oppressive South during the mid-20th century. Some 700 units of public housing emerged across the city in the 1940s, including Hilltop Homes and the nearby Pleasantview Apartments.

The projects were conveniently situated. Hilltop’s 225 units were positioned in a centralized location along 30th and Lake streets, near the factory and meatpacking plants on 16th Street to the east, with Omaha Technical High School to the south (the largest high school west of Chicago at the time).

Multiple generations of families would come to call Hilltop and Pleasantview their first homes; however, the collapse of the job structure on the north side of Omaha in the late 1960s would be a major catalyst in Prospect Place’s eventual downfall.

Successful factories and stores that kept the area afloat—such as The Storz Brewery and Safeway Grocery Store—closed their doors. At the same time, new civil rights laws prohibiting job discrimination were being passed. Some believe that fear of change, and fear of civil rights era legislations, motivated major employers in the community to move from northeast Omaha westward. A disappointing trend of joblessness and poverty would eventually devolve the community into a powder keg ready to blow.

Multiple riots at the tail end of the 1960s would take an additional toll on North Omaha. Four instances of civil unrest would erupt from 1966 to 1969, decimating the community.

“Too many kids were getting shot, killed, it was pretty bad in Hilltop.” Benson says.

The last North Omaha riot would happen a day after Vivian Strong was shot and killed by Omaha police in the Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects not far from Prospect Place. Rioters would go on to fire-bomb and destroy a multitude of businesses and storefronts in the neighborhood.

The local chapter of the Omaha Black Panthers would stand guard outside of black-owned businesses like the Omaha Star building at 24th and Lake streets in order to prevent its destruction. Many businesses would never recover from the millions of dollars in damages caused by the riots.

These disturbances would mark an important time-frame for Hilltop and Pleasantview’s gradual downfall. The turbulence within the community, spearheaded by systematic racism and poverty would take its toll on the area.

The Prospect Place projects would devolve into a dilapidated ghetto, with even harsher times awaiting the neighborhood as gangs and crack-cocaine would hit the city hard in the 1980s.

Omaha wasn’t a place people would have thought the gangs of Los Angeles, California, would make a strong showing. Quite the contrary,  gang members from the West Coast would eventually discover Omaha’s smaller urban landscape to be an untouched and lucrative territory.

Ex-gang member Edwin Benson can remember the switch taking hold in his later teenage years.

“The Crips came first, I’d say around the mid-to-late 1980s. They took over areas like 40th Avenue and Hilltop,” Benson says. “The Bloods’ territory was further east, big in the Logan Fontenelle projects and up and down 16th Street. So, gang-banging kind of took over the city for a long while.”

The isolated, maze-like structure of Hilltop and Pleasantview, along with the high-rise apartments added in the 1960s by the Omaha Housing Authority, would make them ideal locations for the burgeoning Hilltop Crips and other smaller street gangs.

“I can remember kids from Hilltop coming over to Pleasantview and starting trouble.” Benson recalls. “We would fight about who had the better projects! We fought with our fists, rocks, sticks…whatever was close you got hit with!”

A refuge for illicit activity had sprung to life within Prospect Place in the 1980s. Members of the community, as well as police officers, grew hesitant to venture into the area. Hilltop became a forgotten segment of the city, lost to the surrounding metro’s progress, marred by a decade of violent crime and drug offenses.

Hilltop would see an unfortunate trend of senseless homicides and gun violence that would peak in the early ’90s.

In 1990, two young men from Sioux City were shot outside of Hilltop when they stopped to ask for directions to the Omaha Civic Auditorium on their way to an MC Hammer concert.

In 1991, a 14-year-old boy was arrested for stabbing a 13-year-old boy during a fight. That same year, a local Crip gang member was gunned down at the 7-Eleven on 30th and Lake across the street from Hilltop.

In 1993, the pointless murder of another teenager may have finally spelled Hilltop’s doom. 14-year-old Charezetta Swiney—known as “Chucky” to friends and family—was shot in the head from point-blank range over a parking space dispute on Oct. 22. A sad occasion at the beginning of the school year, Benson High School was gracious enough to host the high school freshman’s funeral with more than 700 people in attendance. She was the 31st person slain in Omaha that year.

Jay W. Green, 27, would eventually be found guilty of Swiney’s homicide, charged with second-degree murder and use of a firearm to commit a felony in the summer of 1994. At the end of that same year, Omaha’s City Council would begin laying the groundwork for Hilltop Homes’ eventual razing in 1995.

Benson, the former gang member, believes Swiney’s murder and the rampant gang activity within Prospect Place were the main reasons for Hilltop Homes’ demolition.

“Too many kids were getting shot, killed, it was pretty bad in Hilltop.” Benson says. “Once the projects were gone, I think the Hilltop Crips just kind of faded out. We would joke and call them the ‘Scatter-site Crips’ since everyone was being moved to the scatter-site housing out west! If you hear someone claiming Hilltop these days they are living in the past.”

The demolition would leave a desolate space in its wake. Fortunately, the barren eyesore would not last long, as Salem Baptist Church would make their ambitious proposal for the site in 1996.

“I can remember me and my sister marching from the old church grounds on 3336 Lake St. to the new site on the hilltop,” Hill says, reminiscing with vivid recollection of April 19, 1998, the church’s groundbreaking. It was a glorious Sunday for church members, led by then-senior pastor Maurice Watson, a culmination of Salem’s proposed “Vision to Victory.”

