Visual artist Mike Giron’s creative life spans studio practice, teaching, and working with A Midsummer’s Mural and South Omaha Mural Project teams.
“In my studio work, I have no idea what’s going to happen—I just go. I’m not forcing or insisting on anything. The work creates itself in some crazy way,” Giron says. “When it comes to murals, it’s a lot more deliberate. You have to propose a design before you begin. So, I live in these two different worlds, and I think it’s keeping me balanced.”
The New Orleans native came to Omaha in the early 1990s by way of Colorado, where he met his ex-wife, an Omaha native. After her father died, the couple moved here with the intent of restoring her family home, selling it, and returning to Colorado. But Omaha proved a good place to raise their two children, so they stayed.
Giron, 45, taught art at Bellevue University and ran the campus gallery. Today, he’s a Metropolitan Community College adjunct instructor.
Without knowing it, he prepared to be a muralist through his experience painting Mardi Gras floats in New Orleans. Walls are not so different from float structures—they’re big and imperfect. And just as he used cut-out panels on floats, he does the same with murals.
“The Polish mural is the clearest example,” he says. “There was a downspout, a chimney, and a fence around an air conditioning unit, and we used cut-outs to hide those things. It gave a 3D pop-up look effect. It also breaks the frame to extend beyond the box of the building.”
Patience is a virtue for a muralist.
“Murals take a long time—maybe two months,” he says. “Unless you really practice your Zen, you’ve got to make it enjoyable to keep on doing it every day.”
The social contract of public art and the collaborative nature of murals means you’d better like people. He does. You’d better like working big, too.
“Once you experience large-scale production, it’s hard to go back to small paintings,” he says. “Although I still consider myself a studio painter, there’s also something about doing large work. You can’t help but see a wall and go, ‘Oh, that would be perfect for this statement.’ And then the physicality of the work feels good. You’re carrying stuff all the time; you’re up and down ladders. The brush strokes are not just a flick of the wrist.”
But Giron says the real reason he and his fellow muralists do it is because “we’re channeling the voices of people who can’t do this, and we take pride in that.” He says, “We feel good about delivering something that people feel does express them.”
The process for the South Omaha murals involves deep community immersion.
“The more you immerse and personally connect with the people on a street level, the more you’re going to be trusted by that community, and the more they’ll open up and allow you in,” he says.
The South O murals feature diverse looks.
“Some fall into naturalism, and others go into some other place,” he says, “That’s interesting to me because it’s not the same. Rather than a signature style, I would prefer they look like they were done by different people.”
They are. Giron works with Richard Harrison, Rebecca Van Orman, and Hugo Zamorano. Neighbors contribute stories and ideas at community meetings. Residents and students participate in paint days and attend unveiling celebrations.
The works are an extension of the new South Omaha Museum, whose director, historian Gary Kastrick, conceived the murals project. Giron serves on the museum board. He enjoys digging through Kastrick’s artifact collection and preparing exhibits, including a replica of an Omaha Stockyards pen.
The idea is for the museum, the murals, and Kastrick’s history tours to spark a South O renaissance keying off the district’s rich heritage and culture. Muralists like Giron share a bigger goal to “make Omaha a destination for public art.” He says murals are a great way to enhance the city’s visual aesthetic and to engage the community. Besides, he says, murals “demonstrate to the public there is an arts community here” in a visible way galleries cannot.
Giron is impressed by the Omaha arts explosion. “There’s so much going on and so many young artists hitting the scene making a big impact,” he says.
Meanwhile, he continues to create studio art. His series On the Brighter Side of Post-Apocalyptic Minimalism employed fire-singed materials to make their satirical marks.
“With the process-oriented stuff I’m doing now, there’s a huge amount of variety, even though I’m just using grids,” he says, explaining that his personal artworks have moved away from rules of perspective and representational dictates of realism.
“When you don’t use any of that, all you have is the process and the visual reality of things—line, shape, value, color, texture, and space,” he says. “When you start playing in that area, where there’s no limits in terms of defining what things should be or should look like, you find it’s actually inexhaustible.”
He intends to follow “the course of my curiosity,” adding, “If you are really free as an artist, then you just follow whatever’s interesting to you.”
New murals keep beckoning, though. “I get pulled into all this work. You set yourself up for a fall, but the fall is where all the good stuff happens,” he says.
Having completed Czech, Lithuanian, Polish, Mexican, Metropolitan Community College, and Magic City murals for the South O project, Giron and company are now working on a Croatian mural. Irish, Italian, African-American, and Stockyards murals are still to come.
It’s not mere luck that Omaha was ranked third overall of the nation’s best cities for St. Patrick’s Day celebrations (according to wallethub.com in 2016). If there is one thing our city is known for, it is rallying together to celebrate with friends, both old and new. Omaha has rich Irish heritage, and Omahans are eager to boast their love of the local Irish population. So, of course, the city turns green with pride on St. Paddy’s Day—from east to west. Festivities range from live Irish entertainment and personal pub food tours to black-and-tans and parades of whisky shots. Head to any of these highlighted hot spots to celebrate in local Irish style.
01. Central Omaha Clancy’s Pub
Clancy’s Pub has a longstanding tradition as a must-stop visit for St. Paddy’s Day. While the Pacific Street location has undergone new ownership within the last few years, it has still proven itself to be full of that Irish spirit patrons have grown to love.
(7120 Pacific St.) Brazen Head Irish Pub
If you are determined to settle in at the most authentic Irish pub in Omaha, look no further than Brazen Head. Named after the oldest pub in Dublin, this Omaha gem will transport you to the Emerald Isle. The Brazen Head opens its doors at 6 a.m. for a traditional red flannel hash breakfast. The day continues with authentic Irish entertainment and food (including fish and chips as well as corned beef and cabbage).
(319 N. 78th St.)
