Tag Archives: University of Nebraska at Omaha

Lady G Behind the Scenes

November 8, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Gretchen Carrol has helped plan the UNO Native Film Festival since the very beginning. Her input has only increased with the festival entering its fifth year showcasing Native American films for local Omaha audiences.

“I’m comfortable dealing with the talent and the budget,” Carroll says. “I handle a lot of the marketing, and I’ve developed great relationships with the talent we bring in.”

Actors who made appearances have included Graham Greene (Oscar-nominated for his supporting role in Dances With Wolves) and Gary Farmer (who played the absent father in Smoke Signals, the acclaimed indie film based on Sherman Alexie’s award-winning book, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven).

Carroll, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, was born in Boston and moved to Omaha in 1989. Along with her film festival involvement, she is also a radio producer and DJ who goes by the on-air name “Lady G.”

She never set out to become a radio personality. Although she had spoken on some local podcasts, her first radio airtime came about one year ago. As president of UNO’s Intertribal Student Council, she went on 89.3 KZUM’s The Drum—a two-hour show featuring traditional Native music—to promote an upcoming powwow. She was a natural radio personality, and before she knew it, she was filling in as co-host. A month later, she was running the show.

The Drum has since evolved into Intertribal Beats, a three-hour program airing on 89.3 KZUM on Sunday nights from 7-10 p.m. (broadcast from the station in Lincoln) and hosted by Carroll and John “Johnny G” Garnica.

“We still have a lot of traditional Native music,” Carroll explains, “but now we do all genres of music by Native artists.” And the show is about more than just music: “I wanted to make a connection between Omaha and Lincoln Native communities,” she continues. “So I do a lot of announcements for Native community events going on in both Omaha and Lincoln.”

She doesn’t consider herself an activist, but Carroll’s work goes beyond radio production. “When Standing Rock happened [with protesters camping in opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline], I just got this calling that I needed to go up there,” she says. “I would come back and update everybody on Standing Rock issues, spread the word about all the things that are happening, and connect people with other people to bring supplies up.”

Carroll is currently enrolled at UNO and works as a staff assistant in the Native American studies department. She decided to return to school during an honoring ceremony for graduates of the program. “I saw non-Natives knowing and talking about my history, and I had no clue,” she explains. “So I was like, I need to go to school.” Since then, she’s made an effort to teach others about Native issues through her work both on and off the radio.

“It’s all about taking what I know and turning around and sharing that with others,” she says.

Carroll is also a poet and was recently invited to share her poetry at the Reconnecting Struggles Workshop at the Attenborough Arts Centre in Leicester, England. She says her poetry started coming out when she sobered up almost four years ago: “I’m trying to break stereotypes within in my culture, too, so I’m really proud that my grandchildren will not see me ever take a drink, and they see that other option.”

Carroll encourages Native and non-Native readers to attend events like the UNO Native American Film Festival on Nov. 4-5 and the Wamblii Sapa Memorial Pow Wow in the spring. “Just get involved with those things, because if you know those things are happening, then you start asking other questions, and you get to meet other Native people in the community, and then you start learning some stuff—that we’re still here.”

Visit unomaha.edu/student-life/inclusion/multicultural-affairs/native-american-support.php for more information about Native American cultural programs at UNO (including the UNO Native Film Festival and Wamblii Sapa Memorial Pow Wow).

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

Hey, Mr. DJ

November 1, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When United States Army veteran Stephen Bils was deployed to Afghanistan, someone stole his first set of turntables, as well as all the vinyl records he’d collected over the years. The 29-year-old Clearwater, Florida, native had picked up the turntables at a flea market in North Carolina, right outside of Fort Bragg.

“They were garbage, but I loved them so much,” Bils says.

In a way, that was a pivotal moment in his life. Bils, who had relocated to Omaha in 1997 with his parents and two older sisters, returned to Nebraska to find a friend had donated a pair of (controllers) for him to use in the interim. From there, he began DJing all over Omaha—most notably at the now-defunct House of Loom.

“We played all over town,” he says. “The rest is history. It’s led me here to where I am now. It’s been nothing short of a good time.”

With each gig, the Benson High School graduate was finally able to publicly express his passion for music, something that began when he was a child. His mother, Trudi Bils, taught him how to play the guitar around 11 or 12 years old.

“I’ve always been in a musical environment,” Bils explains. “I played in bands, churches, high school concert band, jazz band, marching band, pep band—you name it. I was on drum line and played trap set in jazz band. In my free time, I played in bands with my friends.”

As a teenager, Bils started to gravitate toward electronic dance music.

“I love house music,” he says. “I can’t say that enough. Disco, funk, deep, soulful, techno—I love it all. I also enjoy trap and hip-hop, and jazz has a special spot in my heart, too.”

Bils doesn’t perform as much as he used to, but earlier this year, he became Encounter magazine’s resident DJ, which he says has been “amazing.” He also works with the Old Market-based Bar 415, where he brings in talent and occasionally plays shows.

“I’ll be doing a few friends’ weddings and some private parties this year, but with work, life, and everything going on, I can’t do it nearly as often as I used to,” he says. “Back when I was busy as a career DJ, I was holding down residencies with clubs like the Capitol, The Max, House of Loom, Sake Bombers, and Tavern. I was DJing gigs with touring bands, international DJs, producers, and working with organizations like the Open
Door Mission.”

