Tag Archives: people

Transitorily Yours

February 22, 2017 by
Photography by Amy Lynn Straub

Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a new Encounter column focusing on millennial life by Brent Crampton. To share your significant life experiences, email millennials@omahapublications.com

Today is Jan. 7, 2017, and yesterday I walked out of House of Loom one last time. It was a place that I co-owned, DJed at, and curated events for. The scene I left was only a shell. There were no swirling lights or sounds, no Victorian lounge vibes, and certainly no lively, booze-fueled conversations. Just an echo of the life that filled that place for 5 1/2 years remained (along with the bustle of a construction crew ripping a hole in the wood floor).

Loom was many things to many people, but to me it was a lovely little social experiment that blended cultures, creatives, and communities. Categorically, it was a nightclub and event venue, but to the folks frequenting its experiences, it was a place where patrons and friends could mobilize around causes, express emotions, mourn passings, and celebrate life’s contrasts.

The influx of people was so fluid that you could not distinguish it as a straight or gay bar, but simply as a people’s bar. On its best nights, it brought together folks who normally wouldn’t intersect in our city, and lifted us out of the doldrums of our daily lives.

It is rare for a business to shut down without the force of an unpaid bill. As a friend and fellow small business owner says, it is a gift to be able to close on your own terms. And that is exactly what we did. For myself and the other owners, House of Loom was never meant to be permanent. It was a successful social experiment. And it was time to move on.

I have spent the past 13 years of my life fervently dedicated to contributing to Omaha’s nightlife. With this new year, I embark on a new chapter—one where the loud and flashy peaks of club life are swapped for the quiet joy of watching my 1-year-old baby stand on her own for the first time. Now, spontaneous social gatherings are traded for intimate dinner parties (often planned months in advance). Instead of falling asleep as the sun rises, I wake up  with the sun.

It is a different life—one with its own advantages. My prior life could never hold a candle to this new world. In fact, as I write this, my baby daughter is napping away on my chest after a messy meal of liquified plums, apples, and carrots. She is tuckered out, and so am I.

This brings me to why I am writing this column. During this next chapter of my life, I will be taking some time to hibernate in the creative womb. The invitation to turn to the reflective act of writing seemed like a synchronistic opportunity. Instead of only sharing my notions of creativity and thought from behind a DJ booth, I will gladly be able to do so in this space.

Much like my life right now, I am going to ad-lib my writing. Most likely I will touch on topics ranging from the social impact of nightlife (of course), the curiosities of parenting (because I’m new at this), food (because I get giddy when I eat good food), and inclusiveness and equality (because of our new president), all through the millennial lens of a 30-something, post-nightclub-owning new papa.

Here’s to new beginnings.

Brent Crampton previously co-owned House of Loom and is co-owner of Berry & Rye, a bar in the Old Market. A multi-award-winning DJ in a former life, he now prefers evenings spent at home with his family.

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

The Catholic Issue

February 21, 2017 by

The March/April issue of Omaha Magazine hits the streets just as Oscar season comes to a close. Meanwhile, the subject of Omaha’s best-known Oscar-winning story is up for an even greater recognition—sainthood. A tribunal from the Vatican is currently scrutinizing Boys Town’s founder, the late Father Edward J. Flanagan, for canonization.

Boys Town (the movie) tells a fictionalized story of the real-life Father Flanagan. Released in 1938, the movie was actually filmed on the grounds of Boys Town. Spencer Tracy won the Academy Award for Best Actor with his portrayal of Father Flanagan, and Tracy’s Oscar sits in a protective case at the Boys Town Hall of History.

The Village of Boys Town was engulfed by Omaha’s westward sprawl. But Boys Town itself has grown significantly, too, with satellite locations throughout the metro (and nationwide). This year, Boys Town enters its 100th year of operation.

Should Pope Francis designate Father Flanagan to be a saint, the Village of Boys Town would become a place of holy pilgrimage. Add that to Omaha’s list of annual pilgrimages (a cherry—or maybe “halo” would be a better word—on top of Berkshire Hathaway’s annual shareholder meeting and the College World Series).

Although Father Flanagan’s earthly remains now rest in a tomb adjoining Dowd Chapel on campus, if he is canonized a saint, the village would need a shrine to accommodate the throngs of devout pilgrims (to avoid disrupting the normally calm chapel that was designed by local Omaha architect Leo A. Daly according to Father Flanagan’s own instructions).

Omaha Magazine’s March/April cover story tells the tale of Father Flanagan’s life and his ongoing canonization process. With St. Patrick’s Day, Lent, and Easter taking place during this issue’s distribution period, the magazine has taken on a noticeably Catholic theme.

There is a guide to Omaha’s St. Patrick’s Day bar crawl, a guide to six of the best Lenten fish fries, and a story about the mysterious stained glass windows of St. Mary Magdalene Church (which was also designed by Omaha architect Leo A. Daly).

The cover story’s author, Carol Crissey Nigrelli, converted to Catholicism one year ago on Easter. She has become the magazine’s go-to writer for all subjects Catholic. Nigrelli wrote about the last nuns of Duchesne Academy in the September/October 2016 issue. She also profiled the University of Notre Dame’s president in “From Omaha to Notre Dame” for the cover story of our November/December 2015 issue.

Omaha Magazine’s 35th Anniversary

A publication titled Omaha Magazine has existed in Omaha since the 19th century. The earliest version, according to publisher Todd Lemke, was published in 1890. It was a satirical newsprint publication in magazine format, he says.

