Tag Archives: Husker

A Campaign Trail Nomad Rooted in Nebraska

February 8, 2017 by
Photography by Contributed

Thankfully, the presidential horse race was over and the breathless autopsy of the results were ebbing by Thanksgiving. It gave CNN’s senior Washington correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, a chance for a break—a quick holiday retreat to see his mom on the farm where he grew up outside Exeter, Nebraska, a tiny town an hour southwest of Lincoln.

“A little different pace,” he says wryly on the rainy Monday before Turkey Day. “I try to get back as much as possible. But I haven’t been back much this year. My mom has made me aware of that.”
While his CNN title suggests he is tethered inside the Beltway, Zeleny is, particularly during election season, more of a campaign-trail nomad. Thanks to his dogged work reporting on presidential campaigns for The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, ABC, and CNN, he is one of the most respected political reporters and analysts in the business.

One reason for his gift for in-depth, spot-on work, his colleagues deduce, is his life and career trajectory—from farm boy, to sports reporter, to Midwest journalist, to D.C. insider. That path has made him uniquely qualified to penetrate and make sense of a political landscape deeply divided along urban/rural and white-collar/blue-collar lines.

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“Jeff is a brilliant journalist,” says David Chalian, CNN’s political director and oft-seen on-air analyst who hired Zeleny away from ABC. “He’s a reporter’s reporter. His work is so deeply sourced. He’s addicted to breaking news. He loves getting out on the road to talk to people.

“With all that, he’s such a good guy—he’s never ‘gone Washington,’” Chalian says. “You can’t take the Nebraska out of him… I think that helps him connect to almost anyone he meets.”

“Jeff is a remarkably gifted journalist,” adds Jane Hirt, a fellow University of Nebraska-Lincoln alum of Zeleny’s who was managing editor of The Tribune during his stint in Chicago. “He was born to tell stories.”

Indeed, by the third grade, Zeleny says he was already glued to the television each night, watching Walter Cronkite on CBS nightly news. In high school, he began his journalism career by calling in high school football results to the local newspaper. By his senior year, he, one of 12 Exeter High School prospective graduates that year, was at the other end of the phone, fielding calls from sports correspondents for The York News-Times.

“Sports coverage is the only thing that prepares you for election night,” he says.

Zeleny headed to UNL with dreams of being a broadcaster. Print journalism professors at UNL suggested he first pursue a print journalism path to build his reporting and writing chops. His sophomore year, he quit playing trumpet for the Husker marching band to join the staff of UNL’s college paper, the Daily Nebraskan, where he later became editor. In his summers, he landed prestigious internships, including one at The Wall Street Journal, where, in a crowd of Ivy Leaguers, Zeleny says the editors “really liked the idea that I was from Nebraska.”

“Your Nebraska brand is a really good brand,” he says. “The Midwest mindset and work ethic is something people believe in and respect. It’s an advantage, not a drawback.”

Zeleny’s biggest break, though, may have been back in Des Moines at his first job with The Register. For a young reporter, those bellwether Iowa caucuses, with its stampede of presidential hopefuls crisscrossing the state as the world watches, placed Zeleny’s detailed and astute reporting on the national stage.

Then he was off to Chicago, where he covered the rise of a young U.S. senator to the presidency.
After seven years with The New York Times, during which he increasingly made national television appearances as a guest political analyst, he took a position with ABC. As CNN began expanding its staff to cover the primaries and general election, Chalian went looking for “the top talent out there.”

“Jeff and I had spent a lot of time together on the campaign trail as colleagues in the press corps,” Chalian says. “I knew what a great reporter and great guy he was and I knew he was one of the most respected political reporters there is. I’m thrilled to have him here.”

The trick for Zeleny has been making the jump from being a newspaper reporter to a broadcast journalist—his dream job since his formative years watching Cronkite. A mere three years into diving into broadcast journalism, a time during which he says he’s received “a lot of behind-the-scenes training,” you could argue he still seems a shade stiffer than your typical broadcast journalist. While his reporting and writing is incisive and often witty, he’s still a little off with those affected vocal tone, pitch, and timing mechanics standard in the broadcast business. He doesn’t have the cheekbones of most of the guys in broadcasting. He’s more subdued than many. Basically, you can still kinda see that Zeleny is a newspaper guy doing television.