Over the last few years, Bils has blossomed into a savvy entrepreneur. After high school, he briefly attended the University of Nebraska at Omaha where he enjoyed studying journalism, but three years into his college education, Bils left to pursue his own business—something he’s been working on ever since.

After watching his family struggle with finding quality care for his grandparents, Bils was motivated to establish BellaCare, an in-home health care agency focused on providing care to seniors and people with disabilities.

“There is such a huge demand for in-home care and a huge shortage of caregivers,” Bils says. “There are now, more than ever, a tremendous amount of people turning 65 everyday—somewhere around 15,000 people every day turn 65—and that will continue for another 15 to 20 years. And aside from being a good business opportunity, it’s a great way to do good for our community. It’s a much-needed service, and we are proud to offer it.”

While his commitment to BellaCare is one he clearly takes seriously, music will always be his first love. Anyone who has seen Bils touch a set of turntables (or CJDs) is typically moved by his form of artistic expression.

“House music is difficult to explain,” he says. “There’s a deep and soulful feeling that creates a connection or bond, like a symbiotic relationship between me and the people dancing. The rhythm and bass, topped with the voices of gospel, love or triumph, driven by wailing horns, or keyboards, or some kind of sample loop, just carries you over the dance floor like nobody’s watching. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Visit bellacare.us for more information about Bils’ business.

This article printed in the November/December 2017 edition of Encounter.

Such Great Heights

September 3, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The first thing you notice about Wyman Heights is the beautiful view facilitated by the storied neighborhood’s riverside, hilltop perch. The petite enclave, situated on the cusp of Florence and Ponca Hills, spoons with a deep bend in the Missouri River where views of the adjacent waterway and nearby city provide an entirely unique perspective.

Speaking of perspective, Jody duRand has an interesting one, having grown up in Wyman Heights in the ’60s and ’70s, and returning to live there in 2010 when she and husband Roger duRand bought their dream home. 

“Most people don’t know it’s there—this little gold mine in the hills,” she says of Wyman Heights.

Her parents left the neighborhood in 1991, and the self-described “North O girl at heart” lived for a time in a Florence home designed by her father, Del Boyer of Boyer & Biskup Architects.

The duRands nearly closed on a house in the Memorial Park area when her favorite Wyman Heights home—the one she’d admired since childhood, the proverbial belle of the neighborhood real estate ball—came up for sale. 

Cathy Katzenberger

“I loved this house more than anything in the world,” duRand says of her 1933 home. “When we got the chance to buy it, it was day one, full offer, we’re taking it as is. It’s a really special, beautiful house with so much charm and a view you just can’t get anywhere else in the city. Plus, this [neighborhood] is my home.”

Kristine Gerber, executive director at Restoration Exchange Omaha, agrees that Wyman Heights is a “hidden gem.”

“Very few know where it is,” Gerber says. “Its views of the Missouri River to the east and downtown Omaha to the south are incredible. Neighbors love that it’s this quiet oasis, yet in minutes they can be on I-680 to get to wherever they need to go.”

In 1905, Omaha real estate agent/banker Henry Wyman took a shine to the hills north of Florence—then known as Florence Heights and Valley View Heights. Wyman envisioned the area, with its breathtaking views, as the perfect spot for “an idyllic retreat for Omaha’s elite,” according to research gathered by Restoration Exchange Omaha in preparation for the organization’s 2017 neighborhood tour. Wyman spent two decades gathering land, planting trees, and grading and paving North 29th and 30th streets before the neighborhood was replatted and rechristened “Wyman Heights” in 1925.    

Tudor Revival homes populated the area from the late 1920s into the 1940s, when World War II and a national housing shortage slowed development. But by the mid-1960s, Wyman Heights was fully developed, with midcentury modern homes filling in the gaps. 

“I always have to explain that the house numbers are totally out of order,” says resident Cathy Katzenberger, who loves the area’s peace and quiet, perfect views, and combination of seclusion and accessibility. “It’s because the neighborhood started with great big lots. Then, through the years as people sold off parts of their lots, new numbers were put in.”

Katzenberger has lived in the neighborhood for 27 years, in two different houses. She grew up in nearby Minne Lusa and was always determined that someday she would live “up on the hill.” Her current abode is informally known as the Hayden House (not to be confused with the welcome center on UNO’s campus), named for Dave Hayden, proprietor of Omaha restaurants from days of yore, such as the Birchwood Club and Silver Lining Restaurant.

“This [neighborhood] originally started off as the weekend country retreat for people who lived in central Omaha—now we’re talking back in the old days,” says Katzenberger, who recalls the hill being home to “all the fancy people.”

Between the stunning views and architectural diversity, Wyman Heights was indeed a magnet for Omaha’s interesting and elite, just as Wyman envisioned. According to Restoration Exchange Omaha, the neighborhood was home to many a local movers and shakers, including Claude Reed, owner of Reed’s Ice Cream; William Sealock, president of the Municipal University of Omaha, originally located at 24th and Pratt streets and now known as University of Nebraska at Omaha; Harry Shackelford, Nebraska State District Attorney; and Genevieve Detwiler, prominent socialite and local proponent of the Girl Scouts. 

