Tag Archives: leader

Austin Ortega

February 23, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

How did a smallish soccer-playing Hispanic kid from sun-drenched Escondido, California, end up an ice hockey star in Nebraska?

Although his profile does not fit the stereotypical hockey player, UNO Mavericks forward Austin Ortega has risen to the top ranks of college hockey, a sport dominated by big bruisers from the North.

The senior—also known as “California Hot Sauce” and “Score-tega”—has proved doubters wrong ever since he left home at age 15 to pursue his hockey dreams.

He lived with host families while playing elite youth hockey in Colorado and during two seasons in the USHL. After a season with the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders, he graduated from high school in Iowa. Then, he split his next season between the Indiana Ice and Fargo Force. A scholarship brought Ortega to UNO.

Despite being undersized (by elite hockey standards) at 5 feet 8 inches tall, 175 pounds, and a West Coast oddity, he’s been a prolific, crunch-time scorer everywhere he’s played. Competing in Division I’s toughest conference, he’s among Omaha’s all-time point leaders and holds two NCAA scoring records—for most game-winning goals in a season and a career. He’s made indelible memories and sparked frenzied cheers at the CenturyLink and, now, Baxter Arena.

Being Mr. Clutch is the result of instinct and intent.

“I’ve always tried to have the knack,” he says. “It really accelerated once I got here, especially over the last couple years, and it’s just something I keep trying to get better and better at.”

Players hit a wood board before stepping on the ice at Baxter Arena home games.

During a winter visit to Omaha, father Frank Ortega says that his son “lives for the moment to try to shoot the puck in when it matters. It started when he was younger, playing soccer. He wanted to be that guy doing the penalty kick. Over time he’s gained confidence, and now he’s developed into the guy who wants that puck.”

Austin Ortega and current-NHL player Jake Guentzel formed a potent one-two punch as sophomores leading Omaha to the program’s only Frozen Four berth in 2015. Last season started strong, with Omaha even netting its first No. 1 ranking, but fortunes sank, and the team missed making the playoffs altogether in 2016.

In Ortega’s collegiate season finale, despite losing Guentzel to the pros (the Pittsburgh Penguins drafted Ortega’s linemate and the team’s captain before his senior year), he has continued to lead the Mavericks’ offensive effort.

In a two-game series with Lake Superior State, he got the game-winner the first night and led a furious come-from-behind win the second night.

“Halfway through the third period we had nothing going on,” coach Dean Blais says of the comeback. “I said to Austin, ‘You’ve got to take this game over. You’re our scorer, you’re our so-called leader in that category, and we need you now.’ And he was like shot out of a cannon. Austin’s found his way to get those game-winning goals. Sometimes he might score the fourth goal [after] the other team has scored three, but he’s also scored game-winning goals in overtime and shoot-out type situations, so he’s a real sniper.”

Taking on the pressure to be the hero or goat “is a lot to handle,” Blais says, “To be a leader you gotta want to be a leader—you gotta want to do it every day in practice, and he’s been doing that.” Blais has seen it all from Ortega and expects even more at the next level. “Austin will be signing an NHL contract with whoever gives him a good opportunity, but to get that he’s got to really earn that this last stretch of games. He’s among three or four forwards in the United States everyone’s looking at. It’s hard to find scoring in the NHL. Austin has that ability.”

The accolades, achievements, expectations, and opportunities are more than his parents imagined when he discovered skating and hockey at age 5. Unfamiliar with hockey, they figured his interest would wane.

“We never anticipated he would be to where he is now with all the success he’s seen,” Tessie Ortega says.

She and her husband were awed when Austin’s hockey skills earned a college scholarship. Everything else, including multiple Player of the Month national honors and vying for a national title, has been a blur.

“Austin’s shown a lot of dedication and made sacrifices to the sport.  There’s a lot of stuff he’s missed—birthday parties, holiday gatherings,” Frank Ortega says. “It’s amazing how it’s all coming to an end. It happened so fast.”

The player is keenly aware this amazing college ride is nearly done.

