Tag Archives: UNO

On Bread

February 24, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek

It was the story I didn’t want to write—that one about what I call “my malady,” my three episodes of severely restricted eating. The first bout struck when I was 15, when, in response to difficult family circumstances, I limited myself to fewer than 600 calories per day. I calculated and tallied the calories for everything I ate; I chewed and spit out forbidden foods; I stripped down and weighed myself many times a day; I exercised too vigorously and for too long; I awakened in a panic from vivid dreams in which I was devouring doughnuts or pizza; I isolated myself from my friends and no longer ate meals with my family because of the all-consuming nature of my regimen. I lost weight so quickly and recklessly that I stopped menstruating and could barely get out of bed in the morning because of the anemia. But I felt safe and empowered because, through my self-restriction, I’d taken control of my frustrating life and unruly flesh.

Over a decade before Karen Carpenter’s death from anorexia nervosa, the event that awakened many Americans to the dangers of eating disorders, I had never heard of the condition. Apparently, neither had the pediatrician who examined me when I was my thinnest and most unhealthy. He simply told my mother that I needed to eat more, which eventually, I did. When I was 25 and left my family, friends, and hometown for a demanding job in a big faraway city where I knew no one, my malady returned in a less dangerous though more tenacious form. In spite of intensive psychotherapy, this bout of my malady didn’t start abating until three years after it started with the birth of my son.

Most perplexing to me was that when I was deep into middle age, a professor at a state university, the author of five award-winning books, the mother of an adult son and daughter, a homeowner, a church member, and a supporter of various worthy causes, my malady returned. Then, my weight dropped to a number on the scale that I hadn’t seen since middle school, as I whittled down my list of permissible foods until it fit on my thumbnail. Because of age-related changes in my bodymind, the departure of my grown children, and the loss of other significant people in my life, I was heartbroken and anxious. Just as when I was 15 and 25, I tightly restricted what and how much I ate as a way of keeping myself safe from what threatened me. But I couldn’t see what I was doing, much less link it to the two other times when eating too little had been so easy and gratifying. In fact, I didn’t know that I was sick again until my 20-year-old daughter told me that if I didn’t eat more, I was going to die. My blindness to my situation still astonishes and baffles me.

I didn’t want to write the story of an illness that many judge to be a character flaw, a moral failing, nothing but a silly, overzealous diet, or a childish attempt to get attention. I didn’t want to write a story in which I had to admit that I had a condition that usually strikes teenagers and young women. I didn’t want to write a story that would require me to re-enter, through memory and imagination, the dark periods of my life when eating less than my body needed seemed like a logical, fitting response to adversity. I didn’t want to write a story that was an illness narrative and, so, presents a version of the self that isn’t sound or fully functioning.

And yet, I felt compelled to write this story. In “On Keeping a Notebook,” Joan Didion advises us “to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” If we don’t, they might “turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.” What I had forgotten was the woman in me who sometimes found self-starvation and the taking up of as little space as possible so alluring.

To write the story of my malady, I had to educate myself about eating disorders and disordered eating. Eating disorders—anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder—are clinically defined and diagnosed, according to criteria set forth by the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Less well-known to most people is “disordered eating,” which Lauren Reba-Harrelson and the co-authors of a 2009 study define as “unhealthy or maladaptive eating behaviors, such as restricting, binging, purging, or use of other compensatory behaviors, without meeting criteria for an eating disorder.” “Other compensatory behaviors” include the use of laxatives, diuretics, stimulants, or excessive exercise to counteract the calories one has consumed.

I went into my research believing that eating disorders and disordered eating are caused primarily by unhealthy family dynamics and the message from the fashion, entertainment, beauty, and diet industries that nothing you are and nothing you’ve achieved matter as much as being thin. Now I know that those are but the easiest explanations and that they trivialize a complex problem. Aimee Liu, the author of Gaining: The Truth About Life After Eating Disorders, compares an eating disorder to a gun: “Genes shape the gun, environment loads it, and stress pulls the trigger.” This felt true to me, so I went to work researching the genetic, environmental, and psychological aspects of eating disorders. From the studies I read by geneticists and neuroscientists, I learned that those with eating disorders and disordered eating can’t trust their brains to tell them the truth about when and when not to eat.

Several studies, for instance, have investigated variations on the gene for serotonin among the eating-disordered, since when people with anorexia severely restrict their caloric intake, their abnormally high levels of serotonin drop, and they report feeling calmer and less anxious; when those with bulimia increase their caloric intake, their low serotonin levels rise, and they report feeling happier. Another study found that those with bulimia and anorexia have an altered response in the insula, a part of the brain involved in appetite regulation, when given tastes of sugar, which means that they don’t accurately perceive signals about their hunger or satiety. Yet another study suggests that increased activity in the dorsal striatum leads to “maladaptive food choices” among restrictors, meaning that they actually prefer the plain rice cake over the Asian pear and smoked gouda panini.

From my reading in psychology, I learned that certain family structures and personality types were more likely to “load the gun” than others. Hilde Bruch, a psychoanalyst and pioneering researcher on eating disorders, studied the connection between disturbed interactions between a child and a domineering or detached mother and the development of anorexia, while psychiatrist Salvador Minuchin studied how “psychosomatic families,” especially those that are “enmeshed,” contribute to the genesis of eating disorders. For a 2004 study, Walter H. Kaye, the director of the Eating Disorders Center for Treatment and Research at the University of California-San Diego, administered standardized tests for anxiety, perfectionism, obsessionality, and eating disorders among individuals with anorexia, bulimia, and both disorders, as well as a control group. He found that 66 percent of the members of the three eating-disordered groups had “one or more lifetime anxiety disorders,” 41 percent had obsessive-compulsive disorder, and 20 percent had a social phobia. The majority of the eating-disordered study participants reported that the onset of their anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or social phobia had occurred during childhood, before the symptoms of their eating disorder manifested. Even those who had recovered from an eating disorder and were symptom-free “still tended to be anxious, perfectionistic and harm-avoidant.”

