Tag Archives: University of Nebraska-Omaha

Comic Relief

April 28, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Tim Mayer

Forget Batman and his gadgets, or Thor and his biceps. There’s a new hero on the block—“Oldguy,” a spandex-sporting, crime-fighting senior citizen who seeks out injustice equipped with his “denture grapple.” While Oldguy may have the mighty ability to scale the First National Bank Tower, his illustrator is just another everyday citizen of Omaha. But that doesn’t mean Tim Mayer isn’t super, too.

Armed with a unique skill and the ability to seamlessly adapt different drawing styles, artist Tim Mayer’s “Batcave” is his drafting table. Whether he’s working on a comic book or the cover of a sci-fi novel, his illustrations pack a punch — all of them uniquely different in appearance, but always skillfully, thoughtfully, and imaginatively executed to meet a project’s needs.

“I’ve been drawing since I could hold a spoon,” Mayer says. “It was one of those things that just instantly clicked for me.”

But as is the case with many freelance artists, the work didn’t instantly come clicking in after he  earned his bachelor’s degree in studio art from the University of Nebraska-Omaha in 2008. While working a stint as a shoe salesman, he picked up a few smaller drawing gigs. That all changed after he began attending creative workshops at Legends Comics & Coffee (5207 Leavenworth St.). It was in the comic shop’s basement where he met Jeff Lawler, a local writer who pitched him the idea for his next big project.

Together, the two created The Anywhere Man, a comic about an ex-solider who, after a freak accident, has the power to instantly transport anywhere. Following Anywhere Man, Mayer illustrated two additional comic/short story hybrids — Oldguy and Prophetica, a digital comic that tells a fictional tale about prophecies, brutal ancient rituals, and the fate of civilization hanging on a thread.

“I struggle to see consistency in my work,” Mayer admits. “I look at one thing I illustrated compared to another and I see a completely different side of me.”

One constant for Mayer has been his involvement with the Ollie Webb Center Inc. (1941 S. 42nd St.). Mayer became a mentor there five years ago and now leads art and drawing classes at the organization, which strives to enrich the lives of individuals with developmental disabilities through support, programs, and advocacy.

“I introduce students to a variety of visual storytelling methods,” Mayer says. “Whether or not a student wants to pursue something in the creative field, I see a lot of potential in each of them.”

Mayer and his work bring new meaning to the term “self-portrait.” From whimsical sketches of a doe-eyed girl to haunting black-and-white skull designs, everything Mayer creates looks different on the surface, but always reflects the man behind the pen.

“My experiences and personality always show in my work,” Mayer says. “If I look at something I created, I remember personally what was happening to me the moment it was drawn. It’s my own public journal.”

timmayer.wordpress.com

This article was printed in the May/June 2017 edition of Encounter.

The House on the Corner

April 27, 2017 by
Photography by Keith Binder

Welcoming. Warm. Unpretentious. Good vibes emanate from the stately beige stucco house on the corner of 52nd and Jackson streets in Omaha’s historic Dundee neighborhood. Inside the three-story structure, the main reasons for the comfortable, lived-in atmosphere scamper about on four legs.

Three Labradors—Buddy, Beaumont, and puppy Jackson (named in honor of the street that runs along the south side of the property)—form the center of attention and affection within the happy household. Homeowners Marj Plumb and wife Tracy Weitz refer to them simply as “the boys.”

A lifestyle where they would be walking dogs through a vibrant neighborhood and living in a jewel of a house never registered a blip on the couple’s radar until four years ago when the academics, working and teaching in the San Francisco Bay Area for decades, took a leap of faith.

“I’m originally from Illinois, and I wanted to get back to the Midwest,” says Plumb, who holds a doctorate in public health from Berkeley and owns a consulting business. When Weitz, a medical sociologist, received a director-level job offer with the Susan T. Buffett Foundation in late 2013, they got their destination. When they toured the area around the University of Nebraska-Omaha, they found their neighborhood. And when they saw the house on the corner, “It was exactly what we wanted,” Plumb says. “We love to entertain, and it’s an expansive house. Just an amazing find.”

Purchasing the five-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bath house won them instant equity with their neighbors. The property had sat empty for three years and had deteriorated badly. A general contractor bought it and did some renovations, including an overhaul of the kitchen, before flipping it. But much work remained.

“The first year involved replacing the sewer line, which backed up, replacing the main furnace, plus the furnace in the basement and third floor,” Plumb recalls. “We replaced the [central] air conditioners, fixed the roof, replaced the gutters, upgraded the electrical, and replaced all the windows, which leaked badly. Oh, and the yard was in bad shape.”