“One thing I’ve learned now that I’m a senior is to enjoy every moment,” Ortega says. “I know a lot of guys try to rush the process and get a call to pursue professional hockey as fast as they can. A lot of guys don’t realize this is one of the best times of their life. I mean, with this new rink and the fans and everything, I just like to soak it in and try to slow it down as much as I can, because I know I’ll be out of here real soon.”

His parents realize Ortega is on the verge of a pro hockey career, but they’re cautiously watching the process play out, just as they did when he went from youth leagues to the USHL to college. The NHL’s the next logical step.

“For us, there’s a little hesitation to think that can happen until it does because you don’t want to assume anything,” Frank Ortega says. “But it’s exciting.”

Visit omavs.com for more information.

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

At the Heart of St. Matthew

November 15, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“When I see a student no longer having to struggle to read or do a math problem—that is why I teach. They take so much pride in them-selves when they become independent in their thinking.”

-Lisa Benson

As a young Girl Scout in Texas, a lightbulb went off when Lisa Benson’s troop adopted a special needs class during her middle school years. She knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up. That connection to those students made her realize that her future place in life was in a classroom. She held on to that joy of helping others when she attended Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, and majored in elementary education. She dedicated her education further by continuing on for her master’s degree in literacy from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Now, at 58 years old and with over 20 years of teaching experience, Lisa Benson was recently honored as one of the Educators of the Year in the elementary category by the Archdiocese of Omaha at the Archbishop’s Dinner for Education on Sept. 29, 2016.

Nominated by the principal, staff, and community of St. Matthew Catholic School, where she has taught first grade for the past 14 years, Benson was just as shocked as she was thrilled to receive the award: “I was so surprised. I feel I have always given my best to St. Matthew School, my students, and their families. It is such an honor to be recognized for hard work and dedication. I truly appreciate all the support from the archdiocese, my fellow teachers, and the families at St. Matthew.”

It’s that heart and dedication that is exactly why she was nominated, according to school principal Jim Daro, who has worked with her during the four years he’s been at St. Matthew.

“Mrs. Benson is an outstanding teacher,” Daro says. “She cares deeply for her students and their progress in and out of her classroom. She maintains a classroom environment where students are cared for and comfortable; they know they are there to learn. They respect her just as much as she respects them.”

As a mother of three grown children, Benson loves cultivating independence in not only her own children but those she teaches every day in the first grade classroom. “At this age, they love learning,” she says. “So all I have to do is present it to them, and they soak it up. When I see a student no longer having to struggle to read or do a math problem—that is why I teach. They take so much pride in themselves when they become independent in their thinking.”

But teaching hasn’t always come easy to Benson. She didn’t start her teaching career until after raising her children. At the start of working at St. Matthew, she felt behind in the field of education. “Things had changed since I graduated from college. This struggle has made me aware of how my students, or even a new staff member, may feel when a concept isn’t clear to them.”

That empathy is what led her to become like a support system to many other teachers at the school. Daro raves about Benson’s ability to help others, “She is a mentor and a leader with the rest of the faculty. She is highly involved in our school and community beyond the classroom. Mrs. Benson is involved with our school board, our development team, and our school improvement team.”

As for what Benson will do with the $5,000 award prize from her prestigious Educator of the Year recognition: “My husband and I are still figuring that out. Maybe a trip!”

And with all the hard work, time, and heart Benson puts into each day of teaching, a trip is definitely a great way to celebrate her dedication to the St. Matthew students and educational community.

Visit stmatthewbellevuene.net for more information.

This article was printed in the Winter 2016 edition of Family Guide, an Omaha Publications magazine.

The Essence of Oikos

April 9, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally published in March/April 2015 Omaha Magazine.

These pages often feature nonprofits that have the power to draw from scores of volunteers supported by a paid staff backed by a who’s-who-in-Omaha board infrastructure in serving broad and far-flung community needs. Sponsored events and fundraisers may attract hundreds, even thousands, of generous, like-minded people in raising big money to propel mission statements.

Eric Purcell’s role is…well, a little different. He’s an army of one.