You’d be remiss not to stop by Benson’s oldest, continuously running bar and only Irish Pub—Burke’s Pub—for drink specials and their famous apple pie shots. While a few bars along the Benson strip (on both sides of Maple Street from 59th to 62nd streets) serve up green pitchers and Jell-O shots, neighborhood staples like Jake’s, Beercade, and St. Andrews (which is Scottish) feature specials on authentic Irish beers, such as Kilkenny, and Irish whiskeys.
03. Leavenworth The Leavenworth bar crawl has become somewhat of a year-round tradition, especially on St. Patrick’s Day. Locals call it a convenient way to pack in a handful of bars in one strip—beginning at 32nd Street at Bud Olson’s or Alderman’s and continuing on a tour down Leavenworth toward The Neighber’s on Saddle Creek.
The Marylebone is one of two Irish bars on the tour, recognized by the giant shamrock painted out front on Leavenworth Street. The bar is known for its cheap prices and stiff drinks.
(3710 Leavenworth St.)
Barrett’s Barleycorn Pub & Grille
Barrett’s Barleycorn, the second of the two Irish bars on the tour, opens its doors at 8 a.m., serving sandwiches in the morning followed by a hearty lunch next door at Castle Barrett, with beer and specials flowing all day long. Barrett’s closes the parking lot to create an outdoor beer garden, while inside tables are cleared for what usually turns into a packed wall-to-wall party.
(4322 Leavenworth St.)
04. Old Market The Dubliner
Toting the tagline, “If you can’t get to Dublin to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, there’s a little piece of Ireland nestled underground at 1205 Harney Street in the Old Market,” on the front page of their website, The Dubliner is one of Omaha’s oldest Irish pubs. Pull up a bar stool at this Harney Street haunt for a breakfast of Lucky Charms and Guinness and be sure to stick around for the Irish stew, corned beef sandwiches, and live music.
(1205 Harney St.)
Barry O’s Tavern
Slip onto the patio at Barry O’s to mingle with the regulars and the O’Halloran clan themselves at this family-run bar. Enjoy drink specials and stories from some of the friendliest characters you’ll meet. St. Paddy’s Day usually brings an entertaining mashup of regular patrons and “Irish-for-the-day” amateurs.
(420 S. 10th St.)
This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.
A small, framed black-and-white photo hangs on the living room wall of the Rev. Clifford Stevens’ modest apartment, located on the south campus of Omaha’s famous Village of Boys Town. It shows Monsignor Edward J. Flanagan sitting at his desk, looking up at several teenage boys standing around him.
“That’s me, second from the right,” declares Stevens, pointing to a dark-haired, good-looking 16-year-old with a dimpled grin. “That picture was taken in 1942 to commemorate the school’s 25th anniversary, the year I came to Boys Town.”
As someone who knew the tall, affable Irish priest personally—and those numbers keep dwindling—Stevens never doubted his mentor and biggest champion would one day travel the road to sainthood.
“He was very warm and gentle, with the kindest smile I ever saw in my life,” says Stevens, still energetic and sharp at age 91. “He was very considerate and completely dedicated to the welfare of children.”
The longtime Omaha priest and prolific author recently discontinued presiding over daily Mass at Dowd Chapel, the Catholic house of worship on campus, to concentrate on writing his third biography of Father Flanagan. Stevens expects publication by the fall as part of Boys Town’s centennial celebration.
“Boys Town has been around 100 years and I’ve been part of it for 75 years,” he says with a mixture of pride and wonder.
Those who have benefited directly from the safe haven created by Father Flanagan for poor, orphaned, abused, neglected, or at-risk boys (the school opened its doors to girls in 1980) need no convincing of the priest’s Christ-like presence on earth. Convincing Rome, that’s another story. It takes years and enormous preparation, as dictated by ancient Catholic canon law.
Four boxes filled with leather-bound dossiers attesting to Father Flanagan’s “heroic virtue” arrived at the Holy See in Rome in June 2015, the result of a 2 1/2 year investigation into the priest’s life by the Omaha archdiocese.
“They literally put Father Flanagan’s whole life on trial here in Omaha,” explains Steve Wolf, a member of the Boys Town alumni group that helped ignite the quest for sainthood in 1999. “Everything that could possibly be known about Father Flanagan, through any number of sources, was all examined thoroughly.”
Although 2,000 names precede Father Flanagan’s on the list of sainthood causes, the boxes from Omaha have not sat idly in some Vatican room.
“We know the tribunal in Rome is reviewing the work of the Omaha archdiocese because they’ve been communicating with us here, trying to clarify information or asking for additional testimony,” Wolf says. “It’s absolutely an active, open case, and that’s encouraging.”
Will Rome agree Father Flanagan led a life so good and so holy in service to others that he put his own life in peril? Does he meet the requirement of “historic virtue?” Wolf, a 1980 graduate of Boys Town, sees no other conclusion.
“He received death threats many times because he was without prejudice or discrimination, integrating Boys Town with blacks and kids of Jewish faith,” he says. “The Ku Klux Klan once threatened to burn Boys Town down,” prompting Father Flanagan to respond, “What color is a man’s soul?”
If the case for sainthood didn’t exist, “[Omaha] Archbishop [George] Lucas would never have signed off on it and sent the boxes to Rome,” says Wolf, who readily admits Boys Town turned his life around. The father of five girls now heads The Father Flanagan League: Society of Devotion, an organization made up of alumni and lay Catholics that focuses on fundraising and forwarding the cause of sainthood through an international groundswell of support. Wolf credits the hard work of Boys Town historian Tom Lynch with enabling a speedy local investigation into Father Flanagan’s life.
“When I was hired by Boys Town 30 years ago as a graduate student in history, our archives weren’t organized,” explains Lynch, chairman of the historical commission that gathered written material for the sainthood cause. “We had about 2 million documents and half-a-million pictures just dumped in the building without rhyme or reason.”
Every day for more than 10 years, Lynch picked up pieces of paper, read them, then placed them in the proper category until the archives became a major resource center. Lynch and his “great crew of volunteers” eventually created a timeline accounting for nearly every day of the priest’s life, from his birth in Ballymoe, Ireland, in 1886, to his death from a heart attack in 1948 while on a goodwill trip to post-war Germany.