Salem’s groundbreaking ceremony was heralded, marking the once-troubled land of Prospect Place as an “oasis of hope.” The community witnessed the progress as the newly razed 18 acres of land transformed from a vestige of poverty into a church sanctuary seating 1,300 people, in addition to classrooms, a multi-purpose fellowship hall, a nursery, and ample parking. Prospect Place was undergoing a new renaissance which would continue well into the new millennium.

Othello Meadows is the newest pioneer at the head of changing the image of Prospect Place. Having grown up on Omaha’s north side, Meadows remembers the projects as “a place not to linger if you weren’t from there.” After years away from his hometown, seeing the remnants of Hilltop Homes and Pleasantview Apartments was eye-opening.

“When I came back to Omaha, I was surprised by the disinvestment in the area after the projects were gone,” he says. “It went from housing thousands of people, to a sense of abandonment; like, only two houses were occupied on the entire block.”

Meadows’ words ring true. Other than Salem’s deal with Walgreens, which acquired acres of land for around $450,000, no additional development had taken place for years within Prospect Place. Fortunately, Meadows and the 75 North Revitalization Corp. are looking to reinvigorate the area.

As the executive director of 75 North, Meadows refers to Prospect Place as the “Highlander” area, which helps to separate the land from its troubled past. His goal is to bring life back to the area.

The development company now owns the land where the Pleasantview apartments resided before being demolished in 2008. A plan for a new neighborhood with continued growth is the main focus for the area, and he expects tangible progress in the coming months.

“If you drive down 30th Street between Parker and Blondo, you’ll see real work happening and real things going on.” Meadows says. “We have about 12 buildings under construction that are 50-70 percent complete [as of early February 2017], including a community enrichment center called the Accelerator that is 65,000 square feet, a very beautiful building. By late April to early May 2017 we should have some apartments up, and we already have people putting down deposits and signing leases. People are excited to be moving into the neighborhood.”

When asked about the targeted clientele for the new apartments and retail space, Meadows provides a broad answer: “The motto that we follow is—trying to create a mixed-income community. We’re not trying to recreate the projects, of course, but we also don’t want to create a neighborhood where longtime residents can’t afford to live. We have to balance the prospects of affordability and aspirational thinking.”

Indeed, when looking at the seventyfivenorth.org website, the ambitious vision for the Highlander Apartments is a far cry from the projects. Photo galleries and floor plans envision a renewed community akin to Midtown Crossing and Aksarben Village. The images are cheerful, depicting people riding bikes and walking dogs, even an imagined coffee shop.

In a way, the renewed development, optimism, and potential for economic growth in the Highlander area can trace its roots back to the members of Salem and their desire to build a signal of hope where it once was lost.

But Hill (the former Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects resident who left Omaha in 1975 and returned in 1995) doesn’t think the church is given adequate recognition for its contributions.

“If a person didn’t know this place’s history of violence and poverty before Salem was built, they would only see the progress in this area as simple land development,” Hill says. “Salem doesn’t tend to broadcast the things they do for the area other than to its members, so those on the outside don’t necessarily recognize its lasting influence.”

It’s undeniable that the soaring church spire on the hill is a spectacle to behold on a bright, sunny day. It stands as a symbol of hope and belief. Benson still looks at the former site of Prospect Place with a hint of longing.

“I know it might sound crazy, but I was a little sad when Hilltop was torn down.” he admits. “A lot of good memories were made in those projects. But I love seeing the church up there. I hope whatever comes next is good for the community.”

Visit salembc.org for more information about Salem Baptist Church. Visit seventyfivenorth.org for more information about 75 North.

Salem Baptist Church

The Return of the Midnight Movies

May 25, 2017 by
Illustration by Derek Joy

Let’s respect our inverted pyramid and get this out of the way: 4925 Dodge St., née the Dundee Theater, will once again play movies at midnight. They will be regular affairs, maybe/maybe not weekly, and they will be appropriately subversive.

But they’re not going to attempt to recreate the showings that took place there every weekend from 2000 till 2013, when the theater “closed for renovations” (but everyone sort of understood that was that).

It’s probably for the best.

Because part of what made those midnight shows great, let’s admit, was that they took place in that time between cars and bars: when a generation of millennials learned the world was their oyster, when they were amenable to going anywhere, but piddling few places would let them in.

Even now, most theaters’ “late” showings start before 11 p.m., the same time it becomes illegal to step foot in city parks. Come 11:30 p.m., unless there’s a concert somewhere, your options are a lone donut shop and a slew of diner chains, convenience stores, and Wal-Marts. It’s a bleak affair. There are even reports of teenagers gathering in parking lots, like those Polish wood ants that made a go of it in an abandoned nuclear bunker.

With that backdrop, knowing the basics of supply and demand, it’s little wonder that midnight movies were such a success. Midnight movies had long been off-again/on-again during the life of the Dundee Theater. But their most recent incarnation began in 2000, when two employees approached owner Denny Moran with the idea.

“An old theater like the Dundee just sort of screams MIDNIGHT MOVIES,” says former manager Matt Brown.

Moran agreed, but only as an experiment, only for a couple months.

The crowd shifted depending on the film. Fight Club brought the meatballs, Nightmare Before Christmas turned out the Hot Topic set. Sometimes parents would come with their kids. Then, there were the loner old guys clutching dog-eared sci-fi paperbacks.

To a kid, the city felt cold and conservative and corporate, says Jon Tvrdik, an Omaha filmmaker. Midnight movies were a blinking neon XXX sign in a town of church marquees. Tvrdik and his friends basked in the oppositionality.

