Tag Archives: Metropolitan Community College

Mike Hagel

November 9, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When Mike Hagel landed at Chicago O’Hare Airport back in 1970, he didn’t know what to expect.

“Get out and start life,” his mother Betty told her sons.

So Mike, then 20 years old, walked out into the Windy City with the gray Samsonite suitcases his mother had given him as a graduation gift, his art portfolio, and a dream.

“The YMCA,” Mike told the cab driver.

“North or South?” he asked.

“South,” Mike replied.

The cabby dropped him in a rough neighborhood. Every 15 minutes his room shook from the L train roaring past. That first night, there were two shootings with police officers showing up late into the night.

But this young man from the small Nebraska town of Columbus remained undeterred. The next day, he moved into a dingy apartment complex.

“I felt like I should have had a shotgun,” his brother Tom says. “It was such a tiny place I could almost reach out the window and touch the other building.”

It was freezing, so Mike slept with his clothes on and saw icy puffs of his own breath in the mornings. During the day, he hunted for illustrator jobs.

“I wasn’t going to accept no,” Mike says.

Mike had known what he wanted to do since his fresh- man year of high school. His brother, Tom, remembers Mike’s cartoon sketches were as “good as any in the newspaper and he was just this little kid.”

His art teacher at Columbus High encouraged Mike to further hone his craft. He spent countless hours creating, designing, and imagining projects under the basement stairs at his workbench. A block of wood transformed into an automobile with a quality paint job. And it earned him some scholarship money from General Motors.

Despite his love of cars, Mike was still drawn to the realistic Norman Rockwell ads. He attended the Colorado Institute of Art, taking classes during the summer to finish in two years. After Tom and his other brother Chuck returned from Vietnam, Mike knew it was time to draw his own history.

After about a week of searching, Mike landed an apprentice job for $50 a week with a graphic arts firm, Feldkamp-Malloy.

“I was just so pumped to get into the business,” Mike recalls. “It’s a very tough industry to get into for a young person.”

Accompanied by some smooth jazz and a cigarette, Mike would work late into the night. His bosses were akin to those in the show Mad Men, complete with liquid lunches.

Mike rarely bombed a job. His tenacity and creativity earned him a spot as staff illustrator for the board plus a pay increase of $100. By 1973, he was making $12,000 a year and thought he had the “world by the tail.”

He was soon landing bigger clients, such as Kellogg’s and Miller, and went on to work 47 years in the business (spending 24 years at ad agencies on Michigan Avenue in Chicago).

Now with a studio in Omaha, Mike points toward a lampshade purchased at an antique store. Mike told the owner he painted the Miller High Life Lady on the Moon, but she never believed him. He bought his own art for about $50.

He’s grown accustomed to seeing his work appear unexpectedly, for example: one of his portraits of lawyer Clarence Darrow on an episode of L.A. Law. His works have also been featured in the Strategic Air and Space Museum and the Pentagon. He is represented locally by the gallery Regency Parkway Art.

Mike works as an adjunct professor at Metropolitan Community College, where he teaches graphic design.

“Everyone can learn to draw if they have the desire to learn,” he believes. “The talent comes from the desire to learn.”

Mike calls himself an old dinosaur who still draws and paints without the assistance of CGI or computer tools commonly used today.

But Tom, a retired law professor from the University of Dayton School of Law, says Mike is uncommonly talented.

The younger Hagel brother is widely known for his aviation paintings, some of which hang in the Pentagon. His favorite is of a World War II battle titled Simpson Harbor. Mike knew the man who led the mission, and he calls Lieutenant General John Henebry “the finest man I ever knew.”

The painting depicts B-25 bombers in action over the blue waters of the South Pacific, attacking Japanese warships. Billows of smoke drift in blue skies and explosions are the backdrop. Henebry seems to fly out of the chillingly accurate portrayal, guns a-blazin’. He proudly shows off the signatures at the bottom of the painting, from the men who fought in the battle. Kathy, his wife of 10 years, calls his process “intense” and “inspired.” Mike did extensive research, read mission reports, and conducted interviews to ensure everything about the day was historically relevant right down to the altitude, atmosphere, and time of day.

Mike donated Simpson Harbor to the Air Force in 1990. It wasn’t his first artwork donation. In fact, he donated nearly a dozen aviation-themed paintings to the Air Force between 1977 and 1993.

Simpson Harbor used to hang in the office of Gen. Colin Powell at the Pentagon. Secretary of Defense James Mattis liked the painting so much that it now hangs in his office. And it hung outside the office when Chuck, the eldest Hagel brother, held the defense secretary position from 2013 to 2015. Mike jokes he was in the Pentagon years before Chuck.

Mike has spent years drawing caricatures of his brother Chuck, the former Republican senator from Nebraska, who finally asked for an official portrait.