Good, Chalian says. Times have changed. “Many of the old-school broadcasting rules are less important now,” he says. “The key is great, robust, well-sourced storytelling whether it’s print or television or a podcast.”

Zeleny, good natured through a bit of ribbing from an old print reporter, seconds Chalian’s critique of the evolution of broadcast news. Viewers, he says, increasingly have made it clear that, “the blow-dried look,” as he put it, “isn’t important any more. We like real things.”

For all of Zeleny’s immersion in both rural and urban political landscapes during the last election cycle, he still didn’t predict a Trump victory. But news junkies and CNN fans know he was arguably the most prescient regarding the depth of frustration throughout the rust belt and other parts of the country with the perceived impact of trade deals and environmental regulations on the economy, and the idea of maintaining business-as-usual in D.C.

“Trump was seen as the exterminator,” he says. “It was a change election. Then Republicans came home to him. A lot of things came together.”

Now, Zeleny says, as interesting as this election season was, things may get even more interesting in the coming years.

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“It’s going to be fascinating,” he says.

And rough, and weird. In late November, Zeleny reported there was no evidence to back Trump’s claim that millions of people had voted illegally in the 2016 election.

Trump himself then targeted Zeleny, retweeting a rant from a 16-year-old: “@Filibuster: @jeffzeleny. Pathetic—you have no sufficient evidence that Donald Trump did not suffer from voter fraud, shame! Bad reporter.”

Also, this retweet: “Just another generic CNN part-time wannabe journalist!”

Zelleny, professional and measured as ever, responded: “Good evening! Have been looking for examples of voter fraud. Please send our way. Full-time journalist here still working.”

Much of the battle now, Zeleny and Chalian say, is providing people with real news amid an onslaught of fake news, fake news that even the President of the United States seems uninterested in fact-checking.

“Our job now is to make sure we’re doing the best job possible and holding people accountable,” Zeleny says. “You need people to be there to call a ball a ball, and a strike and strike, and just keep going and going to get it right. It’s a very important time in the country. My job is to keep pushing and keep asking the tough questions.”

Visit cnn.com/profiles/jeff-zeleny-profile for more information.

The Man Who Invented the College Football Playoff

December 28, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

There are scripts,but there’s also all kinds of room for improvisation. It’s improv. You get into character and run with it.

Larry Culpepper is either delusional or a consummate bullshitter, claiming, among other whoppers, that he created the College Football Playoff. He is raucous, chippy, and self-absorbed. His hair, shirt, visor, and flip-up glasses scream 1976. He’s a guy you’d buy a pop from, but likely shy away from having a beer with.

But Culpepper, the fictional character brought to life by actor/improv pro Jim Connor, is an increasingly beloved traveling minstrel who now transcends the Dr. Pepper brand he was created to peddle. Three years after his birth in an ad campaign with a potentially short leash, Culpepper now is mobbed by fans during live appearances; is part of a 10-part, football-season-long ad series; is the face of Dr. Pepper’s $35 million sponsorship of the College Football Playoff; and, increasingly, is a media darling beyond the confines of paid advertising slots.

For marketing purposes, Culpepper is from nowhere in particular. But in late August, Culpepper appeared on ESPN’s College Football Live and was asked to give his prediction for the playoff’s final four teams. His answer: Alabama, Clemson, LSU, and Nebraska (fresh off their losing season).

“Nebraska?” One commentator scoffed, before asking a cohort, “Is he from Nebraska or something?”

larryculpepper2Culpepper isn’t, but Connor is. For the Omaha native and Husker fan, that moment on ESPN illuminates why he has enjoyed playing Culpepper so much. “There are scripts, but there’s also all kinds of room for improvisation,” Connor says during a call from his home in Los Angeles. “It’s improv. You get into character and run with it. It’s a great time.”

Connor, the youngest of seven children (“which explains my personality right there,” he says), attended Creighton Prep, where, along with classmate Alexander Payne, he performed with the school’s improv acting troupe. He remembers one gig in particular that fueled his passion for the rush and satisfaction of successfully winging it for a crowd. “It was for a local service group,” he says. “We did some silly birthing scene, and the women in the group—you know, who had some experience with such a thing—really had a good time with it. It’s so cool when you connect with an audience.”

Connor was a gifted ham and public speaker. He served as vice president of the student council at Prep, wrote and acted in pep rally skits, and even placed first place for Humorous Interpretation at the National Forensic League’s National Speech Tournament in Minnesota.