“It was a nod from the establishment—which was any business that didn’t sell records—almost as if to say, ‘We see you out there, weirdos of all stripes, and we have a home for you and your cinema obsessions at night,’” Tvrdik says.

After two months, the good outweighed the bad. Midnight movies stuck.

Slowly, they evolved into more than just movies shown at a time when most people are hitting the hay.

One night Brown was showing a new employee, Jon Sours, the theater’s collection of trailers. Inexplicably, there were several for Changing Lanes, that overwrought 2002 movie that premised a whole plot out of Samuel Jackson getting into a fender bender with Ben Affleck. As the movie trailer’s narrator describes it: “An ambitious attorney. A desperate father. They had no reason to meet—until today.”

Sours insisted that this was one of the better bad trailers, and made the case for playing it before each and every midnight movie. Brown upped the ante, suggesting they play it twice.

And things sort of snowballed from there. Before long, they were playing it three or four times, upside down, in the wrong aspect ratio, backward.

The audience ate it up. Soon, they were shouting out lines from the film by memory.

“I felt like a proud father,” Sours says.

“Film,” by the way, means film. As in 35 mm. The Dundee Theater never went digital. The adherence to analog made for all sorts of charming hijinks. During Goodfellas, for example, the projector went haywire, so every scene became a weird game of Where’s Waldo? (Except with dangling microphones instead of a bespectacled guy in stripes).

It also meant that every week brought new and exciting questions about just how badly things could go wrong.

Film reels arrived to the theater scratched, spliced, and re-spliced. They were missing frames and wrapped thick with tape. And that was when they came at all. The delivery company lost a print of Jaws the day it was supposed to show, and staff had to scramble when the last remaining copy of Say Anything was destroyed; but sometimes the best ideas are borne of necessity—that night, they dug up a copy of Changing Lanes.

“We needed something to show, and we had been playing that trailer in ridicule for months,” Brown recalls. “I think some of our regular clientele were jazzed to show up and see that we were actually playing the film and not just the trailer four times in a row.”

For the most part, though, things were uneventful in the projection room. The real action was in the calamitous crowd. It was a party. A movie-watching party with a few hundred friends you didn’t know you had.

Rocky Horror Picture Show drew the costumed freaks. Purple Rain became impromptu karaoke, with people running to the front of the theater to take the lead on their favorite song. The Princess Bride was an odd communal script reading. And every now and then, during any movie, someone would kick over a clandestine bottle of something, and you’d have to listen as it slow-slow-slowly rolled all the way down the theater floor before coming to its merciful stop.

Maybe the end of the Dundee Theater was merciful, too.

Film Streams was competition, technically. But the truth is it was never close, and they were running up the score.

The Dundee had standing water in the basement and a heater rusting through. Film Streams had a brand new facility and a membership that paid to keep it shiny. The Dundee had day-glo  photocopies. Film Streams had a marketing budget.

The last midnight movie was The Room, widely considered one of the worst films ever made. It had been a regular in the repertoire.

Only about 150 people showed up that night—not at all capacity, and not even close to a record for a midnight showing.

But for Brown, who steered that ship for 13 years, it was the perfect payoff.

“They were so appreciative that we were taking some time to do a final screening of this weird little freak show movie that they all came to love, and they all came to party,” Brown says, fondly recalling the cult classic’s spoon-throwing ritual. “So many plastic spoons. It felt very communal. It was great.”

Even today, people tell Brown how much those movies meant. Their whole idea of cinema, their platonic ideal of a moviegoing experience, is based on seeing, say, Clockwork Orange or Fight Club at midnight at an art deco, formerly vaudeville theater in midtown Omaha.

Since announcing the acquisition of the Dundee, people have peppered Film Streams founder Rachel Jacobsen with questions about a reboot.

The first meeting with the Dundee neighborhood association was expected to be a dry to-do to discuss traffic flows and parking and other crushingly adult things.

Instead, people showed up specifically to advocate for the return of midnight movies.

Film Streams wants to pay respects to its predecessor, Jacobsen says, and midnight movies were a big part of what made the Dundee the Dundee. But she wants them to be different; she wants to dress up the basic concept in new clothes that are a little better fit for the new ownership.

She talks about a movie that might be the perfect balance—a French film with feminist undertones and cannibalism.

She could also open it up to “Members Select,” to let those dues-paying members pick the films they’d like to see.

Midnight movies are a big part of the theater’s recent history, sure. But Jacobsen seems well aware that much of the passion she hears could be standard-issue nostalgia.

“There’s not too many places that a teenager can go after midnight, someone under 21,” she says. “Maybe part of it is the age group that was going; they think of it as real glory days. We’re not going to try to recreate it. We couldn’t. But we’ll try to do our own version that honors the history.”

That’s no surprise to Brown.

“I seriously doubt they [Film Streams] are going to be laying out the red carpets for a bunch of 17-year-olds dressed like Frank N. Furter and Riff Raff with packs of hot dogs and bags of rice shoved down their pants to toss around,” Brown says. “I think that ship has sailed.”

Maybe it is all schmaltz for being young and dumb and the places that let you get away with it.

Tony Bonacci, a local film director, compares the midnight movies to that dive bar in stumbling distance from your front stoop. You know every nook and cranny and stain on the floor. You could pick the exact tone of green in the carpet off the Pantone color wheel. You nod to “Metaphorical Ed” who comes in after work and grabs his place at the bar, which is empty, because everyone else knows it belongs to “Ed,” too.

You love this place.

Then it goes under and is sold. Cheap draws give way to microbrews and craft cocktails. The new place is clean. There’s a great jukebox. The carpet is pried up and original hardwood restored. “Ed” found a new place to hone his alcoholism, and the new crowd is well-dressed and mannered.