Lynch created the Hall of History, where thousands of visitors come every year to learn the story of Boys Town and the man who founded it. When the representative Rome sent to Omaha to investigate the sainthood request saw all the required material on display, he told Lynch, “You’ve taken about 25 years off the process.”
Those closely involved in the cause, though sworn to secrecy, cautiously think all the requisites for beatification and canonization exist. A separate tribunal in Rome is examining two of the 17 alleged miracles attributed to Father Flanagan (after his death), where someone was cured after praying to him, defying medical explanation. If proved, the Vatican will declare him Blessed, followed by a declaration of sainthood.
Father Flanagan began his life with people praying to God on his behalf, offering up pleas for divine intervention. On the day he came into the world, Eddie Flanagan, the eighth of 11 children born to a sheep farmer and his wife in County Roscommon, Ireland, turned blue, then purple and started convulsing. The midwife told the family the baby wouldn’t last the night.
But Eddie’s grandfather, a veterinarian, unbuttoned his flannel shirt, wrapped the newborn in a blanket and held him against his chest. He paced in front of the large kitchen hearth all night, holding the baby close. By morning, the baby’s coloring had returned to normal. Prayers had been answered.
“We believe he was born prematurely, which would explain why the family was so worried those first few days,” says Wolf. It would also help explain why Eddie was susceptible to respiratory problems all his life—health so fragile it nearly derailed his deep desire to follow his older brother, Patrick, into the priesthood.
Illness forced him to leave the seminary twice, once in Yonkers, outside New York City, the other time in Rome. After nearly dying from double pneumonia while studying in New York, his brother Patrick, who had been dispatched from Ireland to minister in “the Middle Western Plains of Nebraska,” suggested Eddie stay with him in Omaha. “The air is clean and brisk here, where your lungs can heal,” wrote Patrick.
The younger Flanagan regained his health in Omaha, but “the archbishop didn’t want him! He thought he was too sickly to become a priest and wouldn’t let him study here,” says Stevens, shaking his head. “So he got a job as an accountant at the Cudahy meat packing plant in South Omaha. That’s where he acquired his business skills.”
The young man finally finished his seminary studies in the warmer climes of Innsbruck, Austria, and returned to Omaha after his ordination in 1912. Five years later, on Dec. 12, 1917, Father Flanagan opened his first Boys Home at 25th and Dodge streets. He had found his calling.
People who only know Father Flanagan from Spencer Tracy’s Oscar-winning performance in the 1938 movie Boys Town may understand his mission, “but they don’t know this man,” says Wolf. “He was a consultant to world leaders on youth care after World War II. Who did President Truman send to Japan and Germany—countries we had defeated—to assess the problem of displaced or orphaned children? A priest. This priest.”
Almost 70 years after his death, Father Flanagan can still reach out from beyond the grave and touch souls, Wolf believes. He experienced it personally.
Raised in Omaha as a Baptist by a single mom, Wolf had shrugged off all organized religion by the time he graduated from Boys Town, and he held a particular disdain for the Catholic Church. Wolf returned to campus for an alumni convention in 1999, shortly after the group announced plans to seek sainthood for their founder.
“I was sitting in the very last pew of Dowd Chapel for a special Mass that I felt obligated to attend,” he relates, “and I looked over my right shoulder and there’s Father Flanagan’s tomb right there in that little room. Suddenly, I was just overcome, almost crying. Here I am trying to do something to honor him, and I realized I’m not even the kind of kid he would have wanted me to be.”
At that moment, Wolf’s conversion to Catholicism began.
Even historian Tom Lynch, who has immersed himself in all things Flanagan his entire adult life, came away from the tribunal experience with renewed respect for the sanctity of Boys Town’s founder.
“People laughed at him, told him it would never work because he wanted to treat the kids humanely,” Lynch says. “There are no fences or gates around Boys Town. No physical punishment. He was very much their champion.”
As Omaha awaits a decision from Rome, which could take years, Father Flanagan’s legacy continues to better the lives of more than 2 million children and families, with outreach programs and medical services on 11 Boys Town campuses from New York to California.
Father Flanagan must have sensed that his belief in the basic goodness of children would bear fruit. Shortly before his death, he wrote, “… the work will continue, you see, whether I’m here or not, for it’s God’s work, not mine.”
July 13, 1886 – Edward Joseph Flanagan born in Leabeg, County Roscommon, Ireland. Parents: John and Honora (Larkin) Flanagan.
July 18, 1886 – Edward Joseph Flanagan baptized, St. Croan’s Catholic Church, Ballymoe, Ireland. Father Crofton officiated. Godparents: Patrick and Mary Jane Flanagan.
August 27, 1904 – Edward Joseph Flanagan arrived in United States aboard S.S. Celtic, White Star Line.
September 1906 – Edward Joseph Flanagan entered St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, New York.
May 31, 1907 – Left St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, New York.
July 4, 1907 – John, Nora, and Edward Flanagan arrive in Omaha, Nebraska.
July 26, 1912 – Edward Joseph Flanagan ordained by Bishop Elder for the Brixon Diocese in St. Ignatius Church, Innsbruck, Austria.
July 27, 1912 – Father Edward Joseph Flanagan celebrated his first Mass in the Jesuit Church at St. Ignatius Church, Innsbruck, Austria.
August 25, 1912 – Father Edward Joseph Flanagan celebrated his first Solemn High Mass at Holy Angels Church, Omaha, Nebraska.
September 5, 1912 – Father Edward Joseph Flanagan assigned as assistant pastor, St. Patrick Parish, O’Neill, Nebraska.
March 15, 1913 – Father Edward Joseph Flanagan assigned as assistant pastor, St. Patrick’s Church, Omaha (Pastor: John T. Smith).
February 2, 1915 – The Rev. John T. Smith died. Flanagan became acting pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish.
Mid-January 1916 – Father Flanagan opened the Workingmen’s Hotel in the Old Burlington Hotel, leased by St. Vincent de Paul Society.