Selling their Berkeley bungalow provided the necessary funds.

“We knew when we bought it that we were going to put in probably twice what we paid for it [$387,000],” she says. “But we had to do right by the house, because it’s so unique.”

Built in 1925, the house stands out because of its Beaux-Arts design, an architectural rarity in Omaha, though widely known on the East Coast.

A distinctive feature of Beaux-Arts includes a flat roof on top, and a roof pitch that comes almost straight down along the sides of the house. A decorative wrought-iron trim rims the edges of the roof. Plumb and Weitz added a similar trim along the garage roof for continuity.

Two round, sculpted, and painted emblems of a dog and squirrel hang on the front of the house. In another original enrichment, decorative pavers form an arch over the front door.

“What strikes me about this house is that it sits in the midst of all this brick in the neighborhood. It’s such a treasure,” says Trish Barmettler, the couple’s interior designer. “And you can’t tell from the outside how big it really is.”

The house boasts a bright sunroom off the kitchen; formal dining room with a door that leads to a deck and patio; a large, dark-oak bar in the living room, fully stocked with spirits; carpeted basement filled with gym equipment and a large 3D-TV on the wall; and a newly built greenhouse behind the garage.

The biggest renovation project transformed the south side of the second floor into a master bedroom suite. Contractors stripped drywall to expose an original brick wall between the bedroom and the bath. The bath area contains sinks, a vanity, a two-person shower, two walk-in closets, a vertical washer/dryer combo, and a heated floor.

The couple’s contractor, Bill Bolte of Bolte Construction, also figured out a way to build a deck off the bathroom, where the couple can luxuriate in their hot tub and enjoy the outdoor view from a higher perch.

Two tenants, a graduate student and her boyfriend, occupy the finished third floor. They serve as house managers and dog caretakers when Plumb and Weitz go out of town on frequent business trips.

“I still remember the want ad. ‘Live Free in Dundee,’” says the vivacious young woman, who prefers to remain anonymous. “I thought, ‘Hell yeah, that’s for me!’”

Their digs include a furnished bedroom with a big-screen TV, a sitting room with another television, walk-in closets, and a surprisingly spacious bathroom with shower and tub. The tenants have kitchen privileges but buy their own food. A compatible bunch, the four often eat together.

The good will that flows between Plumb, Weitz, and their neighbors feeds off the courtesy the couple shows regarding “the boys.” A second, shorter wrought-iron fence around the property prevents the dogs from getting too close to, and barking at, dog walkers and passersby. On the street corner, they also installed a pet waste station that contains a trash can and plastic bags for dog poop.

“The neighbors love it. Somebody bought replacement bags and wrote, ‘To Our Favorite Neighbors,’” Plumb recounts with a big smile. “We’ve had nothing but incredible fortune here.” 

This article appears in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Home.

A Professor in Motion Stays in Motion

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The sun barely penetrated the narrows of the canyon. Kris Berg, Ph.D., scrambled over dusty red rock, carefully avoiding the steep cliffs that plunged down 50 yards on either side of him. History and geology combined with each footprint he left behind.

While most come to Las Vegas to roll the dice, Berg would rather hike with his wife in the outdoors, taking in the natural beauties of the world (which he accomplished during a recent winter trip).

Berg is a self-described exercise nut. The physical fitness bug struck him at a young age. When Berg was just 12 years old, he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Rather than a healthy boy, people saw him as fragile and sick. In high school, Berg’s coach even kicked him off the football team.

“I’ll show you. I’ll be so healthy that no one would do that again,” Berg thought.

After his family moved, a new doctor told Berg to experiment. So Berg lived his life, not letting diabetes limit his physical abilities.

“Exercise is such a powerful thing,” he says. “People are always looking for a magic pill. It’s right in front of us.”

He played multiple sports in high school and college. The science behind it all stimulated and fascinated him. With a doctorate in exercise physiology from the University of Missouri in hand, Berg began teaching at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

“Top to bottom, front to back, he is enthusiastic,” former student Robert Buresh says.

Kris Berg, Ph.D.

UNO had no laboratory at the time so Berg developed one with the backing of the dean. Berg, a prolific researcher, made ties with the University of Nebraska Medical Center. He developed an exercise physiology lab geared toward an investigative-driven program which would look at the human body from a scientific angle.

He soon started a special exercise program for Type 1 and 2 diabetes. His own brother had passed away from the disease at 32. Berg spent years of his career dedicated to informing the public on the positives of exercise to help regulate blood sugar.

