Tag Archives: law

Omaha! Omaha!

June 10, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Picture a drop of water balancing on a leaf, or a Zen master poised on one foot—mid-air—for what seems an eternity. NFL referee and Omaha attorney Clete Blakeman maintains his own special equilibrium by excelling in two distinctly different careers.

“It really is a nice balance,” especially now in the off-season, he says. “I’m able to focus back on law for a little bit. And I do enjoy it.”

Blakeman, an attorney and NFL referee, was there the day Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning’s pre-snap count of “Omaha! Omaha!” became a viral media sensation.

“It got so much attention because the microphones on the field picked up so much,” he says. “Omaha!” had been part of Manning’s and other quarterback’s cadence over recent seasons, so Blakeman didn’t give the familiar audible too much thought. But at halftime, Blakeman learned that, thanks to microphone placements, the name of his hometown was being heard repeatedly by tens of millions of viewers.

“In the second half,” he says, “I did mention to Peyton that I was from Omaha, and he chuckled about it.”

From childhood Blakeman was immersed in the world of sports and officiating. He would tag along with his referee father for both football and basketball seasons in his hometown of Norfolk.

“It’s in my blood,” he adds.

Blakeman has served six seasons in zebra stripes. He manages a whirlwind travel schedule with an eye to minimizing time away from his wife, Katie, and their two children, daughter Maeve, 3, and son Hudson, 1. Blakeman makes his turf time essentially a 36-hour gig. He flies out the day before and, with the exception of Sunday night games, returns home the next night.

Blakeman has a front-row seat to the violence of the NFL and closely follows the league’s safety initiatives. “I have a sense that the sport is going to continue to change probably in the next 10, 15, 20 years.” The idea that his son may follow in his father’s football footsteps makes Blakeman doubly concerned.

“I’m very aware of health and player safety.”

Managing his jet-setting, multiple-career balancing act is more important now that his family is growing. “It’s great to be able to travel and experience other places,” he says.

And then, it’s even greater to get back home to “Omaha! Omaha!”

“To call this home, especially now with two little ones, it’s pretty special,” Blakeman says.

Renaissance Man

January 12, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Scholar, lawyer, professor, arts administrator, university dean. David Thompson has had all these professional titles, but he’s impossible to pin down with a simple job description.

Although he took the helm at KANEKO in July as executive director, it’s unlikely this position will similarly define or limit what he does. That’s because Thompson, who grew up in Bellevue, is a man driven by intellectual curiosity, academic rigor, and a constant desire to learn. This is evident in everything he has accomplished.

After receiving an undergraduate degree from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, he earned a master’s degree in literature and Victorian Studies at Oxford University before receiving a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Chicago and a J.D. from Northwestern University. As disparate as these fields may seem, each enhanced the other and strengthened Thompson’s ability to work across unrelated disciplines.

“I enjoy exercising different skills,” he explains. “I love the back and forth between practical applications and creative ideas. There are so many ways to make an impact. I find it invigorating.”

His career trajectory likewise allowed him to engage in dynamic back-and-forths.

After attaining his law degree, he joined Sachnoff & Weaver in Chicago, where he practiced securities and intellectual property law. He soon realized that his interests were in the nonprofit world, and in 2004 he became Associate Director of Gift Planning at the famed University of Chicago, where he learned about the inner workings of successful cultural organizations. Pivotal in Thompson’s professional development, however, was his subsequent position as Associate Dean for Planning & Programs in the school’s Humanities Division.

“It was a fantastic opportunity,” he recalls. One of his most impressive accomplishments was his role in the creation of the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, which opened last year. “I was on the steering committee for a $100-million interdisciplinary facility,” says Thompson. “It was one of the most exciting projects of my career.”

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In 2008, Thompson broadened his experience by serving as Director of Development & Strategic Initiatives at Chicago-Kent College of Law before becoming a consultant specializing in assisting non- and for-profit organizations with integrated approaches to strategic planning and resource development.

Throughout each of these transitions, Thompson remained engaged with the community. He regularly taught students of all ages, participated in public discussions on such topics as the arts and environmental sustainability, and served on several boards, including the National Public Housing Museum, 3Arts, and the Resource Center. Through all these experiences, he developed a unique expertise that makes it possible to pull together multiple skills in law, business, art, strategic planning, and operations.

Despite living outside Nebraska for almost three decades, Thompson maintained close ties, and in March he returned to assist his family, which still lives in Bellevue.

Serendipitously, KANEKO, which is dedicated to exploring the creative process, was hiring a new executive director. Thompson sought out the job description and found it meshed with his professional interests. “My background is automatically interdisciplinary,” he says. “I’m interested in everything from how to revitalize neighborhoods to how the brain works.”