July 9, 1916 – Father Flanagan assigned as assistant pastor, St. Philomena Parish, Omaha, Nebraska (Pastor: James W. Stenson).
Early September 1916 – Father Flanagan moved Workingmen’s Hotel to Livesay Flats where he could care for 300 men.
December 12, 1917 – Founded Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Home.
December 12, 1917 – Flanagan celebrated last Mass as assistant pastor, St. Philomena. Relieved of all parish duties.
May 8, 1919 – Flanagan became a citizen of United States of America.
February 24, 1920 – Articles of Incorporation for Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Home filed with state of Nebraska.
Summer 1921 – Began construction of five buildings on Overlook Farm: two school buildings, two dormitories, and a refectory/dining hall.
October 17-22, 1921 – Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Home moved to Overlook Farm.
July 2, 1922 – Elected president of Omaha Welfare Board.
September 1925 – Inauguration of periodical radio broadcasts for Father Flanagan broadcast over WOAW, sponsored by Woodmen of the World Insurance.
March 1927 – Father Flanagan moved into new home, Father Flanagan House.
October 12, 1930 – Radio program ”Voice of the Homeless Boy” expanded outside of Omaha.
October 23, 1937 – Flanagan appointed Domestic Prelate with title of “Right Reverend Monsignor” by His Holiness, Pope Pius XI.
November 21, 1937 – Investiture service for Father Flanagan to Monsignor, Boys Town Auditorium.
December 2, 1937 – Appointed to Childrens’ Committee of National Conference of Catholic Charities.
February 20, 1939 – Honorary Life Member of the Boys’ Republic of Arlington, Virginia.
June 26, 1939 – Father Flanagan received First Annual Humanitarian Award from Variety Clubs International. Presented by founder, John W. Harris, at Fontenelle Hotel, Omaha, Nebraska.
November 1939 – Father Flanagan appointed to Board of Diocesan Consultors to succeed Monsignor A. M. Colaneri.
April 2, 1941 – Father Flanagan appointed by governor of California to Governor’s Committee on the Whittier State School.
May 27, 1942 – Father Flanagan received certificate for Distinguished Service on Behalf of the National War Savings Program, U.S. Treasury Department.
November 3, 1942 – Father Flanagan began weeklong war bond tour, during which he sold almost $3 million in bonds.
February 1944 – Father Flanagan made life member of the National Humanitarian Award Committee, Variety Clubs International.
September 5, 1944 – Certificate of Service from U.S. Navy, Letter from Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal to Father Flanagan.
October 17, 1944 – Father Flanagan received letter naming him Number One War Dad in America by the National Council, American War Dads.
February 1, 1946 – Father Flanagan named to National Panel for Study of Juvenile Delinquency Problems by U.S. Attorney General Tom Clark.
April 7, 1946 – Father Flanagan appointed member of the Naval Civilian Committee by Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal.
November 1, 1946 – Father Flanagan received the Kiwanis Medal for Distinguished Service from Kiwanis Club of Lincoln, Nebraska.
February 28, 1947 – Father Flanagan received an invitation from Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson to tour Japan on behalf of war orphans, etc.
April 7, 1947 – Father Flanagan left Omaha for Japan and Korea at invitation of Secretary of War Robert Patterson and General Douglas MacArthur regarding juvenile welfare.
July 8-11, 1947 – Father Flanagan went to Washington, D.C., to report to Secretary of War and Navy and President Harry S. Truman.
May 15, 1948 – Died, Berlin, Germany.
May 17, 1948 – Funeral for Monsignor Edward Joseph Flanagan in Berlin Cathedral. Conrad Cardinal V on Preysing, Bishop of Berlin, officiated.
May 21, 1948 – Funeral for Edward Joseph Flanagan in The Chapel of the Immaculate Conception, Dowd Memorial Chapel, Boys Town, Nebraska.
Steps Toward Canonization
by Thomas Lynch
Attaining sainthood follows three phases and four steps of recognition. The phases are pre-diocesan, diocesan, and Roman. The levels of recognition are (in sequential order) Servant of God, Venerable, Blessed, and Saint.
The pre-diocesan phase requires a spontaneous or groundswell of devotion. The Father Flanagan League: Society of Devotion initiated this first phase of the process.
Omaha archbishop George Lucas initiated the second phase by appointing a tribunal to investigate the life and virtues of Father Flanagan. This is the diocesan phase, during which the candidate is recognized as Servant of God. In a formal ceremony during June 2015, the archbishop advanced the cause to the Vatican for further investigation.
Currently, Father Flanagan is in the Roman phase. A tribunal appointed by the Vatican further investigates the life and virtues of Father Flanagan and the miracles associated with him. The canonization process takes many years. To be canonized a saint, there must be proof of at least two miracles attributed to Father Flanagan that have occurred after his death.
The Vatican determines whether he would be recognized as Venerable based on investigation of miracles attributed to Father Flanagan after his death. After being recognized as Venerable, additional miracles (miracles not already submitted for his canonization cause) must be submitted and verified for Father Flanagan to be formally recognized as Blessed. After the tribunal makes recommendations to the pope, he decides whether to declare the priest a saint of the church. Confirmation of sainthood is then scheduled for an official ceremony at a later date.
This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.
It’s impossible to tell the early story of Omaha without discussing its residents of Irish ancestry. Sadly, Omaha’s first Irish neighborhood, located just south of Florence, was called Gophertown. It derived its name from the dug-out shanties the residents built for themselves.
While these shanties were built for those without much money, not all of Omaha’s pioneer Irish population were poor. Take the Creighton brothers. These Ohio residents, sons of Irish immigrants, came to Omaha with a string of successes behind them. The older brother, Ed, was one of the largest builders of telegraph lines in America. He came to Nebraska, in part, to survey the route for the Transcontinental telegraph in 1860. While he was here, Creighton became heavily involved in early railroad, beef, and banking concerns—three of Omaha’s main industries for the next century.
