Tag Archives: history

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.

A Treasure in Stained Glass

February 24, 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.

Underdogs and Frontrunners in the Omaha Mayoral Race

February 21, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Running for the office of Omaha mayor seems surprisingly accessible for any registered voter age 25 or older who is an Omaha resident of six months or more: Pay a $100 filing fee, complete a notarized candidate filing form and a statement of financial interests form, and submit a petition signed by 1,000 registered Omaha voters.

As the March/April issue of Omaha Magazine went to press, 10 individuals had taken out paperwork from the Douglas County Election Commission (the first step to getting on the ballot in hopes of being elected to the nonpartisan office that pays $102,312 annually for a four-year term starting in June). But in the months before the election, only about half of the potential candidates had developed and promoted detailed campaign platforms through polished websites, social media channels, and savvy media relations efforts. Several of those receiving less pronounced media attention have articulated core issues that range from legalizing marijuana, to improving the lives of local lower- and middle-income families, to touting free speech.

Douglas County Election Commissioner Brian W. Kruse says it’s unlikely all 10 will make it to the ballot for the April 4 primary based on precedent: Although seven candidates qualified for the 2013 primary, there were just five in 2009, only two in both 2005 and 2001, and three in 1997. (The two candidates with the highest number of votes advance to the general election, May 9 this cycle.) Self-promotion isn’t the only challenge for potential candidates, Kruse says.

“Especially with the mayoral candidates, we do hear quite a bit how hard it is to get 1,000 signatures that are accepted. It takes work, you know?” he says. Some well-meaning signers are discovered during the painstaking verification process to not be registered to vote or not registered in the correct jurisdiction, he explains. Candidates are encouraged to obtain extra signatures and complete paperwork well before the March 3 filing deadline. If time allows, they can correct paperwork errors or omissions or even gather more signatures if they come up short or cut it close.

“We would feel terrible if someone turned theirs in on March 3 and they had 995 signatures, because there’s nothing they can do at that point,” he says. “In our office, we will certify to 110 percent. We try to turn them around pretty quickly; the mayor (incumbent Jean Stothert) turned her signatures in on a Wednesday, and we were done by Friday afternoon. Often candidates will call and check with us on how it’s going, and we’ll give them updates. We try to be as customer service-friendly as possible … We’re here to serve the voters and the citizens of Douglas County.”

Christopher Geary, a martial arts teacher/studio owner and former Marine, is a newcomer to the mayoral race. He and the current mayor were the first to meet the credentials needed to appear on the ballot, receiving confirmation from the commission Jan. 6.

“I feel that service to others is not only something people should do, but it’s an obligation we all should embrace. I have run for office before and I feel that now is the perfect time to serve the City of Omaha, which has been my home for three decades … Omaha is an awesome city with a fantastic history and people. The diversity of communities and how we come together in hard times is really inspiring,” Geary says. “I have a vision for Omaha that brings government, business, and citizens together to improve living conditions for everyone by increasing job opportunities, helping businesses grow and prosper, and provide training for those seeking employment.”

Geary has made the unusual decision to not accept campaign contributions. “I think a candidate for any office should be free and clear of anyone or any group that would try to manipulate them once they are in office,” he says.

He also will not participate in debates, he adds. “Political debates end up being personal attacks on one another and rarely stay on point. Candidates will only say what people want to hear with memorized speeches and can easily stump the other candidates with facts they don’t have access to. Voters that watch or listen to these debates will not receive the necessary information to make informed decisions regarding his or her candidate.”

Another mayoral hopeful, certified public accountant Taylor Royal, is entirely new to politics.

“I have always had the heart to serve the public and make my hometown better for everyone, but the urgency to run for mayor originated when I moved back to Omaha two years ago,” he says, explaining that he was impressed with the business climate and other opportunities in Dallas, where he lived for four years as he earned his master’s degree and launched his career.

“Moving back to Omaha in 2015 was a different story. The same old problems that plagued our city when I was growing up were still prevalent, and new problems were surfacing,” Royal says. “I want to be mayor of Omaha to create a more business-friendly and community-friendly Omaha. I believe my new vision for Omaha will join our community together to solve our challenges and make Omaha the place to be for families and businesses.”

