Tag Archives: University of Nebraska-Omaha

Soccer Brings Bob Warming Home

October 24, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Bob Warming’s unexpected return to Omaha in 2018—this time to head the men’s soccer program at the University of Nebraska-Omaha—is the latest turn in a lifelong love affair with coaching.

Warming, 64, twice helmed the Creighton University program in town. He’s known as the architect of a Bluejay program he took from nothing to national prominence. During his first CU run (1990-1994), Omaha became home to him, his wife Cindy, and their four children. During his second CU tenure (2001-2009), his kids finished school and came of age.

His passion for the game is such that even though he’s one of collegiate soccer’s all-time winningest coaches at an age when most folks retire, he’s still hungry to lead young people. After eight highly successful seasons at his last stop, Penn State, he did retire, albeit for less than two months, before taking the UNO post in April.

Love for family changed best-laid plans. It started when he and Cindy visited Omaha in November to meet their new granddaughter. Their intense desire to see her grow up caused Warming to step down at Penn State and move to Omaha. 

When then-UNO soccer coach Jason Mims decided to pursue new horizons (Mims had played and coached for Warming at Saint Louis University, and traveled with him to Creighton and Penn State before kickstarting the UNO program in 2011), Warming couldn’t resist continuing to build what his former assistant had started.

“I have come back with even more energy. There’s a lot of younger guys I’m running into the ground,” Warming says.

He also brought knowledge gained from legendary peers and best friends at Penn State: women’s volleyball coach Russ Rose, wrestling coach Cael Sanderson, and women’s soccer coach Erica Dambach.

“I learned more coaching at Penn State than I had in all my previous years,” he says. “It’s not even close. I grew tremendously. I got a lot of new ideas about things. I derive tremendous energy from being a continual learner. Even in the 59 days I retired, I continued to research better ways to teach and train people.”

His son, Grant, played for him in Happy Valley and now assists at UNO. Grant’s twin sister, Audrey, died in a 2012 auto accident. The family honors her legacy with Audrey’s Shoes for Kids, an annual event that gives away soccer shoes, shin guards, jerseys, and balls to disadvantaged children in Omaha. About 300 youths received gear in this summer’s giveback.

Warming first fell in love with coaching at age 14 in his native Berea, Kentucky. The multi-sport athlete was a tennis prodigy on the United States Lawn Tennis Association’s junior circuit when his coach taught him a lesson in humility by having him coach 9-year-olds. In the process, Warming found his life’s calling.

“I had been very into myself only,” he admits. “I was a selfish little brat. Then all of a sudden I realized it’s about helping other people. It’s a great lesson my coach taught me. He knew if I was ever going to go any place with my life, I had to give something to others.”

Warming’s outlook on life gradually shifted. “I derive the most pleasure out of watching young people improve,” he says.

Soccer supplied his next life-changing experience. Berea College, a private college in his hometown, has a long history of inclusion. In the early 1970s, it recruited world-class footballers from Ghana and Nigeria. Warming was the squad’s goalkeeper (and also a varsity letter-winner on the tennis, swimming, and golf teams); he honed his knowledge of soccer from these foreign players and gleaned insights into diversity.

“I’m playing soccer and hanging out all the time with these black guys in the South—not the most popular thing to do in a town where on Sunday nights every summer the KKK burned a cross,” he recalls. “That was the dark ages in a lot of ways. But I was fascinated interacting with these guys from Africa and finding out how they live and what their culture is like.

“I was able to play with these incredible guys from a young age, and the game is the best teacher,” he says. “For me, it was a remarkable time in my life. I learned a lot about a lot of different things.”

Years later at Penn State, he brought more student-athletes of color into the soccer program than it had ever seen before. “That was a cool part of the whole deal,” he says.

He appreciates what a mentor did in giving him a progressive outlook. “The guy who eventually became my college coach was the leader of all this,” Warming says.

His own collegiate coach at Berea, Bob Pearson, succeeded his protégé a few years later when Warming left his coaching post at Berry College in Mount Berry, Georgia, for a coaching position at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte in the 1980s. Four decades later, the veteran Warming succeeded his own protégé, Mims, at UNO.

“I have all these crazy circles in coaching,” he says.

The kind of bond Warming has with Pearson, he has with Mims.

“Loyalty, trust, and respect are the basis for all relationships, and we have all three of those,” Warming says.

Pearson got Warming his first head coaching gigs in his 20s at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky (where Warming spent one season before heading to Berry University); he also coached tennis at both schools.

Warming was still only in his mid-30s when Creighton hired him the first time in 1990, poaching him from his brief tenure as director of athletics at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. At Creighton, he revived a dormant program that began winning and drawing fans.

He enjoyed the challenge of “building something from its inception and doing missionary work for our sport.” In exchange for free coaching clinics, he got local soccer clubs to turn out in droves.

“Thus, Creighton soccer was born. It came out of giving back to the community and coaching education,” Warming says.

He left CU in 1994 for Old Dominion. From there he went to Saint Louis University. The Rev. John Schlegel, then-CU president, lured him back in 2001 with the promise he could design a state-of-the-art soccer facility.

“Father Schlegel said, ‘Build me a soccer stadium. We want an iconic building to define the new eastern borders of our campus. I’ll pick the facade because I want it to reflect how the rest of the campus will look,’” Warming recalls. “Think about that. Where else has a soccer stadium determined what the rest of the campus would look like?”

The result, Morrison Stadium, has become a jewel of north downtown.

Warming’s CU and Penn State teams contended for conference and national titles. Now that he’s back in Omaha, he looks to take fledgling UNO soccer to its first NCAA playoff berth and create a powerhouse like the one he did down the street.