Lemke entered Omaha publishing in March 1983 with the first issue of City Slicker, the precursor to his current Omaha Magazine. This March issue of Omaha Magazine marks the 35th anniversary of Lemke’s career in magazine publishing. That history explains why Omaha Magazine’s issue numbering starts with No. 1 in March.

When CitySlicker was initially in distribution, another Omaha Magazine was on the streets. Lemke says the previous Omaha Magazine—no relation to the current magazine—started in the 1970s and folded a few years after he had entered the local media market.

The Omaha Magazine brand name came available in the late 1980s. Lemke secured the copyright, and the first issue of his Omaha Magazine came out in 1989. The rest is history.

Today, Omaha Magazine Ltd. is the parent company of Omaha Publications, which also produces several other local community-focused magazines such as Encounter, B2B Magazine, Omaha Magazine’s Family Guide, and assorted custom publishing products.

For 35 years, Lemke’s Omaha Magazine (previously known as City Slicker) has told the stories of Omaha people, culture, and events. Thanks for reading!

Tanya Cook

October 20, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

An abiding curiosity led Neb. State Sen. Tanya Cook to serve as an official observer during the presidential election in war-torn Ukraine earlier this year.

Joining a Ukrainian Congress Committee of America delegation, she witnessed candy czar Petro Poroshenko’s landslide victory in an election monitoring organizations declared free and fair.

The District 13 representative often travels abroad to feed her wanderlust. Her weeklong stay in the former Soviet satellite state provided an opportunity for enlightenment and service. With Ukraine’s fragile union threatened by separatist uprisings and Russian expansionism, the election was a moratorium on democracy and autonomy.

“I met a lot of great people who had grown up as part of the Ukrainian diaspora in Canada and the United States,” Cook says. “I learned a lot about how they kept their language and culture alive, and more about the circumstances that led to their leaving. They were very warm, very welcoming.”

The lifelong Democrat has worked with municipalities as a public relations consultant and for elected officials as a campaign and administrative staffer. In 2008 she and Brenda Council became the Unicameral’s first black women legislators.

Born in Guam to an Air Force family, Cook grew up in Omaha in the 1960s and ‘70s. Her parents were from the South, where she says “the ability to take part in elections was something they didn’t take for granted.” Despite being a teacher, her mother was forced to take a literacy test in order to vote. Her father became a teacher following his retirement as a military civil engineer.

Cook inherited a passion for learning that complements her desire to experience new cultures. The Georgetown University international business graduate has visited 20 countries, but Ukraine was her first Eastern European visit. Besides fulfilling her poll-watching duties, the inquisitive Cook says, “I learned a lot about the country, its history, its culture…That’s what I love about travel in general.”

Ukraine’s strategic importance in a region where borders and allegiances are in flux appealed to her geopolitical focus.

“The United States has an interest in the Ukraine remaining sovereign, and in (Russian premier Vladimir) Putin not reconvening the USSR,” she says.

Assigned to seven polling places in Kiev, Cook witnessed large voter turnout and typical election snafus (long waits), but saw nothing amiss.

“You’re an observer,” she adds. “You’re not there to intervene or advocate or have a point of view. You observe what you observe and you record it.”

The earnestness of election officials and voters impressed her. She says the popular Poroshenko clearly “emerged as a leader who would stand up to” Putin’s interventionism.

Now halfway through her second legislative term, it won’t be long before she gets the itch to travel again.

“There’s a lot bigger world out there.”

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Jean Stothert

September 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann and Keith Binder

The corridor leading to the Omaha mayor’s office serves as a gallery for a long line of portraits of the city’s past mayors. It is a wall-to-wall boy’s club.

This day, the portrait of the city’s newest mayor is off at a photography studio waiting to be framed. But once it arrives, it will be an image long overdue on this wall.

It’s the first picture of a woman in the hallway on the third floor of the Civic Center.

“It was not an issue in the campaign, and it was not something I thought about,” says Mayor Jean Stothert as she sits at the conference table in her new office. “But yes, there’s no question I’m proud to be the first female mayor of Omaha.

“You get pretty sick of the ‘*-word.’” – Jean Stothert on women in politics

“Some of my biggest influences are those strong, pioneering women who broke new ground. I love Margaret Thatcher. I would love if someone called me The Iron Lady.”

So be it. Jean Stothert—The Iron Lady. It’s a name both friend and foe are likely to find fitting.

Conservative, like Thatcher. Driven. A homemaker from humble beginnings turned successful political figure. A tough, sometimes polarizing figure. A woman who can shrug off, and move on from, the sometimes vile comments only female political figures have to face.

“You get pretty sick of the ‘c-word,’” she says. It isn’t unusual for women in politics to be pushed to prove their “toughness.” So where is the “Iron” in the “Lady?” In Stothert’s case, not only did politics help galvanize her; so, too, did her years as an ICU nurse.

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Humble Roots

Stothert grew up in Wood River, Ill., outside St. Louis, “a refinery town where my dad worked at the refinery.”

He was not in a union, if you were wondering. Like Thatcher, Stothert—as she has proven already with the firefighter’s union—stands in vocal and firm opposition to some union interests.

The specs of her childhood home roll quickly off her tongue. “Tiny house—living room, kitchen, four kids, one bathroom,” Stothert shares. She’s clearly said this many times before. It is a counterpoint raised often in political spheres when people note that she lives with her surgeon husband in often-assumed-to-be-more-affluent-than-it-is Millard.