Mike started the process by taking 76 photos from different angles and poses. From there, he drew a number of color and pencil sketches. Chuck picked the final one he liked the best.

“It’s extremely accurate and realistic,” Chuck says. “I’m a big fan.”

Mike noticed other portraits of former secretaries had something of their service incorporated in the background. Chuck thought what set his apart was the Combat Infantry Badge in the left-hand corner of the portrait.

The Department of Defense unveiled the portrait at the Pentagon in May 2017.

“It will be something around long after I’m gone, which is a nice feeling,” Mike says.

It was the first official portrait of a secretary not paid for by the United States government. Mike and Chuck worked out a price.

“Two cases of PBR [Pabst Blue Ribbon] and 12 frozen DiGiorno’s pizzas,” Mike says, joking.

Mike, 68, isn’t resting on his laurels. In his free time, he likes collecting motorcycles, drinking beer, and shooting pool. Or spending time with his wife and three grown children. As a commercial artist, he was given a problem to solve, but now he uses his imagination. He starts with a blank canvas, a cup of coffee, then heads down to his studio in the mornings.

The studio showcases a melting pot of styles. A huge life-like Henry Fonda from the Grapes of Wrath sits in the center of the room, while an abstract Highway 20 Revisited is reminiscent of an impressionist painting with cool blues, dark greens, and bright yellow and oranges streaking next to a hot red highway.

Mike reclines in his paint-spattered leather chair, having traded corporate business attire for the comfort of jeans and a polo shirt. Next to him is a combination of realistic and abstract works: a cow with long horns and a surreal background. Mike has been playing with mixing new mediums.

“Tom, Chuck, and I—all three of us—have left a mark that we were here,” Mike says. “I can’t ask for more than that.”

Visit regencyparkwayart.com for the Omaha gallery representing Mike Hagel.

This article was printed in the November/December edition of Omaha Magazine.

Mural Man

June 2, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

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.

Visit amidsummersmural.com for more information.

This article was published in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Wicked Omaha

April 27, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Musty newspapers, photos, archives, public records, presentations, and endless hours of research. Sure, the life of a modern folk historian sounds glamorous, but it’s not all like Raiders of the Lost Ark. In many ways, history is an occupation reserved only for those obsessive truth-seekers disconnected from their place on the space-time continuum.

Local historian, author, teacher, and Glenwood native Ryan Roenfeld has been making history entertaining for nigh on two decades. The 44-year-old nontraditional UNO student describes himself as a “hick-from-the-sticks.” A quasi-Luddite with a passion for the past, he doesn’t have a cell phone but he uses Facebook.

“I don’t know how I got so interested in history,” Roenfeld says. “Most folks see history as dry and dull, but it’s not. It really is—good, bad, or indifferent—the story of why things are the way they are.”

While decrying the modern age, Roenfeld helped popularize one of Omaha’s most frequented social media sites: Chuck Martens’ “Forgotten Omaha” Facebook page.

As one of three administrators, Roenfeld has seen “Forgotten Omaha” grow to more than 45,000 likes over the last year.

“I was surprised at the interest. Omahans didn’t know as much of their history as I thought,” says Roenfeld, who also teaches classes on Omaha history for Metropolitan Community College at Do Space. “History really is the story of us all, and I like telling people their stories.”

A folksy populist with an encyclopedic knowledge of colorful locals and criminals, Roenfeld tells the lesser-known tales of underrepresented populations, colorful characters, and swept-under scandals. He has self-published a dozen books and contributed to many articles on topics ranging from old postcards, railroads, steamboating, and local 19th-century brewers. To date, his most popular book has been Tinhorn Gamblers and Dirty Prostitutes, a colorful history of vice in Council Bluffs, which offers a glimpse at the city’s exploitation of prostitutes in the late 19th century.

“The highlights are always the lowlifes,” Roenfeld says. “People like hearing stories of cowboy shoot-outs in the street. People think the Old West happened in Arizona, but this area was really the archetype for every Wild West trope.”

The popularity of Western depravity was also obvious to Roenfeld’s publisher, The History Press. Roenfeld’s latest book, Wicked Omaha (not to be confused with David Bristow’s book, Dirty, Wicked Town [Omaha], published by Caxton Press in 2000), looks closely at “Hell’s Half-Acre,” Omaha’s red-light district in the 1880s.

Hell’s Half-Acre stretched from the Missouri River to 16th Street and from Douglas to Cuming streets. The city portrayed in Roenfeld’s Wicked Omaha makes all the stereotypes of Deadwood seem trite.

“People don’t realize that anything went in Hell’s Half-Acre,” Roenfeld says. “It was a different Omaha, when the saloons ran all night and strangers were victimized by every scheme going, all right downtown, nothing secret about it. Brothels were illegal, but ran in the open. There was drug addiction, suicide, and systematic exploitation. Prostitutes paid ‘fines’ monthly to keep operating. If they couldn’t pay, the city gave them a few weeks before they were hauled in front of a judge to either pay up or get shut up.”