Back in Omaha again, he organized “the largest free coaching clinic in the country” at UNO in August. Some 200 coaches from around the nation attended, including 150 from Nebraska. Tweets about the event surpassed two million impressions.

“The selfish reason I did it was I want to kick-start this program into something, and to take soccer in Nebraska to the next level,” he says. “We have to get better.”

His methods today are different than when he last coached in Omaha.

“If you really want to train people, you have to get them in the mood to train using all the different modalities—texting, tweeting, playlists, video—available to us now,” he says. “You cannot coach, you cannot lead, you cannot do anything the way people did it years ago. You won’t be successful. The why is so important in terms of explaining things and building consensus and getting people involved to where they say, yeah, we want to do this together.”

In the full circle way his life runs, he feels right at home at UNO, where hundreds of students, including international students, get a free education. “We are the school of the people,” he says.

Meanwhile, he’s busily stocking his roster with players from around the globe—including France, Spain, and Trinidad and Tobago—with many more players from Omaha and around the Midwest.

Wherever he’s landed as a coach, it’s the new challenge that motivates him. No different at UNO. “One hundred percent,” he says. “I love it.” 


Visit omavs.com for more information.

This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

The Queen of Omaha Ice

Photography by Bill Sitzmann and provided

The ice rink is smooth like glass. A young woman glides across the surface, breaking it in with her skates’ sharp blades. Across the rink, her coach watches closely, analyzing
each move. 

Barbara Foster has been working at the Tim Moylan Tranquility Iceplex as a coach since it first opened in November 1995. Throughout her extensive career, she has coached students as young as 2 and as old as 82.

Foster was born and raised in the small mining community of Noranda, in Canada’s Quebec province. She attributes her perfectionist tendencies to her no-nonsense upbringing. 

Named after Barbara Ann Scott—a Canadian Olympic gold medalist and world champion in figure skating—there was little doubt that she would become comfortable at the rink.

Her father put her on the ice for the first time when she was only 2 years old, during the intermission of a local hockey game. Her first pair of skates were actually hockey skates. 

Dad was a high school principal and also refereed games in his spare time. He laced up her tiny skates, and she was a natural on the ice from the very beginning. Foster’s parents knew then that she would live up to her namesake. 

As a young student of figure skating, she trained with coaches in the summer, but was left to practice on her own during the brutal Canadian winters. She trained at a recreational rink, where she would come in through the back door and practice before school every morning.

Photo provided. Foster coaching a senior student.

When she was 14, she began training with Hans Gerschwiler, a World Figure Skating Champion and silver medalist at the 1948 Winter Olympics. When Gerschwiler moved to the United States in 1960, he asked Foster’s parents for permission to take her with him to continue her training. 

“He was an incredible skater for a long time,” Foster says. 

Foster trained with Gerschwiler in New Jersey and eventually became a teacher for his young students. While there, she developed a passion for coaching.

“The best part about teaching is the relationships,” Foster says with a smile. “There is no better job, and I get a lot of satisfaction from feeling that I’ve impacted my students.”

Since her days in New Jersey, she has coached all around the Midwest, Australia, and New Zealand. A perfectionist by nature, she stood out from other coaches and pushed her students to achieve the goals they placed for themselves. She eventually settled down in Omaha with husband Larry Foster, who retired from his job as the director of Council Bluffs Parks in August.

As a 74-year-old retired coach, she still enjoys teaching students of all ages, but she says she does not miss the rigorous seven-day training schedule she once lived by. 

In the past five years, she has undergone numerous procedures, including two back surgeries, total knee replacement, and treatment for a torn rotator cuff in her shoulder. But she refuses to let these procedures discourage her.

After knee surgery this past February, she was in Boston to support two of her students who went to the U.S. Adult Figure Skating Nationals in April. After her first back surgery in 2013, she was lacing up her skates again after three weeks of recovery (instead of the three months that doctors had expected to be necessary). 

Photo provided. Foster and her coaching mentor.

While teaching has always been a passion of hers, there is one passion that surpasses all others: her family. As a grandmother of nine, she is often on the road to visit her grandchildren, who are scattered across the country from Jacksonville, Florida, to  Olathe, Kansas, to Takoma Park, Maryland. 

Each summer, the grandchildren make a trek to Nebraska for one of their favorite annual events: “Camp Nana.” Foster started Camp Nana when the oldest grandchildren were toddlers. The parents drop off the grandkids for two weeks of fun-filled activities and bonding time.

“I never had an opportunity to be connected to my cousins,” Foster says. “I just really wanted to make sure that I could provide that opportunity for my grandkids.”

For the last 23 years, Foster has worked with youth and adult hockey players, and she even worked with the University of Nebraska-Omaha men’s hockey team to help correct players’ skating technique. 

“Figure skaters have techniques that even hockey coaches don’t quite understand,” Foster says. “It really helps if you can break it down and help them get the most out of their legs while their body is still handling a puck.”

Although she considers herself retired, she does still instruct a few students (teaching two days a week instead of seven). Even aside from her teaching, Foster says she would be at Tranquility Iceplex at some point every day doing a variety of jobs and chores that need to be completed: mounting figure skate blades, selling equipment at the rink’s pro shop, and fitting customers with new skates.

“It’s allowed me to have a lot of diversity,” Foster says. “So even at this age, where I’m not actively teaching, I have lots of other interests that keep me involved with the rink and the people in it, which is the fun part.”

Foster says she is never bored because of all the activities she has taken on. She works at the rink, teaches lessons, spends time with friends and does Pilates, which helps align her spine and strengthens her back.