Berg’s interest never wavered. He tackled osteoporosis next. The Strong Bones Program was born, helping the elderly build up confidence and mobility to avoid falls.

“We were very fortunate Berg initiated this program,” Berg’s former colleague Josie Metal-Corbin says. Although a dancer and yoga enthusiast, 65-year-old Metal-Corbin took the class for the added strength training and sense of community. The classes soon combined into the Adult Fitness Program.

After four books, more than 200 articles, and 45 years at UNO, Berg hung up his tennis shoes last May and retired. However, retirement didn’t stop him from doing what he loves.

Berg still finds time to visit with graduate students who need his help on papers, and he spends two hours or so a day researching.

“I wanted to go on being physically active regardless of age,” Berg explains.

Long and lean at the age of 73, Berg follows a diverse workout plan. He smacks the ball around on the tennis court four or five days a week. The physical and mental “chess match” keeps him sharp. He also still shovels snow, pulls weeds, and hikes.

“I have a tremendous enjoyment of exercise. I never get bored,” Berg says.

At the gym, Berg avoids the machines, preferring resistance training (similar to his classes). He stresses the importance of maintaining coordination and mobility. His goal—for himself and for others—is to prevent age from becoming an obstacle to living life. 

The Adult Fitness Program is open to members of the general public age 50 and older. The supervised fitness class takes place twice a week at UNO’s Health, Physical Education, and Recreation (HPER) Building. The program costs $36 for three months; parking costs $54 for three months. Contact the UNO Exercise Physiology Lab at 402-554-3221 or exphyslab@unomaha.edu to enroll.

Visit unomaha.edu for more information.

Reach for the Stars

College has become increasingly expensive. A semester at the University of Nebraska at Omaha now costs more than $3,000, leaving many parents—and students—wondering how to increase their ROI on college expenditure.

One of the best ways is to go into a profession that relies on science, technology, education, or mathematical knowledge.

Young people with a bachelor’s degree and with three or fewer years of experience in their field earn less than $40,000, according to a study conducted last year by Forbes, but those in STEM occupations can earn much more. One of the highest paid STEM positions, a petroleum engineer, can earn more than $85,000 with only three years’ experience and a bachelor’s degree.

Unfortunately, those lucrative loan-repayment-worthy STEM professions are underrepresented by minority and women employees. Stereotypes persist, discouraging possible candidates based on the misconception that STEM fields of study are “hard” or “boring” or “unwelcoming.”

Neal Grandgenett, the Dr. George and Sally Haddix Community Chair of STEM Education at UNO, says it’s not hard to break those stereotypes. Engaging students in camps or extracurricular activities can be effective in establishing an interest in these fields.

“I think it’s critical that parents give kids the ability to get into some of these fun camps,” Grandgenett says. “There’s fun things like rocketry and robotics. They’d be better off doing that than getting kids into more traditional math camps.”

Part of the problem, Grandgenett says, is that the camp titles do not reflect experiences that are seen as great resume-builders. Parents who want to accelerate their students in their studies may actually benefit from allowing their student(s) to delve deeper into a subject.

“Parents may gravitate away from something like “The Science of Zombies,” because it doesn’t sound useful, but it might have practical applications,” Grandgenett says. “They might talk about disease transmission and how to prevent it. The title of the camp may not be reflective of how applicable to the STEM fields it really is.”

Even throughout the school year, Grandgenett says, there are a lot of ways that students can become interested in these fields. One way is to attend speaking engagements that are open to the public. Omaha Performing Arts, for example, showcases “National Geographic Live,” in which noted researchers, writers, and photographers spend an evening discussing their adventures. These guest speakers can make STEM subjects sound exciting.

As well as being fun, Connie O’Brien, director of the Aim for the Stars summer math and science camps at UNO, says making sure boys and girls are given an equal chance to succeed in these areas is essential.

O’Brien says, “In the last 10-15 years, we have caught on to the fact that we need to teach in ways that catch [girls’] brains. When we give kids a rocket to build, for example, boys will pull out one item, then another, then start putting the two pieces together. Girls take out all the pieces and make a picture in their minds, then assemble the project.”

Women make up 73 percent of all employees in the social and life sciences, such as psychology and biology, but make up less than 30 percent of employees in many of the physical sciences, such as engineering.

“I was expected to get a college degree in nursing or teaching,” O’Brien says. “That didn’t work for me.”

It didn’t work for Allison Sambol, either. Sambol is an environmental scientist at Felsburg Holt & Ullevig, and a prime example of using a college degree to dive into a STEM career.

“I am a geographer. I went to college and I took all general studies, and my geography course was my favorite,” Sambol says. “When I graduated, I was looking for jobs; I looked for anything that had consulting in the title.”