“I certainly don’t feel alone,” says the area’s sole representative of Beta Communities. “Sure, this is my job, and I’m the only one that happens to be doing this for Beta here in Omaha, but when your thing is to work in the community, you can never really be alone.”

Beta Communities, the organization’s website explains, is a missionary order—embedded locally and sent globally—that develops leaders to deeply inhabit their place in the way of Jesus and, in doing so, live out their vocational call in the world.

Purcell points to a photo collage in his living room in making a point on Beta Communities’ values. He took five snapshots of random objects (the letter “O,” for example, is rendered in the form of an overhead image of a coffee cup) to spell out oikos, the ancient Greek word for household.

“But the word goes beyond the idea of a mere structure or a home,” Purcell adds. “It speaks more to the idea of family, extended family, and the wider community. The word ‘economy,’ for example, is also derived from oikos, and indicates a system of interactions, just like the interactions we have in our mission.”

The “we” in Purcell’s thoughts above is a nod to his wife, Lisa, who is Eric’s constant companion in his work. She is a stay-at-home mom who homeschools the couple’s children, Norah (9), and Brennen (5) in their home that overlooks Gifford Park (see related story on page H24 for more on the Gifford Park neighborhood).

“There’s something almost countercultural in what we do,” says Lisa. “I’m a stay-at-home mom. I’m a homeschooling mom. Because of that, it’s sometimes hard for me to easily define my role in Eric’s work, but this ministry is something we birthed together,” she says as Eric nods his head in agreement. “We are in this together, even though he’s the paid staff member. He has the ‘office hours’ [even though there is no office], but together we find a way to fill things in. His work has no context unless everything points back to our life together; our life with the kids, our life in the community, our life in this mission. Sometimes I feel like I’m on the outside looking in, but I know that isn’t really the case at all.”

“And neighborhoods,” Eric explains, “can never be looked at as a one-man anything. It just doesn’t work that way. Being a neighbor, most importantly, starts with a lot of listening.” Eric adds that they believe that a community’s strength is measured in the number of people who, as the Beta values state, “deeply inhabit” their surroundings, the people who are invested in a neighborhood on all levels.

The couple recently hosted their own little “investor meeting,” what Beta Communities calls a Cohort. It’s a weekend immersion experience with friends and neighbors that features a slate of guided conversations in sessions that center around the idea of imaging better communities and the individual’s power to affect change. Their most recent Cohort had a decidedly local, even walkable flavor, but two friends involved in community arts efforts in Wichita, Kansas, also travelled for the Cohort to learn more about what was happening in Omaha.

Just like the area’s community gardens that will soon sprout with the promise of another leafy bounty, Eric explains that the couple’s work is equally organic. “That’s because a lot of our involvement comes through our work with the [Gifford Park] Neighborhood Association,” where Eric just completed two consecutive terms as president of the group. “Very few people in this neighborhood know what Beta is. They may never have even heard us use the word, and we’re okay with that.”

The Gifford Park Neighborhood Association is one of the strongest and most active in the community, but even the most robust of programs face challenges, Eric says. The area is home to neighbors hailing from more than 20 nations. Income levels are all over the map. Many of the Purcell’s neighbors are learning English.

“Maybe it’s getting kids to kick a soccer ball around,” Eric says in pointing across the street to Gifford Park’s used soccer nets donated by the city. “That’s one way to connect. Maybe it’s our Summer Tennis Program or the community gardens. That’s how it works.” You find a way to bring people together, he says, and good things start to happen.

And that, these most non-traditional of missionaries believe, is the very essence of oikos.

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Mark Hasebroock

August 26, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Despite Mark Hasebroock’s success as an entrepreneur—he was a co-founder of prosperous e-commerce businesses Hayneedle and GiftCertificates.com, in addition to having experience as a small business owner and working in investment and commercial banking—he says he still wishes he’d had less time-consuming, back-and-forth discussion and more expedient, hands-on guidance when he was on the launching pad.