After what he described as a “difficult” freshman year at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (“it just wasn’t for me”), he transferred to Saint John’s University in Minnesota. After college, he moved to Boston and worked as a carpenter while performing in theater and short films, then moved to Denver to pursue his MFA in acting at the famed National Theatre Conservatory.

The goal, “was never to get famous,” he says. “I just wanted to make a living being an actor. I wanted acting to be my full-time job.”

A dream of tens of thousands who have moved to Los Angeles. And while at 54, Connor is no household name, he has succeeded at stringing together enough commercials and small parts to make acting his career.

Besides nearly 150 commercials, his film credits include Watchmen, Meet Dave, Blades of Glory, The Onion Movie, Home Invasion, and Horrible Bosses 2. Alexander Payne asked his old friend to give the drunken wedding-reception toast in About Schmidt.

He also had numerous recurring roles in television comedies such as Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Scrubs, and The King of Queens.

In 2014, Connor and about 500 other actors auditioned for the role of the Dr. Pepper concessionaire in a national ad campaign targeting college football fans. Actors were given latitude to define the character and riff. Connor created an amalgam of “a lot of people I’ve known” to create Culpepper, a loud, proud, gregarious huckster who seems to actually believe—in the face of constantly presented information to the contrary—that he created the four-team college football playoff system.

For all of Culpepper’s failings, he’s also affable, wide-eyed, and childlike in his zeal for the job and the game, appealingly un-self-aware, and extremely clever. “Larry is a real guy, he’s a smart guy,” Connor says. “He’s just got some unusual ideas sometimes.”

larryculpepper1Among myriad other reasons why he claimed the Cornhuskers would make the playoffs: “Nebraska runs that classic passive-aggressive offense,” he told the ESPN crew. “They’re playin’ real nice, and then you’re like a puddle on the 50-yard line.”

It was inspired nonsense, which is the foundation to good improv, which is what Connor would love to spend the rest of his career getting paid a living wage to do.

Indeed, as Culpepper increasingly becomes a star beyond the confines of college-game broadcasts, as Dr. Pepper continues to expand the ad campaign (Connor’s character is now essentially the spokesman in football matters for the company, which AdWeek magazine estimated paid at least $35 million to be a “championship partner” in the College Football Playoff).

He is hoping to land more significant movie and television roles, especially in one of the increasing number of loosely scripted, improv-heavy comedies.

“I’m not going to get cast for scripted stuff in front of a studio audience,” he says. “That’s not what I’m built for.  Shows like Parks and Recreation—where you have space to work more freely with a talented group—that’s where I belong. That’s where I love to be.”

Visit larryculpepper.com for more information.

A Home for Husker Healing

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Nebraska football fans’ nationally recognized devotion to their team—the “Sea of Red” spilling from Memorial Stadium throughout downtown Lincoln on game days, and the subsisting pride of the `90s glory days—is epitomized by Tait Rief of Seward, Nebraska.

FanCave7Rief was a kid in the `90s, a kid captivated by the era’s Huskers heroes. His bedroom and basement are a testament to Nebraska football pride. Huskers décor fills the rooms: National Championship mugs, vintage Cornhusker Beverage soda bottles, rugs, pillows, pins, and team pennants—which, as a kid, Rief ordered each week by conference standings, always placing Nebraska first. In his bedroom, a bookcase displays three encased autographed footballs—signed by Joel Makovicka (fullback, 1994-1998), Grant Wistrom  (rush end, 1994-1997), and Sam Koch (punter, 2001-2005)—and a copy of the book Hero of the Underground signed by author Jason Peter (defensive tackle, 1993-1997).

Rief’s most cherished pieces of his collection—and his first autographs—are signed 1997 offense and defense posters. During a tour of Memorial Stadium when he was nine, Rief had his picture taken in then-head-coach Tom Osborne’s office and by the championship trophies, and then stood outside the weight room with his posters as the players came out. They signed his posters, and Scott Frost—all sweaty—patted his shoulder. “I was just in awe for the next week or two and never wanted to wash my shoulder again.” Rief hung up the posters with tacky in his room, circling Tom Osborne’s autograph in excitement.