It’s a good bar. A great bar. You like it. Still, something nags.

“It’s just a totally different vibe,” Bonacci says. “It’s like, ‘Man, can’t we just have that back?’”

Tvrdik, though, thinks the updated version will be, well, a lot like the rest of us—older and wiser. Still out to have a good time, it’s just what constitutes a good time has changed: less like you’re staying up past your bedtime to watch something scandalous and more like your favorite professor is playing your favorite film.

“A more mature version of what it was,” Tvrdik says.

Visit filmstreams.org for more information.

This article appeared in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

The Origins of the Nebraska National Guard

May 15, 2017 by
Photography by contributed by Nebraska National Guard

Wanderings of a lame cow set in motion forces that led to the establishment of the Nebraska National Guard.

“It started when President Franklin Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, creating the Nebraska Territory and opening the frontier to settlers. That summer, an ill-fated bovine wandered from a Utah-bound Mormon wagon train into a large Sioux camp southeast of Fort Laramie (at the time located within Nebraska Territory, now Wyoming), where it was subsequently killed and eaten by young tribesmen. Demanding the arrest of those responsible, the Mormons reported the incident to Lt. John Grattan, the inexperienced leader of Fort Laramie’s U.S. infantry regiment.

Chief Conquering Bear (Brulé Lakota) refused to surrender the young men who had killed the cow, explaining they had done nothing wrong; the cow had voluntarily entered their camp, and, besides, the supposedly guilty men were visitors belonging to another band of Lakota, the Miniconjou. Grattan’s regiment opened fire and mortally wounded Conquering Bear; however, the infantry proved no match for the Brulé warriors, who completely annihilated the military detachment, killing Grattan and his 29 men. Author Douglas Hartman explains the anecdote in his book, Nebraska’s Militia: The History of the Army and Air National Guard.

The “Grattan Massacre” (aka “the Mormon Cow War”)—and the federal government’s failure to fulfill treaty promises—incited bands of Sioux to continue terrorizing settlers on the Mormon and Oregon trails. To augment federal troops, on Dec. 23, 1854, acting Gov. Thomas Cuming issued a proclamation creating the Nebraska Territorial Militia, which later became the National Guard.

The proclamation recommended “the citizens of the territory organize, in their respective neighborhoods, into volunteer companies,” which were grouped into two regiments: one north of the Platte River and one south. Cuming further instructed, “Companies are not to use force in invading or pursuing hostile tribes, but only in self-defense, and then no longer than necessary.”

Funding did not exist, however, so the early militiamen were expected to provide their own arms and equipment. By spring 1855, the state’s first organized units were formed: the Fontanelle Rifles in the town of Fontanelle, some 40 miles north of Omaha, and the Otoe Rifles in Nebraska City. Nebraska Gov. Mark Izard ordered the Rifles to protect Fontanelle, Elkhorn City, and Tekamah after “the Sioux” killed two area settlers. The Indians were nowhere to be found when the militia arrived, so troops spent the summer catching large-channel catfish from the Elkhorn River while “protecting” settlers. This became known as the “Catfish War,” writes Hartman.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Nebraska militias became more involved in fighting against tribes, since most of the nation’s federal military was consumed by the war, says Jerry Meyer, historian for the Nebraska National Guard. Additionally, two Nebraska volunteer militia units fought for the Union in the Southeast.

When Nebraska achieved statehood March 1, 1867, it joined a nation in transition. With the war over, potential recruits had little interest in joining formal militia units, which the new state couldn’t afford to equip anyway.

Nebraska relied on loosely organized, independent militias until 1881, when legislation reorganized them into the Nebraska National Guard, increasing its role as a peacekeeper during times of civil unrest, settling conflicts with Native American tribes, and deploying the first Nebraska troops internationally for the Spanish-American War.

The Nebraska Militia of 1854-1867 wrote the opening chapters of an ongoing legacy of service to the nation, state, and communities. The tradition continues with today’s modern Nebraska Army and Air National Guard, says Lt. Col. Kevin Hynes, spokesman for the Guard’s Public Affairs office.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, more than 10,000 Nebraska National guardsmen and airmen have supported missions overseas and within the United States. When not on federal active duty, the service members remain in Nebraska, available to local authorities during emergency situations.

The Guard was instrumental in protecting Omaha and other Nebraska communities, for example, during the 2011 Missouri River flood, which threatened Eppley Airfield and OPPD power plants. The summer-long flood closed numerous traffic bridges, making it impossible to cross the river for more than 100 miles between Sioux City and Omaha, and between Omaha and Kansas City. Hynes says guardsmen provided surveillance and bolstered levees, and they also provided security for evacuated homeowners.

Currently, the Nebraska Army National Guard is undergoing its largest force restructuring in 20 years. Affecting about 1,100 Nebraska soldiers–or roughly one in three–the changes are bringing in new military occupational specialties, such as engineering and military police.

The realignment will provide current soldiers and those interested in joining with better opportunities for personal and professional growth, from the time they enlist until the time they retire, without having to travel extensively from their hometown communities.

The Nebraska National Guard Museum, located in Seward, Nebraska, is a prime resource for National Guard history, research, and local entertainment. Visit nengm.org for more information about the museum.