Eventually, Sambol realized that her work decisions affected many aspects of people’s lives, and she began to see the benefits to sticking with environmental science.

“On a day-to-day basis, I’m researching physical settings,” Sambol explains. “What’s around it? What type of things might affect building it? Does it contain contaminated soil or groundwater? Wetlands, do they need to be mitigated? Are there permits that needs to be maintained?”

Being in a STEM-based career, however, does not mean that she researches alone all day.

“Part of my job is in development,” Sambol says. “Working with my clients, developing relationships, and determining communities’ problems, and how people can solve those problems.”

The possibilities for a student who becomes interested in STEM subjects are limitless. Those working with computers, specifically, are much needed in Omaha and nationwide.

“The number of computer science positions is far outpacing the number of graduates we will have in those careers,” Grandgenett says. “One in five positions in computer science will not be filled due to not having the people with the skills.”

This article was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of Family Guide.

 

Into the Wild

March 4, 2017 by
Photography by Council Bluffs Public Library (provided)

William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody officially started Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in May 1883 in Omaha. It was a natural place to start what would become an entertainment business generating hundreds of thousands of dollars. Cody spent much time in Nebraska, eventually purchasing a 4,000-acre ranch near North Platte in 1886. The ranch, named Scouts Rest, included an 18-room mansion and a large barn for winter storage of the show’s livestock.

Cody initiated a genre of wildly popular outdoor entertainment that endured for decades and introduced the fabled wild west culture to scores of Americans and Europeans.

Cody and his first-season partner, sharpshooter Dr. William Frank “Doc” Carver—who later introduced horse diving shows—pioneered the genre, but by the early 1900s, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show had more than a dozen competitors.   

“Buffalo Bill performed in the Midwest, of course, but he had lots of performances along the East coast and in Europe—places where western culture was seen as exotic and otherworldly,” says Carrie Wieners Meyer, director of Curatorial and Education Services at The Durham Museum.

In 2016, The Durham hosted its “From Nebraska to the World: Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” exhibit, which chronicled the show’s “highly dramatic, highly romanticized glimpse into the fading frontier of the American Old West” and its “depiction of cowboys, Indians, sharpshooters, and rough riders.”

“The idea of wild west culture is really based on mythic representations that Wild West shows exhibited through displays of sham battles, rodeos, and other arena tricks,” says Elaine Marie Nelson, assistant professor of history at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and incoming executive director for the Western History Association. “While Buffalo Bill claimed his show was educational, it was not. It was today’s equivalent of a wild west circus performance.”

“[Cody’s] Wild West show in effect created the modern image of the ‘cowboy’ that exists today—guys in white hats who can handle a horse and gun, and always save the day,” says Wieners Meyer. “Unfortunately, the cowboy had to have a villain against whom he won and that part was portrayed by Native Americans … this is one of its more unfortunate legacies.”

Nelson says the shows provided a distorted view of cowboy culture. While Americans who knew real cowboys viewed them as distrustful, immoral, and violent, Cody’s performers flipped such stereotypes.

“The creative imaginations of Cody and his audiences saw cowboys as romantic heroes who ushered civilization into the supposed wild frontier lands. They quickly became essential to Cody’s dramatization of the frontier and pioneer history,” she says. “Men, women, boys, and girls cheered as characters like Buck Taylor, Billy Bullock, and Bronco Bill Irving performed acts of bravery by riding at full speed across the arena stage. These cowboys stole people’s hearts. Buck Taylor set a standard for later cowboys who joined the show. Real working cowboys, plucked off ranches like those in western Nebraska, turned into performing showmen.”

“The Wild West shows were sensationalized,” says Wieners Meyer. “These were not the activities of everyday life in the West. Still, the shows served to educate [audiences] about the animals of the plains, they could see some aspects of Native American culture, and they could appreciate the talent and skill of the performers.”

Nelson says horses were incredibly significant to the lives of everyone in the American West, from the Spanish who introduced them, to Native American tribes who immediately saw horses’ utilitarian value and greatly revered the animals, to the farmers, ranchers, and even urban population who used horses for labor, travel, and entertainment.

She adds that horses were a major player in Wild West shows, and were used by all characters regardless of their “hero” or “villain” status. 

“The cavalry used horses to attack Native Americans on horses, and vice versa. Settlers in wagons used horses to travel to their new destinations. Mexican vaqueros and cowboys used horses to show skills that the arena audiences had never before witnessed,” says Nelson. “One rarely ever saw Cody in the arena unless he was atop a horse. Horses elevated the show and made each performance more realistic. In retrospect, one could argue that horses were the actual ‘heroes’ of Cody’s Wild West.”