She walked to school, had a job, did volunteer work. She wanted to be a nurse “because it seemed like a good way to give back to the community.” While many of her friends chose to work in hospitals in more affluent parts of St. Louis, she chose to “be where I was most needed”—with the Trauma Center at St. Louis University Hospital in the heart of the city.

You have to become an Iron Lady to be a nurse in an inner-city trauma center.

“You see it all,” she says. “I’ve done CPR on hundreds of patients. I’ve opened people’s chests and done internal heart massage. I’ve wrapped up bodies and taken them to the morgue over and over again. That’s just how it is.

“I like the challenge of making a critically ill patient well. But sometimes, I’m not going to make that patient well. They’re going to die. The thing is, I never want to get that hard edge. You can do tough work without losing your humanity and compassion doing it.”

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From Homemaker to Politician

It was in this environment that she met trauma surgeon Joe Stothert.

After five years of dating, they married. In time, the couple moved to Seattle with his job. Then to Galveston, Texas, where the couple’s daughter, Elizabeth, and son, Andrew, were born.

Then to Omaha, Neb., “in good part for the better schools,” Joe notes. With two young children and a husband with a job that took him away at all hours, Jean decided she would stay home with her children.

“She has always been strong-willed but wonderful at listening to others and working together with people to get things done.” – Joe Stothert

In little time, being an at-home mom entailed diving into work with her local parent-teacher organization. Joe says it was a natural fit for her.

“She has always been strong-willed but wonderful at listening to others and working together with people to get things done,” he says. “Then, as an ICU nurse, she was working with an immense amount of sophisticated mechanisms. She enjoyed that. I think she was quickly interested in the mechanisms of government.”

Jean and husband Joe Stothert went out in a blizzard to campaign.

Jean and husband Joe Stothert went out in a blizzard to campaign.

Getting Out the Vote

Three years after the family arrived in Millard, three positions opened on the Millard School Board.

“There were 13 people running. A full field,” Stothert says. “I didn’t have much money, so I figured we’d have to hit the streets and knock on as many doors as we could. We won by a good bit. We learned right then how important it is to get out and talk to everyone you can.”

That shoe-leather, door-to-door campaigning with her and her supportive family at its core has been the key to her continued success. She served two more terms on the Millard School Board before her election to the Omaha City Council, which, she says, was a logical step.

“School boards are very much like city councils,” Stothert says. “You manage multi-million-dollar budgets, you have labor negotiations. It wasn’t much of a leap at all.”

During her time on the school board, she suffered her only loss so far in politics: a 2006 bid for the state legislature against Democrat Steve Lathrop.

It was one of the closest races in state history. Initially, it appeared Stothert had won by only a few votes. She celebrated with a small vacation with her husband. When she returned, she found out that after absentee votes were counted, she had lost by 14 votes. Stothert said the final margin—after some votes were contested—was five votes.

“So maybe you should have picked up 10 of your friends and driven [them] to the polls,” she recalls having wondered to herself. “Yes, I thought about it. But I truly believe we did the best we could. I think I learned more in losing than I did in winning. I also truly believe that things happen for a reason.”

She then turned her eye toward the Omaha City Council. She asked Joe if she should run. “I said ‘no,’” he says. “She ran anyway.”

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Taking on the Big Boys

She had no plans to run for mayor when she won her seat on the council, but, in time, she says, she “decided that we needed a change.”

In her race for mayor, her calls for smaller, more streamlined government resonated with voters. Her ground game grew considerably. At its core was a relentless door-to-door campaign by the entire Stothert family.

Joe took 10 vacation days prior to both the primary and the general election. Her son, who is pursuing an advanced degree at the University of South Florida, and her daughter, who works at Union Pacific, also joined in.

Stothert proudly showed off a framed photo of her and her husband in the middle of a residential street during one of the weekend campaign blitzes. The city was socked in by a blizzard that weekend. The Stotherts are wrapped in wet winterwear. Part of Jean’s hair is frozen and cocked sideways. Joe’s right thumb is protruding from a hole in his glove.

It’s a picture of resolve. They knocked on 15,000 doors. She says Joe helped push her on when she grew tired on the campaign trail. Joe insists, “She never would have gone on if she didn’t want to.” It’s also a picture, she jokes, of the Stotherts on a date. “We really have enjoyed those times together,” the mayor says.

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The Ugly Side of Politics

At times, the war of words during the campaign got brutal. Stothert, often characterized as a hardline conservative, can throw fire as well as she receives it. But particularly in the modern world of blogs, tweets, and every sort of website, the personal stabs at those in the public arena are often relentless and outrageous.

Stothert admits that, during the campaign, she failed to heed advice that she avoid reading all the attacks on her on the internet. Also, some of the nastiest—and most sexist—of the insults blew up into campaign issues she then had to address.

She boldly repeats two comments about her—one, a joke essentially about her being gang raped, and another about her being a stripper—that one would not expect to hear verbatim in an interview with the mayor.

“She would get pretty stern. She would challenge me, I would challenge her.” – State Senator Brad Ashford on Stothert

But there is often a flipside to such outlandish attacks. People get angry. In this election, Stothert admits, polls showed that a substantial number of women responded to the sexist attacks by moving into her camp.

Stothert says she’s not afraid of criticism. She invites it, as long as it’s civilized. But she knows now to avoid the constant barrage in cyberspace.

“It’s just not good for your mental health,” she says. “It wouldn’t be good for anyone’s health.” Her husband, as you might imagine, hasn’t handled some of the nastier or more personal criticisms with such a thick skin. “I don’t forgive and forget as easily,” Joe says. “She’s the one who can do that. Early on, she had it pegged. She told me the jabs were going to hurt me more than they would hurt her.”