Famous Omaha Guardsmen

Warren Buffett

Long before becoming the “Oracle of Omaha,” he was simply Corporal Buffett, enlisting with the Nebraska Army National Guard in 1951 after graduating from Columbia University. The future Berkshire Hathaway founder served six years as a pay specialist, telling the Prairie Soldier newspaper that his financial background probably had something to do with the assignment. One of about 70 members of the Omaha-based 34th Infantry Division Headquarters Company, Buffett told the newspaper of the Nebraska Army and Air National Guard that his fellow guardsmen were “as good of a group of guys that you could’ve found.”

Andrew Jackson Higgins

Expelled his senior year from Omaha’s Creighton Prep for brawling in the early 1900s, Higgins later was praised by President Dwight Eisenhower as the man who won World War II. He designed and built the “Higgins Boat,” a landing craft that unloaded troops across open beaches instead of at heavily guarded ports. This Allied attack strategy was pivotal to the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Higgins served in the Nebraska Army National Guard, attaining the rank of first lieutenant, and learned about boat building and moving troops over water during militia maneuvers on the Platte River. A historical marker honors him in Columbus, Nebraska.

Visit ne.ng.mil to learn more about the Nebraska National Guard.

This article printed in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Forever Heroes

April 27, 2017 by
Photography by Contributed

When I first saw him, I had no plans to write a book about Nebraska’s World War II veterans. It was just a few days after Veterans Day in November 2015. I was in a writing slump and sitting in a Fremont restaurant. When I stood to get a second cup of coffee, his cap caught my attention: “World War II—Korea—Vietnam Veteran.” When I approached him and thanked him for his service, his immediate response was to thank me for thanking him.

I remember thinking that man has a story to tell. Writing one story about a three-war veteran soon expanded into interviews with 21 World War II veterans for a book titled Forever Heroes: A Collection of World War II Stories from Nebraska Veterans.

My veterans include 19 men and two women. Seven were drafted between the ages of 17 and 24, the remainder enlisted between 1941 and 1945. Now, their ages range from 90 to 96.

During my research last year, the following statement from the U.S. Veterans Administration proved that a book on World War II veterans can’t be written fast enough:

“Approximately every three minutes a memory of World War II—its sights and sounds, its terrors and triumphs—disappears. Yielding to the inalterable process of aging, the men and women who fought and won the great conflict are now mostly in their 90s. They are dying quickly—at the rate of approximately 430 a day.”

A recent check revealed that rate of attrition has increased to 492 a day. Four of my veterans have recently added to that statistic.

This is why it’s imperative to preserve the stories from these men and women. However, it isn’t just World War II experiences that need to be shared.

The United States Congress created the Veterans History Project in 2000 as part of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Its website states, “VHP’s mission is to collect, preserve, and make accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war.” Visiting the website loc.gov/vets explains how people can get involved with the project. A printable “Field Kit” includes interview questions.

A story doesn’t have to be submitted for inclusion in the Veterans History Project. Its resource materials can be accessed even if an individual just wants to preserve—written or oral—a veteran’s story for familial records. It’s simply important that veterans’ stories are not left untold.

Not everyone is comfortable with the process of interviewing veterans, but no one should dismiss the opportunity to thank veterans for their service. It’s a simple gesture that’s simply appreciated.

It was my privilege to have 21 World War II veterans share their stories with me. Enjoy the following three summarized stories of those veterans who are “Forever Heroes.”

Ben Fischer, an operations board tracker in World War II

Ben Fischer

Ben Fischer was sleeping aboard the SS Cape San Juan, a U.S. freighter/troopship, when it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine about 300 miles south of Fiji. It was Nov. 11, 1943, and about 5:30 in the morning.

“The torpedo knocked the engine room out and the ship was leaning to one side,” Fischer says. “Oil [from the ship’s engines] was floating around and we were given orders to abandon ship.”

He swam toward a smaller six-man life raft. The raft was framed with wood and covered with wood decking. Barrels, which Fischer estimated to be about the size of 30-gallon drums, circled the perimeter.

When he first climbed into the raft, Fischer sat on a barrel with both legs inside. As more men climbed aboard, everyone sitting on barrels switched positions.

“We straddled the barrel with one foot in the water and one foot inside the raft,” he says. “We could get more in that way. We were just as close as we could make it.”

More men were crouched on the floor. With 33 men on the raft, Fischer recalls that it was “so full that we couldn’t get another person on.” He adds, “The barrels didn’t hold us up floating anymore. Our life jackets kept us floating.”

The next day, Fischer was still stranded in the Pacific Ocean. Then, he saw a seaplane in the air. It was picking up men who were floating in their lifejackets. He stresses it was right to rescue those men first.

“I saw it up in the air, but we were too far away [for the pilot] to see us,” he says, noting that he never saw any sharks in the water and believes the crude oil from the sinking ship probably kept them away.

Ships in the area headed toward the sinking SS Cape San Juan. Men on a destroyer rescued Fischer and the other 32 men after they had been on the raft for 30 hours.

The destroyer took the rescued men to the Fiji Islands. In the hospital for 10 days, Fischer’s eyes were treated because of reactions to the crude oil.

“One man went blind, and three or four were sent home because of eye problems. I was lucky,” he says.

The San Juan was carrying 1,464 men that included Fischer’s unit, the 1st Fighter Control Squadron. Of the 117 men who died, Fischer says 13 were from his squadron. The San Juan stayed partially afloat for another two days after the attack, sinking on Nov. 13. Fischer, and other men in the 1st Fighter Control Squadron, received the Purple Heart.

After about three months in Australia, Fischer’s Army Air Corps squadron began island hopping around the Philippines. As an operations board tracker, Fischer’s responsibility was to determine if planes were friend or foe.