Wicked Omaha made its debut Thursday, March 9, at the UNO Criss Library’s Read Local Author Showcase. Roenfeld plans to present his book at Omaha’s W. Dale Clark library May 6. The book is sold at The Bookworm, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and elsewhere.

Visit arcadiapublishing.com for more information.

This article appeared in the May/June edition of Omaha Magazine.

The Historian’s Personal Collection

January 8, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Howard Hamilton, 82, has read every issue of every Omaha newspaper dating back to 1854.

The Omaha historian, who was once fluent in 12 languages, moved to the area at age 5 with his family in 1939 and has lived here ever since (with the exception of language immersion studies at Georgetown University and a three-year stint in Pakistan with the U.S. Army).

He remembers how busy downtown Omaha used to be. “At that time, all the way from Leavenworth to Capitol was crowded during the day,” he says, remembering all the shops and the post office at 16th and Dodge streets. “It would be like if you saw a picture of New York City’s Times Square.”

hamilton1It seems fitting that a man who has seen so much of the city during so many phases of time should have a passion for history. Hamilton fondly remembers his third-grade teacher making the students recite all the U.S. presidents, from George Washington up to then-president Truman, every morning. (He can still do it today.)

Hamilton has a particular passion for Omaha history. He taught it for years at Metropolitan Community College. In 1990, he founded and served as the first president of the Trans-Mississippi Exposition Historical Association, named for the 1898 event that brought 2.6 million visitors to the city, one of them U.S. President William McKinley.

Hamilton published a book of 500 trivia stories about Omaha history, as well as a series of calendars with every day of the year marked by an event in Omaha history.

In 2012, he donated thousands of newspaper clippings to The Durham Museum. The collection’s name? The Howard Hamilton Research Archive.

Now retired, he uses his house as a storage space for artifacts he has collected over the years.

A tour of his collection reveals some amazing stuff:

hamilton4A copy of the first issue of The Omaha Daily World from 1885. And a copy of the first issue of the The Omaha World-Herald from 1889.

A piece of human hipbone from Omaha Beach. Hamilton found it when he visited in 2002 and thought it may have come from when the Allies stormed the beaches at D-Day. So, Hamilton brought it back to Nebraska with the intention of donating it to veterans.

(A pathologist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center revealed that it was human, but not from 1944. “This bone is 3,000 years old,” Hamilton says the pathologist told him. The bone likely came from someone who drowned in the Atlantic and washed up on the beach.)

hamilton3A piece of brick from a 1904 Omaha sidewalk that reads: “DON’T SPIT ON SIDEWALK.”

An article about the only man ever to survive being scalped, as well as a picture of the man and a picture of the scalp. The man was at the Plum Creek Massacre and was brought to Omaha afterward. “They attempted to have the scalp replaced after he recovered,” Hamilton says. When that did not work, “they gave it to him, and then he donated it to Omaha.”

These days, Hamilton seems to be feeling good about a pretty incredible find.

U.S. President Grover Cleveland visited Omaha in 1887 because his wife inherited property from a Council Bluffs family. Naturally, The Omaha Daily World devoted front-page coverage to the visit on Oct. 12. But not all of the copies were on newsprint.

“In 1887, [the paper] published this and made five copies on satin,” Hamilton says. Of those five satin copies, Cleveland received one and the heirs of Gilbert Hitchcock, the founder of The Omaha Daily World—who later bought The Omaha Herald and consolidated the two papers to form The Omaha World-Herald—received another.

And one is hanging on Hamilton’s wall, framed and in mint condition.

“It was at an antique store, in an envelope,” Hamilton says. “Twenty dollars.”

The storeowner knew it was original, but thought it was one of hundreds. Now it is behind glass at Hamilton’s house, a shiny newspaper with a story about Cleveland’s visit. The fold lines are prominent in the satin.

“About the time I bought this, I had seen one in Glenwood, Iowa, tattered,” Hamilton says. “But mine was in an envelope, just like this.” 

Visit durhammuseum.org for more information.

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Maker of Chefs, Feeder of Children

October 13, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In a culture where top chefs enjoy celebrity status, Omaha Salvation Army Kroc Center executive chef Kevin Newlin manages to stay humble and grounded. In fact, Newlin was confused as to why anyone would want to write a profile about him.

Don’t be fooled by his modesty. Newlin has trained some of Omaha’s top chefs during his tenure at Metropolitan Community College, and he is doing crucially important culinary work for the community. His Kroc Center programs have introduced countless kids to fresh foods that they might not otherwise eat.

“Sometimes kids will see blueberries or cucumbers or mushrooms, and they seriously will not know what it is because they’ve never seen it fresh before,” says Newlin. One of his favorite tricks is to first give kids cucumber slices, and then a couple days later give them pickles and explain the correlation. “To see the looks on their faces when they realize the pickle used to be a cucumber is fascinating, and it’s really something that drives me in my career where I am right now,” he says.