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The `97 posters now hang framed in the basement, where Rief’s expansive collection continues. On the same wall is a Husker quilt, each block signed by members of the 2001 football team, a hutch displaying a miniature Nebraska helmet signed by Tommie Frazier (quarterback 1992-1995), a Memorial Stadium poster signed by head coach Mike Riley (his collection’s most recent addition), and a framed note signed by Ahman Green (I-back, 1995-1997) that reads, “Keep it going!!” On the opposite wall sits another hutch with more autographed footballs, including the signatures of Zach Wiegert (offensive tackle, 1992-1994), head coaches Osborne, Bo Pelini (2007-2014), and Frank Solich (1998-2003), and most of the 2001 team starters; a square of `90s Memorial Stadium turf; and ball caps signed by Osborne and Heisman winners Johnny Rodgers (wingback, 1970-1973), Mike Rozier (I-back, 1981-1983), and Eric Crouch (quarterback, 1998-2001).

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.As a freshman in 2001, Rief was involved in a Seward High School bus accident that left him with partial paralysis and short-term memory loss. In his bedroom and the basement are two identical small black-framed collages. Each collage depicts black-and-white photographs of Husker players including Rodgers, Wayne Meylan (middle guard, 1965-1967), and “Thunder” Thornton (fullback and lineback, 1960-1962), foregrounded with a color photograph of Jeff Kinney (halfback, 1969-1971) in the 1971 Game of the Century. “DETERMINATION” is printed in bold red lettering across the bottom of the image, followed by the quote, “The Harder You Work, The Harder It Is To Surrender.” Rief says that he values these words, as they “always inspired me to keep focused . . . during recovery.”

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His dad, Tom, recalls, “Tait’s always been a Husker fan. He always told me that he was going to be on the football field at Memorial Stadium one way or another—either as a player, because he was a pretty good football player himself before his accident, or (Tait) said, ‘If I have to, I’ll play in the band or be a male cheerleader.’”

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Much of Tait’s memorabilia was acquired after the accident. His collection is both meaningful and joyful. As for expanding it, he says, “I’d like to add a picture of me shaking Mike Riley’s hand.”

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So, Coach Riley, if you’re reading this, there is a fan in Seward who would like to
say hello. 

Visit huskerhounds.com for more information. OmahaHome

*Correction: The September/October 2016 print edition misspelled Tait Rief’s last name.

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Flying Over Hollywood

July 29, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit objectif49films.com for more information.

The Entertainer

June 30, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Young Derek Ventura could usually be found spellbound in front of the radio. Mesmerized by crooner kings and R&B queens, music so enlivened him that he never really decided what to do with his life, he just always knew.

“Music was always my passion,” says Ventura. “My mom said that from age four I was fixated on the radio—singing along, dancing, banging on pots and pans.”

DerekVentura3Ventura, a self-proclaimed “creature of habit,” took his predilection for music into adulthood, working as a singer, songwriter, musician, and producer. He also dabbled in acting.

“I like to answer to ‘entertainer’,” he says. “You don’t hear that term much anymore—someone who does it all: sings, dances, plays an instrument, emcees.”

That young, music-hungry boy parked in front of the family radio in 1950s NYC never guessed he would tour with the same musical heroes whose recordings he so cherished.

Like a childhood daydream come true, Ventura went on to sing lead tenor with The Drifters (“Under the Boardwalk”) from 1972-1984, and with Frankie Lymon’s Teenagers (“Why Do Fools Fall In Love”) from 1984-1986.

The Drifters’ Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame profile says the group “could not have chosen a better name, as members drifted in and out of the band from the very beginning.” In fact, due to fierce in-fighting, the iconic ensemble had several splinter groups over the years, each featuring early members.   

Ventura slammed into The Drifters featuring Dock Green like a tidal wave. In the span of just two weeks, he was hired by them, amicably left his disco group Touch, and flew off on a European tour.

“Suddenly, I’m sharing stages worldwide with groups whose records I bought,” he says. “Here I am, in the dressing room with The Temptations, Little Anthony & the Imperials, The Shirelles. That’s engraved on my brain forever.”

After 12 years touring rigorously with The Drifters, Ventura came on with tourmates Frankie Lymon’s Teenagers. While he’d lived by the creed that there were always “more worlds to conquer,” he grew weary of perpetual touring.

DerekVentura2Life and love then took Ventura to Denver, where he formed a successful 12-piece orchestra. In 1998, history repeated when love landed Ventura in Omaha, where he transitioned from a 12-piece to one-man band, created popular Husker music, was a house entertainer at Gorat’s, and performed classics for seniors.