Two different times during the island hopping, Fischer’s ships escaped encounters with a Japanese kamikaze (suicide pilot). While on one of the islands, he received announcement of the war’s end on Sept. 2, 1945.

Upon arrival in San Francisco on Nov. 5, 1945, Fischer says he was content to make his way back to Nebraska without boarding another ship.

Ben Fischer died at age 97 on Feb. 20, 2017.

Staff Sgt. Raymond J. Mitchell

Ray Mitchell

On May 28, 1944, Ray Mitchell’s 10-man crew in the 100th Bombardment Group of the Eighth Air Force left base in eastern England. Their destination was an oil refinery in Magdeburg, Germany. Each bombing mission included Mitchell’s squadron of 21 B-17s.

“As we approached the target, about 20 ME 109s [Germany’s principle fighter planes] attacked us. We suffered heavy damage and the airplane was on fire,” he says.

The crew was ordered to bail out. Mitchell, a waist gunner, was behind the bomb bay near the middle of the plane. He explains how pulling a cable attached to the escape hatch released it.

“You have super strength at a time like this,” he says. “I pulled apparently at too much of an angle and broke it. This is almost an impossible situation now because you can’t bail out if the escape hatch isn’t gone.”

Finally able to get the escape hatch to release, Mitchell was ready to jump when the B-17 went into a spin. “It slammed me down on the floor. My radio operator landed on my back.” Estimating the aircraft was at an altitude of about 15,000 feet, Mitchell was beginning to see trees and fenceposts and Germans.

“Every time we made a revolution, I could see the sky, and then the ground, then the sky, then the ground, and it isn’t very far away,” he says. “You think about everything you did when a little kid. It’s not going to hurt me; it’s going to hurt the people back home.”

Then the plane broke in half and Mitchell was pulled outside. He managed to attach his chest-type parachute and pull the rip cord. “It was a relief to see 28 feet of silk up there. It was just 700 feet—not 7,000—before I hit the ground. It wasn’t long until the Germans showed up.” Of the original 21 B-17s in the squadron, only one aircraft was shot down on May 28. “That was us.”

He explains, “You’re not supposed to weaken and talk, so it was a lot of Staff Sgt. Raymond J. Mitchell, 39460300, USA” The eight-digit number was his serial number. “You say that over and over and over. They ask you what group you’re from, what kind of airplane you were flying, what altitude were you when you came across the Channel, things like that. Then you just repeat your name, rank, and serial number.”

Mitchell was a prisoner of war at Stalag VII A, located just north of Moosburg in southern Bavaria. He says the thought of freedom “goes through your mind all the time. It was never any doubt in our minds who was going to win the war, but whether you were going to be around when it was over.”

On April 29, 1945, around 9 a.m., gunfire was heard. Then, at 10 minutes after 12 in the afternoon, an American flag was raised. It wasn’t long before Sherman tanks crashed through the fence that surrounded the POW camp. “Literally, thousands of prisoners bolted out of there,” Mitchell says.

On May 1, Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., commander of the Third Army, arrived at Moosburg “in his jeep with his dog, and a pistol on each hip.” It was two days after liberation and Mitchell was still in the camp. “I was a POW about 11 months and a few days, but before I finally got out, another 10 days had elapsed because I was one of the last to leave.”

Now at age 94 and 72 years after his service in the Army Air Corps, including just over 11 months as a prisoner of war, Staff Sgt. Raymond J. Mitchell, 39460300, U.S.A., answers his own question: “Was I proud to serve? You bet.”

 

Infantry Rifleman Mel Schwanke

Mel Schwanke

Am Army officer in World War I probably would have been proud to have his son enlist in the Army during World War II. But what happens when the son wants to enlist in the Marine Corps?

Mel Schwanke knows from experience. He says his father hollered in resistance. And since a 17-year-old enlistee would need parental permission, the paper would not be signed. “So, I talked my mom into signing my papers.”

As an infantry rifleman, Schwanke was trained on firing the Browning Automatic Rifle. The .30-caliber rifle was an air-cooled, gas-operated, magazine-fed weapon.

On Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945, the naval ship carrying Schwanke’s platoon arrived at Okinawa. The Battle of Okinawa became the largest amphibious assault, the last major battle in the Pacific Theater, and the bloodiest campaign in the Pacific. There were more than 250,000 total casualties. Together with Schwanke’s 1st Marine Division, the 6th Marine Division, and five divisions of the 10th Army, a total of 183,000 troops fought on Okinawa.

Excessive rain meant slow movement through mud on the island. High temperatures, together with the rain, resulted in high humidity. Also, the Japanese were occupying numerous caves. They had constructed an estimated 60 miles of interconnected passages in tunnels, which Schwanke says made combat difficult.

Seven days before Okinawa was secured, on June 12, 1945, Schwanke had his most life-changing experience of the war. Of his original platoon of 63, he was one of only five men who survived the island.

“We had some Japanese trapped in a cave under us and we were lobbing hand grenades down at them, and they were throwing hand grenades up at us. Sometimes we would catch them and throw them back down and they would explode immediately.”

Because he was on a walkie-talkie to call for a flamethrower tank as reinforcement to help get control of the cave, Schwanke was distracted. Suddenly, a buddy yelled, “Mel, get rid of that thing at your feet.” It was a Japanese hand grenade.

“I went to reach for the sucker and it went off right in my face.” He explains the grenades were made of scrap metal, so metal pieces shot in all directions when they exploded.

“One piece severed my watch band, one went in right next to my eye and my hearing was affected. Lots of pieces lodged in my stomach, in my leg and arms, and a big one by my spine.”