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Tackling Tough Issues

The criticism is not going to ebb. She will continue to grapple with the powerful and vocal firefighter’s union. While sitting at her office’s conference table, she points to her desk. The gritty specifics of her proposed budget to streamline government “are sitting right over there,” she says.

She promises to cut government and cut taxes while improving government services. There are few political figures who have not claimed they could accomplish this feat. There are few who have.“We are going to succeed,” she says. “I have no doubt about that.”

If anyone can pull off this trick, it might be Stothert. State Sen. Brad Ashford, who ran against Stothert for mayor while also working with her on several issues on the state government level, says Stothert, while always civilized, is a tough and driven negotiator.

“She would get pretty stern. She would challenge me, I would challenge her,” Ashford says. “There’s nothing wrong with that. In the end, that’s how you make good policy.” In Ashford’s mind, Stothert’s best chance to save money while improving services will come “if she’s committed to consolidating” many services that both the county and city provide.

Jean and Joe with their family.

Finding Equilibrium

To keep a sense of balance, Stothert says, she knows she has to guard her personal time. She has a life outside the demands of the mayor’s office. “I love my home,” she says. “I’m pretty good at getting there, calming down, and shutting things off for a while.”

Her day is fairly regimented, as you might expect. She’s up at 5 a.m. After a usually healthy breakfast, she walks for 30 minutes on her treadmill, then takes her Australian Shepard, Ozzie (named after St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith), for a one-mile walk.

Back at home, she watches little television beyond the news. Instead, she relaxes by reading “a lot of fiction.” Her favorite books: one from her childhood, To Kill a Mockingbird, and comedian Tina Fey’s Bossypants (the cover of which inspired our magazine cover concept and, yes, the mayor enthusiastically “suited up” for the photo shoot).

If she has the time, she loves to get in the kitchen. “My friends and I used to get Bon Appétit magazine and try things all the time,” she says. “I would consider myself a gourmet cook now. I enjoy any time I can cook something myself.”

“I’m pretty good at getting [home], calming down, and shutting things off for a while.” – Jean Stothert

If she can’t, she’s also a fan of numerous Omaha restaurants. One stands out though, she says, perhaps because she fell in love with the fresh fish dinners she ate during the family’s time living in Seattle.

“The Twisted Cork has wonderful halibut and salmon,” she says. “I just love the food of the Pacific Northwest when it is done well.”

Then it’s five hours or so of sleep, the morning exercise, and off to another day as The Iron Lady.

“I’m a very black-and-white person,” she says. “I’m a very determined person.”

Meaning?

“We will achieve better services for less money,” she says. “We are not reducing city service, and we are going to balance the budget. This is what the people of this city have asked me to do, so that is what we’re going to get done.”

Mafiosi and Madams

August 29, 2013 by
Photography by The Durham Museum and Julie Shadlow

An insignificant river town doesn’t grow up to be a thriving metropolis without producing its share of unsavory types. Villainous characters and shady stories abound in Omaha, especially in its early days, where men are often very tight and women deemed a trifle loose, according to poet John G. Saxe in 1869. These ain’t your mama’s headlines. Actually, they may have been your grandmother’s.

Political mob boss incites race riot. For 18 years, political boss Tom Dennison carried most of Omaha neatly in his pocket—government, police, and business. The man’s crimes were many, but his most reprehensible may have been inciting the infamous Omaha Race Riot of 1919. After citizens finally elected a non-Dennison man, one Edward Parsons Smith, as mayor in 1918, Dennison henchmen were accused of putting on blackface, assaulting women, and then stirring up crowds, leading to the lynching of black man Will Brown and the near-lynching of Mayor Smith. Smith’s administration was later accused of being ineffectual during the riot. Dennison himself was never found guilty of any involvement, and a key instigator, Dennison henchman Milton Hoffman, fled the state before he could be questioned.

Brothel owner donates building for hospital, receives public outcry. Six months before her death, Anna Wilson, madam of downtown’s Sporting District in the late 1800s, “…closed out her dive and presented the building, with  $75,000, to the city as an emergency hospital,” reads the Lawrence Journal-World on Jan. 16, 1912. Even though it was the second largest gift to charity yet made by an Omahan, city officials and residents balked at accepting the donation of an old brothel. To abate accusations of “tainted money,” Wilson agreed to accept a rent of $125 a month for the rest of her life.

James (Jimmy) Dahlman posing as The Cowboy Mayor of Omaha (courtesy of Durham Museum).

James (Jimmy) Dahlman posing as The Cowboy Mayor of Omaha (courtesy of Durham Museum).

Puppet mayor runs for eighth term. Depending on where you look, James Dahlman was either a heroic figure of Omaha or an unscrupulous politician. He shot and killed his brother-in-law at the age of 22 and was a close ally of political boss Tom Dennison. That alliance led to Dahlman winning three elections in a row, seven altogether. He was filing for an eighth reelection when he passed away. He did fight for and won more autonomy for the Omaha government from the state. Perhaps that desire for doing things by his own rules explains why Dahlman originally refused federal aid after the fatal Omaha Easter Sunday Tornado of 1913.

Saloon owner is key lieutenant in crime ring. William E. Nesselhous, one of Tom Dennison’s bootleggers, owned a saloon called The Budweiser, which served as Dennison’s headquarters. A tiny man with glasses (he was a former jockey), Nesselhous was Dennison’s connector, an adaptable man who managed people easily. He was indicted in 1932 (along with 58 other people) by a federal grand jury for conspiracy to violate prohibition laws.