I explored various cultural factors that “load the gun.” Feminist theorists, such as Susie Orbach, Naomi Wolfe, and Susan Bordo, see anorexia as rebellion against or an over-conformity with Western notions of feminine beauty and power. Historians and medievalists weighed the similarities and differences between contemporary anorexia and the prolonged fasting of religious women in Europe in the late Middle Ages who sought worldly power and a deeper union with God through their austerities. Accounts by and about hunger strikers, whether the imprisoned members of the Irish Republican Army, the American suffragette movement, or those being held at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, present their fasts as the ultimate political statement and protest.

Clearly, eating disorders and disordered eating are due to a messy tangle of genetic and biochemical factors, family dynamics, individual psychology, and a wide range of cultural influences. Also clear to me is that my story isn’t unique. Experts say that about 10 percent of those with eating disorders are older women. But, says Dr. Cynthia Bulik, the director of the Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders at the University of North Carolina, the percentage is surely higher since most older women with eating disorders disguise or misread their symptoms as being due to a health condition or changes associated with aging, and so they aren’t included in the number of reported cases. In a 2012 study, Danielle Gagne and her research team found that women over 50 are engaged in unhealthy eating behaviors and thinking to the same extent that adolescents are. Most experts that I’ve read see a link between loss, grief, and depression as triggering the onset or return of an eating disorder in women who are middle-aged or older.

The loss and grief triggered by an empty nest, the death or relocation of several others who mattered to me, and an awareness of my own aging caused me to start restricting my diet again in 2011. But of all the factors that loaded the gun, two presented the most daunting challenges to my recovery. The values of hyper-consumerism was one. In “Hunger,” the Canadian writer and human rights activist Maggie Helwig says that it’s no accident that the widespread appearance of eating disorders in the 1960s and the epidemic of the 1970s coincided with the unprecedented growth of the consumer society, which places supreme value on one’s ability to buy goods and services. Helwig, who almost died from anorexia when she was young, observes that by the end of the 1960s, our material consumption had become “very nearly uncontrollable,” resulting in “what is possibly the most emotionally depleted society in history, where the only ‘satisfactions’ seem to be the imaginary ones, the material buy-offs.” Anorexia, then, is the “nightmare of consumerism” played out in the female body. “It is these women,” writes Helwig, “who live through every implication of our consumption and our hunger and our guilt and ambiguity and our awful need for something real to fill us … We have too much; and it is poison.” By not eating, the anorexic tells us that she’d rather be skeletally thin than ingest something that isn’t real or substantial. By not eating, the anorexic causes a cessation in ovulation and menstruation, rendering herself literally unproductive. By not eating, the anorexic refuses to be consumed by the act of consumption. Such self-denial in a culture of plenty is an audacious, radically countercultural act and statement. I extend Helwig’s metaphor to include binge-eating disorder (rapid, uncontrolled consumption with no “compensatory behaviors”) and bulimia (a refusal to complete the act of consumption by hurling out what one has just taken in) as responses to unrestrained consumerism.

The things, services, and diversions that money can buy can’t fill a hungry heart or lessen the pain one feels from a lack of meaning or purpose. Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, what we’re truly hungry for can’t be bought. And what I was craving when my malady returned for the third time were a renewed sense of purpose and deep nourishing relationships to “replace” those that I’d lost.

This was easier said than done. The rise of consumerist culture has been accompanied by a decline in the number of close relationships among Americans of all ages. Instead of visiting and confiding in each other, we spend more and more of our time working and, in our leisure time, gazing at screens. Consequently, finding others with the time and desire for new friendships was challenging and at times, disheartening. But with prayer and persistence, I eventually found people who share my values and who enjoy my company as much as I enjoy theirs.

The other factor that made recovery during the third bout of my malady so challenging was that in my early 50s, I had become acutely aware of the effects of ageism. Because the master narrative our culture imparts about aging is that late midlife and beyond is a time of inexorable decline, marked by deterioration, powerlessness, dependency, irrelevance, and obsolescence, it is the fear of aging and even more, of ageism, that is the inciting force that triggers disordered eating in some women. I didn’t want to think about aging—my aging—and I certainly didn’t want to write about it. Yet, address it I must. In a 2011 study, a team of Australian researchers found that a group of women ages 30 to 60 with disordered eating who participated in just eight weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy focused on “midlife themes” were still doing better in terms of “body image, disordered eating, and risk factors” at the follow-up six months later than a control group that had not had the opportunity to explore these themes in a therapeutic setting. To counter the effects of ageism in my life, I now collect resistance narratives from women, role models, really, who live their later years with passion and purpose and on their own terms—Jane Goodall, Maria Lassnig, Gloria Steinem, Helen Mirren, Isabel Allende, and others, both famous and not.

Although I was reluctant to write this story, I did find pleasure in crafting Bread. And the act of writing was filled with many moments of self-revelation and one grand epiphany: that there are aspects of my malady that are within my control (how I respond to ageist, hyper-consumerist, and patriarchal values) and some that are not (genetics and brain chemistry: my hard-wiring). Now, I know what I can fight and what I must gracefully accept.