“I am really looking forward to skating again,” says Foster, who gets on the ice with her students for instruction but is not attempting toe jumps, double axels, or triple lutzes. “After my knee replacement, I’m struggling to be able to demonstrate the power that correct technique can generate. I think that as everything settles down, I would like to get myself feeling really comfortable again on the ice.”

Foster is an unstoppable force to be reckoned with. She holds students to her own high standard of excellence, too. They shouldn’t expect coddling or ego-stroking. If that’s what a student wants, then Foster says, “you’re with the wrong coach.” 


This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of 60Plus in Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

The Crow and the Artist

Photography by Sarah Lemke

There is a flock of metaphorical crows hovering over Andy Acker. Crow-related artworks, meanwhile, have taken over the Omaha-born artist’s home studio in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.

The 69-year-old Acker creates bizarre sculptures out of carvings and miscellaneous domestic detritus: keys, old coins, nuts, bolts, and other random bits. 

A figurative painter earlier in his art career, he cuts a striking figure himself at just over 6 feet tall, slender, with glistening white hair and beard, a boyish smile, and mesmerizing green eyes. 

Crows are now his figurative obsession. Acker says they started creeping into his work 20 years ago. 

He began crafting sculptural assemblages when he was working at Heartland Scenic Studios in Omaha. At first, they were just fun projects using leftover bits of wood from the carpenters in the studio. But the pieces eventually took on deeper artistic and philosophical significance for the artist.  

“I love to find art in our everydaysurroundings and to show others the beauty in a tree shadow, patterns in broken parking lot surfaces, peeling paint, or our sunsets,” says Acker, who moved to the Milwaukee area with his wife in 2013 to be closer to grandkids. 

He began seriously considering a career in art as a student at the University of Nebraska-Omaha in the late ’60s. He majored in art, dabbling in various mediums—oil and acrylic painting, sculpture, drawing, ceramics, etc.  

After graduation, he joined his wife’s family business helping out at the New Tower Hotel in Omaha. Eventually, Acker found his way into teaching art at McMillan Junior High. He taught there for 10 years and adored his students. 

After teaching, he spent the subsequent decade painting large canvas backgrounds and building stage sets for local theaters, museums, commercial clients, and various other venues.

Starting during his time as a junior high school art teacher, Acker would draw cartoon caricatures of departing colleagues as going-away presents. All the co-workers would sign his poster-sized drawings.

“We would zing them with all the things they would say,” he says, explaining how the caricatures would roast the outgoing colleagues with funny quotes written onto the posters. “We had one teacher that would come into the teacher lounge and cuss about kids like a railroad worker. He hung it in his den, and it was popular. I also did that for retiring co-workers at Heartland Scenic Studios.”

Cartooning was another of Acker’s favorite artistic formats before the crows flew into the picture. “I used to always do our Christmas cards as cartoons, but even those have been taken over by the crows,” he says.

His interest in crows began in Omaha. One morning, while driving to McMillan to teach art classes, he heard a crow caw. It seemed to be following him. The bird flew alongside his car through several lights. Finally, it gave one last “caw, caw” and turned into a cemetery nearby the school. 

Acker went about his daily routine. But the crow’s cawing nagged in the back of his mind. He began to notice crows more and study their behavior as well as the historic place that the crow has in history, literature, and art.

A crow is often a symbol of either bad luck or death, but that is not always the case, he says. A crow may be a symbol of life, magic, and mysteries. The prophetic bird also symbolizes intelligence, flexibility, and destiny.

Soon, Acker started to notice crows appearing almost everywhere he journeyed. He began to study crows, and that eventually led to them appearing in his varied mediums of artwork—painted, sculpted, carved, and showcased in mixed-media assemblages.

In his art, the crow offers a reflection on the human condition, a foil for various universal struggles. For example, “Crow Dreaming of Becoming a Man” shows the carved bird riding on a train engine. 

“My future is to continue to experiment with different media and characters from nature to explore human feelings of isolation and wonder, leading to bigger questions relating to our human condition,” Acker says. 

His work last showed in Omaha during a group exhibition, Tinkerbell’s Mausoleum: Assemblages from Whimsy to Macabre, at the historic Florence Mill’s ArtLoft Gallery on July 1-Aug. 31. 


This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of 60Plus in Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

In the Crease, Covered in Grease

October 18, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In 2007, during a race at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania, Brian Haaland stood up after drilling multiple lug nuts into one of the right tires on Jeff Green’s race car. As Green pulled away and Haaland came to his feet in the middle of a hectic pit row, he quickly glimpsed the hood of Kasey Kahne’s stock car just before it plowed right through him. 

Haaland would surprisingly (and luckily) walk away from the incident almost completely unscathed. But the mishap drove home advice he got from his coaches a few years earlier: Despite what he may think about the straightforward nature of hitting lug nuts into a race car, it would take him at least three years to see everything he might possibly experience as a pit crew member in the wild world of racing. 

Eleven years later, it is now Haaland’s job to impart such wisdom as a pit crew coach for Team Penske. His journey toward becoming one of the best coaches in NASCAR began long before he met the front end of Kasey Kahne’s car, though. It took root during his time playing goalie for the University of Nebraska-Omaha hockey team in the early 2000s. Around that time, his burgeoning interest in racing—and a fortuitous relationship with the Mavericks’ team psychologist—would eventually lead him to trade his professional goalie ambitions for a full-time job changing tires.

Haaland grew up playing hockey in Minot, North Dakota. After progressing through the youth ranks and graduating high school, Haaland played for multiple teams in the United States Hockey League, the country’s premier junior hockey league. 

UNO would eventually ask him to join their squad beginning with the 1999 season. Haaland redshirted his freshman year and played behind eventual NHL star Dan Ellis for much of his career with the Mavericks. “My claim to fame in my college hockey career was that on a few occasions coach thought we had a better chance of winning with me in the net, instead of Dan,” Haaland says. 