Child of prominent family stolen! Kidnapper writes book. In the 1880s, Pat Crowe went to work for one of the big four names in Omaha’s meat industry when his butcher shop was bought out by the Cudahy Meatpacking Plant. Edward Cudahy later fired him when he was caught stealing money. Several years later, Crowe kidnapped 16-year-old Edward Cudahy, Jr., in 1900 and received $25,000, the first successful ransom in the United States. This was perhaps due to the cold ransom note, referencing another kidnapping where a boy died because the father refused to pay. “If you don’t give up…you can lead your boy blind the rest of your days,” Crowe’s note threatened, stating he would put acid in the young man’s eyes. Five years later, Crowe was arrested for the crime but acquitted, whereupon he wrote not one but two autobiographies detailing the kidnapping. Crowe’s crime supposedly influenced the famous kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s child.

Respectable wife murders husband in hotel lobby. On Nov. 17, 1888, Eliza Beechler of Chicago followed her husband, Harry W. King, Jr., to the Paxton Hotel at 14th and Farnam streets in Omaha. Beechler had seen a dispatch stating that King had married a Miss Duffy in Kansas City. At the hotel, King insisted Beechler go home, and when she refused, he allegedly replied that she shut her mouth or he would choke her to death. In response, she shot him in the Paxton lobby, killing him and depriving two other women, including one upstairs, of a man they also believed to be their husband.

Louise Vinciquerra, in a photograph dated 1927 provided by great-great-granddaughter Julie Shadlow of Oregon.

Louise Vinciquerra, in a photograph dated 1927 provided by great-great-granddaughter Julie Shadlow.

Phantom Sniper resents being called insane. After being released from the Iowa State Penitentiary for killing cattle, Frank Carter shot a mechanic and a doctor in Omaha and supposedly a railroad detective in Council Bluffs in 1926. Newspapers revealed the victims had been standing next to windows in their homes at night when they were shot. Though convicted of two murders, Carter claimed to have killed 43 people. His lawyers attempted to say he was a paranoiac with an inferiority complex, but Carter disrupted his own defense by shouting, “I’m not a nut! I tell you, I’m not a nut!” He was electrocuted on June 24, 1927.

Cigar store is front for Omaha Mafia boss. Anthony Joseph DiBiase (Tony Biase) was a short, portly man at 5’3 and 160 pounds. What began as small-time bookmaking in his Owl Smoke Shop on 16th Street in the ’40s would become a web of heroin trafficking and connections to New York mafia. In 1960, Biase was sentenced to 15 years for narcotics after his attempt on the life of a partner-turned-informant went wrong. Biase was paroled in 1970 and died in 1991 in South Omaha at nearly 100 years old. He only had one other arrest in between, in 1986.

Bootleg queen’s ex shoots her second husband. Earl Haning was visiting with his ex-wife, Louise Vinciquerra, in her home on July 4, 1933, when he was shot through a screen and killed by her first ex-husband, Sebastiano Vinciquerra. The two men had exchanged fire once before in 1928, while Haning was still married to Louise. Haning had been a prohibition agent in Omaha at the time he was married to Omaha’s Bootleg Queen. Haning was married to one Jessie McCombs when he was shot in his ex-wife’s home.

Shopkeeper butchers friend for $1,500. Ottway Baker killed his coworker, Woolsey Higgins, with two swings of an ax while Higgins slept in their shared room at a grocery on 12th and Farnam streets. Baker then set fire to the shop and shot himself in the arm to cover his tracks, but he was arrested and hanged on Valentine’s Day, 1868. It was the second legal execution in Omaha history and the city’s first ax murder on record.

Joe Shearer

August 28, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“I don’t hate on Nikon users,” photographer Joe Shearer declares. “I hope we can all get along. I’m pretty open-minded, but I’m going to blindly put my bias towards Canon because that’s all I’ve ever known.”

Shearer, 27, laughs easily, but at the core he’s extremely serious about his job. As photo editor of the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s Gateway newspaper since 2010, he knows the meaning of hard work. He graduated from Gross Catholic High School in 2002 and went to UNO the following semester. He wasn’t sure what he really wanted to do, but he knew from his experience in yearbook class that he liked photography.

“It all started in my sophomore year of high school,” he explains. “I didn’t really have any extracurricular activities or athletics I was into at the time, but yearbook stood out. I did design, writing, and photography and ended up enjoying photography the most.”

Armed with his first professional camera, the Canon 10D (of course), Shearer started snapping photos of concerts he attended, sporting events, and everyday life. Then he hit a few bumps in the road.

“Whatever I contribute and turn in, I don’t want it to be sloppily put together. It should be award-winning journalism every day.”

“Life is weird sometimes. I was out of school for a couple years,” he says. “I just worked and traveled while learning life lessons and seeing the real world on my own. The whole time I did continue shooting photography. I did a few things for The Reader and Gateway before I went back to school. I never stopped shooting photos. I was just trying to grow up.”

Once back in school as photo editor, Shearer forged ahead with his career. For the past three years, he’s won several first place trophies at Omaha Press Club’s Excellence in Journalism Awards. This year, he won Best Feature Story (video), Best Feature Story (print), Best Sports Photo, and Best Feature Photo in the student category, as well as the Best Photo Essay award in the professional category. He also landed an internship at KETV News, where he’s preparing for a career in photojournalism. His dream job would have something to do with ESPN, music, or traveling, although he insists he’s “not a sports nerd.”