Roger and Jody duRand

Wyman Heights retained its allure into the ’60s, attracting prominent residents like mayor Gene Leahy and artist Tom Palmerton.     

“[The neighborhood] was filled with successful, smart, interesting people,” duRand recalls.

While the neighborhood has become more economically diverse, duRand says Wyman Heights hasn’t changed too much—still offering its lovely views and solid, neighborly network. 

“If you can find a house up here, you’re lucky. It’s a safe neighborhood and the neighbors are wonderful,” duRand says. “It’s nice to be able to look back all these years and see how it’s changed yet how it’s stayed the same.”

Katzenberger is pleased to see traditions like the annual neighborhood party endure, while several young families have moved into the neighborhood and livened it up with a new generation of kids at play.

“We’ve got very good neighbors. People are connected here,” says Katzenberger, noting that despite the lack of through traffic, children’s lemonade stands always do very well, as the neighbors all make a point to stop for a glass.

Katzenberger and duRand appreciate the unique blend of pastoral respite and urban access that comes with living in Wyman Heights.   

“We’re so close to everything, yet we can sit outside and hear nothing but birds…see a fox running through the yard, or deer walking up the middle of the street,” duRand says. “It’s the best of both worlds.”

Despite Wyman Heights’ affluent roots, duRand says there’s no pretension here.   

“People here are really just being themselves—and we all are very different,” she says. “It’s classy, but very eclectic. We all have love for the neighborhood and that’s what stabilizes us. If one person has a tree fall in their yard, all of us are there to help; we’re all watching out for each other.”

Restoration Exchange Omaha’s Wyman Heights neighborhood tour takes place Oct. 1 from noon to 5 p.m. Visit facebook.com/restorationexchange for more details.

This article appeared in the September/October 2017 edition of Omaha Home.

Pheasant Heaven

January 4, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“We went through 250,000 birds and 30,000 hunters in the last 30 years,” Bruhn says. “We had every celebrity you could think of out here.”

As urban sprawl takes over rural America, yesterday’s pasture transforms into tomorrow’s super store. Earl Henry Bruhn Jr. foresaw this trend long ago. He knew hunters would need a place to go where they could get inspired, stay in touch, and most importantly—hunt some birds.

Scott Bruhn is the son of Earl Henry Bruhn Jr. His family’s farm along the Elkhorn River Valley underwent decades of preparation before opening for commercial hunting.

“My dad bought the property in 1962,” Bruhn says. “He was a big hunter. He said, ‘We’ll buy our own property; we’ll have our own private hunting preserve and get a head start.’”

Pheasant Haven officially opened as a hunting preserve in 1987 after Scott and his brother, Earl Bruhn III, graduated from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The two wanted to realize their father’s vision for Pheasant Haven—opening hundreds of acres to hunters from all over the nation.

“We went through 250,000 birds and 30,000 hunters in the last 30 years,” Bruhn says. “We had every celebrity you could think of out here.”

Unfortunately, his brother Earl did not live to see the full realization of their Pheasant Haven dream. After his untimely death in 1991, just four years after opening, Bruhn was left to carry on the dream—alone.

In recent years, urban development has finally reached the gates of Pheasant Haven. Trophy homes now dot the beautiful Elkhorn River Valley. At this point in time, Bruhn says the preserve is no longer viable as a hunting retreat. The property shrank from a vast acreage to a mere 75 acres, and Bruhn has come up with a new focus for the business.
pheasantheaven2“Now I have a staff created, and all the buildings, and everything I need to do dog boarding and training,” Bruhn says. “I love dogs.”

According to Bruhn, there is a large and underserved community of hunters in Omaha who want to have their dog trained for hunting. He says a lot of people want their dog to be ready for sporting, but simply don’t have the space to do it.

“They can drop their dog off, and we can exercise the dog and keep it in good condition,” Bruhn says. “When they go up to South Dakota, or wherever they go, they will already have their dog trained, ready to roll, and in great shape.”

Tom Kazmierczak of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, says he would pay the more than $1,000 it costs to train a dog at Pheasant Haven. Kazmierczak himself trained his dog, Sam, with mixed results. In his opinion, having a well-trained dog is very impressive and makes the hunt go more smoothly.

“I have also hunted with old-school guys who got mad at me when Sam took off running and I couldn’t stop her,” Kazmierczak says. But he acknowledges that having a perfectly trained dog that can hunt is not what it’s all about. He finds joy in the quality time spent with Sam.

pheasantheaven3
“I read a book called Travels with Charlie by Steinbeck when I was in about eighth grade, which is all about a guy and his dog discovering America—that’s Sam and I,” Kazmierczak says. “I take her anywhere they allow, and I start every morning in the backyard with Sam and a cup of coffee.”

Talking to someone like Kazmierczak, it is obvious that a hunting dog is more than a utilitarian tool. It can be the family pet—the dog that flushes pheasants and drinks from the proverbial toilet bowl.

There is another sporting aspect of Pheasant Haven’s new business model that plays into the light-hearted side of dog ownership. Bruhn calls it dock jumping, but it is known nationally as “dock diving.” The premise of the sport is simple: dogs are trained to jump as far as they can off a dock over water.