Royal received early media attention for his proposal to build a football stadium and bring an NFL team to Omaha, but his platform also includes unlocking new sources of revenue, looking for strategic opportunities to outsource, improving street maintenance, and revitalizing North Omaha. Citizens have been receptive, he says.

“My campaign experience to date has been a confirmation of what I already knew about the people in Omaha,” he says. “Omaha is a city filled with people who display unmatched hospitality and incredible diversity, and my candidacy has received a warm welcome from the residents.”

Candidate Heath Mello, who comes into the mayoral race fresh from two terms in the Nebraska Legislature, says engagement is key to winning an election.

“Looking back, I was probably most surprised by how important it was to spend more time knocking on doors and meeting with voters than doing anything else. Spending quality time with people in their homes, churches, and senior centers proved to be so much more meaningful to me throughout the campaign than any speech, fundraiser, meeting, or parade,” he says, estimating that he knocked on more than 12,000 doors in his first race alone.

Engagement then transfers to successfully serving the public, he adds.

“I worked hard for eight years as a state senator to keep that kind of personal engagement through town halls, neighborhood roundtables, knocking on doors, and proactively connecting with neighbors,” he says. And he’s taking that approach through his bid for Omaha mayor with a platform that includes plans to reduce crime, improve city services, create jobs, and foster collaboration.

“From Belvedere to Deer Park, Blackstone to Elkhorn, and everywhere in between, I am continuing to knock on doors and visit with small businesses to learn more about how Omahans want to help shape our great city for the next 20 years and how we can collectively create a smarter, more innovative city.”

Incumbent Stothert emphasizes safety of Omaha’s citizens as her top priority in her bid for re-election. “There is no issue we work harder on than reducing crime and apprehending and prosecuting those who commit crimes. I am proud of our police department and our work with community partners to make Omaha a safer community.”

Her motivation for running again is simple: “I love my job, and it is a privilege to serve as mayor.” Stothert notes, however, that running for re-election has both advantages and challenges.

“During the past 3 1/2 years, we have provided leadership, accomplished priorities, and worked with partners on community projects. This experience provides me the opportunity to highlight what we have accomplished, something you can’t provide as a first-time candidate,” she says. On the other hand, “Four years ago, I could spend most my time campaigning by meeting voters throughout the city and visiting people in their homes. While I am doing that again during this election, I also know my work and commitments as mayor must come first. Even though I have less time to campaign, I believe the best politics is doing a good job so we work hard to make sure Omaha is on the right track.”

Information on the election process or candidates is readily available, Kruse says, and he’s hoping for a good turnout for both the primary and general elections with 182 polling places open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Visit votedouglascounty.com or call 402-444-VOTE to reach the Douglas County Election Commission for more information.

TEN MAYORAL HOPEFULS

As of press time, 10 prospective candidates had begun the paperwork process to enter the mayoral race. To appear on the ballot, they must obtain and file 1,000 signatures from registered voters who reside in Omaha by March 3. Contact information is based on Douglas County Election Commission public records and online information (listed alphabetically by surname).

Bernard Choping

  • Phone: 402-917-5149

Mark Elworth

  • Phone: 402-812-1600
  • E-mail: markelworthjr@aol.com
  • Twitter: @markjr4gov

Christopher Geary

  • Phone: 402-905-6865
  • Website: geary2017.com
  • E-mail: christophergeary@gmail.com

J.B. Medlock

  • Phone: 402-302-0000 and 402-213-2095

Heath Mello

  • Website: heathmello.com
  • E-mail: info@heathmello.com
  • Twitter: @heathmello

Ean Mikale

  • Website: mikaleformayor.com
  • Twitter: @mikaleformayor

Taylor Royal

  • Website: taylorjroyal.com
  • E-mail: royalformayor@gmail.com

Jean Stothert

  • Phone: 402-506-6623
    Website: jeanstothert.com
  • E-mail: info@jeanstothert.com
  • Twitter: @jean_stothert

Mort Sullivan

  • Website: mortsullivan.com
  • E-mail: mdsullivan@cisusa.info

Jerome Wallace

  • Phone: 314-495-0545

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

 

W. Dale Clark Library: A Reflection of Omaha

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Why  are  libraries  relevant? For Rem Koolhaas, international architect and designer of one of America’s premier libraries in Seattle, “in an age where information can be accessed anywhere, it is the simultaneity of all media and, more importantly, the curatorship of their content that makes the library vital.”