When people asked me what I was working on as I was writing Bread, I reluctantly told them about the story that I didn’t want to write. I found that most were not only interested, but they wanted to tell me their stories about being in the grip of something beyond their control that lead them to eat too much or too little, about feeling shamed or misunderstood because of this, about the familial tensions or social costs or the ill physical effects that resulted from their unhealthy relationship with food and self. Some told triumphant stories about the residential treatment, the counseling, the spiritual practice, the religious conversion, or the supportive loved ones that saved them. But some were in the thick of it. Many were grateful to be given a name—disordered eating—for what they were experiencing and to know that this could afflict anyone of any age and circumstance.

Many were grateful to learn that the reasons they were stuffing or starving were more complex and nuanced than their having played with Barbie dolls as children or having conflicted relationships with their mothers.

The deep story I’ve heard in each of these testimonies concerns the tellers’ hunger for wholeness and fullness. Now, I encourage those who tell me their stories to ask themselves a difficult question—What am I truly hungry for? —and then answer it with courage and honesty. I’m hungry for companionship. I’m hungry for solitude. I’m hungry for reconciliation. I’m hungry for meaningful work. I’m hungry for less busyness or the opportunity to paint or dance or fight for social justice. Then, I urge them to bring that source of nourishment and sustenance into their lives. Some women thanked me for writing Bread before they’d even read it.

When I consider how frankly confessional my story is and how controversial some will find my interpretations of the research, I squirm and second-guess myself. But then I remember that I am safer from relapse because I understand what I can and can’t control and because I’m far less likely to forget, as Didion says, “the things [I] thought [I] could never forget.” And, too, I feel full knowing that people are finding self-knowledge, nourishment, hope, and strength in the story that I didn’t want to tell.

Lisa Knopp, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s English Department. Her recent book, Bread: A Memoir of Hunger, was published by the University of Missouri Press in 2016. Visit lisaknopp.com for more information.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of 60 Plus.

Austin Ortega

February 23, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

How did a smallish soccer-playing Hispanic kid from sun-drenched Escondido, California, end up an ice hockey star in Nebraska?

Although his profile does not fit the stereotypical hockey player, UNO Mavericks forward Austin Ortega has risen to the top ranks of college hockey, a sport dominated by big bruisers from the North.

The senior—also known as “California Hot Sauce” and “Score-tega”—has proved doubters wrong ever since he left home at age 15 to pursue his hockey dreams.

He lived with host families while playing elite youth hockey in Colorado and during two seasons in the USHL. After a season with the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders, he graduated from high school in Iowa. Then, he split his next season between the Indiana Ice and Fargo Force. A scholarship brought Ortega to UNO.

Despite being undersized (by elite hockey standards) at 5 feet 8 inches tall, 175 pounds, and a West Coast oddity, he’s been a prolific, crunch-time scorer everywhere he’s played. Competing in Division I’s toughest conference, he’s among Omaha’s all-time point leaders and holds two NCAA scoring records—for most game-winning goals in a season and a career. He’s made indelible memories and sparked frenzied cheers at the CenturyLink and, now, Baxter Arena.

Being Mr. Clutch is the result of instinct and intent.

“I’ve always tried to have the knack,” he says. “It really accelerated once I got here, especially over the last couple years, and it’s just something I keep trying to get better and better at.”

Players hit a wood board before stepping on the ice at Baxter Arena home games.

During a winter visit to Omaha, father Frank Ortega says that his son “lives for the moment to try to shoot the puck in when it matters. It started when he was younger, playing soccer. He wanted to be that guy doing the penalty kick. Over time he’s gained confidence, and now he’s developed into the guy who wants that puck.”

Austin Ortega and current-NHL player Jake Guentzel formed a potent one-two punch as sophomores leading Omaha to the program’s only Frozen Four berth in 2015. Last season started strong, with Omaha even netting its first No. 1 ranking, but fortunes sank, and the team missed making the playoffs altogether in 2016.

In Ortega’s collegiate season finale, despite losing Guentzel to the pros (the Pittsburgh Penguins drafted Ortega’s linemate and the team’s captain before his senior year), he has continued to lead the Mavericks’ offensive effort.

In a two-game series with Lake Superior State, he got the game-winner the first night and led a furious come-from-behind win the second night.

“Halfway through the third period we had nothing going on,” coach Dean Blais says of the comeback. “I said to Austin, ‘You’ve got to take this game over. You’re our scorer, you’re our so-called leader in that category, and we need you now.’ And he was like shot out of a cannon. Austin’s found his way to get those game-winning goals. Sometimes he might score the fourth goal [after] the other team has scored three, but he’s also scored game-winning goals in overtime and shoot-out type situations, so he’s a real sniper.”

Taking on the pressure to be the hero or goat “is a lot to handle,” Blais says, “To be a leader you gotta want to be a leader—you gotta want to do it every day in practice, and he’s been doing that.” Blais has seen it all from Ortega and expects even more at the next level. “Austin will be signing an NHL contract with whoever gives him a good opportunity, but to get that he’s got to really earn that this last stretch of games. He’s among three or four forwards in the United States everyone’s looking at. It’s hard to find scoring in the NHL. Austin has that ability.”

The accolades, achievements, expectations, and opportunities are more than his parents imagined when he discovered skating and hockey at age 5. Unfamiliar with hockey, they figured his interest would wane.

“We never anticipated he would be to where he is now with all the success he’s seen,” Tessie Ortega says.