Training dogs to dock dive goes beyond the fences of Pheasant Haven. Bruhn plans to partner with local animal shelters to give adoptee animals a second chance. He calls it “Wet Dog Jumps.” Pheasant Haven has already done fundraising dock jump events to benefit the Nebraska Humane Society, and this is another layer to that on-going effort.

“Those poor dogs that aren’t going to get a home—we are going to turn some of them into champions, sell them at the venues, and then give the money back to the shelters to feed more dogs,” Bruhn says.

Margaret Allen is Bruhn’s fiancée. When Bruhn retires, she says that will likely be the end of Pheasant Haven.

It is a little gloomy, seeing the beginning, middle, and end of a family business. But, as a game reserve, the destination was transient anyway. Encroaching urban sprawl has been a known threat for decades. Taking in dogs without a home, however, and giving them a new life—that creates a timeless legacy.

Visit pheasanthaven.org for more information.

pheasantheaven1

Nebraska’s State Fossil and the Sesquicentennial

January 1, 2017 by
Photography by Doug Meigs, Bill Sitzmann

The new year marks the 150th anniversary of Nebraska’s statehood. The January/February issue of Omaha Magazine touches on that milestone. But we don’t stop there. We take you even deeper into prehistoric times…15,000 years ago, back when mammoths roamed what would eventually become our great state…and 15 million years ago, around the time ancient elephants were en route to North America.

Growing up in Nebraska, I always marveled at the fossils of mammoths found in museums across the state. Ever since childhood, I have been intrigued by the ancient giants—remains of Ice Age creatures that have been unearthed from all but three of Nebraska’s counties.

When I was living and working as a journalist in Hong Kong, I was surprised to discover shops selling traditional Chinese ivory carvings made from mammoth tusks. The prehistoric ivory allows Chinese craftsmen to carve exquisite works of art. Unfortunately, traditional Chinese ivory carving has decades of association with the tragic killing of African elephant populations.

A global ban on elephant ivory has been in place since 1989, but the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora does not regulate extinct animals or fossils.

The strange dynamics involving my state’s official fossil seized my interest. Mammoth ivory is legal, and prehistoric tusks are offering an alternative to living elephants’ ivory.

I began research and writing about China’s mammoth ivory trade for a story published in China Daily’s HK Edition, where I was a staff feature writer. After two years of working at the newspaper, I received sad news. My father was diagnosed with colon cancer. I was heading home.

But before leaving Asia, I took a month-long reporting trip across mainland China to explore the mammoth ivory supply chain for my former employer’s magazine, China Daily Asia Weekly. The reporting trip took me to Beijing, Fujian, Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang, and Guangdong before I returned to Omaha.

My travels preceded the first mammoth ivory bans in the U.S. Since then, four states have outlawed the sale and purchase of mammoth ivory. More recently, China (the world’s largest market for black market ivory) has partnered with the U.S. (the world’s second largest market for black market ivory) to tighten restrictions on the ivory trade. China’s increasing regulatory pressure would likely result in growing demand for the mammoth tusks locked in Arctic permafrost.

Before I joined Omaha Magazine, a follow-up mammoth ivory research trip was in order. I returned to Asia with my favorite translator—i.e., my wife (who has written an introduction to Omaha’s most authentic Chinese cuisine in this issue)—and refreshed my research with ivory traders in Hong Kong and Beijing.

Funding for the reporting trip came from The Andy Award, an international reporting grant from the University of Nebraska at Omaha (named after Harold W. Anderson, former publisher of the Omaha World-Herald).

This issue’s cover story is a byproduct of that Andy Award. The trip also provided the basis for a paper that I presented at a panel during the American Anthropological Association’s annual conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in November.

I hope you enjoy the story and this issue of Omaha Magazine. Happy New Year!

Doug Meigs is the executive editor of Omaha Publications.

Immature Art for Mature Audiences

December 30, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Since time immemorial, bored teen boys have been drawing a certain part of the male anatomy on anything they can set pen to. Identification of such “artists” usually leads to their detention. However, for Mike Bauer and Dustin Bythrow, doodling juvenile outlines of phalluses was the stepping-stone to their artistic careers.

bzy-lps2

Together known as Bzzy Lps, the two have spent the past eight years bringing an artistic touch to subject matter that most consider crass. From turning a childhood image of Lindsay Lohan into a Juggalo to splicing together bizarre online conspiracy videos, their work is always fresh, unique, and never without controversy. The group’s name is a term borrowed from a hip-hop jargon dictionary that refers to a woman who enjoys fellatio. 

 “We became friends after discovering we have a mutual enjoyment of drawing stupid pictures,” Bythrow says.

When the two first met, Bauer was attending the University of Nebraska at Omaha for a degree in art, and Bythrow was working at a gas station. Mutual friends introduced them knowing Bauer would enjoy Bythrow’s side art project—a hand-drawn book of convenience store items: i.e., big gulps, churros, and overdone hot dogs talking back to customers.

 Following their instant connection, the two would regularly get together to draw and drink (and yes, sometimes this included illustrating parts of the male reproductive system). During each boozy hangout, they’d collaborate on images to see where their creative and liquored-up minds would take them. Soon these quasi-creative brainstorm meetings became a regular thing, and they decided to start illustrating content others could enjoy in zine form.