Younger brother John also worked in the telegraph business and later the beef business. But he followed the trail west, mining for gold in Montana and eventually developing a reputation for battling desperadoes. John settled in Omaha permanently in 1868, and the brothers went on to have long careers as local businessmen, eventually starting the college that bears their name.
The Irish are well-known for their political acumen, and County Tyrone in the motherland produced one of Omaha’s best-known early mayors—James E. Boyd. He came to Omaha in 1956 as a carpenter, but in 1872 built a lucrative packing house. This gave him the resources to build one of Omaha’s earliest performance venues, Boyd’s Theater and Opera House on 16th and Harney streets.
Boyd ran a successful campaign for mayor in 1881, and then again in 1885. He set his sights on the gubernatorial race in 1890, and, though elected, would have to wait to take office. The previous governor refused to vacate the office, claiming that because Boyd was born in Ireland, he was ineligible to serve. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 1892 the judges sided with Boyd. He was the first Democrat to act as Governor of Nebraska.
Omaha also wound up with a hero of Irish nationalism; he may not have lived in Omaha during his life, but he has been here ever since. John O’Neill, buried in Holy Sepulchre cemetery, became a member of the Fenian Brothers, which eschewed politics in favor of militant action to expel the British presence in Ireland. O’Neill’s story is too complicated to fit into this article, but it is suffice to say that in the 1800s Irish-Americans decided it would help the cause to invade Canada. O’Neill did so repeatedly, leading the most famous of these “Fenian raids.” He died in Nebraska while working for a firm of land speculators. Somehow his body wound up in Omaha.
The most colorful of early Omaha’s Irish leaders was a man named Tom Dennison, who spent his young years working some of the roughest jobs in some of the roughest towns in the American west. He came to Omaha in about 1892, possibly bankrolled by gambling interests out west, and quickly became the king of Omaha’s semi-legal vice industry. Dennison would functionally be the town’s political boss for most of his adult life, and was the major player in Omaha’s bootlegging crime rings during Prohibition. His powers really only waned at the end of the Prohibition era, and he died in 1934, having run the town for close to four decades.
The 2000 census reports that today, 16 percent of Omahans claim Irish ancestry, second only to German as a European ethnicity. Based on history, our current Irish-American neighbors can look forward leaving a storied legacy.
IRISH IN OMAHA
1854: Ireland native James Ferry moves to Omaha, builds many of the early buildings, including territorial capitol; his daughter is officially first white child born in new city
1856: Irish Catholics build first church, St. Mary on Eighth Street between Harney and Jackson streets, led by the Rev. John Cavanaugh
1860: Pioneer businessman Edward Creighton moves to Omaha; brother John settles in Omaha in 1868
1863: Edward and Mary Creighton donate land for convent, used by Sisters of Mercy, a religious institute founded in Ireland
1864: Irish begin to arrive in Omaha in large numbers to assist in building of Union Pacific Railroad
Irish-born James Boyd elected mayor of Omaha; elected Nebraska governor in 1892
Formation of Union Stockyards; leading founders were all of Irish descent
Political and crime boss Tom Dennison moves to Omaha
This article appears in May/June 2015 Omaha Magazine.
Winner of eight 2012 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and the 2013 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album, Once is a truly original Broadway experience featuring an impressive ensemble of actor/musicians who play their own instruments onstage. Based on the Academy Award-winning film, it tells the enchanting tale of a Dublin street musician who’s about to give up on his dream when a beautiful young woman takes a sudden interest in his haunting love songs. As the chemistry between them grows, his music soars to powerful new heights, but their unlikely connection turns out to be deeper and more complex than your everyday romance.
The Oscar-winning independent Irish film, Once, was made for $150,000. Shot in 17 days, it went on to gross $20M worldwide, becoming a critically acclaimed international smash. It stars Glen Hansard, from the popular Irish Rock band The Frames, and Markéta Irglová. The duo won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Original Song with “Falling Slowly,” and the film won the Los Angeles Film Critics Award for Best Music. The soundtrack was also nominated for two Grammy Awards.
409 S. 16th St.
The College World Series
TD Ameritrade Park Omaha
Call it Baseball’s Burning Man. There’s just nothing like it in the world of college sports: One city inextricably linked to the national championship of a major sport. For more than 60 years, college baseball players have had one goal each spring—to keep rolling down that “Road to Omaha.” For many it’s more a week-and-a-half-long vacation, a chance to leave the real world behind at the rebirth of summer and immerse in the unique rhythms and peculiarities of “America’s Pastime.” For 10 days (or 11 days if the 3-game championship series goes to a third game), Omaha adopts the spirit of the game, a vibe built on colorful people, bizarre superstitions, and a freewheeling festival groove. Baseball fans are cool. They’re laid back. They’re friendly. They’re master tailgaters. There’s a reason the series has stayed in Omaha all these years. It’s just hard to imagine any place doing it better.
TD Ameritrade Park Omaha
1200 Mike Fahey St.
Tickets from $30.
Omaha Magazine’s Fried Food Festival
Presented by Storz Brewery
Lewis and Clark Landing
Partnering with Storz Trophy Room Grill & Brewery, Omaha Magazine’s Fried Food Festival promises lots of outdoor fun on Father’s Day weekend. Featuring everything for the fried food foodie, this festival will celebrate all things dipped and battered on the Lewis and Clark Landing from 1 to 6 p.m.
Bringing together street-style vendors, food trucks, and multiple beer gardens is a sure-fire way for dads to load up the calories and enjoy this special weekend. Sticking to a theme we think is only natural for a fried food festival, you’ll enjoy live country music while gobbling down such perfect—if funky—combos as deep-fried pickles and squid.
Enjoy the view of the riverfront while learning a twangy two-step or a do-si-do from professional line dancers. If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, you can try your luck on the mechanical bull. If a little liquid courage is needed, relax in one of the many beer gardens featuring locally brewed Storz beer.
But don’t forget to slather on the sunscreen and bring the kids to the fun zone featuring large inflatable obstacle courses. Admission is free, so bring dad, the kids, and yourself to Omaha’s only Fried Food Festival.