This compelling principle of curation—a thoughtful way of organizing and presenting content—is how the Omaha Public Library’s W. Dale Clark branch promotes free public access to multimedia information, programming, and assets inside and outside the four walls of  215 S. 15th St. The library’s architecture, in turn, is both a container for, and reflection of, the community of Omaha at large.
Omaha’s first permanent public library opened in 1877 at 18th and Harney streets. Designed by Thomas Kimball, it was Omaha’s first building dedicated solely to a public library. However, with a capacity of 46,000 books and drastically out of sync with modern needs, the library outgrew this historic building after World War II. Often referred to as “the worst library in America” and “the horror on Harney Street,” city and library officials began contemplating a new building and the role a new central library would have in defining the cultural core of Omaha in the late 1950s.

While some branches of the Omaha Public Library system are named after locations, others are named after prominent city leaders and/or major funders. The central library branch is named after W. Dale Clark, a long-time banker, civic leader, and Omaha World-Herald board member. It is no coincidence then that during the development of this new central branch, the Omaha World-Herald was often a soapbox for the library’s necessity as a cultural anchor. A June 9, 1957, article explained, “a library should offer the opportunity for enlightened citizenship and the continuing education and cultural advancement necessary to a working democracy.” This sentiment held true for W. Dale Clark as well.

Although Clark did not live to see the completion of his library branch, which began construction in 1975, the 124,500-square-foot Bedford limestone monolith opened on March 9, 1977. Architects John Latenser & Sons of Omaha designed the $7 million open-plan building to accommodate 350 patrons and 400,000 volumes (the current collection is 500,000+ volumes). The Omaha World-Herald defined the opening as “the greatest event in Omaha’s history.”

Little has changed architecturally to the branch since 1977, although its surroundings continue to take shape—the neighborhood is part of a six-block $15 million revitalization plan.

The striated five-story W. Dale Clark Library opens laterally east and west and features a 110-foot bridge on the west entrance that spans a parking moat below for 48 cars, special facilities for audio-visual materials, a large open atrium, contemporary art gallery, and significant art collection including Catherine Ferguson’s sculpture Totem and an Olga de Amaral tapestry. The central library maintains practical roles to store government documents, house the ever-growing genealogy department, and to be a repository for community history.

In a building nearly 40 years old, how has the Omaha Public Library advanced into the digital age—an age where traditional media is seen as almost cliché? The answer is quite simple: curated in-person programing.

The facilitators for this community-driven programing are the 78 library staff at the W. Dale Clark branch. With a web of knowledge and resources, Emily Getzschman, the marketing manager for OPL acknowledges, “the staff are our greatest asset.” They fulfill the library’s tagline “open your world” by connecting dots—many of which are obvious (GED training, citizenship assistance, computer training, and literacy classes) and others that seem more disparate (STD screening, a toy lending library, speed dating, a culinary conference, and facilitated conversations around contemporary topics) all under a major OPL tenet of non-discrimination. As Amy Mather, adult services manager, says, “the library allows a smooth transition where a barrier may be to connect people with ideas.” In many instances, the library is filling voids in the public domain with this free niche programming—all of which is community driven.

Since its beginning, some have questioned the role and need for the Omaha Public Library—a story that continues to play out today. These opposing views undermine the very role of the public library as a space to define, beyond hierarchies, the community of Omaha.

It is a privilege and right to use the Omaha Public Library, which is free and open to all of the public. Everyone and anyone has access to its curated network of resources. The potency of programming, outreach, and staff reverberates beyond its architecture and stated mission placing OPL at the frontier of relevancy. As Mather says, “this is your library.”
omahapubliclibrary.org/w-dale-clark-library 

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

Jason Brasch’s Epic Drink

February 10, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Mary Tudor’s bloody reign over England in the 16th century—when she turned the nation back to Catholicism, burned heretics at the stake, and killed some 300 Protestants—is believed to have inspired the world’s most popular alcoholic hangover cure in the 20th century. But it was not until the new millennium that the drink was perfected by chef Jason Brasch at Report In Pub, located in Omaha’s Bel Air Plaza.

For in a world of concocted stunt drinks, Report In Pub has defied convention to manifest the most complicated and violent Bloody Mary since the Tudor queen herself.

Brasch, like a mad scientist, says he has tried many unusual cocktail recipes over the years.

