Chat with Bill Gonzalez for a short while and one thing becomes clear: It really is hard to keep a good man down.
Nearly 20 years ago, Gonzalez was down. In August 1999, while working at an Omaha warehouse, Gonzalez tripped while crossing over a machine. Its drive belt caught his leg, shattering it from his knee down and damaging his back. Despite a handful of operations on his leg and back, Gonzalez was disabled.
“I couldn’t do physical work anymore,” he says, “and I didn’t have the skills to do anything else.”
He was homebound but realized that wasn’t the way he wanted to spend the rest of his life.
“That’s a quick way to die,” he says. “I had to get out of the house and do something other than sitting home eating painkillers and going nuts.”
A newspaper article noting that the Durham Museum was seeking volunteers for its archives department changed all that. Gonzalez thought back to his days at now-defunct Omaha St. Joseph High School when, during his senior year, someone presented photos of Omaha from the Bostwick-Frohardt Collection, then in the possession of KMTV (Channel 3).
“I was just blown away seeing these old pictures of what Omaha used to look like. I always remembered that.”
Now the collection was on permanent loan to the Durham. Gonzalez, who lives just 2 minutes from the museum, wanted in. He joined the Durham as a volunteer March 15, 2005, working one day a week.
“As soon as I started working here I knew I’d found a home,” Gonzalez says. “I just kept coming back.”
Soon he was working four days a week. After a couple years, the museum hired him on a permanent basis as photo archive associate with its curatorial and education services. Today he oversees collections totaling more than 1 million photographs of Omaha from the 1860s to 1990s—from its rise as a frontier town with shanties on the banks of the muddy Missouri River to a sophisticated metropolis with a bustling downtown straddling those same banks. Many of the photos are digitized and available through the museum’s website. Gonzalez has written many of their descriptions.
When a visitor comes to the museum seeking a specific photo, Gonzalez is the man they turn to. He already possesses great personal recall of the city. Though his parents were immigrants from Mexico, 67-year-old Gonzalez was born and raised in South Omaha.
“A lot of stuff, I know what I’m looking at. The younger interns don’t have an idea,” he says of decades-old Omaha scenes and long-gone iconic structures from his youth. “Someone said I’m the organic memory of archives. I guess that’s true.”
Using that memory and his knowledge of Durham’s vast photo archive helps him connect people to pictures, past to present.
“The best part, the part that really gets me high, is when I find a picture that a person has some kind of emotional attachment to,” Gonzalez says. “A lot of the pictures we have are really family pictures of people. They mean something to somebody.”
They’ve got a good man to find them.
Visit durhammuseum.org for more information.
Favorite Old Omaha Photos
What are Bill Gonzalez’s favorite photos in Durham archive? He has many. Among his favorites, he includes: an aerial of Omaha taken in 1947 and looking west from the museum, formerly Union Station. “A spectacular shot,” he says. Another, from the Bostwick-Frohardt Collection, was taken on top of the former Union Pacific headquarters near 14th and Dodge streets and looks southeast. “A lot of what you’re looking at is no longer here,” he says.
This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.