Lewis and Clark Landing
345 N. Riverfront Dr.
Riitta Ikonen: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Leaf
Through June 27
Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts
Myth, memory, and mysticism. Finnish artist Riitta Ikonen ties together all three, and she does so through long-term, multi-disciplinary projects that she creates alone or in conjunction with regular collaborators. Throughout her work, nature frequently acts as both content and context, with characters literally inhabiting the natural landscape or anthropomorphizing into it.
This is evident in several of the exhibition’s featured projects, including Ikonen’s acclaimed Eyes as Big as Plates series, which she created through an on-going collaboration with photographer Karoline Hjorth. Inspired by Scandinavian folklore, the series documents older inhabitants clad in the artist’s wearable costumes in remote landscapes around the world. Within the solitude of these places, her subjects become one with their surroundings, subtly underscoring the age-old relationship between people and nature.
While each of Ikonen’s projects differ in breadth and scope, at their core they all emphasize the deep and abiding connection as well as the silent, dynamic potential that exists between people and nature, the spaces they inhabit, and the experiences they share.
Nothing screams “feed me!” like the smell of a thick, juicy steak sizzling on an outdoor grill. The aroma draws friends and neighbors to an informal, laid-back rite of summer: the backyard barbecue, now in its peak season. But before you throw a T-bone, cowboy ribeye, New York strip, or sirloin on the “barbie,” give a tip of your chef’s hat to that hunk of meat.
After all, beef put Omaha on the map. The cattle industry became the brick and mortar used by pioneering families like the Roths, Buschers, and Simons to build solid businesses; it created hundreds of enterprises related to the meat industry, like the great steakhouses of Little Italy. The packinghouses paid “the best wages in the city,” so young adults like Terry Moore could prosper and start a family. The demand for workers brought diverse cultures to Omaha that enriched life here.
For more than 80 years, livestock drove Omaha’s economy. “Omaha was the largest livestock center in the world; we’re talking the 1950s and ‘60s,” says Bob Buscher, Sr., whose great-grandfather, John Roth, a German immigrant, started a small beef-packing outfit, John Roth & Son, in 1885. “Millions and millions of dollars worth of meat went through the Omaha stockyards to the packers every week. We even beat Chicago.”
Bob Buscher, Sr. of John Roth & Son.
Chicago first gained Omaha as a spirited rival for livestock supremacy way back in 1883 when a group of prominent Omaha businessmen decided they wanted to corral some of the wealth Chicago had amassed from its stockyards. And why not? they reasoned. Omaha had the lush pastures and the Union Pacific Railroad. Equally important, Omaha provided a more central location for cattle barons and ranchers of the Plains and the West to bring in their steers, hogs, and sheep.
According to newspaper clippings of the era, the business syndicate—which included John Creighton, one of the founders of the university that bears his family’s name— bought “2,000 acres of land about four miles due south of the Omaha post office.” They set aside 200 acres for the animal pens and “split up the rest into building lots.”
“Millions and millions of dollars worth of meat went through the Omaha stockyards to the packers every week.” – Bob Buscher, Sr. of John Roth & Son
The Omaha Union Stockyards opened in August 1884 with a shipment of longhorn cattle from Wyoming as the first tenants. By early 1885, a slaughterhouse began operating in the shadow of the yards. Almost overnight, Omaha went from a sleepy frontier town to a hub of agriculture and commerce, thanks to its upstart namesake: South Omaha. As the stockyards expanded throughout the 1890s, the packinghouses and the burgeoning meat industry drew thousands of immigrants with the promise of jobs. Poles, Czechs, Bohemians, Greeks, and Lithuanians joined the Irish and Germans in carving out a better life.
The Simon family, the name behind Omaha Steaks, traces its proud heritage to a Latvian immigrant and his young son.
“Our family started as butchers and became exclusively wholesalers,” says Todd Simon, a fifth-generation owner. In 1898, Todd’s great-great-grandfather, J.J. Simon, got off the train in Omaha with his son, B.A., because the landscape reminded J.J. of the Riga farmland he had left behind. “They bought sides of beef from the packinghouses, cut them up into smaller pieces, and sold them to hotels, restaurants, and grocery stores. They basically replicated what they knew in Latvia.”
Cousins Todd and Bruce Simon of Omaha Steaks.
Their new butcher shop, Table Supply Meat Company, began in 1917. The business moved to 12th and Howard streets in Omaha in 1924. No one could have imagined then what fortunes lay ahead for that modest enterprise.
By the time the Simons arrived here, South Omaha—a separate jurisdiction— had become the fastest-growing city in the nation. Census records show 8,000 residents by 1889, leading one local journalist to dub it “The Magic City.”
“It even had its own newspaper, the Magic City Hoof and Horn,” says Gary Rosenberg, research specialist at the Douglas County Historical Society, which houses a treasure trove of information on the Union Stockyards.
“Our family started as butchers and became exclusively wholesalers.” – Todd Simon of Omaha Steaks
With its unprecedented growth—and wealth—South O became a much-coveted acquisition by its neighbor to the north. The city fiercely fended off many annexation attempts before finally conceding to a merger with Greater Omaha in 1915.
But the beef industry never conceded its importance to the region’s economy and kept nipping at the heels of Chicago. By the early 1950s, the stockyards stretched from 27th Street on the east to 36th Street on the west between L and Q streets. The majestic, 10-story Livestock Exchange Building, where buyers and sellers completed transactions, rose from the middle of the stockyards on South 30th Street. Tens of thousands of animals came into Omaha every week for processing. When the markets opened in New York on Monday mornings, the buying and selling frenzy began.
“You didn’t want to be caught on L Street on a Sunday evening,” remembers Terry Moore, long-time president of the Omaha Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, and a graduate of Omaha South High School. “The trucks carrying the cattle in from the ranches would be lined up all the way past 90th Street to the west, trying to get into the yards.”
Terry Moore, president of the Omaha Federation of Labor AFL-CIO.