“My passion now is keeping music alive for my generation,” he says. “I can’t begin to tell you the reward in seeing seniors light up at hearing their favorite songs, singing along, or even crying if it’s a sentimental number. To me, that’s priceless, because everyone needs to be touched by music. Everyone. I see myself as a conduit.”

Ventura embraced modern music technology but never abandoned the classics. He laments the loss of certain genres on local stations due to corporate radio’s homogenization. Though he strives to “give a voice” to golden oldies, Ventura names Beyoncé and Ne-Yo among his favorite artists, alongside Johnny Mathis and Smokey Robinson, both artists around whom he’s currently creating tribute acts.

“There aren’t too many of us in this life who get to live their dream and make a living at it, even still as they approach their twilight years,” he says. “That’s heaven to me. The passion now is as strong as when I was a kid.”

Fall in Nebraska

September 24, 2013 by

Since I’m from Texas, we are thankful to have several friends and family visit us here in Nebraska. Even though you and I know it really is “The Good Life” (wink, wink), it turns out Omaha is not everyone’s number one vacation destination.

My favorite time to have visitors in Nebraska is October. Guests get the crisp fall at the zoo, the fun pumpkin patches, and if they look around anywhere, they’ll witness Nebraska football.

No one does harvest celebration better than Omaha-area pumpkin patches. From corn mazes to hayrides to campfires, eventually you’ll get to the pumpkins. We all have our own favorite pumpkin patch cuisines. My daughter, Lucy, likes caramel apples. My son, Max, goes straight for the fresh cookies. My husband, Chris, however, usually picks barbecue. And I get succotash.

I train my visitors to do it right. Getting extra kettle corn on Monday to take with you to the zoo on Tuesday is practically a rite of passage.

Whether they have kids or not, they have to experience Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium. I explain that there’s no need for a workout; we’ll be burning plenty of calories (consumed at the pumpkin patch) while walking through the zoo. I like to guide friends through the shark tunnel in the aquarium and mention that scene in one of the Jaws movies when the aquarium breaks. When we’re right in the middle, I point at the glass and ask, “Hey, is that a crack?”

The beauty of our zoo is the accessibility to the beautiful animals. The gorillas, the Desert Dome, or dining in the Lied Jungle—it’s all a unique experience. The kids like to take our family friends to the Kingdoms of the Night. They think it’s cool and spooky. And they like to show their friends how Mom freaks out in the bats section. Real funny, kids!

Still, the best part about Nebraska in the fall is football. I’ve been telling friends back in Texas (who think they are crazy for football) about Husker football, but they think it’s bigger there. So we make them come up here and see it for themselves. My friends are always surprised at the positive spirit of football, the tailgates, and warm welcome given to opposing teams’ fans. I make them watch the news the whole time they are here so that we can see how many facets of football is worked into the news: weather, traffic, recruiting, news reports, segues, etc.

Just remember, Omaha—fall is, in this writer’s opinion, the best time of the year to introduce out-of-towners to our home.

Read more of Murrell’s stories at momontherocks.com.

Jay Noddle

November 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“When people are relying on you, you better be prepared to show up with suggestions and a solution and go the extra mile. Leadership is about how you do when things are tough, not when they are easy.”

Tough was the word for 2008, adds real estate developer Jay Noddle. “I was wondering if every decision I made would turn out to be wrong when the economy crashed. We were working in a time of change. Suddenly, there were no experts in our industry…No one to ask because business hadn’t faced extreme economic challenges like those.”

Commitments were met and business improved, says Noddle, who believes his strength is strategic planning.

“Leadership is about how you do when things are tough, not when they are easy.”

“We ask, ‘What do you believe you need? Why do you feel that way? What are the differences between your wants and needs?’ We’re focused on helping organizations think through those decisions and develop a vision and a strategy that will help achieve that vision.”

After returning to his hometown of Omaha in 1987 following 10 years in Denver where he attended college and worked, he founded Pacific Realty. The company turned into Grubb & Ellis/Pacific Realty in 1997 when it became an independent affiliate of the national company. In 2003, he succeeded his father, Harlan Noddle, as president and CEO of Noddle Companies. The company has been involved in 125 office and retail projects coast to coast.