Despite the sparse playing time, one of the most consequential relationships in Haaland’s life developed while at UNO. Jack Stark—a longtime performance psychologist for many Nebraska-area teams, including the Nebraska football program and Creighton basketball—served in a similar capacity for the Mavericks at the time. Stark immediately noticed something special in Haaland. 

“I was impressed with how hard he worked and his ability to control his emotions while playing the mentally exhausting goalie position,” Stark says. “I also always thought he was just the nicest kid.”  

Other than Haaland’s good nature, the pair also bonded over Stark’s new project—serving as a psychologist for NASCAR drivers and the pit crew teams at Hendrick Motorsports. 

Haaland saw his first NASCAR race while visiting his older brother Blair in California during the summer of 2001. “I thought this is loud, and it was actually kind of boring just watching the cars go round and round,” says the former Maverick goalie. “But I saw the cars go down pit road, the athletes jump over the wall and change the tires so quickly, and I thought that part was awesome.” 

Stark would make sure that Haaland got to see just how awesome being a pit crew member could be. Shortly after Haaland’s graduation, Stark—thinking the flexibility and mental toughness that made Haaland a good goalie would translate to changing tires—helped get him get a tryout with the Hendrick Motorsports team. Haaland would make the team as a tire changer in 2004, but he worked mostly in a backup role for the racing behemoth’s most notable cars. 

He did, however, come to see that there are few more intense settings in sports than pit road at a NASCAR race. Amidst roaring engines and zooming cars, a missed lug nut or a slow fueling job could cost a car 10 to 20 spots as pit crews battle to beat other teams by just hundredths of a second. 

Out of a desire to perfect the razor-thin margin associated with pit stops and to hopefully have a long career in the sport, Haaland eventually accepted the job as a pit crew coach for Team Penske.  

“He’s become one of the best coaches in the sport,” Stark says. “He could go to any team he wants. Penske is lucky to have him.”

Hockey is still a part of Haaland’s life as well. For the past 10 years, he has been a goalie coach in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area. He sees 30 to 35 goalies a week and some of them come from as far as Augusta, Georgia.  

But whether he is mentoring former Division I athletes trying to make NASCAR pit crews or young goalies, he constantly draws on advice from the litany of incredible coaches he learned from during his time in Omaha—including Stark, who remains one his closest confidants. 


Haaland owns and operates Old School Goal School, a goalie camp in Charlotte, North Carolina. Visit oldschoolgoalschool.com for more information.

This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Chloe Kehm

October 11, 2018 by
Photography by Keith Binder

With her bobbed blond hair, flowered orange dress, and a jean jacket covered in pins (mostly cats in some form or another), artist Chloe Kehm looks like she could have stepped out of one of her favorite anime shows. But while her art may often depict that culture, her interests and influences are far more diverse.

“I listen to podcasts a lot,” Kehm says. “I’ve just been listening to this one podcast and hammering out stuff.” 

Kehm is describing a part of her creative process. One of her favorite podcasts is Saw Bones, a medical history program. “It’s about all the stupid things we’ve done medically in the past…they talk about the Victorians a lot. They did a lot of weird things,” she says with a laugh.

Also, she adds, “If my room’s a mess, I can’t do anything. Which is unfortunate, because I’m not the cleanest person.” Regardless, she manages to get a substantial amount of creating done, including an entire comic book for her BFA program at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. It’s something she’d been putting off because she says she wasn’t confident in her skills. But after many life-drawing classes, she finally thought, “Let’s just do it now.” 

Having grown up watching animated shows such as Powerpuff Girls and Sailor Moon, it’s not surprising she became interested in drawing what she calls “fandom things,” such as characters from video games, comics, and television series. But what she really enjoys is making her own, original work, and a big part of that is telling a story. Besides working with digital mediums, watercolor, oil and acrylic paints, and experimenting with ink and marker drawings, she also creates short, four-panel comic strips. “I love writing,” she says. “I took a couple of creative writing classes before and I’m always writing comic strips.”

While pop culture clearly influences a lot of her current work, she does have an appreciation for the classics, such as Van Gogh. Her favorite work of his is “Almond Blossoms.” “His colors are gorgeous and I like to think I could pull some of those into my own work.”

Her pieces are definitely more contemporary, though. “A lot of the artists I really love right now are currently living,” she says with a smile, “and they are young female artists in the comic book industry.” She lists Babs Tarr, Fiona Staples, and Leslie Hung as her top three, but adds that there are countless others. “It’s just really inspiring.”

It’s unsurprising that Kehm admires these artists. She says that, while she didn’t really start considering herself a feminist until college, she has always believed equality is important, “across the board.” She credits those animated shows she grew up on with helping her develop that ideal. “A lot of animated shows directed at young girls [are] showing them in positions of power and being strong and independent. I think that just kind of sat in there…and it inspires a lot of what I want to do with my storytelling and my animation,” she says, before wryly adding, “And I’m a woman. I should care about that stuff, right?”

Kehm says she likes her creations to be fun, but also to have a message. “I like depicting different people in different ways. I like to show the vastness of the human race.” She pauses, then breaks into laughter. “Which sounds…a little lofty.”

She says she believes art in general has a hand in almost everything we do as a society. “You don’t realize how much art plays into everything you interact with on a day-to-day basis. Like your shoes. Someone designed that, someone drew that.” She gestures around the coffee shop as she speaks. “The layout of the building you’re in, the house you live in—an architect did that. They have artistry skills, and I think it gets overlooked a lot. But I think art is pretty integral to everything that we do. Be it political or day-to-day life.” 