She and her husband were awed when Austin’s hockey skills earned a college scholarship. Everything else, including multiple Player of the Month national honors and vying for a national title, has been a blur.

“Austin’s shown a lot of dedication and made sacrifices to the sport.  There’s a lot of stuff he’s missed—birthday parties, holiday gatherings,” Frank Ortega says. “It’s amazing how it’s all coming to an end. It happened so fast.”

The player is keenly aware this amazing college ride is nearly done.

“One thing I’ve learned now that I’m a senior is to enjoy every moment,” Ortega says. “I know a lot of guys try to rush the process and get a call to pursue professional hockey as fast as they can. A lot of guys don’t realize this is one of the best times of their life. I mean, with this new rink and the fans and everything, I just like to soak it in and try to slow it down as much as I can, because I know I’ll be out of here real soon.”

His parents realize Ortega is on the verge of a pro hockey career, but they’re cautiously watching the process play out, just as they did when he went from youth leagues to the USHL to college. The NHL’s the next logical step.

“For us, there’s a little hesitation to think that can happen until it does because you don’t want to assume anything,” Frank Ortega says. “But it’s exciting.”

Visit omavs.com for more information.

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

Orchestrated by God, Encouraged by Parents

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

At his first public concert, a benefit for disabled children in Ecuador, Washington Garcia realized that he was put on Earth to serve others through music. “It was a revealing moment,” Garcia says.

He was only 7 years old.

The next enlightening moment came when he was 10. He played and won his first national competition. The boy realized that he could earn money playing the piano.

Every step along his career has involved meeting the right people who could help at the right time. It’s something he and his parents believe God has orchestrated, placing him on a path that enables him to serve and give to a new generation of young artists.

That path led to Omaha in 2016. Today, the former child prodigy from Ecuador is the director of the School of Music at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

He started down his musical path at an early age, reaching for the piano as an infant and trying to recreate music before he was in school. “It was natural when we were little, my parents wanted us to be involved in music,” Garcia says.

At age 4, he tagged along with his 6-year-old sister to the music conservatory. By the end of the school year, his sister’s teacher contacted Garcia’s mother, Miryam Eljuri, and told her that he was a prodigy.

Miryam knew at that moment Garcia’s wish to play music was something the family had to support.

“Washington’s success was achieved as a team,” Miryam says through her son’s translation. It was Miryam who helped him apply for the Kennedy Center cultural exchange program in his teens, Miryam who lined up an airline sponsorship to fly her son around the world for his concerts.

Garcia’s father, also named Washington Garcia and one of the most respected neurosurgeons in Ecuador, helped as well, driving his son to classes and guiding him to become a responsible young man.

At age 18, Garcia simultaneously graduated high school and college, earning a Bachelor of Music from the National Conservatory of Music in Ecuador. By then, he’d played with the national symphony and performed for a former Chilean president. He’d won first prizes at the Guillermo Wright-Vallarino National Piano Competition in Quito, the Elizabeth Davis Memorial Piano Competition and the 19th International Young Artist Piano Competition in Washington, D.C., the 2004 Baltimore Music Club Piano Competition, and the Harrison Winter Piano Competition.

Garcia was accepted into the Kennedy Center cultural exchange program, earning a $25,000 fellowship to help cover his master’s studies at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University. He graduated at age 20, returning later to complete a doctorate. At 25, Garcia became the youngest Latin American pianist to have ever earned a doctorate performance degree from the university.

Throughout his studies, he cultivated an impressive international concert portfolio, which up to that point, included performances and lectures in Asia and Europe. His desire to continue playing while helping students led him to a career in education. He taught seventh and eighth graders in Baltimore before taking his calling to a higher level.

Garcia became an assistant professor of piano at Texas State University. In nine years, he rose in rank to become the appointed chair of the keyboard area and then the assistant director. It was a dream position, allowing him to work with more people, fundraise, build relationships internationally, and play music. He knew his next step in life was to become a director of a music school.

He was hired at UNO in January 2016.

His career path has taken him around the world, and so, his choice to reside in Omaha has puzzled some people. He tells them that he fell in love with the friendliness of the city and the culture of the school on his first visit.

“The faculty at the school of music was so talented and so collegial that I fell in love with them,” Garcia says. “We have one of the best faculty in Nebraska. It’s a collaborative faculty, and this is huge, because it doesn’t matter how good you are if you cannot collaborate with others.”

Already, Garcia has helped establish an international concert series at the school. In the next year, he hopes to begin renovating UNO facilities, including adding another concert hall; start a radio broadcast program to showcase students; and increase community engagement with other organizations.

The School of Music already has a student recital series at First Christian Church and, in the fall, will begin another one at Gallery 1516. At the end of March, the school will be among many cultural institutions performing at the Longines FEI World Cup Jumping and FEI World Cup Dressage Finals at the CenturyLink Center. In 2019, he hopes to launch an international music festival in Omaha.

“My goal is to continue to establish Omaha as one of the most important cultural and academic destinations in the U.S.,” Garcia says.

It’s an exciting time at UNO, according to Garcia. And it’s exciting for his family. While visiting over Christmas to see Garcia and his wife’s newborn son, Garcia’s parents spoke about their son’s career.

“Obviously, he came here with a clear mission and vision from God,” Garcia’s father says. “I know that he is going to fulfill his mission here in Omaha.”

Garcia will debut with the Omaha Symphony Orchestra Oct. 8 at Joslyn Art Museum. He will perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor, K. 466 under the baton of maestro Thomas Wilkins. Visit washingtongarcia.com for more information.