“The stockyards had to be the most interesting place on earth,” recalls Buscher, who, as a teenager in the ’50s, often accompanied his father, Clarence, when he went to buy cattle for Roth & Son. “My dad would go down the alley with all the pens of cattle, 25 cattle per pen. He’d bid so many cents per pound on this pen and that pen, and he never wrote it down. Never. He remembered everything.”
Nor were any contracts involved. After haggling over prices and often cursing at each other, the buyer and commission firm agent would come to an agreement and use a handshake to seal the deal.
“A cattleman’s word was his bond,” says Buscher with a hint of reverence. “In all the years I paid the bills, I don’t remember a discrepancy in the number of cattle we bid on or the price.”
“The trucks carrying the cattle in from the ranches would be lined up all the way past 90th Street to the west, trying to get into the yards.” – Terry Moore, president of Omaha Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO
Anyone who grew up in South O after World War II remembers close-knit ethnic neighborhoods where life revolved around a variety of Catholic and Orthodox churches, and social clubs. They also remember a vibrant city with a bustling commercial strip.
“You couldn’t see the sidewalk for all the people shopping on South 24th Street,” recalls South District Councilman Garry Gernandt, who grew up at 20th and Vinton. “We had Phillips Department Store, Buck’s Shoes, TV repair shops, dime stores, restaurants, and lots of ‘mom and pops.’”
On November 21, 1955, the Omaha World-Herald trumpeted the news Omaha had waited decades to hear: It had overtaken Chicago. Bragging rights as the center of the world’s meat industry had finally come to the Midlands. According to the Omaha Daily Journal-Stockman, “Fully one-half of the Omaha labor force is employed in some facet of the livestock industry.”
Aerial stockyards, circa 1950. Photo provided by the Douglas County Historical Society.
Chicken plant. Photo provided by the Douglas County Historical Society.
Meat inspectors. Photo provided by the Douglas County Historical Society.
Omaha: World's largest livestock and meat-packing center. Photo provided by the Douglas County Historical Society.
Ak-Sar-Ben stockyard judging pens. Photo provided by the Douglas County Historical Society.
Stockyard view of the pens, circa 1927. Photo provided by the Douglas County Historical Society.
Trucks backed up to chutes, circa 1926. Photo provided by the Douglas County Historical Society.
Wentworth stockyards. Photo provided by the Douglas County Historical Society.
The demand for meat products kept 13 independent packing plants humming alongside the “Big Four” meatpacking companies: Armour, Swift, Wilson, and Cudahy. Each of the large plants employed more than 2,000 people. The Armour plant alone could process 1,360 head of cattle, 4,800 hogs, and 3,600 sheep in an eight-hour period.
“I went to work for Swift and Company right out of high school in 1961,” says Terry Moore, following in his father’s footsteps. “I worked in all areas of the packinghouse: the kill floors, the coolers, the hide cellar where we cured hides, the engine room, the sausage room, the specialty-cut room—that’s where we’d fill the restaurant orders for the day when they wanted the extra-thick cuts of beef or pork.”
From the hide to the hooves, no part of the animal went unused. A pinched-off hoof, for example, could stabilize gunpowder. The rest of the foot, when boiled, yielded oil for waterproofing.
“You couldn’t see the sidewalk for all the people shopping on South 24th Street.” – Garry Gernandt, South District Councilman
Generations of families who worked in the stockyards or the packing plants found themselves constantly surrounded by mud, manure, or blood. And that was fine with them.
“On a summer evening when it would rain, my father and I would take a deep breath,” says Moore. “My father would ask, ‘What is that, Son?’ I’d say, ‘It smells, Dad.’ And he’d say, ‘That’s the smell of money, son, the smell of money.’”
That’s the same line Sally Kawa’s (KAH-vah) father, Jack, fed her when they had to hose down the floors of their restaurant, the iconic Johnny’s Café.
Johnny’s Café sisters Sally Kawa and Kari Kawa Harding.
“The stockyard workers and cattle haulers would come in for lunch and manure would drop off their boots,” says Sally, who now co-owns Johnny’s with her sister, Kari Kawa Harding. “We had washable linoleum floors then. I’d say, ‘Daddy, this smells,’” at which time Jack would give her the stock reply.
While Italian immigrants, who elected to live between the river and 10th Street, started most of Omaha’s early steakhouses, a Polish immigrant named Frank Kawa invested what little money he had into a bar called Johnny’s at 4702 S. 27th St., next to the stockyards. What started in 1922 as a small, eight-table operation quickly grew into a South Omaha staple.
“We’d have a chuck wagon-style lunch, where all the workers would line up at the steamship round [of beef] counter for their sandwiches,” says Sally. “It was a quick way to serve people.”
“Back in the day, we’d open at 5:30 in the morning for breakfast and not close until 2 in the morning,” adds Jack Kawa, Frank’s son.
“The stockyard workers and cattle haulers would come in for lunch and manure would drop off their boots.” – Sally Kawa of Johnny’s Cafe
Even after the stockyards closed, Johnny’s survived—outlasting once-popular steakhouses that Jack can still reel off: Angie’s, Sparetime, Mr. C’s, Caniglia’s, Johnny Hrupek’s, Ross’, Marchio’s.
“People didn’t forget us,” muses Sally. “We added chicken, fish, and salads to the menu to change with the times, but we still serve old-school favorites like braised ox joints. It’s our biggest seller.”
When “the smell of money” started to turn, it hit people in South Omaha like the thud of a fallen steer. By the late ’60s, the tall, multi-storied, brown brick packinghouses with the kill rooms on the top floor had become woefully outmoded. Built at the turn of the century, they lacked the latest technology and had succumbed to gravity. Terry Moore remembers, “You could take your pen and slide it in between the bricks, and the mortar would fall out.”
At the same time, rural areas like Glenwood and Sioux City, Iowa, and western Nebraska lured packers to relocate to be nearer the product—the cattle, sheep, and hogs. Ranchers could sell direct and avoid the middleman.
One by one, the Big Four packinghouses packed up and moved out, followed by many of the smaller ones. By 1971, Omaha lost its “greatest livestock city in the world” title. The Union Stockyards eventually closed for good in 1999, the same year the Livestock Exchange Building became a historic landmark.