“All we have is our reputation built on what we accomplished,” Noddle says. “We make sure we work within our capabilities.”

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Think Big

Jay Noddle takes on the big jobs. The First National Tower that stretches 40 stories high. One Pacific Place. Gallup headquarters. But his most ambitious project sits in the middle of an historical Omaha neighborhood.

“Aksarben Village is probably as good of an example of collaboration and teamwork as I’ve seen in my career,” says Noddle. “City, county, state, university, neighborhood associations, and bankers came together and said, ‘Let’s do this.’”

The 70-acre property near 67th and Center streets had been transferred by Douglas County to the nonprofit Aksarben Future Trust for development. Noddle was selected as the developer.

Omahans have an affection for the area that goes back to 1921, when the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben moved its racetrack and colosseum there. The finish line of the racetrack is now the lobby of the Courtyard by Marriott.

“Today, we have a vibrant, popular place woven into the community,” says Noddle, who looks out his office window and sees people walking, biking, and running.

The close vicinity of University of Nebraska-Omaha and College of Saint Mary encourages businesses to locate in the Village, he says. “The schools produce the workforce of the future.  Business and industry are always looking for the best and the brightest. Aksarben Village has opened a whole new world for UNO, which is aspiring to grow to 20,000 students by 2020.”

More development is underway in the Village.

  • Gordmans’ corporate offices will move into a new building near 67th and Frances streets during the first quarter of 2014. The retail chain is another example of why location near the university is a good match for business: Gordmans is active in the design of the UNO College of Business curriculum.
  • Courtyard by Marriott developers will open a Residence Inn in the Village in early 2014.
  • The first opportunity to own housing at Aksarben Village will happen in Summer 2014 at Residences in the Village.
  • More apartments—200—are joining the 400 already at the Village.
  • D.J.’s Dugout will have its own new building in March.
  • Waitt Company will relocate its headquarters to the newly built Aksarben Corporate Center, a joint venture with Waitt and the Noddle Companies.

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Jay at Play

When you look at what Noddle has accomplished, you ask, “When does he have time for a life?” As it turns out, he makes plenty of time for family and fun.

His youngest, Aaron, 13, attends eighth grade. Sam, 19, attends the University of Miami.  Rebecca, 21, is studying social work at UNO.

“I’m a soccer dad. And I like to cook.” Noddle also enjoys golfing, scuba diving, and running and describes himself as “a big car guy.”

With a busier schedule, the Husker fan has had to subdue his Big Red fever. “I was a road warrior for the Huskers…Never missed a game, home or away.”

“When we work creating places and activities, whether a park or a ballpark, people will come out of their buildings and interact.”

His wife, Kim, started a new business this year—The Art Room in Rockbrook Village. The former District 66 art teacher offers classes and workshops. “It’s been a dream of hers as long as I’ve known her. She’s loving it,” says her proud husband.

Noddle joins volunteer organizations by looking for a connection to his interests.

He serves on the UNMC board of advisors and supports the Eppley Cancer Center (“My father had cancer”). He has been president-elect and president of the Jewish Federation of Omaha (“That is our culture”) and is a trustee of the University of Nebraska Foundation.

Omaha by Design is a special interest. “People think of sustainability as a liberal thing. But it’s not just recycling and green buildings. Sustainability promotes healthy living…Promotes interaction between people. When we work creating places and activities, whether a park or a ballpark, people will come out of their buildings and interact.”

“We work around the country, and Omaha is a special place,” says Noddle. “Unless you get beyond our borders, you don’t realize that.”

The Budge Porter Story Comes Home

October 25, 2012 by
Photography by Scott Drickey

Budge Porter lost many physical capabilities when he broke his neck tackling a teammate in a 1976 Husker football practice. The catastrophic injury left him a quadriplegic confined to a wheelchair.

What he’s never lost is determination and, remarkably, a positive outlook. It’s what helped him build a successful stockbroker career, woo and marry his college sweetheart, and start a family when many doubted he could do those things. He and his wife, Diane, are parents to three children.

His will has continued carrying him through recent setbacks.