From left: Miryam Eljuri, Washington A. Garcia, and Washington H. Garcia

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

The Beckmans

February 2, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Sadie Beckman—at 2 years old—likes to pick up pretty rocks and cup them in her tiny hands. Then she clicks them together. These are special rocks that her grandmother, Linda Beckman, brought back from past vacations in Colorado and Washington.

Whether she’s practicing her sensory motor skills by playing with Grandma’s rocks or taking short walks with her grandpa, Dennis Beckman, Sadie’s too little to understand the favor her parents, Jennie and David Beckman, did for her.

By returning back to their hometown of Omaha after stints in Boston and Baltimore, they widened their daughter’s family circle. A supportive circle that cares for her, plays games with her, and feeds her homemade sugar cookies.

Young families are increasingly returning home to Omaha to live closer to grandparents for more quality family bonding. Jennie’s childhood friend Amy Isaacson also recently returned to the Omaha area after working as a researcher at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Isaacson says her family moved due to the rising cost of living in the Silicon Valley area and to reside closer to family. The Isaacsons have a 4-year-old daughter and 9-month-old twin girls.

“This has been absolutely the best decision for so many reasons. We have more space. We have family. People are friendly here. It’s more affordable,” Isaacson says.

Beckman, who graduated from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, says they talked about returning to Omaha after they had children. Fortunately, Beckman’s previous job as director of volunteer strategy with the non-profit Association of Jewish Family and Children’s Agencies allowed her to work remotely, so she could take her job with her to Nebraska. She is now the director of community engagement and education for the Jewish Federation of Omaha.

After the birth of Sadie, Jennie realized how important it was to be around her family. “It was really painful to go a whole year with them not seeing her for large slots of time.”

When David’s mom, Linda, heard the news, she says she kept thinking, “Oh my gosh, is this real?”

“Many, many years before, they had wanted to move back,” Linda says. “It all depends on jobs and things. You can’t just decide to move. You have to have an income.”

“It’s fun to watch her,” Linda says of baby Sadie. “When she first walks in the house and she sees you, she just lights up, and it’s like ‘Ahh!’ She just melts your heart.”

The Beckmans also have another granddaughter, Evelyn, who lives in Iowa. “We don’t see her nearly as often, but I’ll send her little packages here and there,” says Linda.

“We just want to be there to be of any assistance that the parents need. My parents were like that. They were always there to pick up the kids after school if I couldn’t do it. They were always there, so it just comes natural,” she says.

The Beckmans take care of Sadie each Tuesday evening. “Dave and Jenny get to have a few minutes by themselves to sort of catch their breath,” Linda says. They get to do things childless people do, like go out to eat without the dining room theatrics or relax on the deck and enjoy each other’s company.”

“I think the biggest thing is just the sense of comfort and security, and feeling like we have backup. And we have backups to our backup,” Jennie says.

Jennie’s support team also includes her own parents, Linda and Harry Gates, and her two brothers.

The Gates watch Sadie each Wednesday evening, and sometimes on the weekends for an hour or so while Jennie runs errands. They like to read books to Sadie or work on puzzles with her. They have tried painting and crafting with Play-Doh—no small feat with a child that age.

Harry also likes to take Sadie on walks. “We go look at the ants, and we go look at the flowers, and we go look at the birds,” he says.

Linda Gates says she really notices how Sadie changes from week to week. “Her vocabulary has just exploded. It seems like it’s all of a sudden, but because we can see her once a week, we really can see that progression. If they were still in Baltimore, we would miss out on all of that,” she says.

Gates, who prefers the name “Gigi” over “Grandmother,” has a penchant for wearing jewelry. “Sadie’s always real fascinated with that. If I have on bracelets and necklaces, I’ll take them off and put them on her, and she puts them back on me. It’s just kind of a nice moment together,” she says.

All the grandparents are happy with the new living arrangements. “It’s great. We’re very grateful and excited that it all worked out for them,” Gates says.

This article was printed in the Winter 2016 edition of Family Guide.

 

Fighting Misogyny (updated)

December 15, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“Fighter” is a very connotative word. People hear it and think of large, brutish men knocking each other out for money. They think broken homes, difficult childhoods, and a last resort. Women are an afterthought, usually in the form of the devoted and completely dominated girlfriend or as the victims of domestic violence. The occasional person, when prompted, remembers Ronda Rousey’s infamous loss to Holly Holm—or how hot they both are. Typically, people respond so negatively to the idea of women in combat sports that I don’t even bring up the topic. Upon mentioning an upcoming fight or my training for the first time, the initial question people usually ask is not where do I train, or what’s my record; they ask what my boyfriend thinks of it. The readiness of this question, of the mindset that prioritizes the manner in which I relate to men as the most important part of my identity, is a big part of the reason I fight. The implication of that question answers the usual follow-up question of how I got into mixed martial arts.

I had my first cage fight in January of 2016, at 110 pounds. I invited only four people outside of my team to watch, three of them women. I defeated my opponent via unanimous decision, meaning the fight went the full three rounds but the judges agreed that I was dominant throughout. It felt like a victory for not only myself and my team, but for all the skinny little girls around the city who are constantly being told they are too small or cute to get into any sport rougher than tennis. Afterward, I felt a little better equipped to handle the frequent instances of random men deciding to follow me on a run or asking me to get into the car as they drove by. My only battle wounds were bruised knuckles and a small bump to the left of my eye that quickly faded into a minor, reddish bruise. I loved having the visible symbol of my victory on my face. In part, because combined with the right amount of “resting bitch face,” it seemed to deter creepy strangers from approaching me in coffee shops or while walking down the street.