“Whatever I contribute and turn in, I don’t want it to be sloppily put together,” he says. “It should be award-winning journalism every day. There are a lot of talented journalists and artists in the Omaha area. We have a lot of incredible television, radio, and print. It’s a very creative city. If I could be associated with all of the greats in town, that would great.”

Gridiron Hero Becomes Mentor and Coach

August 27, 2013 by
Photography by Eric Francis Photography and Ted Kirk

What former Nebraska Cornhusker Steven Warren remembers most from his days playing football is not a particular game or plays, but rather the camaraderie among his teammates—along with key tenants such as persistence, integrity, and trustworthiness. These were experiences and traits that would serve Warren well later in life.

Recruited out of Springfield, Mo., he recalls Nebraska Head Coach Tom Osborne paying Warren and his family a visit in their living room the same week Big Red won the 1995 national championship. Warren accepted a UNL football scholarship and packed his bags for Lincoln.

Warren (96) delivers a bone-crushing hit back in his playing days for Big Red.

Warren (96) delivers a bone-crushing hit back in his playing days for Big Red.

“Nebraska football was No. 1; it was everywhere,” Warren recalls. “And being a part of it was like being a part of The Beatles.”

Freshman year was both a culture shock and an athletic shock for Warren: rigorous practices alongside the fame of being a Cornhusker. “There was so much temptation because of what you were part of. But you also had to learn time management,” he adds.

While playing for Nebraska, Warren found himself developing close friendships with other players and families in and around Lincoln. Oftentimes, parents would seek Warren out to speak with their children about setting goals, planning for the future, and living one’s dream.

Warren left Nebraska as a 3rd round pick of the Green Bay Packers in the 2000 NFL Draft. Thirteen weeks into his rookie year, Warren was sidelined with an injury and told he would miss the remainder of the season. He stayed in Green Bay, undergoing rigorous rehabilitation and training. He returned to the Packers for one more season before moving to the AFL, first playing for the San Jose Sabercats and, later, the Arizona Rattlers. At each of his AFL stints, Warren suffered separate injuries. “That’s when I realized my body was trying to tell me something,” he recalls.

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Warren returned to University of Nebraska-Lincoln and finished his sociology degree in 2004. After graduation, he had a decision to make. His wife, Heidi, is from Columbus, so staying in Nebraska certainly seemed like an option. And being a Nebraska alumni opened many doors for Warren. Former Huskers often pursued successful careers after leaving the field.

But a sales job or related opportunities just didn’t feel right.

“I always liked helping others, and I worked with mentors while at Nebraska,” Warren shares. At his Lincoln home near 30th and Y streets, some of Warren’s fondest memories were sitting on his porch and talking with children and teens who lived in the neighborhood.

That feeling never left him, which is why today he is president and founder of D.R.E.A.M. (Developing Relationships through Education, Athletics, Mentoring). It’s an Omaha-based nonprofit mentoring organization that reaches out to young men enrolled in middle school.

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“Seven years ago, everything for D.R.E.A.M. just fell into place: the pieces, the people. It was meant to be,” Warren says.

D.R.E.A.M. began in 2006 as an after-school program at Walnut Hill Elementary School at 43rd and Charles streets. Five volunteers met regularly with 20 at-risk students. Today, the program has expanded to several Omaha schools and added a chapter in Springfield, Mo., Warren’s hometown. In all, the program serves about 300 boys.

D.R.E.A.M. finds its success from 40 volunteers who spend three to five hours each week at an assigned school throughout the academic year. The theme is simple: becoming a man.

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“Our volunteers work with seventh- and eighth-grade students each school year teaching them the positive attributes of being a man: respect, responsibility, relationship building, establishing rapport,” Warren says. “All of these lessons I learned from football at Nebraska and our peer counseling.”

D.R.E.A.M. teaches young men that it’s okay (even encouraged) to be successful in school. College-age mentors serve as living, breathing examples of the success that comes with hard work, dedication, and diligence.

Teena Foster, an Omaha Public Schools site director at McMillan Magnet Center Middle School, has worked alongside Warren and his college-age volunteers since last fall. Foster says she continues to see growth in the seventh- and eighth-grade students who participate in D.R.E.A.M. each week. And she knows Warren is the driving force.

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“Steve is dedicated to mentoring these young students,” Foster explains. “He’s always smiling, is always pleasant. So are his volunteers. They build great relationships with our students. Mentors are extremely important in these young lives.”

Warren’s belief in mentorship yielded a second program that also occupies much of his time. From his experiences as a student athlete, Warren launched Warren Academy in 2010. It’s designed to provide students (from elementary and middle school to high school and college) with leadership skills and character-building through athletics.

Warren Academy, however, isn’t just for students. Coaches and other leaders also participate to improve and refine a variety of leadership skills, both on and off of the field. Warren Academy programs include training sessions, camps, coaching clinics, nutritional counseling, education assistance, and mentoring. The athletic training component features speed, strength, and agility training programs. Warren says that once the organization has its own facility, Warren Academy’s offerings will expand to include fitness for adults and children of all ages.

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“Our goal is to become the primary training resource for field sports,” Warren adds. “That includes baseball, football, track, soccer, and lacrosse.”

Seems Warren’s best playing position is that of teacher. And he’s loving every minute of it.

Courtney Kenny

March 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann and Courtney Kenny

Courtney Kenny’s favorite piece, currently, is a self-portrait in charcoal. Tousled pale hair is set off by a careless smirk. And a huge, red, acrylic “F” circled over her face and checkmarked for emphasis. The unforgiving letter is the epitome of every student’s nightmares.