“I usually try and make things off ideas I see randomly online,” he says. “Many of them I try and fail, but I always like to try them. I was always good at making Bloody Marys, so having a good mix was easy.”

When asked where the idea to make this particular Bloody Mary recipe came from—topped with a cheeseburger, fried pickle spears, onion rings, chicken wings, a non-fried pickle, olives, celery, and bacon skewered together, all levitating above a giant 36-ounce mug—Brasch admits there was indeed more to the story.

“The idea came because we were exploring the attic and storage spaces in the bar when we found the mugs,” Brasch says. “My friend was hungover and loved my Bloody Marys. He wanted a little sampler of a couple of the [menu] items, and a mini burger, because he was too hungover to eat too much of anything.”

Brasch says his groggy compadre told him a hangover special for people with all those snacks would make a great Bloody Mary deal.

“I had seen places do Bloody Marys with a bunch of food online,” Brasch says. “So I found a skewer and used it to make it look fancy. I still have the picture from my friend with the first one on Facebook.”

What started as a joke soon had neighborhood folks coming in droves.

“We made a Facebook post as kind of a joke, and people started coming in for it,” Brasch says. “We get a lot of nurses and people from the neighborhood who have been coming in since the ’60s.”

According to Brasch, he went to college to become a civil engineer, thus explaining how he managed to design a leaning tower of bar snacks that doesn’t tip over when served. Though his reasons for switching from engineering to hospitality are shrouded in mystery, Brasch says the career change has been lucrative.

“My grandmother had always told my mom to invest in alcohol, hair salons, and tobacco because she said they were all recession proof,” Brasch says of some of the legal things people do for money. “I graduated from the University Nebraska-Lincoln with a civil engineering degree in 2009, but my mom and I wanted to get into the bar business because we realized the potential for a neighborhood pub if run correctly.”

It was a good bet. Brasch says they got a “super-good deal” on the bar. With his mother retiring and looking for something new and fun to do, the bar has become a family investment project.

It’s the customers, however, who get a super-good deal—whether they need to deal with a bloody queen or a bloody-wicked hangover.

Visit reportinpubomaha.com for more information.

This article was printed in the Jan/Feb 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Fighting Misogyny (updated)

December 15, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“Fighter” is a very connotative word. People hear it and think of large, brutish men knocking each other out for money. They think broken homes, difficult childhoods, and a last resort. Women are an afterthought, usually in the form of the devoted and completely dominated girlfriend or as the victims of domestic violence. The occasional person, when prompted, remembers Ronda Rousey’s infamous loss to Holly Holm—or how hot they both are. Typically, people respond so negatively to the idea of women in combat sports that I don’t even bring up the topic. Upon mentioning an upcoming fight or my training for the first time, the initial question people usually ask is not where do I train, or what’s my record; they ask what my boyfriend thinks of it. The readiness of this question, of the mindset that prioritizes the manner in which I relate to men as the most important part of my identity, is a big part of the reason I fight. The implication of that question answers the usual follow-up question of how I got into mixed martial arts.

I had my first cage fight in January of 2016, at 110 pounds. I invited only four people outside of my team to watch, three of them women. I defeated my opponent via unanimous decision, meaning the fight went the full three rounds but the judges agreed that I was dominant throughout. It felt like a victory for not only myself and my team, but for all the skinny little girls around the city who are constantly being told they are too small or cute to get into any sport rougher than tennis. Afterward, I felt a little better equipped to handle the frequent instances of random men deciding to follow me on a run or asking me to get into the car as they drove by. My only battle wounds were bruised knuckles and a small bump to the left of my eye that quickly faded into a minor, reddish bruise. I loved having the visible symbol of my victory on my face. In part, because combined with the right amount of “resting bitch face,” it seemed to deter creepy strangers from approaching me in coffee shops or while walking down the street.

To me, “fighter” means being relentless, indomitable, dedicated, nurturing, receptive, empathetic, soft spoken, and even-tempered.