 “Zines were an easy way to get all our drawings into one place at one time,” Bauer says.

 At last year’s Omaha Zine Fest, Bzzy Lps hosted a table of their independently published content, with their Juggaluminati Hachetmanifesto zine quickly selling out. Inside the illustrated book are popular pop culture icons—Judge Judy, Yogi Bear, and Rob Lowe to name a few—painted to look like fans of the Insane Clown Posse. For next year’s Zine Fest, Bythrow is working to develop character concepts of his Mouse Boy, a Mickey Mouse-esque superhero with a really rotten attitude, into a comic.

bzy-lps

While these inventive cartoons and illustrations are Bzzy Lps’ specialty, they also have created T-shirts, stickers, and dabbled in video art. For the independent art venue Project Project, under Bythrow’s lead, the two made a three-hour-long video installation that stitched together nonsensical content found on YouTube.

 “I didn’t sleep for weeks and just went down the rabbit hole of the internet,” Bythow says. “But we got asked back again, which was a first for Project Project.”

 During an unseasonably warm October day on a NoDo patio, in between drags of cigarettes and a rather heated discussion on the underrated roles of Nicholas Cage, the two weigh where they’d like to see their careers develop. Visions of drawing professional comics and developing content for Adult Swim dance in their heads.

 “All that stuff on Cartoon Network, it’s nice to see other people who draw dumb cartoons and care about it,” Bauer says. “We just don’t want to go back to drawing dicks again.”

Visit bzzylps.storenvy.com for more information.

My Battle With Opiates

October 11, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

I’ve had problems with a variety of drugs, but my story hit rock bottom with opiate addiction.

I was always a very straight-and-narrow kid growing up in West Omaha. I obtained my pilot’s license when I was 17, and I was very active in sports and fitness. I graduated with a 4.17 GPA, and maintained a 4.0 in my first year studying at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Toward the end of high school, I did the typical partying with friends: drinking at friends’ houses when their parents were away, maybe smoking a little marijuana. But I never felt I had lost control. My father was a functioning alcoholic, so, you could say I was somewhat predisposed to the disease of addiction. But what did I know?

So-called hard drugs caught me the summer after high school. First came ecstasy pills. I remember the first time I “rolled,” I was in my basement with a couple friends who were more experienced with drugs. “I hope this feeling would never end,” I remember saying. My friend looked at me and just shook her head as if feeling sorry for a little kid. The next day, I felt the worst depression I had ever experienced. It scared me. But, I kept taking the pills, chasing that feeling, only for a slightly less satisfying high as my body acclimated to the drug. After a summer of taking ecstasy two to three times a week, the depression stuck with me. I couldn’t seem to have fun without being high.

As I went into my first year of college, I started trying cocaine and opiates. A lot of my acquaintances—I say acquaintances because none of those people are in my life now that I am sober—were doing things like oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, and other prescribed narcotics. These prescriptions are relatively easy to get your hands on. There are plenty of other drugs that are synthetic forms of opium and heroin, too.

By my third year of college, I was spending $50-$150 per day to support my habit. Looking back, I don’t know how I could afford it.

Over the next two years my use of opiates grew more and more frequent. At first, I was able to hide my habit from everyone in my life. I can’t even remember how many times I was high in class or in the library working on homework. At the time, I felt in control. When I look back, I realize I was developing quite a few character defects: lying, manipulation, cheating, and stealing. Eventually it got to the point where I wouldn’t even do schoolwork without some sort of drug to aid me.

By my third year of college, I was spending $50­-$150 per day to support my habit. Looking back, I don’t know how I could afford it. I had a good job and minimal bills. I knew when the people I got my drugs from had a prescriptions refilled better than they did. I always figured out a way. Because without the opiates, I felt restless; I couldn’t sleep; I was simply miserable. It got to a point where I needed help. I couldn’t keep going on like that. After checking into a methadone clinic, I soon admitted to my mom and sister how bad I had gotten.

The methadone clinic was another horrible experience for me in the end. The $13 per day I spent bought me another opiate—meant to wean me off of my addiction to pills—that got me arguably higher than those prescription opiates I had been taking. Because of the high dosage, I was nodding off throughout the day. So, I made a decision to quit cold turkey. Relapse followed with a new sort of high, and a new low.

I didn’t sleep for two weeks, I was so restless I wanted to cut my legs off. I couldn’t sit still, I was tired, irritable, depressed, etc.

 After about two weeks, I shot up the pills for the first time. I remember it very clearly: I just gave in. I didn’t like life without drugs anymore. I told myself being sober wasn’t worth it. I was in the back seat of my friend’s car. We were with someone who used an IV, and she handed me my own syringe. She told me it was mine. I actually thought to myself. “What a kind gesture of her to give me my very own syringe.” Of course I had no idea how to cook down the pill we had to a point where we could shoot it up. But I paid close attention when she did it for me, tied me off, and injected it into my vein. My heart was racing. I fell in love.