To me, “fighter” means being relentless, indomitable, dedicated, nurturing, receptive, empathetic, soft spoken, and even-tempered.

But I wasn’t quite able to wear even my minor injuries, symbols of a well-earned victory and a major milestone in my life, with pride like the male fighters can. I remember my boyfriend coming out of his first fight, his only loss to date, with a badly broken nose and blood in his eye. Everyone’s first assumption was that he had been in a fight; I know because strangers approached him, excited to talk about how he had engaged in the most masculine of sports and emerged in reasonably good shape. Where he was met with excitement, I was handed cards with hotline phone numbers from sympathetic gas station employees who didn’t believe my story. For the week or so that my bruise was noticeable, any boy I happened to be walking around with that day was on the receiving end of accusatory glares, head-shaking, and lots of poorly muffled whispers. Outside of the martial arts community in the area, it was like my victory was something I should have hidden behind closed doors. Apparently, even after all those days of getting up at 5 a.m. to train and then spend hours at the gym, I still looked like an easy target. It wasn’t my first time being silenced about something I was proud of. Gradually, I realized that MMA will not change how most people see me, but it has changed how I see myself.

During the month leading up to my second fight—this one at 115 pounds—I still encountered the stereotypical ways that women are perceived in relationship to the word “fighter.” But impositions of societal norms were not my concern during that time. Four weeks out, being a fighter means nothing about gender roles; it means constantly eating. Specifically, it signifies the consumption of a constant stream of protein shakes, eggs that I am beginning to accept will never taste good no matter how many different ways I cook them, supplements, vegetables, and what feels like gallons of water. I have put on close to 10 pounds of muscle since my first fight, in order to be able to cut a few pounds of water to make 115 pounds before weighing in, and then rehydrating back to a heavier weight the night before the fight. Beyond my diet, being a fighter means balancing the commitments of a full-time student working toward a double major, an internship, and a job while doing everything I can to win in the cage.

As a junior in college, fighting means training at an offensively early hour so I can get all my studying done before morning classes, so I can get school and work knocked out before maybe having time to eat an actual dinner, all so I can focus on working out and night training. It means trying to get to bed around 10 p.m. so my body can recover and I can do it all again the next day with a little more weight added to every lift and a little more of a push to get my 3.57 GPA up to a 3.6. It means discipline, and making adjustments when I need to study. I love my routine right now. I love training and then letting whatever Jiu Jitsu or kickboxing techniques I learned simmer in the back of my mind while I study, then letting my brain process information about Renaissance Europe and sonnets while I lift. My interests in academia and in sports complement each other, and I have heard the same from other fighters—contrary to the myth that fighters tend to be uneducated.

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With all of these things considered, people wonder why I would choose to be a fighter. I grew up playing softball and soccer, and have no formal background in combat sports. I am attending college on full academic scholarships and do not fit the stereotype of a cage fighter. So why would I, at 19 years old, decide to add cage fighting to my resume alongside mission trips and semesters on the dean’s list? I guess I can see how on the surface the choice might seem a little incongruous, but to me mixed martial arts is the most natural thing in the world to pursue. The long answer as to why I fight is that I live in a world where I once didn’t get hired because I wasn’t “willing to consider leaving my boyfriend” (according to the man who was interviewing me). With such experiences in mind, I don’t get how becoming a fighter could be anything but a logical course of action. In a world where women are still considered annoying if they speak, people listen to me when they see MMA on my resume. The short answer is that I like it, just as I like soccer and softball. The sport fits my personality.

Random men still follow me and yell rude comments if I’m downtown at night. Realistically, I don’t think there’s much I will ever be able to do about that. Even as I’m writing this, there’s a boy I’ve never met at the table behind me yelling “hey” every time I stop typing, but no matter if they’re a heavyweight (205 pounds and up) or a third-degree black belt in taekwondo, almost everyone I have encountered in the MMA community has shown me nothing but respect. Yes, I train ground game and standup with men, but I have never had another fighter follow me to my place of work, stand outside the door, and yell for the girl in the dress. Even if I do look like an easy target, instances of disrespect I have experienced in this most “masculine” of sports are nothing compared to the disrespect I get from men on the street on a daily basis. I think there’s a lesson there, with regard to our society’s skewed perception of what it means to be masculine. The guys I fight with are not the same guys who are treating women like inferior beings on the street or in their relationships.

The fundamental message that fighters fight to convey is simple: “I will not be dominated.” To me “fighter” is not a word synonymous with troubled home life or hyper-masculinity or misogyny. To me it means being relentless, indomitable, dedicated, nurturing, receptive, empathetic, soft spoken, even-tempered—I think all of these words describe most fighters better than whatever people think of when trying to come up with reasons I shouldn’t be one. With all due respect to those trying to look out for me, I don’t see how it’s unsafe for me to be locked in a cage with another woman my size compared to how dangerous it is for me to walk down the street. Or to, in general, be a woman who physically exists and takes up space in the world. Silencing my interests won’t fix the real problem.

“Hey” boy just invited himself to have a seat at my table. He has started talking to me despite having been pointedly ignored for at least 10 minutes and the fact that I am obviously in the middle of something. I am not polite in response. I have no interest in being dominated by a culture that puts women in boxes and has taunts at the ready in case they try to fight back. I have no interest in being quiet about my sport in order to protect people from a discomfort that I’m guessing doesn’t compare to the discomfort of a 14 year old having her ass grabbed by a stranger. I don’t care if it’s “inappropriate” for me as a “young lady” to be excited to get into a cage and physically beat another girl. I’d rather autonomously lock myself in a cage than be folded neatly into a gender role. I don’t care what your perceptions are of what it means to be a fighter, or what you think it means to be a size 0 and 20 years old with blue eyes. As my coaches and training partners are constantly reminding me, I’m not here to apologize. I’m here to dominate.