The summer feeding program offered by the Kroc Center (funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture) has grown exponentially. “We served just under 10,000 fresh, hot meals from May 23 to Aug. 12,” says Newlin. He’s responsible for rallying the food donations that help make this program possible, and he also plans and prepares the meals. “The kids get fresh food every day. We try to use fresh food as much as possible, but we’re restricted by budget.”

“Sometimes kids will see blueberries or cucumbers or mushrooms, and they seriously will not know what it is because they’ve never seen it fresh before,” says Newlin.

In September, Newlin was responsible for coordinating the celebrated Omaha chefs who participated in the fourth annual Kroc Center’s BaconFest, a local scholarship fundraiser.

His attraction to the Kroc Center was largely due to his desire to spend more time with his children. “I’ve been here since the beginning,” says Newlin, noting that before he accepted the role at the Kroc Center he was chief of operations at Metropolitan Community College’s Culinary Arts Program. His love for teaching compelled him to retain his position as an adjunct professor with MCC until last year. “I miss it because I miss the teaching aspect,” he says, adding that he also misses working with some of the people there.

His love for food is the reason why he also works at The Grey Plume three nights a week. “Cooking, for me, is a lifelong process,” he says. “Nobody knows it all and you’re never done learning, and if you think you are, then you probably don’t have food in your soul.”

Newlin says he noticed that his role at the Kroc Center has changed his own perspective when it comes to helping the community. “Since I came here, I notice that my willingness to help people has increased. I’ve always volunteered, but it’s more now.” Whether he’s conducting a cooking class for kids or running the Kroc Center Program designed to help people learn the skills necessary to obtain a Douglas County food handlers card, Newlin is busy helping others.

“I love to feed people,” says Newlin with a shrug, trying to sum up everything he does in simple terms. He isn’t looking for praise. He simply wants to share his love for food with others.

Visit omahakroc.org for more information.

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Reinventing the Classic

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Time travel back to childhood. Sink your teeth into two slices of white bread slathered with creamy peanut butter and purplish jam, the sandwich staple of sack lunches and after-school snacks.

Can you taste the love? Hungry for more? Many Omaha locals drive over to the Old Market Farmers Market on a Saturday morning for their fix. There’s often a line stretching around the black truck with an orange logo, where customers eagerly await gourmet twists on standard PB&J.

PBJ3PBJ—Peanut Butter Johnny’s—is the dream and brainchild of John Jelinek. You won’t find Skippy and processed strawberry jam here. Jelinek’s food truck rolls through town selling sandwiches made from many different types of bread, a variety of nut butters, and artisanal jams ranging from spicy jalapeño to exotic fig. He even puts bacon on his sandwiches.

Jelinek isn’t a chef or a well-known restauranteur in town. In fact, Peanut Butter Johnny’s is his first business. Jelinek previously worked as director of sales vendors for Time Warner. He dreamed of owning his own business, and he initially thought about opening a clothing store.

Then he considered opening a food truck, but he wasn’t sure if it would work for him; “There’s already a lot of pizza trucks and that sort of thing, and frankly, they do it better than I can,” Jelinek says.

Jelinek finally settled upon the idea of serving grown-up versions of childhood comfort food. He took the concept and (literally) rolled with it. Not being a chef, he wanted a professional to make sure his vision was as delicious as he imagined.

He contacted Beth Augustyn in the culinary arts department of Metropolitan Community College. Augustyn made a connection with graduate Jarrod Lane, a sous chef at Marks Bistro. The business owner and chef stuck together like…

Jelinek didn’t just connect with Lane. He also connected with chef Clayton Chapman of the Grey Plume, Patricia Barron of Big Mama’s, and chef Paul Kulik of Le Bouillon. Jelinek asked for help from these local culinary giants, and each helped create the specialty sandwiches on his menu.

“What’s great about John is he has a vision but he allows us to create,” says Chapman. “We went to a few tasting sessions to get that to where he wanted it. He’s incredibly creative and able to see something in its finished place much before it’s started.”

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Peanut Butter Johnny’s opened for business on the evening of Dec. 5, 2015, at a fundraiser for the Nebraska AIDS Project. Over the summer, the truck attended the free Memorial Park concert and fireworks, and the Fourth of July Parade in Ralston. Anywhere the people go, they go.

PBJ serves sandwiches upon sandwiches. And customers can’t get enough. At ConAgra in early July, Jelinek, Lane, and two other employees served 40 orders in little under 30 minutes. “People were telling us they’ve waited over an hour for other food trucks,” Lane says.

Jelinek’s multi-ingredient sandwiches require time and love. Aside from bacon, other dishes feature chicken, and many sandwiches come grilled.