It didn’t take long for me to become an expert. I had a box of 100 syringes under my bed along with all the cleaning supplies necessary to do it “responsibly.” Within about two months, my arms were beaten black and blue, I had lost about 20 pounds, and I was constantly feeling horrible. The only time I felt normal was when I was high. It was getting harder to find pills, though. There were days where I would skip class, drive around for eight or more hours with people I didn’t know just to get one pill or a few hits of incredibly overpriced heroin. Then again, there were times when it was easy to find, but never when I was dope-sick and desperate. It was a miserable lifestyle, a nightmare. One time I even drove to Denver and spent three days there just to get cheaper heroin. Aside from visiting the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, I didn’t do anything other than shoot up heroin the entire time I was there by myself.

When I started the IV drugs I spiraled out of control really quickly. I went to a different clinic to get on Suboxone, a newer drug for opiate addiction. It made it so I couldn’t get high on opiates and so I wouldn’t have withdrawals. At first, I even shot that up just to feel a little high. I hated not being able to feel happy or excited. I was on Suboxone for two years. During that time, I converted my opiate addiction into an IV cocaine addiction with a side of alcoholism. Thankfully, I was able to stop taking Suboxone, but it was the hardest thing I have ever done. I didn’t sleep for two weeks, I was so restless I wanted to cut my legs off. I couldn’t sit still, I was tired, irritable, depressed, etc. I went into a drinking binge, not leaving my apartment for days at one point. I almost wished I had never got on Suboxone in the first place, but it served one purpose: It got me away from all my opiate connections.

The story of my addiction is not glamorous. In fact, there is a lot that I don’t remember too clearly. There is a lot that I’d rather forget. Addiction is not an easy thing to put on a timeline (which they asked me to do during both of my treatment center stays). Addicts don’t exactly have a structured lifestyle. It’s a roller coaster, complicated, and devastating. It’s taken me three years of trying to get to the point I am at with my sobriety.

battlewithopiates1Every day the disease of addiction whispers in my ear, rationalizing and scheming ways in which I could get high or drunk. Isolation is what it wants, so my defense is fellowship. The character defects that fed my addiction are still with me— I am an egomaniac with low self-esteem who copes by trying to control the world around me—but I work every day to address these problems. I’ve destroyed and rebuilt relationships with my family and friends. I have squashed my loved ones’ hopes over and over again, yet my family still stands behind me. Their support is what sustains my recovery. They know that I could relapse, that my fight is not over.

Sam requested omission of his last name at the advice of his Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor. He participates regularly in Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Visit omahaaa.org for more information.

For more information about how Omaha fits into the nationwide opiate abuse epidemic, read: http://omahamagazine.com/2016/10/dying-for-opiates-in-omaha/ 

A Lesson in Lifelong Learning

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Robert S. Runyon, posing in an austere-looking suit and tie, gazes down upon patrons from his portrait in the University of Nebraska at Omaha library. In contrast, the flesh and blood version introduces himself as “Bob” and sports a  T-shirt with the phrase “Literally Great…Figuratively the Best.” The UNO English Department shirt fits the wordsmith and lifelong learner like a glove.

“I’ve always had books on a pedestal in my mind,” says Runyon, who served as dean of the university’s library from 1978 to 2000.

Runyon laughs, “Before I retired, I thought, ‘I’ve got to prepare for retirement so I have a reason to get up in the morning.’” Chuckling, he continues, “I’m a lazy, sloppy, indolent person. And unless I have a reason—unless I have a purpose, a life purpose—I’m just going to vegetate.”     

Nowadays, Runyon doesn’t have time to vegetate. He travels with his wife (Sheila), takes classes, and writes his memoir.

Robert-Runyon2Despite Runyon’s appreciation of books, he has not always written them. Five years ago he saw a flier for a personal writing course at UNO. He asked instructor Elizabeth Mack, “Would you allow a 70-plus-year-old guy to come into your class?”

That’s exactly why UNO offers the Senior Passport Program. Founded in 2001, the program allows seniors (age 65 and older) to take two courses per semester at a cost of $25 per year. The only requirements are an available seat in the class, instructor approval, and a desire to learn.

Runyon has since taken several creative nonfiction courses with professors John Price and Lisa Knopp: autobiography, nature writing, travel writing, and spiritual writing.

“All of that was a strong experience,” says Runyon. “The encouragement I got from those people was enormous.” Knopp even marked “As” on Runyon’s essays.

Runyon says, “Senior Passport students aren’t graded, but I’m not sure I told her that because I liked getting As.”

These classes jump-started Runyon’s work on his memoir: “I think I’ve got about 10 essays cobbled together, and I’ve got probably six or eight more in the hopper in various stages of completion.”

Runyon says, “You can be creative in your later years. The brain is continuously growing and changing. To me, that is a pivotal thing to think about, in the process of aging and, especially, of learning.”    

Julie Masters, professor and chair of the Department of Gerontology at UNO, explains, “Just as we need to exercise physically, we need to exercise cognitively.”

Each year, anywhere from 60 to 100 seniors “cognitively exercise” through the Senior Passport Program. The program also impacts the instructors and other students in each class. Masters says, “The Passport Program, in a way, allows for an infusion of the benefit of experience within the classroom environment.”

Runyon connects with other students through writing, learning, and experience. “The power of words is where it all resides with me,” says Runyon. “You find something that raises your passion.”