“Every step of our lives we’ve been told this can’t be done,” says Budge. “We have the character between the two of us, working together with great friends and family, to beat all those odds…”

“Disappointments are not foreign to us,” Diane says. “There were many hopeless feelings and times of despair through all this, but I think so often what’s saved us is that you get to the point where you’re either going to laugh or cry, and we’ve chosen always to laugh. You kind of know in your heart of hearts it’s always going to work out, and it always does. It’s like you’ve got to throw it up to God or whatever and just say, ‘Whatever happens, it’s going to work out, and we will survive.’”

Budge Porter Project

That indefatigable spirit is what’s motivated friends and well-wishers to build a completely barrier-free home for this never-say-die warrior and his family. The nonprofit Budge Porter Project is a volunteer, donation-fueled effort led by Omaha home designer-builder Brad Brown, whose company Archistructure has supervised construction of the rustic ranch-style home at 13522 Corby Street. The home is expected to be completed by year’s end.

“Budge has got this captivating spirit about him,” says Brown. “You look at a person who’s been dealt what some feel is a bad hand, and you might expect they’d get bitter. If anything, Budge has turned it around and looks at life as every day is a blessing and an opportunity. I don’t think it started off that way, but it’s led him to a sense of inner peace.

“He’s a very open and caring person. When you’re around him, you feel like a breath of fresh air.”

The 1,900-plus square-foot home includes an elevator, a therapy pool, a tracking-lift system, ramps, and various features built at wheelchair level and wherever possible, subtle and aesthetically pleasing. Those are big-ticket items the Porters could never afford themselves, but donations in excess of $120,000 have purchased them.

“Budge has got this captivating spirit about him. You look at a person who’s been dealt what some feel is a bad hand, and you might expect they’d get bitter. If anything, Budge has turned it around and looks at life as every day is a blessing and an opportunity.” – Brad Brown of Archistructure

Subcontractors and suppliers have given time and materials. Consolidated Kitchens and Fireplaces owner Sam Marchese donated all the cabinets and countertops. He also co-signed Porter’s home loan and hosted an August 15 fundraiser. Steve Reeder gifted the lot.

Accepting help doesn’t come easily for Porter, who hails from a long line of orchard and farm owners. They’re a tough, independent lot. His father and grandfather both played at Nebraska. When Budge and brother Scott carried on the football legacy there, the school had its first and only three-generation athletic family.

“He feels somewhat embarrassed and undeserving,” says Brown, “because he’s always made it on his own. I told him, ‘This is a hand-up, not a hand-out, and it’s something these guys are tickled to give back.’ It makes us all feel so good.”

To customize the home to Budge’s specific needs, Brown had to ask personal questions and view Budge in intimate situations. Diane says Kent Pavelka’s public relations company made a video documenting what Budge contends with daily.

“I looked at Kent and Sam and Brad, and they were all crying,” says Diane. “They didn’t realize what the simple act of getting in and out of bed is for Budge. He’s so good about downplaying all the stuff that goes with his injury, and he doesn’t want people feeling sorry for him. But I’ve often said if people really knew what it takes to be him every day, it’d be very hard to keep positive because it’s exhausting. A lesser man would not handle it as well as he has.”

Budge Porter Project

The experience gave Brown a deeper appreciation for Budge’s “courage” and bonded the two men even more. “We were really good friends, but we’re definitely brothers now,” says Budge.

The Porters have always managed dealing with the challenges of paralysis, but then Budge lost big in the 2000 stock market crash, which also cost him many clients similarly hard-hit. Osteoporosis forced him to retire in his mid-50s and go on disability.

A stretch of the Papio Creek behind the family’s previous home eroded, causing such severe damage to the property the home’s value plummeted. Health scares resulted in long, expensive hospitalizations. Finally, Budge swallowed his pride and filed for bankruptcy. The family gave up their home. Getting a loan and finding a new place to live proved daunting.

It seemed like more than one family could bear. “I don’t like to make excuses,” Budge says.

He’s heartened by how others have responded to their plight. “We’ll never be able to repay all these people other than just to tell them we’re forever grateful. We’re rich beyond compare with friends. We intend to be good stewards of these benefits.”

Budge views the home as “a legacy” for Diane and the kids when he’s gone. He hopes to inspire and assist others through the Budge Porter Project.

“I would love to see us form a foundation to raise future monies to help others in need along these same lines. There’s a lot of people far worse off than us, and we feel for them and pray for them and we just hope they’re as fortunate someday to have the type of friends we’re blessed with to give them a hand.”

Donations are still being accepted and may be made at budgeporter.bbnow.org.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.