Out of the stagnation that followed emerged a new era for Omaha’s beef industry.
“We still have three of the largest independent packers in South Omaha,” Councilman Gernandt points out. “Greater Omaha Packing, Nebraska Beef, and XL Four Star Beef [now JBS].”
The workforce now consists mainly of Hispanics, Sudanese, Somali, Asians, and some Hmong. “The [melting] pot’s still percolating; it just has different ingredients,” says Gernandt.
John Roth & Son, at 5425 S. 43rd St., got out of the slaughter business in 1986. A few years later, it began manufacturing edible dried animal plasma and rotary-dried blood meal. In 1995, Bob Buscher, Jr., became the fifth generation to work there.
Ironically, the Simon family business that never owned a slaughterhouse or sold retail became the nation’s largest direct marketer of premium beef and gourmet products, single-handedly making “Omaha” synonymous with “steak.”
“They would ask the railroad people, ‘Where did you get these steaks?’ And they would tell them, ‘Well, we got them from Omaha Steaks.’” – Todd Simon
“[Momentum] started in the late 1940s,” explains Todd Simon. That’s when his grandfather, Lester—whether by luck or design or a little of both—secured a contract with Union Pacific Railroad to supply beef products for the dining cars.
“Customers were impressed with the quality of the food, and they would ask the railroad people, ‘Where did you get these steaks?’ And they would tell them, ‘Well, we got them from Omaha Steaks,’ which is how Table Supply marketed them,” says Todd. “And that’s when we started getting calls from around the country for our steaks.”
The business soon began shipping products directly to restaurants and customers in wax-lined cardboard cartons filled with dry ice. In 1966, capitalizing on its best-known commodity, Table Supply Meat officially changed its name to Omaha Steaks.
Today, Todd and his first cousin, Bruce Simon, president and CEO, helm the multi-million-dollar enterprise. Their fathers, Fred and Alan, remain public ambassadors of the company’s philanthropic largesse. Omaha Steaks boasts three million active customers; ships four million coolers of its beef throughout North America each year; employs a permanent workforce of 1,800 Midlanders; uses cutting-edge technology to drive sales, just as it pioneered direct mail, telesales, and the internet as marketing tools; and remains dedicated to Omaha.
A labyrinth of alleyways, fences, and pens stretching through acres of muck and mire became the measure of success for Omaha’s beef industry in its first century. Perhaps the prosperity of Omaha Steaks, the resiliency of South Omaha, and the honesty and loyalty of our modern cattlemen will become the hallmark of the next 100 years.
Douglas County public defender Tom Riley wakes up every weekday morning, puts on a suit and tie, and heads to his Downtown Omaha office where he’s greeted by depositions and a packed schedule full of impending court hearings. But after 5 o’clock, it’s a whole different story.
Riley has been playing traditional Irish folk music with his band, The Turfmen, since the ‘80s. When founder Peter Brennan unexpectedly decided to leave, the remaining members weren’t quite ready to lay down the mandolin. Instead, they changed the band name to Dicey Riley and kept going. There’s not one but two Rileys in the band. Tom Riley’s eldest son, guitarist Brendan Riley, has been playing with them since 2000.
In addition to Brendan Riley (vocals and guitar) and Tom Riley (vocals, guitar, banjo, mandolin), the band includes John Herman (vocals, accordion, guitar) and Brian Lugar (vocals, bass).
“I was surprised how much Brendan already knew when he started playing with us. It must have been through osmosis,” Tom Riley laughs.
For being in his late 20s, the younger Riley has a solid grasp on the meaning of tradition and realizes the importance of a strong bond with his father, which makes playing in Dicey Riley even more satisfying.
“The best part of playing Irish music is the tradition. Some of the songs are literally hundreds of years old,” he says. “The stories of the Irish experience are written so well by the poets and songwriters. Also, I get personal satisfaction that I get to play music with my father. It’s a wonderful bonding experience, and I am lucky to spend as much time with him as I do.”
“The best part of playing Irish music is the tradition. Some of the songs are literally hundreds of years old.” – Brendan Riley, guitarist
Growing up in Chicopee, Mass., Tom Riley was always surrounded by Irish traditions and folk music. He attended college in Vermont and then moved to Omaha to attend Creighton Law School in 1972. Still, he’s never lost touch with his musical roots.
“My uncle’s parents were from Ireland. Music was always kind of a dominant thing in our lives. We used to have lots of backyard parties, and we always had friends that knew how to play instruments,” he recalls. “There were radio shows every Saturday and Sunday that played Irish music. We would listen to those. Honestly, I can’t remember not hearing it.”
Despite the band’s name change, Dicey Riley’s regular Wednesday night gigs at Brazen Head Irish Pub and special appearances at The Dubliner have not suffered. In fact, the audiences are growing larger.
“I don’t think that the name change has affected the band too much. We are still recognized as The Turfmen because it’s mostly the same band members,” Brendan says. “We also routinely play the same places, so the people who have seen us before Dicey Riley are getting the same tunes. We have begun covering a wider array of tunes due to requests. Folk music is getting popular again.”
“Brendan has us covering newer bands such-as Flogging Molly, which appeals to a younger crowd,” Tom adds. “But I have to admit, after a long day at work, it’s tough getting down to The Dubliner on a Friday night to play until 2 a.m. Once we get going, I’m okay though.”
Dicey Riley’s annual St. Patrick’s Day show at The Dubliner is something the guys look forward to every year, even though it can get a little rowdy and maybe even a little disgusting.
“St. Patrick’s Day is enjoyable because it’s the day that everyone is Irish and the culture is in full force, even if it is more an American-Irish tradition,” Brendan explains. “It can get a little rough when people drink too much, but for the most part it’s usually a fun time. I saw a guy [drink] an Irish Car Bomb last year. He swallowed it down, and it immediately came back up. Then, he filled up his pint glass and drank it back down again. Absolutely revolting. I thought I was going to puke!”