Visit unomaha.edu/registrar/students/senior-passport.php for more information. Sixty-Plus in Omaha

The Robo Wonder-Kid

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Collin Kauth-­Fisher believes that nerds will win in the end. The self-described nerd and recent Millard West grad is accustomed to winning, especially when it comes to robotics.

The 18-year-old has won national accolades for his ability to sink baskets with robotic hands. “That’s not a human doing that, it’s different,” he says, explaining his excitement for robotics. Meanwhile, the next phase of his robotics career is already shaping up to be a slam dunk.

A fascination with technology was one of the most consistent parts of his childhood, amid frequent relocations for his father’s military career. Kauth-Fisher built structures and tinkered with technology, but his interest in robotics really bloomed at Millard West. He pursued robotics classes and joined the school’s robotics team, the Cat Trons, during his senior year. He was the team’s lead programmer. 

Millard West participates in a variety of robotics competitions, principally those that use VEX Robotics Design System. VEX produces metal robotics with attached motors, which are driven by a combination of remote-controlled sensors. The bots often look like miniature forklifts made of perforated steel parts, and are programmed to make computer-controlled movements.

In VEX robotics, students use their knowledge of science, technology, engineering, and math to build structures. The competitions are games that test engineering acumen. Kauth-Fisher and the Cat Trons competed with other high schools throughout the fall and spring semesters. They battled it out in qualifying rounds. Matches consisted of two teams in a ring that looked like a geekish version of WWE Wrestlemania.

Kauth-Fisher, specifically, worked in the CREATE group, an advanced robotics challenge in which students are encouraged to test their engineering and design skills using any system they want, such as LEGO or VEX. This means that, while a standard VEX competition only allows the students to build a robot from kit supplies, students working with the CREATE group are allowed to enhance their inventions.

This creativity helped the Cat Trons succeed in their quest. They advanced from local and regional competitions to the CREATE U.S. Open Robotics Championship, a three-day event held April 7-9 at the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs. They competed against approximately 200 teams, including teams from as far as New York and as nearby as Omaha North.

The Cat Trons excelled. The object of the game was for the robots to shoot foam balls into a net. Millard West was the only team to complete the mission. They were crowned the tournament champion of the open division and also won national honors.

Kauth-Fisher’s interest grew into a summer job. This past summer, during an internship at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, he helped graduate students build a portable location tracking system. “I don’t consider it work,” he says during the summer before his freshman year at Iowa State University, where he will study computer engineering.

Just as Kauth-Fisher created a robot with an arm that picks up foam balls, he hopes to create robotic arms for others (possibly in the form of prosthetics).

He believes that robots will play a crucial role in the future, especially in his future.

To learn more, visit nebraskarobotics.com. Omaha Magazine

CollinKauthFisher

The Silo Crusher

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The story of athletics at the University of Nebraska at Omaha has fluctuated from wild success to heartbreak (and back). All-Americans, post-season runs, and national title traditions collided with mismanagement and sparse spectator attendance.

Then a fresh Maverick joined the fray. Trev Alberts—one of the most decorated defensive players in the history of Huskers football and a former ESPN anchor—took the mantle of UNO’s athletic director in April of 2009.

Tensions bubbled behind the scenes. Chronic budget shortfalls clashed with fractious booster relations. Although new to his administrative role, Alberts knew enough about balance sheets and group dynamics to recognize systemic disarray and dysfunction. “We were in trouble and we needed to find some solutions,” he says.

The current academic year marks five years since Alberts dismantled UNO’s beloved wrestling and football programs. Alberts looks back on his crucial decisions without regrets. But the “solutions” didn’t come easily. In 2011, the former football star had to cut the sport that defined his own athletic career.

He saw that the financial equation for UNO’s splintered athletic programs no longer worked. A struggling Division I hockey program could not prop up the remaining Division II programs. Even with a hefty university subsidy, low athletic revenue painted a bleak picture amidst rising costs.

UNO’s bold response was to transition its entire athletic program to Division I by joining the Summit League in 2011. Because the conference does not accommodate wrestling or football, those two sports had to go.

News broke with awkward timing. Maverick wrestlers had just clinched the Division II national championship for the third straight year. A few hours after their victory, UNO Athletics began reaching out to notify celebratory wrestling coaches of the grim news.

Public rancor ensued. Coaches and student-athletes of the winning programs were left adrift. History, however, has proven the difficult decisions were healthy for the university and its athletics department.

Alberts found a key ally in chancellor John Christensen. The man who had initially recruited Alberts promoted him to vice chancellor in 2014, thus giving athletics a seat at UNO’s executive leadership table. “There needs to be absolute integration and now we have internal partnership, collaboration,” says Christensen.

Five years have passed. Athletics programs are stable. Sport teams no longer operate in silos. Alberts dismantled the barriers to build a strong overall athletic department: “When I got here, it appeared we had 16 different athletic departments,” he says. “There was no leadership. We hated campus. The mindset was the university leadership were out to get us, didn’t support us, didn’t understand us. The athletic department would blame the university; the university would blame the athletic department. 