While she hopes her message of equality comes through in her work, Kehm says she’ll be happy if it just makes people smile. “That’s ultimately what I want to come out of it.”


etsy.com/shop/KuroesCreations   | instagram.com/kuroedraws

This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of Encounter. 

Three-Peat

September 5, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This state capital on the Pearl River was named after a president of the United States. What is the city and state? 

Most people could not answer this questions without going through an internet search. But Brendan Pennington, 15, wouldn’t hesitate to answer. 

“It’s as if he’s faster than Google,” insists Kristen Job, a secondary Excellence in Youth coordinator at Westside’s middle and high schools. 

Pennington’s brain is filled with facts about countless coastlines, odd flags, and endless tough terrains. Maps, globes, and atlases are a breeze for him to analyze. At 3 years old, Pennington pointed at cellphone towers and told his mom they looked like the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

“He has a real world perspective,” his father, Paul, says.

That is one reason why, when Brendan competed in the 2014 Nebraska’s National Geographic State Bee, he won.

Then, he won the next year. And two years after that.

Job believes it’s unlikely someone else will be able to capture a three-peat. 

Students in schools all around the state are required to take a geography test from fourth to eighth grades, then the top-scorers compete in their own geography bees. Each school champion then takes an online test to be eligible to compete in the Top 100 at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Competing in this event is optional, although Pennington believes the opportunity is worth it, as it helps the knowledge “stick” and creates opportunities for critical thinking.

Pennington prepared by poring over samples and researching facts before the competition.   

“When my parents asked me questions, I was like ‘ugh, it’s like an assignment,’” Pennington says. “But I liked looking at the atlas because it was fun.” 

He scored top honors in 2014, 2015, and 2017—but he almost lost the last time. The contest went to a tie-breaker. Pennington won by correctly naming the Tigris as the river that runs through Baghdad.

With prizes of $100 in his pocket and new atlases in his hands, Pennington headed to Washington, D.C., three times for the televised National Geographic Bee Championship.

Unfortunately, Nebraskans never saw this local boy on television. Last year, they almost did. Pennington got one question away from making it to the Top 10, the portion that is televised. He can’t recall the question that eliminated his chance on the small screen, but he doesn’t let it bother him. 

“I just thought…it would be great if I won, but if I lost, it wouldn’t change my life,” Pennington says. 

But the experience has done just that. Each time Pennington went to Washington, D.C., he met other students from different states and countries. Pennington still treasures these connections.

The state champion’s prize includes an all-expenses-paid trip for the student (and one adult, either a parent or a teacher, depending on the year), including tours of the capitol, meals, airfare, and hotel costs. Pennington had the opportunity to cruise the Potomac and enrich himself with history. He met Jill Biden, the wife of then-Vice President Joe Biden, during an ice cream social at her house. She complimented his red Husker polo shirt.

For now, Pennington has to set aside his dreams of winning a national championship, since it isn’t open to high school students. Instead, he joined Westside’s Quiz Bowl and French Club. He also started cooking international foods and playing tennis.

Oh, and if you still don’t know the state capital on the Pearl River, it is
Jackson, Mississippi.


Secrets of a Three-Peat Geography Champion 

“If you are doing something you don’t enjoy, it will feel more like homework and you won’t get much out of it,” Pennington says. “But if you are passionate, you will learn a lot more from it.”

  • Study It. Pennington watched videos, read books, and studied maps for half an hour or so each day. Study patterns should reflect how a student learns best. One student  might need to look at an atlas, while flashcards might work better for another. “Study hard, but study right,” Pennington advises. 
  • Take a Chance. Pennington lost the state geography bee in the fourth and seventh grades. Pennington moved on and put more effort into the following years. “Even if you don’t win one year, you shouldn’t get discouraged. There will always be another chance,” Pennington believes. 
  • Stay Calm. During the competition, “take a chill pill.” Pennington believes if he looks calm on the outside, he will remain calm on the inside. “Just put yourself in the mindset that you are just getting asked questions. If you don’t win, it’s not the end of the world,” Pennington says. 
  • Do Your Best. Hard work and effort do pay off in the end. “If you don’t understand another country or culture, it will be hard to critically think about what is going on in the world,” Pennington says. “And when you see things on the news, you will be able to understand it and make sense of it…there is a lot more out there than just Omaha.”

This article was printed in the Fall 2018 edition of Family Guide.

Leave No Trace

May 19, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Take a look at 19-year-old Katie Werkmeister scaling an indoor climbing wall, trudging along happily on a backcountry hike, or scrambling along on a bouldering trip, and you’d think she has been adventuring her entire life.

But that’s not the case. “I led a really bland life before college,” she admits.

Growing up in Kearney, she yearned for a “bigger city with more culture.” In Omaha, however, she ended up on a path to some of the nation’s most remote locales.

“College really opened my perspective to get outside,” she says, adding that an outdoor leadership class during her first semester of freshman year at the University of Nebraska-Omaha changed her life.

“We learned about LNT [Leave No Trace] and backpacking to get ready for a trip to the Badlands in South Dakota, where we took turns guiding and leading the group.” 

She learned how to read a map and lead a group through sometimes unforgiving terrain. She also learned that she loved being outside (even when the going gets tough): “Backpacking is sometimes—honestly—not fun, but when you get to where you’re going it makes it all worth it.”

The philosophy of Leave No Trace had a profound impact on Werkmeister. She continues to be amazed and appalled by mankind’s negative consequences on the natural environment—particularly by those people who negatively impact nature while themselves trying to enjoy the outdoors.

Even around the UNO campus, she notices where students create worn walking paths in spots where people are not meant to walk. Werkmeister fully endorses the idea of leaving no trace when out in nature, whether that’s around a college campus or in remote spots only accessible by backpacking for days.