Nebraska was granted statehood on March 1, 1867. In March 2017, Omaha Magazine published a collection of horse-related articles that appear in the Longines FEI World Cup Jumping and FEI World Cup Dressage Finals held in Omaha. This was the second of those articles. The other articles in this series are:

The Omaha Tribe and Horses

Horses Pave the Way in Nebraska Territory

Horses Run Early Statehood

Horses in Nebraska Today

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show Parade in Council Bluffs on July 27, 1900.

Anne Hindrey’s Helping Hands

March 2, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The Nonprofit Association of the Midlands is a resource dedicated to helping the thousands of nonprofit entities scattered across Nebraska and western Iowa.

CEO Anne Hindrey stands at the helm of the organization that connects so many disparate nonprofits—from sports (Omaha Fencing Club) to social services (United Way of the Midlands). Roughly 330 total nonprofits hold a registered membership to NAM. Each works to serve the community in its own way.

Hindery’s job involves helping nonprofits navigate the often sticky world of public policy. It is a role she is well-qualified to assist with.

She started her career as the law enforcement coordination specialist with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Omaha.

“I wanted to change the world, but I realized that, in government, every four years someone changes the world back,” says Hindery, a Missouri native with a bachelor’s degree from Creighton University and a Master of Public Administration from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Her previous job in the Nebraska branch of the Department of Justice involved writing grant applications. Her grant-writing experience carried over to her next role as program director at the Omaha Community Foundation. She served on boards, and deepened her involvement in the community. She eventually joined NAM in 2008.

“I was on the board for five minutes,” Hindery says, half-jokingly. “I took someone’s place on the board in November, and they just had a staff change. Because NAM had a good staff policy in place, they needed someone on the board to step in. I said I could do it, and after a time, I was hired full-time.”

Hindery and her staff at NAM develop relationships with various nonprofits. They offer assistance with human resources, insurance, and legal needs; create partnerships between advocacy and public policy groups; and provide tools and training to members. NAM is also part of the National Council of Nonprofits, which keeps Hindery at the forefront of industry trends and changes in public policy.

“We find our membership in the Nonprofit Association of the Midlands very beneficial,” says Peg Harriott, CEO and president of the Child Saving Institute. “We use the annual salary and benefits report to make sure that our salaries are competitive in the market, and we participate in the health insurance trust to help moderate the cost of health insurance for our employees.”

CSI’s 150 employees benefit from NAM’s insurance trust, but Hindrey and her team make sure they offer services to small nonprofits as well as large ones.

Joining NAM is not free, however. According to the organization’s website, the cost to register ranges in eight tiers from $50 (for nonprofits with an annual budget less than $49,999) to $1,000 (for nonprofits with an annual budget greater than $10 million).

The Inclusive Life Center offers Christian rituals to people who may not belong to a church but want a minister for a wedding, baptism, or funeral. The center’s staff of one says he has greatly benefited from belonging to NAM.

Chaplain Royal D. Carleton says, “We work off of donations, and it helps us to be mindful that we have to be very transparent and good stewards of the funds that are bestowed on us.”

“I went to my first NAM conference [in 2016], which was ‘Who’s telling your story?’” Carleton says. “I learned more that day about marketing than I have in some ways in six years [of running Inclusive Life]. There were very strategic marketing insights that I did not know before.”

He also learned that his audience is wider than he originally thought.

“I’ve never marketed to those who are religious, because I figured they have a church they belong to,” Carleton says. “I had people stand up and say, ‘Listen, I’m Catholic, but I have friends who are not religious, and I need to know who you are so I can share that resource with my friends.’ That was a big eye opener for me.”

That connection to people, and other nonprofits, is one of the biggest resources that NAM offers.

“We encourage our members to not reinvent the wheel,” Hindery says. “In many cases, someone has gone through the same problem, and the solution is already available. You may want to tweak it, but it’s there.”

Visit nonprofitam.org for more information.

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

Destinations

February 22, 2017 by

AKSARBEN VILLAGE

Horse stalls went bye-bye long ago. Now, Aksarben Village is losing car stalls, too. But that’s a good thing, as far as continued growth of the former horse-racing grounds goes. Dirt is overturned and heavy equipment sits on the plot extending north and east from 67th and Frances streets, formerly a parking lot for visitors to the bustling area. That’s because work has commenced at the corner on what will become HDR’s new global headquarters, which opens some time in 2019. The temporary loss of parking will be offset by great gain for Aksarben Village — a 10-story home for nearly 1,200 employees with a first floor including 18,000 square feet of retail space. HDR also is building an adjacent parking garage with room for ground-level shops and restaurants. But wait, car owners, there’s more. Farther up 67th Street, near Pacific, the University of Nebraska-Omaha is building a garage that should be completed this fall. Plenty of parking for plenty to do.