“We got strung along so many times by different investors who just took forever to get to a conclusion. Having been on the other side of the desk starting companies of my own, it was frustrating looking first for the capital, and second: ‘Can anybody help me? How can I get from here to here? Where is this resource? If you were in my shoes, what would you do?’ type of stuff,” Hasebroock says. “At some point I thought, ‘There’s just got to be a better way to do it, and I want to someday start a fund of my own—and do it my way, and do it right.’”

In 2011, Hasebroock did just that, kicking off Dundee Venture Capital (DVC) with an objective to be responsive to, decisive with, and supportive of entrepreneurs, he explains. “When we get an inquiry, we should review it and either we get back to you and say it’s a fit, or we say, ‘It’s not a fit and here’s who you should talk to.’ And let’s do that in a 24- to 48-hour period. The standard is two to four weeks.”

With his team of Michael Wetta, Nick Engelbart, and Andrea Sandel, plus two interns (“They’re all rock stars; I’m notoriously bad at giving direction, so they have to be self-starters.”), DVC operates out of offices in the Mastercraft Building on North 13th Street on the edge of downtown. The Dundee in the company’s name, and in the logo based on a pre-1915 annexation postal stamp, reflects the company’s first offices, as well as Hasebroock’s home neighborhood.

“We started in Warren Buffett’s grandfather’s grocery store—that’s where Dundee Bank is today—and I was an investor in Dundee Bank, so it all kind of tied in together with some of the history with where capitalism sort of started in Omaha and the heart of Dundee,” Hasebroock explains.

“…when somebody comes in with ‘here’s my business, here’s what I’m doing, here’s the problem, here’s my solution, and here’s why my team’s going to win’…we usually know within the first five minutes if this is someone we’re going to back.”

He also likes both the Omaha and Nebraska associations with the Dundee name. Hasebroock grew up in Omaha (he was once a Peony Park lifeguard), graduating from Westside High School, and earning his undergraduate degree at University of Nebraska-Lincoln and his MBA from Creighton University. He and his wife, Jane, who met in their youth and married in 1984, chose to raise their four sons and four daughters in their shared hometown. “No twins and, yes, the same spouse,” Hasebroock likes to say, adding that the family calls the older four the “Varsity” team and the younger half, the “JV.” The collective teammates are now ages 11 to 27 and have kept the family involved in numerous school and community-related sports, clubs, and activities for years. And Hasebroock himself plays hockey with a local adult league, the BPHL (Beer-and-Pretzel Hockey League) on Team Gold, stressing their three-time defending champion status.

“I haven’t really strayed too far,” he says. And his ties to the Heartland continue through his investments. With a preference for Midwest-based endeavors, DVC invests anywhere from $50,000 to a half-million dollars in growth companies that focus on e-commerce and web services.

“The next criteria is super-passionate, driven founders, so when somebody comes in with ‘here’s my business, here’s what I’m doing, here’s the problem, here’s my solution, and here’s why my team’s going to win’…we usually know within the first five minutes if this is someone we’re going to back,” Hasebroock says.

DVC is already seeing its investees take off and even soar under the guidance of Hasebroock and his team. Hasebroock says it was through mentor Mike McCarthy (founding partner of McCarthy Capital) that he saw firsthand how the simple principle of “treat people like you want to be treated” breeds success, and he emulates that culture of respect at DVC. Plus, there’s a multigenerational—and even simpler—principle Hasebroock follows: “Like my grandfather used to say, there’s four secrets to success: W. O. R. K.”

“It’s empathetic because we understand. And yet there are demands on the capital. We certainly want it back. We’d like more than we put in.  But we also know that these founders are being pulled in two hundred different directions. And to the degree that we can help keep them on the rails a little bit and not just chase that next great shiny penny idea; that’s what we want to do.”

Hasebroock, who’s also now involved with a new Omaha-based accelerator for technology startups called Straight Shot, sees nothing but growth ahead for DVC.

“I think the next step is another fund that invests in startups. I don’t think the supply is going to slow down,” he says. “We’re continually seeing really creative ideas out of a lot of markets.”