“When I was doing Failure,” Kenny says, “I was stressed and frustrated. I’d just got declined from some gallery, so I was stressed about that and kind of feeling like a failure.”

Her friends couldn’t understand it. “They’d say, ‘Why do you feel like a failure?’” Kenny recalls. After all, she of all her peers from Bethany College (she graduated last December) had been in juried shows as a sophomore and had her first solo exhibition as a freshman. She’s what you might call driven.IMG_4256 copy

The reaction she gets when applying to galleries and shows is usually along the lines of “You’re how old? What, 23?”

“It leads me to believe more artists wait till they’re older to show,” Kenny says, adding that most students aren’t even thinking about shows in college, just making art. “I was doing things my peers weren’t,” she says. Determined to get her work seen, she felt her way along with “lots of research, lots of trial and error, lots of rejection, lots of failure.” And even if she doesn’t sell as many pieces as she wants at the shows she does get into, she knows each show is an addition to her résumé. “It’s always better to be able to say, ‘Hey, I currently have a show here,’” Kenny points out. “That alone, other galleries perk up a little bit.”

All the while, she’s amassed a body of work in what she calls “unrealistic realism.” The style is realistic, with people and animals portrayed in fine detail with graphite, charcoal, acrylic, or oil, but the subject matter is unrealistic. Elements are drawn in such a way as to make viewers look twice. Is that…real? Could it be real?IMG_7354 copy

Consider, for example, the Nude Bitch. At first glance, the charcoal and acrylic piece is a study of a tired beagle sacked out on a couch. But upon closer inspection, a viewer might notice the rose petals. And are those draped sheets? “That one’s making fun of the nude model,” Kenny says. “No one gets it at first.”

She’s always looking for the quirk, the sense of humor, the hint of tongue-in-cheek. Artists such as Banksy, Chuck Close, and Francoise Nielly encourage her to embrace a subtle wit in her own work. And, perhaps, a tendency to poke fun at art itself. “I’ve always respected artists more who, if they do a piece that’s just three stripes on a canvas, and then I see another piece of theirs that does show they have the technical skills, I can accept the first piece,” Kenny says. “Then you know it’s intentional, not a cover-up for the fact that they can’t draw.”

For Kenny, drawing is where it all began, and she’s taken certain elements from drawing into her painting. For example, nearly all of her work is in black and white. Drawing in black and white is typical, but a black-and-white oil painting raises eyebrows. “It’s more honed in,” she says. “Minimalist. That’s also why most of my pieces don’t have a ton in the background.” A good example of this stark minimalism would be Unravel, a mixed media work with yarn and acrylic.IMG_3961 copy

Kenny does reserve splashes of color to draw focus, such as the In Bloom series. “Too much color,” she says, “and you’re almost noticing the color over the medium.” But she lets her viewers be the judges, saying she wants to provide a direction but not specific answers as to what her art has to say.

Kenny recently wrapped up a month-long show at the Crossroads Art District in Kansas City in March. Her next show will be at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska City in July. For more information, visit courtneykennyart.com.

From Lightbulb Sales to Magazine Tales

February 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Todd Lemke discovered the art of the deal as an eight-year-old growing up in Papillion. One day, his father, Raymond—who believed that allowances should be earned, not given—drove the family station wagon to the old Skaggs store and loaded up on dozens of discounted lightbulbs. When he got home, he got out a map of Papillion, divided it into three sectors (one for each of his children), and told his boys to fan out and sell the lightbulbs. Young Todd dutifully knocked on doors. The exchange with the homeowner would go something like this:

“Are you with the Boy Scouts?”

“No.”

“Are you with a church group?”

“No.”

“Well, who are you with?”

“Just myself.”

(Pause)

“Okay, show me what you have.”

More times than not, he sold a lightbulb.

In many ways, the bulbs shined a light on the path Lemke would take in the future. The youngster with a natural gift for sales became an adult with a knack for creative promotion. Just two years out of college, Lemke combined his skills and launched what would become Omaha Magazine.

Now celebrating its 30th year, Omaha Magazine remains at the top of its game, boasting 36,000 subscriptions—remarkable for a city this size. It’s sold at Barnes and Noble and other bookstores. Additionally, a copy of the publication can be found in every hotel room in the metropolitan area, reaching a half-million visitors to the Midlands per month.

Like many success stories, Omaha Magazine started humbly and underwent several transformations. Lemke, the owner and publisher, guided every stage.

“If you want to know what makes Omaha tick, then you have to know its people. And we do a better job talking about people than any other medium in town. It’s people, people, people, and then food. This town loves food.” – Todd Lemke, publisher

“I graduated from UNL in 1981 with a degree in journalism. I weighed my options and decided to sell homes,” Lemke deadpans, knowing his career choice came out of left field. He explains, “My mother and father sold real estate when I was growing up, and I got my real estate license in 1977 when I was still in high school.”

Lemke may have opted for sales, but he believed in the power of promotion. He advertised the custom-built homes in a weekly alternative newspaper called City Slicker and lured first-time homebuyers to view the models using a P.T. Barnum approach. Newlyweds Greg and Terese Bruns checked out Lemke’s block party one weekend.

“We went out there, and here is Todd dressed up in a clown suit,” says Bruns. “He had bands playing. He was handing out candy and balloons and pop. It was a carnival. And the next thing you know, we’re signing papers for a new house. That’s how we met.”

One day, the owners of City Slicker offered to sell the paper to Lemke. Flush with cash from his real estate deals, Lemke took them up on their offer. It was 1983.