Schwanke lost most of the sight in his left eye, which still won’t rotate in its socket. “I have to turn my head to see,” he says. Pieces of shrapnel too close to his spine could not be removed.

For 11 months, he was at the U.S. Naval Hospital in San Diego, California. He endured multiple surgeries to remove shrapnel pieces and extensive physical therapy to renew his strength. He was presented the Purple Heart while recuperating.

Reflecting on his almost two years of service during World War II, Schwanke, 91, says, “I was absolutely proud to serve and have no regrets about joining the Marine Corps.” Schwanke adds that, at the end of the war, his father was also proud. “My dad was OK by then that I was a Marine.”

For more information, pick up a copy of Forever Heroes: A Collection of World War II Stories from Nebraska Veterans. The book is sold at The Bookworm, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and elsewhere.

This article was published in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

The graveyard in Normandy.

A Treasure in Stained Glass

April 16, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Sometime around 1904, when Omaha Bishop Richard Scannell visited Europe to invite young men to serve as priests among the German-American members of the Omaha diocese, the Rev. Bernard Sinne was among those who responded.

Sinne was born Dec. 9, 1878, in Elsen, Westphalia. He was ordained to the priesthood May 5, 1904, in Freiburg. The following August, Sinne was appointed pastor of St. Mary Magdalene Church in Omaha. He was 27 years old and served as pastor for 57 years.

Before Sinne left Germany for Omaha, he was told by his bishop that he was “a goat to go to Omaha, where he would have to ride horseback all day and sleep in an Indian tent all night.” Sinne ended up in Omaha doing neither.

What Sinne did do was build and preserve a church that holds the most beautiful stained glass windows in Omaha, windows from the studios of Franz Mayer in Munich, Germany.

There is no other church in Omaha, no other church in the state of Nebraska, and probably no other church in the United States that has such a fine collection of stained glass as does St. Mary Magdalene at 19th and Dodge streets. This church could be considered the Sistine Chapel of stained glass in the United States.

It wasn’t an easy thing to do, to keep St. Mary Magdalene Church above ground. In the 1920s, the city administration decided to lower Dodge Street because the incline was too great. The church was then “built down” to accommodate the new street level.

After building the church down and turning the basement into the main level, Sinne ordered a new set of windows from the Franz Mayer company for the new main level.

In 1926, Sinne was honored for his work lowering the church and his many years of service at St. Mary Magdalene. At the ceremony, he admitted that the cutting down of Dodge Street’s hill “was the greatest cross that ever visited me. But with your assistance, we have been able to bear the heavy expense [estimated to be $150,000].”

There are other churches in the United States that have stained glass windows from the Franz Mayer studios, but none have two full sets, spanning a generation, that display the work of artisans from Munich so well.

Ironically, representatives of the Franz Mayer company had forgotten about their windows in Omaha. It seems that the destruction brought about by two world wars had devastated the company’s records. It was only after an inquiry was made about the “Good Samaritan on the Battlefield” window did they search their remaining records. To their surprise, they realized they had shipped stained glass to Omaha in the 1930s.

Of all the windows in the church, the “Good Samaritan on the Battlefield” is probably the most unusual. This window was installed between the two world wars, at a time when German immigrants to Omaha were involved in a difficult question of identity—were they Americans or were they Germans?

With Hitler on the rise in Germany, the question of patriotism took on new meaning for both  Sinne and his many German parishioners. In the battle scene depicted in the Good Samaritan window, we see written in Latin, “Pro Deus et Patria.” For God and Country.

The Good Samaritan window is also significant because, while working with a representative of the present-day Franz Mayer company, the church discovered the original cartoon for the window design.

Other windows in the church also have stories to tell. The window that depicts the Evangelist Luke bears a dedication to the contractor Benno Kunkel, who built the present church for $40,000.

As the German community in Omaha moved west into St. Joseph’s parish and the bishops were working to build St. Cecilia Cathedral, Sinne quietly made St. Mary Magdalene Church into an Omaha artistic treasure. In so doing, he also left us with some mysteries.

Why is there no window depicting the crucifixion at St. Mary Magdalene? Most Catholic churches have a window that shows the crucifixion. Instead, opposite each other in the church, windows depict the birth and resurrection of Jesus. Furthermore why in a church named after St. Mary Magdalene, is there no window dedicated to her? Instead, there are two windows dedicated to St. Cecilia.

What will be the future of this Nebraska treasure of stained glass? In a city that often seems dead set on demolishing its past and replacing it with more glass and steel boxes, the future does not look bright for these historic windows or the church.

Many of the windows are now more than 100 years old and are in need of repair. Parts of some windows are missing. The church itself needs extensive repair, and just like a masterpiece by Rembrandt that has an elegant frame around it, so the building that holds these stained glass treasures has to become the elegant frame that holds the windows up.

We owe it to the memory of Sinne that the art treasure he has given Omaha be preserved and restored. Some men build a cathedral on a hill to demonstrate their power, other men build a church (and decorate with windows from the Franz Mayer company) to show their love.

Researching the Windows

The gravel walk to the Douglas County Historical Society is strewn with red maple leaves. It is early in a dry November. Already, the Crook House next door to the society library is decorated with Christmas garlands.

Then Monsignor Sinne had given an interview to the Greater Omaha Historical Society in 1959. The interview was conducted in the rectory at St. Mary Magdalene Church. That tape is now in the possession of the Douglas Historical Society, and I am on my way to hear it. The interview was conducted by the Rev. Henry Casper, S.J., author of the History of the Catholic Church in Nebraska, and an unidentified woman.