But I wasn’t quite able to wear even my minor injuries, symbols of a well-earned victory and a major milestone in my life, with pride like the male fighters can. I remember my boyfriend coming out of his first fight, his only loss to date, with a badly broken nose and blood in his eye. Everyone’s first assumption was that he had been in a fight; I know because strangers approached him, excited to talk about how he had engaged in the most masculine of sports and emerged in reasonably good shape. Where he was met with excitement, I was handed cards with hotline phone numbers from sympathetic gas station employees who didn’t believe my story. For the week or so that my bruise was noticeable, any boy I happened to be walking around with that day was on the receiving end of accusatory glares, head-shaking, and lots of poorly muffled whispers. Outside of the martial arts community in the area, it was like my victory was something I should have hidden behind closed doors. Apparently, even after all those days of getting up at 5 a.m. to train and then spend hours at the gym, I still looked like an easy target. It wasn’t my first time being silenced about something I was proud of. Gradually, I realized that MMA will not change how most people see me, but it has changed how I see myself.

During the month leading up to my second fight—this one at 115 pounds—I still encountered the stereotypical ways that women are perceived in relationship to the word “fighter.” But impositions of societal norms were not my concern during that time. Four weeks out, being a fighter means nothing about gender roles; it means constantly eating. Specifically, it signifies the consumption of a constant stream of protein shakes, eggs that I am beginning to accept will never taste good no matter how many different ways I cook them, supplements, vegetables, and what feels like gallons of water. I have put on close to 10 pounds of muscle since my first fight, in order to be able to cut a few pounds of water to make 115 pounds before weighing in, and then rehydrating back to a heavier weight the night before the fight. Beyond my diet, being a fighter means balancing the commitments of a full-time student working toward a double major, an internship, and a job while doing everything I can to win in the cage.

As a junior in college, fighting means training at an offensively early hour so I can get all my studying done before morning classes, so I can get school and work knocked out before maybe having time to eat an actual dinner, all so I can focus on working out and night training. It means trying to get to bed around 10 p.m. so my body can recover and I can do it all again the next day with a little more weight added to every lift and a little more of a push to get my 3.57 GPA up to a 3.6. It means discipline, and making adjustments when I need to study. I love my routine right now. I love training and then letting whatever Jiu Jitsu or kickboxing techniques I learned simmer in the back of my mind while I study, then letting my brain process information about Renaissance Europe and sonnets while I lift. My interests in academia and in sports complement each other, and I have heard the same from other fighters—contrary to the myth that fighters tend to be uneducated.

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With all of these things considered, people wonder why I would choose to be a fighter. I grew up playing softball and soccer, and have no formal background in combat sports. I am attending college on full academic scholarships and do not fit the stereotype of a cage fighter. So why would I, at 19 years old, decide to add cage fighting to my resume alongside mission trips and semesters on the dean’s list? I guess I can see how on the surface the choice might seem a little incongruous, but to me mixed martial arts is the most natural thing in the world to pursue. The long answer as to why I fight is that I live in a world where I once didn’t get hired because I wasn’t “willing to consider leaving my boyfriend” (according to the man who was interviewing me). With such experiences in mind, I don’t get how becoming a fighter could be anything but a logical course of action. In a world where women are still considered annoying if they speak, people listen to me when they see MMA on my resume. The short answer is that I like it, just as I like soccer and softball. The sport fits my personality.

Random men still follow me and yell rude comments if I’m downtown at night. Realistically, I don’t think there’s much I will ever be able to do about that. Even as I’m writing this, there’s a boy I’ve never met at the table behind me yelling “hey” every time I stop typing, but no matter if they’re a heavyweight (205 pounds and up) or a third-degree black belt in taekwondo, almost everyone I have encountered in the MMA community has shown me nothing but respect. Yes, I train ground game and standup with men, but I have never had another fighter follow me to my place of work, stand outside the door, and yell for the girl in the dress. Even if I do look like an easy target, instances of disrespect I have experienced in this most “masculine” of sports are nothing compared to the disrespect I get from men on the street on a daily basis. I think there’s a lesson there, with regard to our society’s skewed perception of what it means to be masculine. The guys I fight with are not the same guys who are treating women like inferior beings on the street or in their relationships.

The fundamental message that fighters fight to convey is simple: “I will not be dominated.” To me “fighter” is not a word synonymous with troubled home life or hyper-masculinity or misogyny. To me it means being relentless, indomitable, dedicated, nurturing, receptive, empathetic, soft spoken, even-tempered—I think all of these words describe most fighters better than whatever people think of when trying to come up with reasons I shouldn’t be one. With all due respect to those trying to look out for me, I don’t see how it’s unsafe for me to be locked in a cage with another woman my size compared to how dangerous it is for me to walk down the street. Or to, in general, be a woman who physically exists and takes up space in the world. Silencing my interests won’t fix the real problem.