“You can’t go wrong with PB&J,” claims customer Justin Swanson. “I want to support local business owners, plus this is way better than I can make.”

On a sweltering summer day, Swanson saw the truck parked near 90th and Dodge streets. He swung by to support the business (and his bar friend). Swanson is a bartender at The House of Loom, where Jelinek often chooses to spend his free time.

It’s these type of friendships that keep customers coming to PBJ. Chapman says Jelinek’s personality also draws return customers.

“It’s his enthusiasm, it’s his drive, it’s his passion for what he’s doing,” Chapman says. “You’re just naturally drawn to it.”

“So much of business is relationships,” Jelinek says. “So much of repeat business is relationships. Serving them good food and being nice to them so they say, ‘You know, let’s go back.’”

He wants the food truck community to keep making relationships, too, especially in the wake of new regulations.

“It’s important that we have rules that everyone can live by,” Jelinek says. “Food trucks want to find a way to get along well and be something unique.” 

Visit pbjohnnys.com for more information. Encounter

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The Flying Saucer on Dodge Street

August 25, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A flying saucer landed on 1818 Dodge Street. The white circular structure with tall windows appears ready for takeoff to another planet.

Maybe Mercury.

It is rumored to have been intended to look like Mercury’s helmet. The building was first designed for Omaha National Bank, so it seems a good possibility. Mercury is, after all, the Roman god of financial gain.

Bike-Union1Others believe architect Nes Latenser wanted something futuristic when the “UFO” first emerged on Dodge back in the 1960s. Far-out and groovy things, such as a man landing on the moon, made anything otherworldly imaginable.

Today, this alien structure holds something far more valuable than money—heart.

Miah Sommer invaded the space to open a bike and coffee shop. In the center, the small spherical space is perfectly divided. To the right, anyone can grab a cup of joe while getting a bike repaired to the left. The ceiling is fanned out with bright lights, a bit like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Racing and mountain bikes frame the calming blue walls.

Yet, this isn’t just any coffee/bike shop. Sommer launched the Bike Union in 2014 as a way to mentor at-risk youth who have aged out of the foster system.

It is a place where former foster kids can mend their bruised and broken wings. Sommer acts as a mentor to ensure these young adults gain the necessary skills to achieve their goals.

Sommer has three males and one female under his guidance between the ages of 17 and 23.

According to Jim Casey of Youth Opportunities Initiative, one in five foster kids will become homeless and only half will be employed at age 24. Sommer says three of his former foster kids were not working or receiving an education, and it is something he wanted to change.

BikeUnion3Instead of fending for themselves, each member has been learning a mix of technical and soft skills while earning a paycheck and financial mentoring, 20 hours a week, for a year. Cooking classes, mindfulness training, and a book club round out the education.

“If you want to make a positive change, it requires attention,” Sommer believes.

Take Bre Walker, 21.

A so-called “crack baby” as an infant, Walker headed straight into foster care with emotional and physical problems looming over her tiny shoulders. Walker’s life became a cycle of drifting from home to home—25 or 30 in all. She never unpacked.

“It’s scary. You never know if you are ever going to have a place to lay your head,” she says.

When she aged out at 19, Walker had nowhere to go. After couch surfing and other housing attempts failed, she received help from Youth Emergency Services and Project Employment. Walker began working at the Bike Union in January.

She was failing two classes at Metropolitan Community College. Then, with tutoring help from Bike Union mentors, she turned her grades around. In her recent class, she earned her first A. Mostly though, it was just finding people who believed in her.

“They have faith in me. (Sommer) is more of a father figure than a manager. He wants the best for us,” Walker says.

When her year is up, Walker thinks she will be sad rather than scared. Most importantly, she will have the confidence to walk out the door.

“I live down the street, so they can’t get rid of me completely,” Walker says laughing.

Visit thebikeunion.org for more information. B2B

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The Nelson Mandela Way

January 20, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

North Omaha may be reversing five decades of capital resources leaving the community with little else but social services coming in. Emerging business, housing, and community projects are spearheading a revitalization, and a new school with promise in its name, Nelson Mandela Elementary, is part of this turnaround.

The free, private school in the former Blessed Sacrament church and school on North 30th Street blends old and new. An addition housing the library and cafeteria joins the original structures. The sanctuary is now a gym with stained glass windows. Vintage stone walls and decorative arches create Harry Potteresque features. South African flag-inspired color schemes and Nelson Mandela-themed murals abound.

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The school that started with kindergarten and first grade and will add a grade each year is the vision of Dianne Seeman Lozier. Her husband, Allan Lozier, heads the Lozier store fixture manufacturing company that operates major north Omaha facilities. The couple’s Lozier Foundation supports Omaha Public Schools’ programs.

Their support is personal. They raised two grandsons who struggled to read as children. The odyssey to find effective remedies led Dianne Lozier to new approaches, such as the Spalding Method used at Mandela.