“Strategically, my job was to get on the same page as part of the university team. I asked John Christensen to define his goals. He said community engagement, academic excellence, and (being) student-centered. I had to explain to staff everything we do is going to try to help the university advance its goals and every decision we make, if it isn’t student-centered and doesn’t support academic excellence and community engagement, we’re going to ask ourselves why are we doing that.”

Since then, the athletic department has made major strides. The hockey team made the 2015 Frozen Four, men’s basketball contended for the 2016 Summit title and saw a 65 percent attendance increase, and other sports have similarly fared well. With added academic support, the cumulative student-athlete grade point average of 3.4 is among the nation’s highest.

Alberts says that cutting the beloved football and wrestling programs meant “a really trying time, but galvanized the department and the university.” He continues,“We came together as a university. This was an institutional decision. It wasn’t John and I in a corner room deciding. We had a lot of people involved.”

Even with unanimous University Board of Regents approval for the athletic department shake-up, emotions ran high among constituents opposed to the cuts. Despite pleas to save wrestling and football, Alberts says, “The data was going to drive the decision-making. We weren’t going to manage the outcome of a good process. We moved to Division I because the market had an expectation about what the experience would be like, and we weren’t able to meet that expectation.” Maintaining the programs, especially football, would have required larger expenditures at the next level and exacerbated the fiscal mess.

Everything was on the table during deliberations: “We looked at trying to stay at Division II and regaining profitability in hockey, we looked at Division III, we looked at having no athletics, and then we looked at Division I. The conclusion was Division I would bring us an opportunity to get at more self-generated revenue through NCAA distributions.”

It was all about athletics better reflecting the “premiere urban metropolitan university” that Christensen says defines UNO. As the strategic repositioning set in, academics flourished, new facilities abounded, and enrollment climbed. Christensen says going to D-I was “a value-add” proposition.

“We looked at our peer doctorate-granting institutions and they were all Division I,” Alberts says. “The real value an athletics department has to a campus is essentially a brand investment. You have alumni come back, you have student engagement. That’s really the role you play. We are the front porch of the university.”

What followed was the rebranding of UNO to associate more with Omaha and embrace what Alberts and Christensen call “the Maverick family.” The rebrand is encapsulated in the construction of Baxter Arena, a D-I sporting facility adjacent to UNO’s midtown campus that also provides a venue for community events.

The past five years were not without tumult. Some longtime donors withdrew financial support in response to UNO cutting wrestling and football. Businessman David Sokol reportedly cut part of his pledged donation in reaction. But donors have since returned in droves.

Van Deeb, another longtime booster and a former UNO football player, was initially an outspoken critic of UNO cutting wrestling and football. “My big disappointment was not that it did happen but the way it happened. Even being on the Maverick athletic board, we had no clue it was coming,” says the Omaha-based entrepreneur.

“But that’s in the past,” says Deeb. “I couldn’t be prouder of where UNO is headed as an athletic department and as a university. I’m 100 percent behind the progressive leadership of Trev Alberts and John Christensen. They’re all about the student-athlete and the future.”

Alberts realizes that some hard feelings linger. “We have people who I don’t think will ever be a part of what we’re doing, and I understand that,” he says.

Regardless, there was enough community buy-in that private donations reached new heights ($45 million) and helped build the showplace Baxter Arena. Alberts cites the construction of Baxter Arena as a tangible result of the move to Division I.

Deeb says Baxter Arena has propelled UNO to another level. “When you’re around campus or at a UNO event there’s a level of excitement I can’t describe,” he says. “It’s a great time to be a Maverick supporter.”

The arena has proven a popular gathering spot for greater Omaha. This past spring, some 100,000 people attended high school graduations there, a realization of the chancellor and Alberts’ desire for greater community engagement.

Although few of UNO’s current students remember what campus was like before the rebrand, that doesn’t mean that Alberts or his team have forgotten. They still recognize the historic importance that the canceled sports provided to the university.

In fact, Alberts joined Van Deeb and several other community leaders on a steering committee seeking to honor one of UNO football’s greatest athletes, Marlin Briscoe. “An Evening with The Magician,” will celebrate the school’s most decorated football player, an Omaha native and civil rights trailblazer, at Baxter Arena on Thursday, Sept. 22.

As a quarterback at UNO (then called Omaha University), the Omaha South High School grad set 22 school records (including 5,114 passing yards and 53 touchdowns during his collegiate career). Briscoe became the first African-American starting quarterback in the NFL during his 1968 season with the Denver Broncos. He played for several franchises during a nine-year NFL career, spending the majority of time in the league as a wide receiver with the Buffalo Bills. He won two Super Bowls with the Miami Dolphins.   

On Friday, Sept. 23, UNO will unveil a life-size statue of Briscoe on campus. Alberts says he envisions that the sculpture might be added to “a champions plaza” whenever the south athletics complex gets built-out. “This is not necessarily a UNO thing; it’s an Omaha thing,” Alberts says. “Marlin is a great person with a great story, and it’s been an honor to get to know him.”

Under Alberts’ leadership, the university does not seek to diminish the importance of those former storied programs. But he has to keep an eye toward the future. “I’m absolutely bullish on where we are today and where we can go,” says the optimistic Alberts. “We’re only scratching the surface. We are an absolute diamond in the rough.”

Visit baxterarena.com for more information. Omaha Magazine

TrevAlberts1