“Hey” boy just invited himself to have a seat at my table. He has started talking to me despite having been pointedly ignored for at least 10 minutes and the fact that I am obviously in the middle of something. I am not polite in response. I have no interest in being dominated by a culture that puts women in boxes and has taunts at the ready in case they try to fight back. I have no interest in being quiet about my sport in order to protect people from a discomfort that I’m guessing doesn’t compare to the discomfort of a 14 year old having her ass grabbed by a stranger. I don’t care if it’s “inappropriate” for me as a “young lady” to be excited to get into a cage and physically beat another girl. I’d rather autonomously lock myself in a cage than be folded neatly into a gender role. I don’t care what your perceptions are of what it means to be a fighter, or what you think it means to be a size 0 and 20 years old with blue eyes. As my coaches and training partners are constantly reminding me, I’m not here to apologize. I’m here to dominate.

“Fighting Misogyny” was originally published Friday, Oct. 14 online at omahamagazine.com.     

Postscript

At Ralston Arena (on Friday, Oct. 14), I lost my second career fight via TKO in the final 10 seconds of the final round. The following Saturday morning by 8:30 a.m., I was back in the gym and on my way to becoming a stronger fighter.

I am not happy about losing, but I am also not devastated by getting punched in the face. I’m not fighting for perfection. I’m not perfect, and an imperfect record does not end my ambition in the cage. Rather, I’m fighting for all the girls who have contacted me to give support or share their story of fighting misogyny in their lives. I’m fighting for everyone who has told me it empowers them to see me get in the cage at all.

I want to take this opportunity to thank my incredible coaches, Mauro Siso and Sergio Rangel, and everyone at Legacy Martial Arts for supporting me on this journey. With lessons learned from defeat, we are making changes in my training regimen for the next fight.

Visit facebook.com/pg/lmaomaha for more information.

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Die Geschichte von Omaha Bier

September 16, 2015 by

Since 1587, when Virginia colonists first created ale using corn, beer has been a big part of American history.

The first known brewery in the New World opened in 1612 in New Amsterdam (now New York City). The Massachusetts Provincial Council mandated in 1775 that each soldier receive a daily quart of spruce beer (flavored with spruce tree needles) or cider during the Revolutionary War.

Omaha’s first hops-and-grains manufacturer, founded by Frederick Krug, came nearly two centuries later.

Krug trained as a brewer in his hometown of Niederzwehren, Germany, before leaving the country at age 19. He founded Fred Krug Brewery in 1859 at 26 years old. The original factory was in a small building near 10th and Farnam streets.

He moved his business in 1867 to a plant at 11th and Jackson streets and soon occupied the entire block. By 1880, Omaha had four large-scale beer makers: Storz, Willow Springs, Metz, and Krug, the largest of them all.

On October 17, 1894, Krug unveiled a new plant at 24th and Vinton streets. The new brewery employed approximately 500 men, many European immigrants like their boss.

A new century brought with it new opportunity—and new advances in…uh, medicine? Advertising in 1910 extolled Krug’s beer brands as “a tonic,” stating it “leaves no bad after effects.” Brand names included Cabinet, Fred Krug, and Luxus.

Krug’s capital gains helped them support an amateur baseball team, called The Luxus after the brew, which reached the 1915 National Amateur Baseball Tournament in Cleveland. The Omaha players lost 11-6 to home team the White Autos as a record-breaking crowd of more than 100,000 watched. That event is considered one of the highest-attended baseball games in history.

The loss symbolized things to come for Krug. The thirst-quencher known to cause startling behavior (and subsequent memory loss) gained political adversaries, who succeeded in getting the 18th Amendment passed. Prohibition hit the nation at midnight on Jan. 16, 1920, and pubs and breweries closed while speakeasies filled the void. The Krug plant reopened in 1933 following the repeal.

In 1936, the Falstaff Brewing Company of St. Louis acquired Krug and remodeled the plant that operated as one of the country’s best-equipped breweries before folding. They experienced a half-century of business before closing for good in 1987.

The new American at the helm of the company served on the board of directors of the German Savings Bank and of the State of Nebraska immigration board. He also owned Krug Park, an amusement park in Benson.