Mandela sets itself apart, too, using Singapore math, playing jazz and classical background music, requiring students to study violin, holding recess every 90 minutes, and having parents agree to volunteer. Mandela “scholars” take College for Kids classes at Metropolitan Community College’s Fort Omaha campus.

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It’s all in response to the high-poverty area the school serves, where low test scores prevail and families can’t always provide the enrichment kids need.

Most Mandela students are from single-parent homes. Sharon Moore loves sending her son, Garrett, to “a new school with new ideas.” Eric and Stacy Rafferty welcome the research-based innovations their boy, William, enjoys and the opportunity to be as involved as they want at school. Moore and the Raffertys report their sons are thriving there.

“Parents are really getting into this groove of being here,” says Principal Susan Toohey. “It’s building a community here and a sense that we are all in this together.”

Community is also important to the Loziers.

“We’re just really connected here,” Dianne Lozier says. “Allan and I have really strong beliefs that the economic inequality in the country and north Omaha is a microcosm of a huge issue. It’s a fairness issue and a belief that, if we want it badly enough, we can make a difference.”

She and Toohey are banking that the school demonstrates its strategies work as core curriculum, not just intervention.

“I’m hoping by the end of the first school year here we’ll be able to compare students’ literacy against other places and show that children have developed stronger reading skills,” Lozier says. “Our longterm goal is that all kids will be grade-level proficient readers by the end of third grade.”

For Toohey, launching and leading a school in a high-needs district is appealing.

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“What an incredible opportunity,” she says. “Rarely do you get a chance to start a school from the ground up and pick everything that’s going to happen there and hire every person that’s going to work there. I knew it was going to be a lot of work, but my heart has always been in urban education.”

In preparation for opening last August, she says, “I spent a year researching educational practices and curricula and developing relationships with people.” Her outreach forged partnerships with Metro, College of Saint Mary, the Omaha Conservatory of Music, The Big Garden, and others.

“We really want to be a model of what makes a school stronger, and I think having the community involved makes it stronger so it’s not working in isolation.”

Dianne Lozier, whose foundation funds the school with the William and Ruth Scott Family Foundation, is a frequent visitor.

NelsonMandelaSchool5“I help out with breakfast,” she explains. “I tie a lot of shoes. I get and give a lot of hugs.”

Lozier says her presence is meant to help “faculty and staff feel a little more supported—because this is hard. Every teacher and para-educator here, even the head of school, would say this is the hardest job they’ve ever had.”

Toohey says the difficulty stems from teaching a “very different curriculum” and “starting a culture from scratch. Families are getting to know us, we’re getting to know the families, and this is a really challenging population of kids. Many have not been in preschool programs that helped them moderate their behavior.”

Despite the challenges, Lozier says, “We have incredible families and kids.”

Drawing on the school’s inspirational namesake, each morning everyone recites “the Mandela mantra” of “Education is the most powerful weapon you can produce to change the world,” and “I will change the world with my hope, strength, service, unity, peace, and wisdom.”

“I hope all those things are what this community sees coming out of this school,” Toohey says, “and that our kids develop those qualities of grit and resilience so critical for success.”

Lozier adds that Mandela is a symbol of hope and opportunity.

“To accomplish the things we’re capable of,” she says, “we have to believe we can do that. It’s an opportunity to make improvements and get past impediments, to use internal strengths and be recognized for what you can bring.”

Visit nelsonmandelaelementary.org to learn more.

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Sitting Down, Slowing Down

October 15, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The vibe of Market House restaurant hits customers in the face upon walking in the door—almost literally. The dark interior doors of former tenant Vivace have become a lime hue that projects the type of restaurant diners are about to experience—fresh, green, and interesting.

Such is the same with the chefs at the helm. Executive Chef Matt Moser, formerly of Plank, and Chef de Cuisine Ben Maides, formerly of Avoli Osteria, take pride in crafting their own menu, and restaurant, from start to finish.

The pair, however, originally turned down the gig.

“Nick (Bartholomew) originally approached me to be the chef,” Maides says. “I had no intention of leaving Avoli.”

“And I had an opportunity elsewhere,” Moser adds. “But that didn’t pan out.”

The pair eventually ended up recognizing they wanted to run a restaurant.

“We hadn’t not known each other very long,” Moser says. “I met Ben through a mutual friend when they came into Plank.”

They discovered they share a similar approach to cooking, eating, and running a restaurant.

Moser graduated in 2002 from Millard North, and in 2005 from Le Cordon Blue in Portland, Oregon. He came back to Omaha to work at the French Cafe, then traveled to California, where he cooked in Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach. He bounced back to Omaha to V. Mertz, and spent five years with Flagship restaurant group, helping to open Blue Sushi Sake Grills in Denver and Fort Worth.

“For the first time in my career, it’s modern American cuisine,” he said of Market House. “We can do whatever we want.”