BENSON

A continental shift has taken place in Benson — Espana is out and Au Courant Regional Kitchen is in, offering Benson denizens another food option at 6064 Maple St. That means a move from now-closed Espana’s Spanish fare to now-open Au Courant’s “approachable European-influenced dishes with a focus on regional ingredients.” Sound tasty? Give your tastebuds an eye-tease with the menu at aucourantrestaurant.com. Also new in B-Town: Parlour 1887 (parlour1887.com) has finished an expansion first announced in 2015 that has doubled the hair salon’s original footprint. That’s a big to-do at the place of  ’dos.

BLACKSTONE DISTRICT

The newest Blackstone District restaurant, which takes its name from Nebraska’s state bird, is ready to fly. Stirnella Bar & Kitchen, located at 3814 Farnam St., was preparing to be open by Valentine’s Day. By mid-January it had debuted staff uniforms, photos of its decor, and a preview of its delectable-looking dinner menu. Stirnella (Nebraska’s meadowlark is part of the genus and species “Sturnella neglecta”) will offer a hybrid of bistro and gastro pub fare “that serves refined comfort food with global influences,” plus a seasonal menu inspired by local ingredients. Fly to stirnella.com for more.

DUNDEE

Film Streams (filmstreams.org) made a splash in January announcing details on its renovation of the  historic Dundee Theater. Work began in 2017’s first month on features including:

Repair and renovation of the original theater auditorium, which will be equipped with the latest projection and sound technology able to screen films in a variety of formats, including reel-to-reel 35mm and DCP presentations.

A throwback vertical “Dundee” sign facing Dodge Street.

An entryway that opens to a landscaped patio/pocket park.

New ticketing and concessions counters.

A store with film books, Blu-ray Discs and other cinema-related offerings.

A café run through a yet-to-be-announced partnership.

A 25-seat micro-cinema.

Oh, yeah, they’ll show movies there, too. And Dundee-ers won’t have long to wait—the project should be completed by the end of 2017.

MIDTOWN

In a surprise to many—especially those holding its apparently now-defunct gift cards—Brix shut its doors in January at both its Midtown Crossing and Village Pointe locations. It was not clear at press time what factor, if any, was played by a former Brix employee, who in late December pleaded not guilty to two counts of felony theft by deception after being accused of stealing more than $110,000 as part of a gift card scheme. Despite the closing, Midtown has celebrated two additions of late as the doors opened to the “Japanese Americana street food” spot Ugly Duck (3201 Farnam St.) and to Persian rug “pop-up shop” The Importer.

NORTH OMAHA

The restoration of North Omaha’s 24th and Lake area continues its spectacular trajectory. In January, the Union for Contemporary Art moved into the completely renovated, historic Blue Lion building located at 2423 N. 24th St. The Blue Lion building is a cornerstone in the historic district. Originally constructed in 1913, the Blue Lion is named after two of the building’s earliest tenants: McGill’s Blue Room, a nightclub that attracted many nationally known black musicians, and Lion Products, a farm machinery distributor. The entire district was listed as a federally recognized historic district in April 2016.

According to its website, “The Union for Contemporary Art is committed to strengthening the creative culture of the greater Omaha area by providing direct support to local artists and increasing the visibility of contemporary art forms in the community.” Founder and executive director Brigitte McQueen Shew says the Union strives to unite artists and the community to inspire positive social change in North Omaha. “The organization was founded on the belief that the arts can be a vehicle for social justice and greater civic engagement,” she says. “We strive to utilize the arts as a bridge to connect our diverse community in innovative and meaningful ways.”

The Union will be hosting the annual Omaha Zinefest March 11. Event organizer Andrea Kszystyniak says Zinefest is a celebration of independent publishing in Nebraska. Assorted zines—essentially DIY magazines produced by hand and/or photocopier—will be on display at the free event, and workshops will be offered to attendees.

OLD MARKET

M’s Pub fans had plenty to be thankful for in November following the announcement that the Old Market restaurant would rise from the ashes of the January 2016 fire that destroyed the iconic eatery. Various media quoted co-owner Ann Mellen saying the restaurant would reopen this summer. Construction has been steady at the restaurant’s 11th and Howard, four-story building, but customers weren’t sure M’s would be part of the rebirth until Mellen’s well-received comments. Mellen says the feel—and the food—will be the same. Even if the name may change.