Climbing was a natural next step for this adventurer. She was a complete beginner when she started in 2016.

“Everybody starts at the lowest point. There’s something exciting about being at the lowest point because there’s always somewhere to go from there,” she says.

Werkmeister admits that climbing was not easy in the beginning and didn’t come to her naturally at first. “I went in really weak,” says the young woman who had received a pacemaker in her heart in 2015.

“Sometimes my heart would randomly stop beating and I would pass out,” she says, referring to her health pre-pacemaker. As a result, one side of her body is weaker than the other, which has made climbing difficult. But she’s not the kind of person to give up on something because it’s difficult. Nowadays she’s an active and strong climber, both indoors and out in the wild.    

Currently working at the UNO Outdoor Venture Center, she enjoys helping beginning climbers discover their own strength. “Not many people know it’s open to the public,” she says, urging people to check out the climbing wall even if they aren’t UNO students.

Werkmeister and other staff can help climbing novices learn everything they need, even if they have never climbed before.

As Werkmeister says: when you start from the bottom, you can only go up from there.


Visit unomaha.edu for information about the climbing wall and excursions with the Outdoor Venture Center.

This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Incubators and Accelerators

February 5, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It takes much more than just a good idea to launch a successful new business. From a comprehensive business plan to office space, starting a new business is no easy task. According to the Small Business Administration, only about half of new startups make it to the five-year mark.

That in mind, business incubators and accelerators offer supportive methods to help convert ideas into viable businesses, boosting startups with capital, a host of support services, and mentorship in exchange for a stake in the business.

Incubators guide a business from its embryonic stages and cultivate early development in exchange for a portion of the business, typically 5 to 10 percent. The time spent in an incubator depends on how long it takes the business to hatch its own workspace, or the amount of time needed to outgrow the current workspace. In many cases, one investor group funds several or all of the businesses in the incubator. Mentorships come from entrepreneurial investors and peers in the co-working space.

An accelerator has distinct differences, one being that the time spent in the central workspace is usually 90-120 days. Accelerators help a relatively well-developed business speed its transition through the final stages of planning and into actual operations. The business owner receives less funding, because the support services are meant to improve the owner’s means of raising capital following the startup’s graduation from the program. Mentorships often come from entrepreneurs affiliated with the accelerator.

Mark Griffis, founder/president of software development firm Aviture, is also managing partner of The Garage by Aviture, a software startup incubator. He says he sees a real need for accelerators and incubators in the community along with increased awareness of their existence and function.

“There are a lot of talented people here in Omaha. But what we found when we opened the doors to The Garage a couple of years ago, we had 200 people pitching to us and out of that there were probably only three who were really actually ready to receive funding and go to the next level,” Griffis says. “There’s just a lot of education that needs to happen.”

Before attempting to apply to an incubator, a startup should have a solid, marketable idea, and often, a solid business plan. The company needs to be able to show potential investors there is something to build on. They must commit to the incubator’s regulations, which often include training sessions and other time-consuming activities.

Griffis emphasizes that while funding is certainly important, the sharing of expertise can save budding entrepreneurs from harsh trial-and-error lessons and is a crucial factor in helping them succeed.

“One of the key differentiators [for The Garage] is how we’ve integrated it with Aviture. In our environment we have such a diverse group of [technology-minded] individuals who can add experience to what these startups are doing. So people who are working…on the Aviture side can help can collaborate with startup guys who are trying to find their way out of the woods,” he says. “It’s not the traditional incubator with a bunch of startups cross-pollinating or creating coalitions.”

Luke Towey is director of finance for Prairie Ventures, a private investment fund and cooperative of entrepreneurs and investors that, at one time, also operated a business incubator. He says that not every applicant will be accepted into an incubator or accelerator, but the business can still be successful.

“It’s not that it isn’t a good idea or that it’s not something the entrepreneur could be successful with, it’s just that they might be better off getting an SBA loan, or grant money, and doing it on their own,” Towey says.

Not all incubators and accelerators are commercial ventures. Steve Bors, director of the Entrepreneurship Center at Southeast Community College in Lincoln, says the college was one of the first in the state to offer a business incubator on campus more than a decade ago. 

“We’re here to serve southeast Nebraska. That’s our mission, and this is certainly filling a need in southeast Nebraska,” he says. “Here at the Center we will help anybody who’s interested in starting a business. They do not have to be a student. If we can’t help them, we will refer them to some other entity or other service provider who can. Our coaching services are free and then of course we have our incubator on site, which we call our Focus Suites. We have 20 offices that we make available to people starting businesses or who are early in the process.”

Dale Eesley, director of the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s Center for Innovation, Entrepreneurship & Franchising, says educational institution-based incubators “generally don’t take any equity.”

An entrepreneur who wants to work with a college-based incubator should expect to rent a workspace. While corporate incubators normally require regular meetings with coaches, entrepreneurs at college incubators seek out faculty as a resource for information and coaching.

“The educational institutions oftentimes aren’t set up to easily accommodate the business needs of students. It’s a nice compromise to have an offsite or a nonprofit for venture outside of the university school system. It simplifies intellectual property issues and also it gives students the contacts they need that are outside, like suppliers, customers, and investors,” Eesley says. “I hope that UNO will have [an incubator] in the near future. I’m optimistic that we’ll have space on campus in the next three years.”

Bors says that while many commercial incubators and accelerators are associated with the tech industry, his on-campus incubator fosters businesses in many sectors.

“We think all new businesses are valuable. They’re creating new jobs where they didn’t exist before,” he says. “I’m very proud about how diverse our program is…we have senior citizens, I think over half our businesses are female-owned, we have different ethnic groups, and different religions, etc….There is a lot of collaboration and a lot of leads shared back and forth.” 