While Moser discovered the fresh, local approach to eating so prevalent in his casual-contemporary gig on the West Coast, Maides’ slow-down method of cooking and eating comes from international travel. He was born in Switzerland and moved to Omaha at age 9. He graduated in 2004 from Westside and in 2006 from Metropolitan Community College. Among his passport stamps is San Cascino in Northern Italy, where he worked at a five-star restaurant and learned the style of cooking owner and executive chef Dario Schicke sought for Avoli.

The third note in the triad is Sous Chef Chase Thomsen, who, unlike Maides, Moser knew well.

“I’ve known him since middle school,” Moser says. “He came to Plank and worked for me then moved on to Taxi’s. When I came here I knew he was looking. I know his work ethic, I know his talent, we’re lucky to have him here.”

Moser and Maides agree, and collaborate, on cooking methods and ingredients. They love to cook in their off-hours—Moser with his wife, Cathryn; Maides with his girlfriend. They own dogs. They also like to eat at restaurants in similar ways.

Moser says, “We discovered we both like to order three or four things and just pass them around the table.”

“Let’s stop, let’s sit down, and let’s eat,” Maides says. “We’re going from surviving
to enjoying.”

That idea of not just eating, but communal dining, inspired Market House. The seasonal menu contains eight passable small plates and five shared sides, along with soups, a salad, and six larger entree-sized plates.

“We like to go to the starter menu, the smaller plates,” Moser reiterates.

The chefs want their customers to experience their love of food in the same way.

“Ben and I get excited when we see Nancy (Crews) of Swallows Nest come through the door with new vegetables,” says Moser, who himself gardens avidly. “That excitement extends to the front of the house and out to the guests.”

The staff at Market House don’t just tell you that roasted grapes with chèvre is on the menu, they tell you where the grapes and the goat cheese came from. They tell you the story of why they love the farmer who makes the cheese. The process of ordering at Market House, like the process of eating, causes patrons to ease their pace.

Slowing down doesn’t mean the restaurant isn’t busy. Several people occupy tables at 2 p.m. on a Monday, lingering over plates of food, and, in a couple of cases, glasses of wine. That makes Moser and Maides happy.

“We’re cooking food we love, and we hope everyone else does, too,” Maides says.

“Yes, we work long hours, but my favorite part of the day is when we get to sit down and talk about what we did, and what we can do better,” Moser adds.

Sitting down, slowing down—a typical day at Market House.

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Flexing Some Muscle

June 2, 2015 by

Article originally published in Summer 2015 edition of B2B.

Tim McGill used to tag along with his dad to various job sites. He liked watching the cement masons mix, pour, and work the mixture into a heavy, viscous mass before swirling it over cracks and crevices to a smooth finish—pretty cool stuff to a little guy.

McGill was 7 years old when his father, Tim Sr., started McGill Restoration, a structural concrete repair, masonry repair, and waterproofing company. At 15, he started working for his dad in the field. He labored on commercial and industrial facilities for the next seven years until earning a construction engineering degree from the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

McGill and his older brother, Rich, now own the company their father started. They’re busy—that’s the good news. But a virtual sign constantly hovers over the company’s Grebe Street location in Florence:

Help Wanted.

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“We’re always hiring,” says McGill, who pays what he calls very competitive wages.  “Our company has been around 30 years and finding people who want to be a craftsman their entire life and dedicate themselves to a trade has always been tough. But it seems to get tougher every year.”

Contractors across America echo McGill’s frustrations. The numbers bear witness. A survey conducted last fall by the Associated General Contractors of America shows 83% of firms nationwide report difficulty finding craft and trade workers: electricians, plumbers, tile setters, welders, carpenters, bricklayers, roofers—the list goes on and on. Midwest businesses reported even greater problems filling positions. Amazingly, all 18 companies surveyed in Nebraska by the AGCA said they had job openings they couldn’t fill.

“I have personally been involved in projects that turned away from Omaha because we couldn’t provide the skilled workers that they need,” says Bill Owen, board chairperson of the Downtown Improvement District.

Owen’s full-time job, however, puts him in a position to do something about the skilled labor shortage. As associate vice president for effectiveness and engagement at Metropolitan Community College, Owen helps guide an ambitious $90 million job-training expansion.“It’s a huge project for us,” he says.

The first iron beams currently rising from the dirt on the south end of Metro’s Fort Omaha location signal the beginning of three buildings being constructed simultaneously. When it becomes operational (hopefully in late 2017), the complex will provide more space and state-of-the-art equipment for career and technical training—a modern moniker for the kind of training once called vo-tech, or vocational education. The buildings will house an academic skills center, a center for advanced and emerging technology, and a construction education center, effectively consolidating all the trades and technology programs at the main campus in North Omaha.