Krug and his wife, Anna, lived just south of downtown on 20th Street.

Krug’s brewery was a family affair. His sons, William, Fred H., Jacob, and Albert worked there. Frederick Krug and three of his sons are buried in Prospect Hill Cemetery, believed to be Omaha’s oldest.

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Britny Cordera Doane

July 10, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appears in July/August 2015 The Encounter.

You may have seen Britny Cordera Doane sitting with her typewriter on Howard Street in the Old Market. The “Old Market Poet” is a common sight, typing up poems on commission.

“I’ve always been interested in doing something with the community in the Old Market, like the musicians do,” she says. “It’s really fun going out there and meeting different people and running into people I know already.”

“Interested” might be the key word here, because the 21-year-old Cordera certainly has many interests. Cordera has been a street poet for almost three years, since she graduated from high school in 2012. You can count on her being in the Old Market most days, weather permitting; barring days when she has school (she’s a full-time student at UNO, studying creative writing and religious studies).

By no means, though, does her interest in poetry begin and end with her work on Howard Street. Cordera considers poetry to be her calling and published her first book of verse and prose, Wingmakers, this past February with Pinyon Publishing.

“Being able to type at the typewriter and get poems written, even if people aren’t coming up, is also a great gift,” she says. “There are some nights where I write two or three poems that aren’t for other people.”

She writes daily and produces at least a couple of new works a week. (I can tell you from personal experience, dear reader, that’s a demanding output.)

“It’s important to write a lot and to write every day in order to get better, in order to hone your abilities,” she says.

When it comes to that honing process, Cordera has a long list of qualities she would like for her poems to have. In addition to being vivid and free of cliché, she wants her poetry to have musicality.

“I see music and poetry as being one and the same,” she says. “The thing with poetry is that if it doesn’t sound right, I’m not going to use it in my poem.”

Indeed, music was how Cordera became interested in street poetry in the first place. In addition to writing, she plays the violin, and it was her violin teacher who suggested she write poems in the Old Market. Beyond being musical, Cordera believes the poem should be deep and weighty.

“I like a poem that says something, that has deeper undertones to it,” she says. “I’m trying to connect a web of themes and ideals of the world. I’m trying to connect things that seem unconnected already, but are actually thoroughly connected.”

More than anything else, perhaps, the idea of a web tying together a large variety of interests sums up Cordera’s aesthetic. Her other affinities include history and mythology. Wingmakers itself is heavily influenced by ancient mythology, as well as the bird constellations.

As if all that weren’t enough, Cordera plans to pursue a master’s in either religious studies or classics after she graduates. She intends to write more poems and books. She’s also learning Latin and Greek and hopes to work as a translator.

You may be wondering at this point how she gets it all done.

“I just do it,” she says with a smile.

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A Frank Look at Hotel Frank

February 18, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Between adolescence and adulthood, is chaos. No single Omaha building embodies one’s formative years of 18 to 22 more than a dilapidated mansion on 38th and Farnam streets. Although you may not remember the party, you probably partied there. Farnam House, Jerkstore, Gunboat, Lifeboat, and Power Pad: all names affectionately affixed to this broke- down palace of music, art, and madness. All names precursors to the legend of a hotel known as Frank.

From 2006 to 2008, Hotel Frank was ground zero for myriad musical artists and performances. Capgun Coup, Bear Country, Conchance, Dim Light, FTL Drive all called Hotel Frank home. While they were far from the first bands the house on Farnam had seen (previous residents include Conor Oberst and The Faint), figuratively they made the most noise. With Capgun Coup concerts packing in upwards of 200 people, literally the house rocked.

“When everyone was pogoing in unison the floor would give a couple feet,” said Capgun Coup front man Sam Martin. “If you went to the basement you could see cracks in the beams opening and closing.”

While most individuals would not willingly place their residence in such jeopardy, Hotel Frank’s recklessness was equal parts youth and the product of constant home disrepair.

“It was a wretched place to live,” said Martin. “It was February of 2007 and the heat quit working. It was not fixed until March. It would have been a much better house if it was kept up by the owners.”

Capgun Coup, with all of its members one time residing in the west wing of the Farnam triplex, have come to define the Hotel Frank era. With their danceable yet artistic approach to brash spastic rock, the building and the band fed off each other.