Whether commercial or campus-based, incubators and accelerators exist to help businesses succeed, which creates jobs and stimulates the local economy.

Visit garagebyaviture.com, prairieventures.net, southeast.edu/entrepreneurship, and unomaha.edu/college-of-business-administration/center-for-innovation-entrepreneurship-franchising for more information about the organizations mentioned in this article.

This article was printed in the February/March 2018 edition of B2B.

Dr. Bruce Johansen Keeps Moving

November 21, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Deep in the labyrinthine Arts and Sciences Hall at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Dr. Bruce Johansen sits at his desk wearing a rather de rigueur outfit for him—a maroon T-shirt with red and blue basketball shorts. His ever-present jewelry is more subdued than usual. He has several rings on his hands and a simple, steampunk-esque earring in his right ear.

Johansen’s signature style is well-known around UNO. He tells his students the reason he started wearing so much jewelry was to distract from his pronounced stutter, which was also the impetus for his writing career.

The 67-year-old professor of communications and Native American studies is also familiar for another reason. Tales of seeing him riding his bike down Dodge Street on his way to campus at 5 in the morning are often repeated among his students in an almost folklore- like manner.

While they might think Johansen rides his bike to work every morning because he’s just that into it, that’s not exactly the case. In fact, he says it’s more out of necessity than a simple love of cycling.

In October 2001, he had an epileptic seizure while driving in Indiana and went off the road. Since then, his wife, Pat, has made it clear she’d rather he not drive. And so, he bikes. Or walks. Or sometimes in extreme weather, she’ll give him a ride in their Ford Explorer.

While biking to work started out of necessity—he says the parking situation on campus was another big incentive—he still enjoys biking for fun. From time to time, he’ll ride downtown or out to Westroads Mall. He says his longest Omaha ride was about 30 miles round trip. But he’s definitely biked farther.

“One day in Seattle,” he says, while hauling out a map of the city he keeps in his office, “I did a circuit of Lake Washington, which is about 60 miles.” He draws his finger around the map, outlining the route he took.

His desire to always be moving might stem from the fact that he grew up in a Coast Guard family. “You’d be surprised where the United States has Coast Guard bases—Philippine islands, Newfoundland in Canada, Puerto Rico…I grew up all over the world.”

Surprisingly, he says his favorite form of exercise isn’t cycling but swimming. He says not only is it good exercise, but also quite relaxing. According to an article in the summer issue of UNO Magazine, he was even a high school state swimming medalist in his adopted home state of Washington. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to see him swimming laps—while wearing his signature jewelry—on campus at the HPER Building pool.

“They added it up,” he says, “and all of the time I spent in the HPER pool came up to a year…from an hour at a time or so. I had swum half the world’s diameter overall. It adds up over 30 years.”

Professor Hugh Reilly, director of the school of communication, has known Johansen for at least 25 years. In fact, Reilly considers him a mentor. The two share a common interest in Native American studies, and Johansen was instrumental in helping Reilly develop his thesis, which evolved into Reilly’s first book on the subject.

He thinks it’s a bit unusual for someone to be interested in Johansen’s physicality. He says the professor is chiefly known among his colleagues for his mental capacity and prodigious writing.

“He’s very mentally active…he manages to write two books a year. Who does that?” he asks.

Reilly says he’s sure he couldn’t outswim Johansen. “But I can take him in basketball,” he says. Which makes sense. The 6-foot-2-inch Reilly is half a foot taller.

It turns out, Johansen may have found a new hobby. On a recent trip to India, he and other guests were invited on stage to dance with the Kala Darshini dance troupe. When he tried to decline the invitation, saying he hadn’t ever really danced, he was told, “This is India. We dance here.”

As they were dancing, he was engaged by one of their principal dancers. “I really got into it and completely forgot there was a huge audience there.” He says his partner seemed pretty surprised by his energy and endurance, and at the end of the dance, he was hoisted into the air, spun around, and kissed on the cheek while everybody cheered. He said he felt like a rock star.

So maybe dancing will be his new outlet for all that energy?

“I liked it,” he says. “But see, here I have a very well-cultivated image as a stale old fart.”

Visit unomaha.edu for more information.

This article was printed in the November/December 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine.

Getting Down to Business in India

August 24, 2017 by
Photography by Anthony Flott

Take a bus ride through the traffic-jammed, people-packed, animal-filled, and trash-cluttered streets of Delhi, and it won’t take long to realize that the way business is done in India is not exactly how it happens in Omaha.

Or anywhere else in the United States, for that matter.

That is one of the many lessons a group of University of Nebraska-Omaha students learned during a trip there in March. Day after day they witnessed vignettes of Indians at work that they never see back home:

  • A street vendor in a blood-stained shirt snatching live chickens from a cage, then butchering them for workers purchasing meat for dinner on their way home.
  • A work elephant lumbering along the shoulder of a busy road, laden with bamboo logs.
  • Men in fields making bricks by hand in small kilns.
  • Families salvaging wood, metal, and other materials from half-built, but long-abandoned, buildings.
  • This was no party-filled spring break on the beach. Rather, it was an exclusive opportunity to study the world’s fastest-growing economy of 1.3 billion people—two-thirds of them 35 and younger.

According to the World Bank, India’s GDP in 2015 was $2.1 trillion, an eightfold increase since 1991, when it loosened its economic policies, spurring private and foreign investment. Such growth helped drop the percentage of Indians living below the national poverty line from a mind-blowing 45 percent in 1993 to a (still staggering) 22 percent in 2011. In the United States, that number was 15.9 percent in 2011.

India right now is a major player in the world economy—and its financial clout is likely to increase.