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

Together A Greater Good

December 20, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A mobile-friendly app created by two Omaha marketing pros has made giving to local charities easy for shoppers around town.

When folks download and use the Together A Greater Good app, they can scan their purchases from local participating businesses—including Big Mama’s Kitchen, The Bookworm, and Greenstreet Cycles—and donate a portion of the receipt amount to charities like American Cancer Society, the Open Door Mission, or a local school.

TAGG, founded in 2012, is the brainchild of Holly Baker and Leslie Fischer. Baker and Fischer studied marketing and business (Baker at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Fischer at the University of Nebraska-Omaha). The two met in 2007 while working at another startup, GiftCertificates.com. Although the two worked together for less than a year, the hectic, frenzied work environment helped forge a future partnership.

“You kind of bond through chaos,” Fischer says.

After leaving GiftCertificates.com, Fischer worked for the construction company EAD. While at EAD, Fischer juggled administrative, human resources, and marketing duties.

Coincidentally, both Baker and Fischer were pregnant around the same time while employed in their respective former jobs (Fischer at EAD, Baker at Qualia Clinical Services). Their gestations corresponded to the genesis of TAGG. When Baker was pregnant with her first child, she heard that Qualia was shuttering its Omaha operations. Around that time, Fischer asked Baker to help with some projects at EAD. And while Fischer was on maternity leave, she began brainstorming business ideas. One idea came from constantly being barraged by “cute kids wanting to sell stuff” for fundraising.

“I remember standing in my office, holding my resignation letter, thinking, ‘This is real. We’re doing this…”

– Leslie Fischer

Fischer says she remembers Baker saying, “Doesn’t there have to be a better way than this poor kid schlepping through all the neighborhoods?”

For Fischer and Baker, the Groupon business model kept coming up. The popular web coupon site Groupon offers different deals for products, services, and events. Specifically, Fischer and Baker were interested in taking Groupon’s voucher system for deals and applying it to fundraising. From early 2011 until May 2012, Baker and Fischer kept bouncing ideas around.

In May 2012, Baker and Fischer quit their jobs to devote all of their resources into launching TAGG.

“I remember standing in my office, holding my resignation letter, thinking, ‘This is real. We’re doing this,’” Fischer says.

Baker was pregnant at the time.

“I thought I was going to have a miscarriage from stress,” Baker says.


tagg1For most businesses, the first year of operation comes with a few horror stories. For Baker and Fischer, theirs revolved around the key component of TAGG—its website. After quitting in May 2012, Baker and Fischer planned to launch TAGG around the Fourth of July of that year. Unfortunately, the website developer, who was working in Colorado, hadn’t completed the back-end work for the website.

“I ended up spending the Fourth of July on the phone with our lawyer to get our code from this guy,” Fischer says.

Fischer and Baker agreed it was best to scrap the design and start fresh. They relaunched that fall.

Since launching, TAGG has gained 175 businesses committed to donating 5 percent of customers’ scanned receipts to local charities. Twenty thousand people have downloaded the TAGG app. And TAGG now operates out of a West Omaha office, a far cry from kitchen table conversations that created TAGG.

“It feels like forever ago, and yesterday at the same time,” Fischer says.

Visit togetheragreatergood.com for more information.

Magdalena Garcia

May 11, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

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

As executive director of El Museo Latino, Magdalena Garcia pours her heart into the museum she founded. She can’t help it; art isn’t just her work, it’s her life.

“It’s always about the art,” she says. “This isn’t something I just go do for eight hours, it’s a way of life.”

Garcia’s family moved to Omaha when she was nine, but returned to visit her artist aunt and grandmother each summer in Mexico City, providing her lots of cultural inspiration.

“Art was always part of our lives,” she says. “We’d go to the museum, ballet, theater—I remember grandmother cleaning on Saturday mornings with opera music blasting. None of it was ever foreign to me. That’s why I believe it’s so important to expose children to different art forms.”

Garcia frequents the symphony, opera, and museums in Omaha, and when she travels she’s always investigating local museums and culture.

“I love research. I love to learn new things, and one thing takes you 50 other places and then you come back around,” says Garcia, motioning in a circle.

Skeptical she could make a living as an artist, Garcia pursued related interests to situate herself in the museum field. She volunteered at the Joslyn Art Museum while earning an art history degree from the University of Nebraska-Omaha and working full time in human resources for Northern Natural Gas. She relocated to Houston when the company’s headquarters moved there and later used severance pay as a springboard for graduate school.