Thompson’s ability to think broadly was compelling to KANEKO. Board members Robert and Polina Schlott note how impressed the organization was with his background. “We wanted someone who would be a perfect fit,” explains Polina. “There are so many facets involved in being an executive director of a creative foundation. You need business skills and an understanding of creativity—not to mention academic experience. It’s difficult to find that all in one person.”

Bob agrees. “That’s why David’s an awfully good fit. He can fulfill a variety of different tasks, and that’s exactly what we were looking for.”

Adam Price, who became the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art’s new executive director last March, also began his career as an attorney and knows how a background outside the arts can contribute to strengthening an arts institution.

“Our backgrounds give us different approaches,” he observes. “They are different, and that can be exciting. I think it’s great for KANEKO and great for the cultural scene.”

Thompson is also looking forward to contributing to that scene. “I feel fortunate that KANEKO is still small enough that I can be involved in areas such as fundraising and curatorial programs,” he says.

Fundraising comprises one of his first major duties and presents the exciting challenge of dramatically transforming the organization. He is overseeing KANEKO’s capital campaign, which will add a 20-foot-wide atrium across its front entrance and extend the 30,000-square-foot facility by another 5,500. This, says Thompson, will help make KANEKO a major cultural center in Omaha. “We will provide a better sense of the organization as a vital part of the community,” he observes. “There are so many ideas that come into play here. I see us becoming involved in areas we’ve maybe not been before and thinking about our role in the community in a new way.”

The opportunity to accomplish these goals has come at precisely the right moment for Thompson. He turned 50 last August, an age that for him is highly symbolic.

“I have a strong desire to reach a kind of professional peak during this decade,” he explains, “and to feel like I am having a meaningful, positive impact on the organization that employs me and on my community.”

The writer is the Communications Manager for the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.

Corianna Kubasta

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Second-year Creighton University Law student Corianna Kubasta may not be a bonafide attorney just yet, but she’s already got a cause she’s fighting for—the Wounded Warrior Project and its mission to honor and empower those who’ve served and sacrificed for our country.

After graduating from University of North Dakota, Kubasta decided on Creighton Law because of the school’s focus on “the student as a whole.” She says the sense of community offered by the university and Omaha made her decision to move here an easy one.

According to Kubasta, student law groups at Creighton have a longstanding tradition of charity and service. As a member of CU’s newly founded Military Law Society, Kubasta is involved with an innovative group of students that seeks to support military affiliates within the Creighton and Greater Omaha communities.

In beginning their effort, the Law Society has become a registered sponsor of the Wounded Warrior Project. Founded in 2002, the nonprofit WWP states its purpose as three-fold: to raise awareness and enlist the public’s aid for the needs of injured service members; to help injured service members aid and assist each other; and to provide unique, direct programs and services to meet the needs of injured service members. As a proud supporter of the WWP, the student group is focused on raising awareness and funds for the organization.

“We really want to reach out to vets in the Omaha community. It’s nice to know you have someone to go to [for help].”

Most students involved with CU’s Military Law Society have been active military members themselves (although there are family and friends of military who join, too). Kubasta is herself a veteran, having served a yearlong tour in Iraq with an Army National Guard unit from North Dakota in 2008. While on active duty, she trained with the military police, as well as worked in prisons.

Kubasta said her tour overseas further strengthened and guided her passion for justice. “It was interesting to see how [Iraqis] dealt with criminals without a structured system. There is just not as much due process over there.” Witnessing many injustices during her tour simply reinforced her desire to go into law, she says.

In April, the Military Law Society hosted their first big WWP fundraiser, a poker tournament. The event “couldn’t have been made possible without Connor McCarthy’s time and energy,” says Kubasta, praising her fellow CU student and MLS’s founder. Although the tournament was a monetary success, Kubasta says the bigger achievement was in helping attendees develop a deeper appreciation for what soldiers have sacrificed.

The Military Law Society has already agreed to host another tournament next year and will be inviting both old and new friends. The group is looking at other ways to aid the organization as well. “We really want to reach out to vets in the Omaha community,” Kubasta says. “It’s nice to know you have someone to go to [for help].”

It seems Kubasta and fellow CU students are happy to offer that helping hand, and Omaha will be a better community for it.

To learn more about the Wounded Warrior Project and what you can do to help, vsit
woundedwarriorproject.org.