“Fighting Misogyny” was originally published Friday, Oct. 14 online at omahamagazine.com.     

Postscript

At Ralston Arena (on Friday, Oct. 14), I lost my second career fight via TKO in the final 10 seconds of the final round. The following Saturday morning by 8:30 a.m., I was back in the gym and on my way to becoming a stronger fighter.

I am not happy about losing, but I am also not devastated by getting punched in the face. I’m not fighting for perfection. I’m not perfect, and an imperfect record does not end my ambition in the cage. Rather, I’m fighting for all the girls who have contacted me to give support or share their story of fighting misogyny in their lives. I’m fighting for everyone who has told me it empowers them to see me get in the cage at all.

I want to take this opportunity to thank my incredible coaches, Mauro Siso and Sergio Rangel, and everyone at Legacy Martial Arts for supporting me on this journey. With lessons learned from defeat, we are making changes in my training regimen for the next fight.

Visit facebook.com/pg/lmaomaha for more information.

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At the Heart of St. Matthew

November 15, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“When I see a student no longer having to struggle to read or do a math problem—that is why I teach. They take so much pride in them-selves when they become independent in their thinking.”

-Lisa Benson

As a young Girl Scout in Texas, a lightbulb went off when Lisa Benson’s troop adopted a special needs class during her middle school years. She knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up. That connection to those students made her realize that her future place in life was in a classroom. She held on to that joy of helping others when she attended Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, and majored in elementary education. She dedicated her education further by continuing on for her master’s degree in literacy from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Now, at 58 years old and with over 20 years of teaching experience, Lisa Benson was recently honored as one of the Educators of the Year in the elementary category by the Archdiocese of Omaha at the Archbishop’s Dinner for Education on Sept. 29, 2016.

Nominated by the principal, staff, and community of St. Matthew Catholic School, where she has taught first grade for the past 14 years, Benson was just as shocked as she was thrilled to receive the award: “I was so surprised. I feel I have always given my best to St. Matthew School, my students, and their families. It is such an honor to be recognized for hard work and dedication. I truly appreciate all the support from the archdiocese, my fellow teachers, and the families at St. Matthew.”

It’s that heart and dedication that is exactly why she was nominated, according to school principal Jim Daro, who has worked with her during the four years he’s been at St. Matthew.

“Mrs. Benson is an outstanding teacher,” Daro says. “She cares deeply for her students and their progress in and out of her classroom. She maintains a classroom environment where students are cared for and comfortable; they know they are there to learn. They respect her just as much as she respects them.”

As a mother of three grown children, Benson loves cultivating independence in not only her own children but those she teaches every day in the first grade classroom. “At this age, they love learning,” she says. “So all I have to do is present it to them, and they soak it up. When I see a student no longer having to struggle to read or do a math problem—that is why I teach. They take so much pride in themselves when they become independent in their thinking.”

But teaching hasn’t always come easy to Benson. She didn’t start her teaching career until after raising her children. At the start of working at St. Matthew, she felt behind in the field of education. “Things had changed since I graduated from college. This struggle has made me aware of how my students, or even a new staff member, may feel when a concept isn’t clear to them.”

That empathy is what led her to become like a support system to many other teachers at the school. Daro raves about Benson’s ability to help others, “She is a mentor and a leader with the rest of the faculty. She is highly involved in our school and community beyond the classroom. Mrs. Benson is involved with our school board, our development team, and our school improvement team.”

As for what Benson will do with the $5,000 award prize from her prestigious Educator of the Year recognition: “My husband and I are still figuring that out. Maybe a trip!”

And with all the hard work, time, and heart Benson puts into each day of teaching, a trip is definitely a great way to celebrate her dedication to the St. Matthew students and educational community.

Visit stmatthewbellevuene.net for more information.

This article was printed in the Winter 2016 edition of Family Guide, an Omaha Publications magazine.

A Lesson in Lifelong Learning

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Silo Crusher

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit baxterarena.com for more information. Omaha Magazine

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Matthias Jeske

June 22, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Matthias Jeske sits at a red leather booth in The Diner in downtown Omaha looking like he belongs there. It’s his leather jacket, plastic-framed glasses, and plaid shirt that probably came off the rack of a Woolworth’s 50 years ago. On him, the shirt still looks so fresh, so cool.

“I’m a Cold War boy with a Buddy Holly style,” Jeske quips.

The 25-year old refers to things as “groovy” and “swell.” He owns numerous vintage furnishings, from a custom-made 1962 sectional sofa by designer Milo Baughman to a stereo console. You might even call him Mister 1960.

Listeners at MavRadio did. The recent UNO graduate spent the last four years spinning music of the early 1960s on his show, “The Waxx Museum by Mister 1960.”

It was this music that started his love of all things vintage.

MatthiasJeske2Jeske says, “My mom (Liz Jeske) would play Patsy Cline in the kitchen while she was making dinner. Then I fell in love with the cars in high school.”

His beloved ride is a 1960 Chevy Impala he named Black Betty. He evoked Danny Zucko in high school, sporting a pompadour while wearing dark jeans and a leather bomber jacket.

As he graduated from high school in 2009, he graduated from the post-war ideals of the 1950s into polished chrome and futuristic patterns. He began to favor tailored suits and skinny ties.