“I liked what I was doing,” Garcia says, “but over time I realized I just really wanted to work in a museum. It could be human resources—but in a museum.”

While seeking an internship, Garcia noted there were only three Latino museums in the country. Despite that early ’90s stat, she found a common, burgeoning interest in serving a growing Latino demographic.

“Why not Omaha?” she asked herself. And with that, the seed was planted for El Museo Latino, which Garcia opened in 1993 on a shoestring budget anchored by her own elbow grease.

Today El Museo Latino is one of 12 U.S. Latino museums, including one in Puerto Rico.

“None of us really know when that last moment of our lives will come, but I didn’t want to wonder: ‘Could I have tried it? Should I have tried it?’” says Garcia.

Garcia did traditional Mexican folk dancing for years, and continues to teach it at the museum. She also enjoys gastronomy, with a love for Italian, Chinese, Thai, and Mexican cuisines, and says she loves to “cook, experiment, taste.

“My other love is tennis,” she says. Garcia also adores swimming, and has been playing racquetball and weightlifting—“just for variety.”

“I’m always inventing new stuff to do, but making time for the things I love is important,” she says. “I think you have to find something that you really enjoy. When it comes to being active, I just want to get out there and have some fun. I want to go play.”

MagdalenaGarcia

Sam Walker

February 11, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Technically, Sam Walker is retired and has been retired from the University of Nebraska—Omaha for nine years. But the 71-year-old author and civil liberties activist is still going full throttle. His national profile as a voice for police accountability has arguably even risen in these years when most of his contemporaries are stepping from the fray.

Walker recently sat down at a Midtown coffee shop to do some reflecting. But it quickly became clear he plans to remain a vital and vibrant member of the civil liberties movement that he’s been active in for nearly five decades. He’s not unlike many whose ideals were forged fighting racism in the segregated South of the 1960s. A passion for justice doesn’t easily retire.

Walker says he was recently invited to do work with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on Early Intervention Systems, a computerized database dealing with officer performance. The Canadian trip comes right after a conference in New York. Walker also was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal in October about the lack of a national database regarding officer-involved shootings.

Walker has become a national expert in police accountability and civil liberties. He is usually the first person local media seek out whenever there is an issue with law enforcement, but he also has been asked to provide insight by national media outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, among numerous others.

Walker has written 14 books in 36 different editions. His most recent book on policing, The New World of Police Accountability, was just released in a second edition. Walker says he enjoys the continued work on the various editions, cutting out the old and working in new developments.

In the last few months, Walker has been fielding numerous phone calls and emails regarding the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

Walker says that even though he retired from UNO, he knew he was going to stay busy. He saw firsthand what retirement did to his father.

“My father had a forced early retirement at 62,” Walker says. “He was an executive at the railroad, middle management, and he had no outside interests. He just sat around every day and started drinking and before this he wasn’t a drinker—maybe a drink at a party but that was it. My mother tried to push him to find interests but it didn’t work. So I think, ‘Where was my father at 71?’ He was an alcoholic.”

His mother, though, was a very active woman and lived to be 98, tending to her garden and staying busy until her final years. Looking at Walker, you’d never guess his age. He is still tall and trim. A graceful man who speaks very directly and gives answers that are fully thought out—no abrupt pauses or half sentences like most of us communicate. One gets the sense that Walker is constantly taking in information, studying, and collecting data to come to deeper understanding. He is pretty much what one would expect a professor emeritus to be like.

A friend and former peer in the 1960s civil rights movement recently found a photo of a young Walker taken in Mississippi standing on a porch working to register African-American voters. Walker was a student at the University of Michigan at the time and wasn’t sure what he was going to do with his life. Things changed for him one night in 1964 when he went to see Bob Moses speak about the Mississippi Summer Project. He ended up traveling to Mississippi that tumultuous summer and worked to register voters.

Then the conversation quickly turns back to pressing current affairs. Walker gives his predictions on how the Ferguson crisis would play out and what the slew of press leaks might mean to the looming outcome. This is Walker’s world. Strides have been made in police relations with minority communities. Obviously there is much more work to be done.

But perhaps more so in this quasi-retirement, Walker can shift gears back toward more traditional leisure-time fare. He loves taking in movies (he’s a frequent patron of Film Streams). This self-admitted “rock and roller” has more than 9,000 records, a collection so large it has outgrown his home. It seems the hectic pace of retirement suits Walker just fine.

“I’m working harder than I was when I was getting paid,” Walker says. “And loving it. It is very gratifying when those phone calls and emails come in from people who know me only though my work. And they keep on coming.”

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