Sam Mercer

April 25, 2013 by
Photography by Vera Mercer

Continental bon vivant Samuel Mercer, who passed away in early February, was not a typical Nebraskan. Though he grew up to become the Old Market’s undisputed godfather, he started life as the son of prominent Omaha physician and landowner Nelson Mercer. Young Sam was born and raised in privileged circumstances in London, England, and educated at Oxford and Yale. After living in Washington, D.C., he based his law practice in Paris, where he mostly lived the rest of his life, holding dual citizenship.

In Paris, Mercer cultivated relationships with avant garde artists. A watercolorist himself, he made artist Eva Aeppli his second wife. On his handful of trips to Omaha each year, Mercer cut an indelible figure with his shoulder-length gray hair, his trans-Atlantic accent, and his waxing on far-ranging subjects. He spoke perfect French.

“He projected an aura of unpretentious aristocracy…I liked him immediately and enormously,” says designer Roger duRand, who with Percy Roche opened the Old Market’s first business, The Farthest Outpost.

With the death of his father in 1963, Mercer took charge of the Mercer Management company here. He appreciated the century-old brick warehouses—some Mercer-owned—comprising the wholesale produce market just southeast of downtown. But it was designer Cedric Hartman who first advocated doing something with those buildings, which by the mid-1960s were largely abandoned and in disrepair.

Hartman, an acclaimed designer of lighting and furniture pieces made at his Marcy Street factory, recalls the genesis of the Old Market. He and Judy Wigton were partners in a high-end gift shop. Like Mercer, they admired the dying produce district’s buildings and in 1964, began meeting with him about these structures as potential sites for exciting, new ventures, such as fine shops, galleries, and restaurants.

“He projected an aura of unpretentious aristocracy.” – Roger duRand

“We were quite surprised to find such a person,” says Hartman. “He was a very smart, very worldly, and sophisticated character with great personal charm. We were both wowed by him, and in his way he was with us.”

Wigton says, “He certainly had a great appreciation for old buildings and also a need to fill the empty places with new tenants.”

“He did respond to us in a great way,” Hartman notes. “We were a couple of really artsy kids, and he was really artsy, so it couldn’t have been a better association. He was a kindred spirit in so many ways.”

Those early encounters formulated the vision for what became the Old Market.

“I remember we walked around the streets trying to imagine what could be done. I’d say, ‘Now look at this building; we could do this with it,’ and he’d just respond right in kind,” says Hartman. “I couldn’t have done that with anybody else. He hooked into all this stuff really fast.”

By 1968, Mercer moved strategically to gain control of a collection of buildings in what is now the Old Market. “Sam did not want anything said about the project until he could acquire options on enough other properties in the area to ensure the success of the redevelopment,” says Wigton.

It was Mercer’s idea to make the groundfloor space of the former Gilinsky Fruit Company into a French restaurant. There, Hartman designed the Old Market’s signature spot, the French Café, as well as apartments above it. Ree Kaneko, a fellow Old Market pioneer, says the restaurant, opened in 1969, was “very important” in helping solidify and legitimize the Market.

“He certainly had a great appreciation for old buildings and also a need to fill the empty places with new tenants.” – Judy Wigton

“It was a risky thing for him to do,” Hartman says. “Who knew if that would work? However, it was a great success.”

More anchor attractions followed—Homer’s, M’s Pub, Mr. Toad, Spaghetti Works, Nouvelle Eve, the Firehouse Dinner Theater, the Bemis. Designers duRand and Hartman advised Mercer and his son Mark, daughter-in-law Vera, and nephew Nicholas Bonham-Carter on this never-planned but organically developed area. The Mercers created one of the Market’s most distinct features, The Passageway, and later opened their own distinguished enterprises—V Mertz, La Buvette, and The Boiler Room.

“We worked to shape the Old Market neighborhood in the most authentic and benign ways possible, gently guiding new tenants away from the clichéd and vulgar, and to more thoughtful and honest approaches to development of the beautiful old structures,” says duRand. “Even though Sam lived and worked in Paris, his presence was in every decision of significance in nurturing the Market. He made frequent visits to Omaha in the early days and was instrumental in bringing the city fathers around to acceptance, then eventual approval, and finally enthusiasm for the preservation and rebirth of our neighborhood. His passing leaves a permanent and poignant void.”

Sam Mercer viewed the Market as an evolving social experiment and art project aligned with his own desires. Mark says the family has continued that philosophy by encouraging unique ventures that “fit our tastes and interests.” He and Vera say creating new things is their passion. They vow to retain the vibrant charm of this historic neighborhood that Mercer lovingly made happen.

Samuel Mercer passed away Feb. 5 at his home in Honfleur, France. He was 92. Services were held at Trinity Episcopal Church in Omaha.

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