“The first thing I did was turn City Slicker into a glossy, four-color magazine. I did that for three years,” says Lemke. But he discovered that the ad-buying community wanted a readership that was “past the party age.” So he literally dumped City Slicker one day and started another magazine the next day called Omaha Today, distributed free around town.

Seeking to stabilize his investment, Lemke went to a competitor who owned a monthly publication, Our City. It listed all the local shopping, eating, and entertainment hot spots. Lemke thought it would be a good merger “because he had a magazine that was in all the hotels.” The marriage went through in 1987. But there was still a missing piece to the puzzle.

“The name [Our City] didn’t do much for me,” says Bruns, who by this time was working with Lemke selling ads. “I mean, I’d call a business and say, ‘Hi, this is Greg Bruns from Our City,’ and they’d go, ‘Huh? Never heard of it.’ I said to Todd, ‘Why can’t we change this?’”

In 1989, Our City and Omaha Today became Omaha Magazine.

Magazines pulled from Omaha Publications' archives.

Magazines pulled from Omaha Publications’ archives.

“The name carried so much more meaning with people,” says Bruns, who soon became the vice president and Lemke’s business partner. “People became more willing to talk with me.”

As the ads increased, so did the content of the magazine. In addition to a thorough restaurant and entertainment guide, Omaha Magazine upped its profiles of people who make this community work.

“Over the course of 30 years, we have done thousands and thousands of great, positive people stories,” Lemke points out with pride. “If you want to know what makes Omaha tick, then you have to know its people. And we do a better job talking about people than any other medium in town. It’s people, people, people, and then food. This town loves food.”

The look of the magazine also sets it apart: thick, glossy, and beautifully photographed. An innovation that really put Omaha Magazine on the map is its annual “Best of Omaha™” edition.

“We started that in 1992,” says Bruns. “It’s absolutely huge and gets bigger every year.”

Lemke, an optimist by nature, says he wakes up every morning with ideas that he can’t wait to bounce off his editors, photographer, graphic designers, and sales staff. His business sense, however, has kept the ship afloat. He expanded his publishing business to include B2B Omaha, a business quarterly; The Encounter, a magazine focusesd on downtown; HerLiving, with articles devoted to women; Family Spectrum, featuring helpful stories on kids, education, and family; and the Old Market Directory, a guide to business and events in the historic district. Equally important, Lemke doesn’t shy away from innovation.

“Print publications have to embrace social media and the internet,” he says. “You can read all our magazines online, and we link everything.”

Lemke never forgets the lessons from long ago, when he sold lightbulbs door-to-door. He learned to look a customer in the eye. He learned to listen to what they had to say. For 30 years now, he’s been listening to what Omaha wants and needs—and chronicling it.

“I’m fortunate. I picked an occupation that I can do for a long time.”

Happy anniversary.

Brandi Petersen

December 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Growing up in Papillion, Brandi Petersen didn’t dream of becoming a television news anchor; she was interested in theatre and speech, and entered college at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln intending to study drama. But she quickly realized that a future in musical theatre was “not meant to be.” A class on the history of broadcasting inspired her passion for broadcast journalism, and after she switched majors, Petersen sought an internship at KETV in 2001 simply because her family had always watched that station’s newscasts.

“Our joke is that I kind of hung around long enough until I got a job; I just wouldn’t leave,” she says. “I had three internships and got very lucky that they took a chance on an intern…and it worked out very well for me.”

Petersen became a full-fledged reporter in 2003 and an anchor three years later. She says she has found many role models and even friends at KETV through the years, from the reporters who let her tag along on assignment during her earliest days as an intern to her current colleagues on both sides of the camera.

“People ask if we really get along that well,” Petersen says. “We’re very much like a family, and that sounds so cheesy, but all of our reporters and anchors and team members, we really bond very, very well.”

“We live here with you; we’re your neighbors. And we’re kind of the microphone for what you want to say.”

Her career highlights include interviewing President Obama (“It was really an experience having security sweep through twice and snipers on the roof of the building behind us,” she recalls) and Warren Buffett, and she was on-air during notable events such as the 2007 Westroads shooting and the 2008 tornado at Little Sioux Scout Ranch in western Iowa. Petersen says she credits not only experience, but also her high school drama training with helping her maintain composure on camera, and although she spends most of her time behind the news desk, she still enjoys reporting from the field.

“The great thing about this job is that you get to see and interview so many people,” she says. “Reporting is our first love. We’re storytellers.”

Petersen says she’s become accustomed to being recognized wherever she goes—“Are you the news girl?” is a common greeting often followed by, “You’re a lot taller than I thought you’d be!”—but she says people are nearly invariably nice to her when they meet her in public, and she strives to be polite and friendly in return.

“As an on-air journalist, you do need to remember that you’re in the public eye,” she says. “I don’t want to let people down.”

Petersen, whose son Easton was born in 2011, says the unusual work schedule associated with live evening broadcasts has meshed nicely with motherhood, especially since her husband, Brian Paul, a high school coach, works traditional hours. Easton smiles and claps when he sees her on TV, she reports, but adds with a laugh, “He does the same thing for Bill Randby and Jeremy Maskel.”

Petersen has watched broadcast journalism evolve to be more immediate and interactive with coverage available around the clock and through multiple means. But she says one thing hasn’t changed: she still loves her job.

“It’s great to work in the market where I grew up,” she says. “I think we’ve really built a reputation with our station…that we’re good, kind people. I hope that people pick up on that. We live here with you; we’re your neighbors. And we’re kind of the microphone for what you want to say.”