“I traded my pompadour for a side part. I fell more in love with the atomic era,” Jeske says. “The atomic era applies more to my every day life.”

A friendship with the general manager at MavRadio led to the opportunity to create his radio show in fall 2011, spinning the pre-1966 music he loves so well and joking around with his listeners. Professor Jodeen Brownlee entered his radio show into the Broadcasting Education Association Awards. In April 2014 he won Media Personality of the Year and flew to Las Vegas for the ceremony. He came back to Omaha, spun more pre-1966 records, and flew back to Las Vegas to pick up the same award in April 2015.

He picked up a theater minor at UNO and graduated from spinning records behind a booth to performing onstage. Even with the theater it’s been his love of retro that brought him to award-winning roles.

“I’d never done a show at the (Omaha Community) Playhouse before, but being a nerd, I’d always loved Monty Python.” Jeske says.

He landed seven supporting roles in Spamalot and won awards for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical from the Theater Arts Guild, Omaha Community Playhouse awards, and Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards.

“I felt like I was just running around being a goof, but the voters must have loved it,” Jeske says.

He also held the supporting role of John Burt in Frost vs. Nixon at the Blue Barn Theatre.

“The two theater parts I have played this year have been satisfying,” Jeske waxes. “At first I thought, ‘theater is great fun,’ but I have been pleasantly surprised by how great the theater community has been.”

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All Hail Hal France

April 1, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In 1970, when Hal France began his freshman year at the University of Vermont as a football player, the little light that had been flickering above his head of black curls suddenly clicked on in all its megawatt splendor. The epiphany changed the course of his life.

“In just a matter of months, I got completely driven into music and became a different kind of person,” says France, who started piano lessons when he was a boy, in his native northern New Jersey. “I was a jock who went from not playing the piano to practicing intensely every day.”

France never veered from the path he chose all those years ago, but he did broaden it considerably. The young man who became a virtuoso pianist branched out into opera, transforming himself into one of the most sought-after conductors in this country and throughout Europe.

Omahans know him as the artistic director of Opera Omaha from 1995-2005. His responsibilities covered every aspect of a production, from the music to the scenery and costumes. A permanent resident of Omaha since 2003 (after spending eight years flying into Omaha several times a year), France’s many other roles include performer, teacher, coach, executive director of KANEKO, humanitarian, volunteer, mentor, friend, and one of Omaha’s most tireless advocates for all the arts, not just opera.

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“It’s really important that live music and the classics be continued,” says France, 63. “Whether you like classical music or not, live gatherings of human beings, face to face, is not replaceable.

Sipping black coffee in lieu of his usual drink preference, hot tea, France reflects on his life’s improbable U-turn. “I played football and basketball through high school and all my friends were athletes.” But didn’t the cultural mecca across the river from Jersey draw him? “Yeah, except I was a Yankees fan and went to their games from a young age. The Yankees, Jets, and Mets—that was my culture,” he says with a dimpled grin.

France praises his late parents, both musicians, for patiently allowing him to find his own level. Once he decided on a “purposeful life” in music, he transferred to Northwestern University for a degree in piano performance. His next stop: the prestigious Juilliard Opera Center, followed by a degree in conducting from the Cincinnati Conservatory.

Why opera? The answer may lie in his heritage. “I’m Italian on both sides, and my grandparents spoke Italian,” he says, indicating the family name had been shortened along the way. Music of all kinds, including opera, filled the house daily.

France started out in the orchestra pit as a rehearsal pianist for a small opera company in Colorado and fell in love with “all the excitement and the energy of that collaboration.” He joined other companies and moved from the pit to the podium in a short time, working his way up the conductor ladder with zeal and an unbridled passion “to bring music to life.” He would soon bring life to the music in Omaha.

“I first came to Omaha in the mid-’80s as a guest conductor at the opera,” he recalls in his low, well-modulated voice. At the time, France was paying his dues at the Houston Grand Opera under the tutelage of John DeMain, who functioned simultaneously as Opera Omaha’s music director. “One year John couldn’t come up here, so he sent me. That marked the beginning of my freelance conducting career, setting off on my own.”

Over the next 10 years, the charismatic France brought an insightful, entertaining, and masterful command to each orchestral or operatic production, from Santa Fe to Stockholm, London to St. Louis. But he never forgot Omaha’s level of talent, community involvement, and impressive philanthropy. In 1995, he readily accepted a position with Opera Omaha and built upon its growing national reputation for high artistic quality. Says attorney David Gardels, a longtime opera board member, “Hal instituted long practice and rehearsal sessions. It was very professional. The chorus people loved him.”

And France loves singers, whom he considers smart as well as skilled. More importantly, he respects them. The admiration flows both ways. “There is no one who believes in a person more, or who has pushed me harder as a musician,” says Opera Omaha soprano Tara Cowherd. “He will memorize an entire opera and sing every note. He’s amazingly talented and humble.”

Strands of gray now weave through his black curls, but France still racks up frequent flyer miles. His coming opera engagements include a production with the Hawaii Opera Theater and Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. He’s also teaming with the Omaha Conservatory to present a series of community-based programs about music, while continuing his mentorship of young singers at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Divorced from Grammy-winning soprano Sylvia McNair, France enjoys being in a committed relationship with Judi M. gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs. “Being connected to her life, which is so different from mine, is a real blessing,” France says. “I love music, but one becomes a better musician as one becomes more connected.” With no children of his own, he dotes on his nieces and nephews, hoping a light will some day lead them to a life of fulfillment.

Visit operaomaha.org for more information.

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