Joe Wherry

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Omaha resident Joe Wherry was a child who slipped through the cracks. As a toddler, he lived on the streets of his native Chicago under the loose supervision of skid row residents. He slept on a heating grate in front of a hotel for warmth. Now 64, Wherry spends his life making sure no one else slips through the cracks. “Everybody deserves someone to help them,” he says.

Despite some health challenges, Wherry remains cheery and lives on his own in West Omaha. The memorabilia in his apartment attests to that. For example, take the portrait of a 20-something Wherry in a flight jacket on the wall of his bedroom. Wherry served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1969. A “river rat,” in his words, he served as a boatswain’s mate in the Mekong Delta.20130312_bs_8969_web

Wherry sustained multiple injuries in the line of duty. “I was medevaced three times before they sent me home,” he says. Eventually, he won the Purple Heart.

In the 1980s, he began volunteering as an advocate for fellow veterans, even as he himself fought for disability benefits related to post-traumatic stress disorder. Wherry also suffered ailments related to exposure to Agent Orange.

Tucked behind his military portrait there is a palm frond—the kind that gets handed out around Easter in Catholic churches. Wherry is an active member of St. Patrick Parish in Elkhorn, serving as a greeter and an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist. Wherry was exposed to Catholicism while a student at Boys Town, where he graduated high school in 1966.20130312_bs_8981_web

“It was the first place where I could make something of myself,” he says of the home for wayward children. He was inducted into the Boys Town Hall of Fame in 2004.

Family portraits line Wherry’s walls along with his own. He met his wife, Marcia, when he was running a singles’ bar in Cicero, Ill., in 1972. She was a former Miss Tall Chicago. Two months later, they were engaged. Wherry has four children and six grandkids; Marcia succumbed to cancer in 1991.

Boy Scout mementos pack Wherry’s home. He thanks Boys Town for exposing him to the Boy Scouts as well, but it was not until after he returned from Vietnam that Wherry wanted to be an adult leader.20130312_bs_8955_web

While volunteering at a church school, Wherry saw a scoutmaster tell a boy to do a task “because I said so.” Wherry volunteered in order to be a different kind of leader. Decades later, his Boy Scout uniform is covered in patches awarded for services and accomplishments. If I can change it just by being there, I want to be there,” he says.

Wherry suffers frequent health problems, but that will not stop him helping others. “I’m going to keep doing it until I get it right,” he says with a laugh.

David Brown’s Omaha

May 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

David Brown did his fair share of moving around before settling in Omaha in 2003 to become president of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. Before assuming that post, the Detroit native worked in his home state of Michigan, then in Indiana, before spending a solid decade in South Carolina.

Brown has always stayed longer than the norm for chamber professionals because he also does economic development work and that field requires long-term commitment.

“Economic development is really my first love. The part I’ve grown to love the most is [determining] what to do to improve the community so that it’s more attractive to companies and individuals to stay here or to come here,” he says. “When you do chamber work, which traditionally does not include economic development, you don’t put down as many roots as you do if you’re doing economic development, where you’re selling dirt and really learning about the community. Clients have to see you’re knowledgeable and committed.”

After 10 years down south, he and wife Maggie looked to get the youngest of their two sons settled in school. Moving to the middle of the country held great appeal.

“We wanted to get into a more positive public-education environment for Elijah, who was getting ready to go into middle school. We wanted to get back to the Midwest where our roots were,” says Brown. “Fortunately, the Omaha position was open, and I threw my hat in the ring and got the job.

“I guess what really trips my trigger is that I can point to things I’ve been involved in that have made [Omaha] a better place and given people jobs. I like making a difference, that’s really what it comes down to.”

“This is my 10th year. We’ve been here about as long as we’ve been anywhere. This is home.”

His devotion to Omaha is such that he’s influenced extended family members to make this their home as well. He enjoys working with people who share his passion for enhancing Omaha.

“There has been a collection of leadership here that seems to have in the back of their mind, ‘How do we improve this place?’ You’ve got this intentional effort to try and improve the place, married with the unbelievable generosity of the philanthropists here and the corporate support for making this a better place. You see remarkable amenities created, not to bring tourists to Omaha but to enhance the quality of life for the people who already live here. The fact that they’ve had a tourist appeal as well is just chocolate on the sundae.”