The old tape player in the historical society’s listening room is covered in dust. Sinne’s voice, the voice of an older man, sounds dusty, too. He was 83 years old at the time of the interview.

On the tape, which breaks up from time to time, Sinne relates his experiences as a young man and new pastor in Omaha. You can still hear a German accent in his voice. In the interview, he admits that when he came to Omaha his first impression of the city was seeing all the beer signs. When asked about that, he remarked, “Lord in heaven!”

We learn from the tapes that Leo A. Daly was one of the architects of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. The Leo A Daly company still works in Omaha today (and maintains its international headquarters in the city). After getting an architect, the monsignor went to Chicago to get a construction firm. He claims, all together, the work on the chapel cost $275,000.

All in all, the taped interview does not reveal much about the windows at St. Mary Magdalene. But the oral history does shed light on the monsignor’s personal background. He came from a wealthy German family. This may account for where the money came from to decorate the church and buy the windows.

It’s disheartening to realize that the interview recording—which lasts more than an hour—does not answer questions we would like to ask Sinne. At the end of the tape, I realize this voice from the past is also a voice from another world.

Then, there comes a surprise. Besides the two cassette tapes, the Historical Society has a manila folder with newspaper clippings about Sinne. Mixed up among the yellowed clippings is a copy of a short article from the World-Herald on Thursday, Aug. 6, 1914. The article says that Sinne had three brothers: Two of them were in the German army, to be posted to Cologne, no doubt preparing to fight in WWI. The third brother was in the United States and “responding to the reserves call.”

The tape rewinds. The monsignor’s voice sounds weary. I pack the laptop and sling my backpack over a shoulder. The old door to the library creeks open as I leave and walk down the wooden steps. I kick at fallen red maple leaves on the way to my car.

Did it happen that Sinne’s brothers fought on different sides during WWI? Could this be the reason for the war memorial window, for the Good Samaritan on the Battlefield? Could it be that Sinne had this window installed to remember his brothers? More unanswered questions.

The late afternoon sunlight is brilliant while casting long shadows. This glow of a dwindling autumn holds not the promise of spring. It lends its light only a short while.

Robert Klein Engler is a member of St. Mary Magdalene parish and works part-time at Joslyn Art Museum. He holds degrees from the University of Illinois-Urbana and the University of Chicago Divinity School. Visit archomaha.org for more information.

“The Good Samaritan on the Battlefield”

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of 60 Plus.

Mob Wild

March 2, 2017 by
Illustration by Derek Joy

When Mayor Jean Stothert faces Nebraska State Senator Heath Mello and any other challengers in the upcoming mayoral election, no one is expecting any donnybrooks, free-for-alls, fracas, or melees.

Thank goodness.

The most violent city politics has become in recent memory is perhaps when then-Mayor Mike Boyle tossed a foil-wrapped pat of butter at a county corrections official in 1985.

There was a time, though, when Omaha politics drew the scorn of the nation and nearly got a sitting mayor hung.

Omaha in 1919 seemed more like some outpost in the Wild, Wild West. It was a time rife with prostitution rings, bootlegging, and gambling. And a time of nicknames: “Cowboy” Jim Dahlman, Omaha’s longest-tenured mayor ever; Dean “Lily White” Ringer, the police commissioner; and the “The Old Gray Wolf”—political boss Tom Dennison.

Many Omahans know the most tragic part of the tale —the lynching of Will Brown, a black man accused of assaulting a white woman Sept. 25 that year (to his end, Brown maintained his innocence).

Less known, though, is that then-Omaha Mayor Edward Smith was hanged because he tried to defend Brown outside the country courthouse where Brown was being held in police custody. Smith was facing a mob of 4,000 people shattering windows and breaking doors. They grabbed files of the district court, doused them with gasoline and set them ablaze. They burned police cars and cut fire hoses.

Smith tried to reason with the angry crowd. Instead, someone smashed him over the right eye with “a blunt instrument or a brick,” reported the Omaha World-Herald. He was knocked unconscious then dragged through the street and a noose put around his neck — three times. The last time, the rope was thrown over the arm of a traffic signal tower and cinched tight. His body rose in the air.

What happened next isn’t clear. According to now-deceased UNO Political Science Professor Orville Menard in his book, River City Empire: Tom Dennison’s Omaha, it appears four lawmen played some role in cutting the rope, pulling the mayor to safety, and driving him to Ford Hospital.

“They can’t have him,” the World-Herald reported Smith saying in a delirium in the hospital, “Mob rule shall not prevail in Omaha.”

Sadly, mob rule did prevail, for at least a day. They grabbed Brown, beat him unconscious, stripped him of his clothes and hanged him an hour shy of midnight. The crowd then riddled his body with bullets, dragged it behind a car to 17th and Dodge streets, and burned it.

The mayor, however, would recover. Two years later, though, he was out of office, with Dennison’s buddy Dahlman earning re-election and serving until 1930 (he’d also been mayor from 1906 to 1918).

The World-Herald would earn a Pulitzer Prize with its editorial “Law and the Jungle.”

“Omaha Sunday was disgraced and humiliated by a monstrous object lesson of what jungle rule means,” the paper wrote.

In the aftermath, some wondered if it was Dennison’s men who donned blackface to attack white women, hoping to strike a match of racial strife that would lead to chaos and unseat Smith.

Nothing was proven.

“What does seem clear is …  Will Brown was the victim of political machinations,” Menard wrote.

Smith, too.

Jean vs. Heath? Not the most colorful names.

But boring is good.

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