It is critical, then, that U.S. companies understand the who, what, where, when, why, and how of business in India. That was the goal of the UNO students who traveled there as a capstone to their class, “Business & Social Action in India.” UNO Professor Patrick McNamara taught the class and led the trip, his 12th to that country since 1991. His class was a mix of undergraduate and graduate students, most from UNO’s College of Business Administration. A handful are employed at Omaha companies, including Lozier, Hudl, First National Bank of Omaha, and Northwest Bank, that stand to gain from what those students learned.

“While the time was limited, this did provide some important insights into the business culture, the complexities, and the opportunities of India,” McNamara says. “India is overwhelming—sensory overload, tensions, and kindness at every turn. To effectively do business in India, you have to be open to these paradoxes and not intimidated to dive in and fully immerse yourself in the culture. The Indians will trust you more if you do.”

Prior to the trip students studied Indian politics, society, culture, and U.S.-India relations. The real learning, though, came almost immediately after landing at Indira Gandhi International Airport and arriving at their host site, the campus of the Institute of Management Technology (IMT) in Ghaziabad, one of India’s top business schools.

That began a whirlwind of lectures and Q&As with some of the country’s brightest business minds. IMT faculty led the way, providing insights into Indian consumers, social values, human resources management systems, and “Making Sense of the Indian Workplace.”

Next came Siva Nagarajan, managing director for Mother Dairy Fruit & Vegetables, an India Fortune 500 company. Among the company’s innovations is providing milk dispensers at stores to which customers bring their own containers and fill only with what they need. The practice saves 4 tons of packaging materials each day.

Nagarajan also gave a detailed overview of India’s corporate social responsibility government mandate requiring companies to spend 2 percent of their net profit on social development.

“Philanthropy is becoming the flavor of the day,” says Nagarajan, whose talk spurred much conversation within the UNO contingent.

UNO MBA student Andy Max, an asset/liability market risk manager at First National Bank of Omaha, says the mandate pushes companies to build on the foundation of India.

“I found it refreshing to see the pride they have for the sustainability of their country and how willing they are to invest in the future of India,” Max says.

The group also visited the home of B. K. Goswami, chairman of the Gupta Charitable Foundation and uncle to Vin Gupta, founder and former CEO of Omaha-based Infogroup. Later, at the U.S. Embassy’s American Center, First Secretary Matthew Asada provided insights into India’s demonetization of the 500 and 1,000 rupee notes, a possible first step toward a cashless society. India is attempting to demonetize 85 percent of their currency and use a combination of two systems, one that uses a biometric database to show proof of identity and “India Stack,” a secure, digitized system that allows Indians to store and share personal data, including money.

Visits also were made to the corporate offices of Businessworld Magazine and Betaout, an analytics startup that provides e-commerce help for companies. Betaout founder and CEO Ankit Maheshwari spoke to the students inside a glass-walled meeting room. On the other side, most of the company’s nearly 80 workers typed away on laptops or held discussions in small pods throughout the cubicle-free office. Their average salary—$1,500 to $2,000 a month—is nothing near what similar IT workers would get in the U.S. ($5,000-$8,000), but at least they are working—given its “youth bulge,” India needs to create 1 million new jobs each month.

No matter where the UNO contingent went, hospitality was the order of the day with offers of tea, water, cookies, potato chips, donuts, and freshly made samosas.

“The business meetings we experienced in India have a social-heavy aspect to them relative to the U.S.,” Max says. “Not only [in] the conversation but also the refreshments. Food and drink appeared in every business setting, and our hosts insisted we fill our plates.”

UNO students also toured one of five orphanages run by Salaam Baalak Trust to help the nearly 400,000 children who live on Delhi streets.

Other business lessons came throughout the journey. Like how to haggle for anything and everything: a group lunch at a buffet restaurant; taxi fare; souvenirs; or help with bags at the airport. While walking, Max also learned that if you are a street vendor, watch out for monkeys—having watched one swipe two juice boxes from a vendor, then run up a tree and guzzle them.

The monkey was just one of many reminders that India ain’t home. Much of Delhi has a post-apocalyptic motif worthy of a Terminator film—throughout the city is building after building partially constructed but since abandoned; rusted rebar protrudes from the top of the last-completed concrete floor. The roads are a chiropractor’s dream, and traffic signals and rules are seemingly nonexistent. Rubbish-filled rivers reek. Several times the group passed what at first was mistaken for a mountain—the world’s largest landfill. Roaming freely are lots of cattle and stray dogs, with more than a few rats.

There is also lots of optimism.

You could see that in the smiles and spirit of IMT students, who frequently engaged their UNO counterparts in lengthy conversations on far-ranging topics, including banking, government corruption, open markets, Pakistan, pop culture, and—perhaps their favorite topic—
President Trump.

Delhi might not always be pretty, but business is getting done there and throughout India.

“I can’t wait to see how the fastest-growing global economy will impact the world over the next 10 years with their substantial talent pool,” Max says.

Tips for Doing Business in India

Conducting business in India? Keep these tips in mind:

  • Do give a handshake and a small bow when meeting someone.
  • Do learn the eating etiquette of your destination in India. Don’t be surprised that many Indians eat with their hands in urban and rural settings. Also, don’t hesitate to request a spoon and fork when dining (if you are uncomfortable eating with your fingers).
  • Don’t wear clothing that is
    too tight (women).
  • Don’t give hugs or kisses.
  • Do present a business card by holding it with both hands.
  • Do consider downloading WhatsApp, a smartphone messaging app used by more than 65 million Indians, including most businessmen (the country topped 1 billion cell phone users in 2016).

This article published in the Fall 2017 edition of B2B.