Add it all up, he says, “and that gives us a competitive advantage over other places where that kind of development and quality discussion doesn’t happen as consistently. We’ve got people who have been able to sit down and say, ‘What is it we need to be a better place?’ and then they’ve gone about the process of getting it done. It’s fascinating to see how quickly some of this stuff has occurred, like the riverfront redevelopment. There was a frenetic pace almost that took place in the ’90s that continued into the 2000s.”

For Brown, there’s nothing better than seeing projects like the CenturyLink Center Omaha or Midtown Crossing take shape.

“I guess what really trips my trigger is that I can point to things I’ve been involved in that have made [Omaha] a better place and given people jobs. I like making a difference, that’s really what it comes down to. It’s very rewarding at the end of the year to sit back and say, ‘What did we do this year?’ and know we made a measurable, demonstrable difference in the community we live in…Not just me, but the team we function with, from our volunteers to our members to our staff.”20130228_bs_7662-2_Web

Brown will be guiding the new Prosper Omaha campaign that seeks to brand the city as never before. Omaha’s aspirational spirit resonates with him and the work of the chamber.

“Omaha’s always been a business town, and the business community here plays a big role in making things happen. We’ve been fortunate as an organization that the business community has looked to the chamber to accomplish some pretty significant things, so over time, we’ve picked up some additional responsibilities. We find ourselves in things a lot of chambers don’t find themselves involved in.”

The Young Professionals Association is an example.

“We have this dynamic young professionals organization that’s involved in virtually every major community activity you can think of,” Brown says. “The management and leadership of that process has been a whole new learning experience for us. There are 5,000 young professionals who, at some point or another, have plugged into this process of making Omaha a better place. We’re mentoring and engaging [them] so they can be leaders in the future. It’s become part of our leadership agenda.”

In terms of projects, he says, the chamber is “getting deeper and deeper into things the community needs. When [then-Omaha Chamber board chair] Dick Bell said in 2004 that the chamber is going to be involved in making sure every Omahan has an opportunity to succeed and every area in Omaha has an opportunity to grow, that [declaration] got us in the community development business. We’re going to help Midtown grow, were going to help NoDo grow, we’re going to help North Omaha grow, we’re going to help South Omaha grow. That changed the way we think about economic development and the activities we’re engaged in doing community development.”

“I like change…It’s something I really embrace. If I don’t see change happening, I’m wondering if I’m doing my job.”

Brown says he likes that the Omaha Chamber not only “provides services to our members to grow their businesses, but we’re also a catalytic organization.” He adds, “That means we’re sometimes change agents. Sometimes we lead. Virtually always we’re conveners. We convene a wide diversity of people that can help solve problems. Advocacy is always a part of the agenda.”

A graduate of Dartmouth College, where he played football and baseball, Brown is a natural people person and team player. “I really like people,” he says.

He says lessons he learned playing team sports “are all things I use every day with our team here at the chamber and with the teams we build within the community,” adding, “The chamber rarely does things ourselves. We always partner with people and collaborate with others to get things accomplished, and that’s a different kind of team but a team nonetheless.”

He also likes getting things done. “I like change…It’s something I really embrace. If I don’t see change happening, I’m wondering if I’m doing my job. I like to come up with new ideas and trust my team to tell me which ones are good and which ones are bad and then see ideas come to fruition. In the end, it doesn’t matter to me who gets the credit, as long as we get stuff done. That’s the way the chamber operates and, in large measure, it’s the way Omaha operates. I think that’s one of the things that makes us unique.”

Away from the office, Brown says he enjoys golf, hunting, landscaping, and reading. Maggie is often by his side. “She’s my best friend, and we do everything together,” Brown says. “She’s been my partner in this whole career process. She’s a great saleswoman. She’s done the trade show and conference thing with me. She knows the spiel. She can pitch just like I can. She’s great with volunteers and board members.”

Keep up-to-date with Brown and the Greater Omaha Chamber at omahachamber.org.

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