While Capgun’s time at Hotel Frank was a relatively small window, Dim Light front man Cooper Lakota Moon resided in the triplex on four separate occasions from 2000 to 2008.

“No one has ever lived there as many times as I have,” Moon said. “In 2008, at 28, I think I was the oldest person to ever live there.”

Moon, with his perspective of seeing the house throughout the last decade and prior, felt the national spotlight that romanticized the Hotel Frank experience around 2009, left some cracks unnoticed.

“You live in that place for a reason, it’s cheap. You don’t live there because it’s cool, it’s not cool,” Moon said. “People tend to romanticize it. People are there because we are broke.”

For every frozen winter afternoon and sweltering summer day, cracked wall, and bucking floorboard, the camaraderie throughout Hotel Frank seemingly trumped all opposing forces. A spirit that exists to this day: with all three wings occupied, vibrant and hosting live, uninhibited rock and roll.

“It was no parents,” said Martin. “The essence of it was hope of not jumping into the same thing you see everyone do. Not jumping into the work force but trying to do something real with your music.”

“I love that triplex,” Moon said. “It was a special time, an amazing creative energy and flow. We certainly had our fun, but we were getting things done.”

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The History and Mystery

February 11, 2015 by
Photography by KMTV/3 Bostwick-Frohardt Collection at the Durham Museum

Omaha eyes are drawn to the massive limestone building towering over 20th and Dodge Streets. How could we miss it?  But it’s what we don’t see that tells the history of Omaha Central High School.

We don’t see the buildings that sat there before. A commonly held misconception is that the current school building was the original Nebraska territorial capitol. It wasn’t.

Built in 1858, Nebraska’s territorial capitol was the first of three buildings to sit on top of Capitol Hill. The second was built as Omaha’s first permanent public high school in 1872. Construction of the structure that is now Omaha Central High School began in 1900.

“Omaha became the territorial capital in 1854 when the Nebraska Territory was founded, a product of the Kansas-Nebraska Act,” says Barry Combs, who graduated in 1950. “The territorial capitol was never used as a school.”

Omaha’s territorial capitol lost its status in 1867 when Nebraska became a state. A village named Lancaster, which was renamed Lincoln, was instead chosen as the new state’s capital.

With nowhere else to meet, legislators continued holding meetings in Omaha until 1868 when a building was constructed in Lincoln as the first of three state capitols. Omaha’s original territorial building was then donated to the City of Omaha “for educational purposes only.”

“The Omaha people brought in an engineer who said the building was too dangerous to use,” says Combs, the school’s unofficial historian. “The original capitol was beautiful, but it was put up in such a hurry that it didn’t last.”

A second building, constructed in 1872 for both high school and grade school classes, featured a clock tower. But the red brick building was soon overcrowded. Plans began in 1900 for construction of a larger school building on the same site.

“But they couldn’t just tear down the second building,” says Combs. “Where would the kids go to school?”

So that classes could continue, builders did not remove the old building, but instead constructed around it, one side at a time.

Before the buildings’ completion in 1912, Omaha High School—renamed Omaha Central High School in 1915—had to decide what to do about the iconic clock tower rising from the old building’s center. The 185-foot-tall monolith had historical significance. Omaha’s first electric lights were switched on in the tower on July 4th, 1876, the nation’s Centennial.

“That tower was a magnet for any kind of VIP who came to Omaha,” says Combs. “A visiting VIP would be urged to climb the tower’s steps.”

The last dignitary to do so was President William Howard Taft. Combs contemplates the vision of the 340-pound president laboriously climbing the stairs. Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes, Ulysses S. Grant, and Benjamin Harrison also visited the school, as did the Emperor of Brazil. All are believed to have climbed the tower.

But the school ran out of money and was not able to build a planned new tower after the old tower was torn down. “So the space smack in the middle of the school became a courtyard,” Combs says. “There was an attempt at shrubbery and grass, but kids went back and forth and it didn’t survive.”

Helicopters placed a translucent dome over the courtyard during renovations of the school in 1981-1982. Students now gather year-round in the covered atrium.

In 1915, the city decided to cut back the steep hill that ran from near the Missouri River to 24th Street. “Streetcars had a difficult time making the hill,” Combs says. Central High School still sat on a hill afterward, just less of a hill.

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