“There’s not a career that technology doesn’t play a role in,” says Owen, explaining the importance of Metro’s new advanced and emerging technology center. “The laptop computer is part of the tool pouch for the trades or crafts person.”

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Blue-collar trades like welding or pipefitting, once considered about as contemporary and relevant as a VHS tape, are not only in demand, they have been re-booted to add electronic brains to the traditional brawn. Metro actually has a welding machine that requires no welding rod, no flame, and no spark, giving the student a completely virtual welding experience.

The 100,000-square-foot construction education center will feature a large, shared space for students to work on projects such as building modular homes. Sections will include electrical, plumbing, HVAC, and carpentry work.

“Metropolitan Community College has always been here serving the career and technical student needs,” says Owen. “It’s now much more apparent to other members of the community just how important that role is.”

Metro’s vision captured the attention of a very powerful member of Omaha’s community— the Knights of AKSARBEN Foundation, the area’s premier philanthropic organization consisting of a broad swath of business and civic leaders. Now in its 120th year, the Knights of AKSARBEN has evolved into a facilitator of education, focusing its scholarship largesse on high school students who often don’t have doors opened for them. When Metro announced its skilled-trades expansion, AKSARBEN saw an opening to expand its brand.

Championed by reigning King of AKSARBEN Michael Yanney, and nurtured by the board of governors, the foundation recently launched a pilot post-secondary scholarship initiative to funnel deserving students to Metro’s skilled trades and technology offerings.

“The AKSARBEN Scholars Career Connectors program is an effort to hit two needs within our community,” explains foundation president Jonathan Burt. “One is the need for more skilled and technical workers as well as a need to address the high pockets of poverty that we know still exist in our Omaha community.”

Working with current scholarship partner the Horatio Alger Association and a new partner, Avenue Scholars Foundation of Omaha, AKSARBEN hopes to award at least 150 two-year scholarships worth up to $8,000 by this fall. Career Connectors has also partnered with the Iowa West Foundation and Iowa Western Community College, a union that’s likely to add 30 to 35 students to the effort.

“Avenue Scholars, embedded in seven schools, identifies students who come from a high-needs background but who have a defined interest in a career path,” says Burt. “Those students can then apply for a Career Connectors scholarship.”

Burt and Avenue Scholars President Dr. Kenneth Bird, both educators by profession, understand the mindset of 17-, 18-, and 19-year-olds. They know a student may go to Metro with one career in mind and then choose a different path, perhaps going into the distribution, management, or business end of things. That’s to be expected. And it doesn’t matter whether a student uses the scholarship money to take a six-week certification course, a six-month course or to acquire a two-year associate’s degree. “As long as the student exits the program with a skill set needed for a quality career, one that can open them up to a middle class lifestyle, then (the program) will be a success,” says Burt.

Through the generosity of the Knights of AKSARBEN and the innovation of Metropolitan Community College, scholarship winners will discover what many young adults haven’t: a career in the trades can mean money. “Department of Labor data, not self-reporting data, show our graduates in the construction trades, just one to two years out from our program, earn between $36,000 and $39,000 a year,” says Owen, pointing to scads of graphs and spread sheets. In the trades, experience counts more than education, leading Owen to pose, “Imagine what your salary will be when you’re 10 years out.”

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Manual labor can also mean longevity. Those same Labor Department numbers project a 27 percent increase in skilled labor jobs through 2020. Certainly the big-ticket building boom on both sides of Missouri—the $400 million Google project in Council Bluffs, the $1.2 billion StratCom headquarters in Bellevue, and the $323 million cancer center in Omaha—define a golden age in the Midlands. People who do have the skills are already employed.]

So what’s the problem? Why aren’t more young adults going into the trades? The explanation
has many parts, some more sociological than economic.

“The shortage actually started 20 to 30 years ago—long before the Great Recession,” according to Dr. Eric Thompson, an economics professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “As we become more of a service economy, fewer and fewer children have parents who were blue-collar workers. People did more of their own home repairs back then and they tinkered with cars. Young people were picking up skill sets as they watched their parents and transitioning to those occupations.”

Thompson also points out that young adults are staying single longer now, making them more inclined to take a chance on a career, “that may be less steady but potentially more exciting and rewarding.” The cyclical nature of construction and manufacturing, so vulnerable to downturns, makes young people hesitant, he says.

Another part of the equation—a big one—involves education. “Those of us in the education community have been steering teenagers toward four-year degrees,” says Thompson. Latching onto that explanation, Bill Owen adds, “It isn’t just the high schools. In many cases, it’s the parents who feel, ‘Well, my child is going to aim higher than a trade job and is going to aim for a profession.’”

As someone who came up through the trades before parlaying his associate’s degree into a master’s degree in education from Iowa State, Owen sees the pendulum swinging the other way. “These jobs were looked down on in the past. And now people are really beginning to admire and respect those who can do things with their hands because it’s almost a lost art. Perception has changed.”

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