Tag Archives: Yale

Tharein Potuhera

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Jacopever. The exotic fish with bulging eyes and reddish color sank Tharein Potuhera’s hopes at the 2016 Scripps National Spelling Bee. But the 14-year-old Potuhera did not let the obscure misspelling dissuade his academic and literary ambitions.

“When I was at the bee, I really wanted to make Omaha and Nebraska proud. I still do, actually,” he says.

The local prodigy advanced from the St. Wenceslaus School spelling bee, to the Archdiocese bee, to his second appearance at regionals, then onward to the national contest in National Harbor, Maryland. He joined 285 elite spellers, culled from the countless nationwide contests last spring.

Potuhera was among the 45 finalists who made it to the finals of the National Spelling Bee, broadcast live on ESPN. Upon correctly spelling “propinquity,” the Omaha teen made national headlines with his dab, (a bow with one arm bent, one arm outstretched) imitating NFL quarterback Cam Newton’s popular touchdown celebration.

After missing Jacopever—the slippery lettered fish of Dutch/Afrikaans origin—Potuhera and his family made a circuitous journey back home to Omaha.

Tharein-Potuhera1“On the way back, we went to Princeton, Yale, Cornell, and also did a tour at Harvard,” says his father, Asthika Potuhera. “After the Harvard tour was done, the director of admissions came and sat down with Tharein away from everyone else and had a chat for about an hour and a half. We were in awe.”

The Harvard administrator was impressed by the young Potuhera’s resume. After all, the Omaha teen published his first book at the age of 12.

His book, Tome Riders: Mr. Custo’s Book, is a historical novel with heavy doses of time travel. Potuhera says he wants to challenge kids to learn history, and improve their vocabularies, while encouraging reading as a leisure pastime.

The family’s homeward trip provided an opportunity for sightseeing at important American history sites that Potuhera mentioned in Tome Riders (but had never himself visited).

With attention freed from spelling bee preparation, Potuhera dove headlong into writing his next book.

“It’s going pretty well; it’s almost done,” Potuhera says. “Both books have the same message to readers, but the second is more concerned with teachers than kids. It’s hard to say if the second book is a prequel or the sequel (because of all the time travel). It’s the teacher as a kid, so technically it’s a prequel.”

The trip home from the National Spelling Bee also featured a stop in Connecticut. Asthika and his wife, Durga, migrated to the U.S. from Sri Lanka in 1998 to study at Eastern Connecticut State University. They came to Omaha seeking a better life. Tharein and his younger brother have always lived here.

Potuhera enjoys the camaraderie of new friends gained from spelling bees. He also maintains social media correspondence with fellow spelling phenoms selected by Kindle for a promotional advertisement last spring.

His experience befriending other top students nationwide has inspired him to foster academic camaraderie among Omaha’s gifted students. In fact, he began working on such a project to obtain his Eagle Scout badge.

“I want to make a club for people who are gifted, and then help them get even better, to help them realize what they want to do, whether it’s a spelling bee, geography bee, or something else,” he says. FamilyGuide

Sam Mercer

April 25, 2013 by
Photography by Vera Mercer

Continental bon vivant Samuel Mercer, who passed away in early February, was not a typical Nebraskan. Though he grew up to become the Old Market’s undisputed godfather, he started life as the son of prominent Omaha physician and landowner Nelson Mercer. Young Sam was born and raised in privileged circumstances in London, England, and educated at Oxford and Yale. After living in Washington, D.C., he based his law practice in Paris, where he mostly lived the rest of his life, holding dual citizenship.

In Paris, Mercer cultivated relationships with avant garde artists. A watercolorist himself, he made artist Eva Aeppli his second wife. On his handful of trips to Omaha each year, Mercer cut an indelible figure with his shoulder-length gray hair, his trans-Atlantic accent, and his waxing on far-ranging subjects. He spoke perfect French.

“He projected an aura of unpretentious aristocracy…I liked him immediately and enormously,” says designer Roger duRand, who with Percy Roche opened the Old Market’s first business, The Farthest Outpost.

With the death of his father in 1963, Mercer took charge of the Mercer Management company here. He appreciated the century-old brick warehouses—some Mercer-owned—comprising the wholesale produce market just southeast of downtown. But it was designer Cedric Hartman who first advocated doing something with those buildings, which by the mid-1960s were largely abandoned and in disrepair.

Hartman, an acclaimed designer of lighting and furniture pieces made at his Marcy Street factory, recalls the genesis of the Old Market. He and Judy Wigton were partners in a high-end gift shop. Like Mercer, they admired the dying produce district’s buildings and in 1964, began meeting with him about these structures as potential sites for exciting, new ventures, such as fine shops, galleries, and restaurants.

“He projected an aura of unpretentious aristocracy.” – Roger duRand

“We were quite surprised to find such a person,” says Hartman. “He was a very smart, very worldly, and sophisticated character with great personal charm. We were both wowed by him, and in his way he was with us.”

Wigton says, “He certainly had a great appreciation for old buildings and also a need to fill the empty places with new tenants.”

“He did respond to us in a great way,” Hartman notes. “We were a couple of really artsy kids, and he was really artsy, so it couldn’t have been a better association. He was a kindred spirit in so many ways.”

Those early encounters formulated the vision for what became the Old Market.

“I remember we walked around the streets trying to imagine what could be done. I’d say, ‘Now look at this building; we could do this with it,’ and he’d just respond right in kind,” says Hartman. “I couldn’t have done that with anybody else. He hooked into all this stuff really fast.”

By 1968, Mercer moved strategically to gain control of a collection of buildings in what is now the Old Market. “Sam did not want anything said about the project until he could acquire options on enough other properties in the area to ensure the success of the redevelopment,” says Wigton.

It was Mercer’s idea to make the groundfloor space of the former Gilinsky Fruit Company into a French restaurant. There, Hartman designed the Old Market’s signature spot, the French Café, as well as apartments above it. Ree Kaneko, a fellow Old Market pioneer, says the restaurant, opened in 1969, was “very important” in helping solidify and legitimize the Market.

“He certainly had a great appreciation for old buildings and also a need to fill the empty places with new tenants.” – Judy Wigton

“It was a risky thing for him to do,” Hartman says. “Who knew if that would work? However, it was a great success.”

More anchor attractions followed—Homer’s, M’s Pub, Mr. Toad, Spaghetti Works, Nouvelle Eve, the Firehouse Dinner Theater, the Bemis. Designers duRand and Hartman advised Mercer and his son Mark, daughter-in-law Vera, and nephew Nicholas Bonham-Carter on this never-planned but organically developed area. The Mercers created one of the Market’s most distinct features, The Passageway, and later opened their own distinguished enterprises—V Mertz, La Buvette, and The Boiler Room.

“We worked to shape the Old Market neighborhood in the most authentic and benign ways possible, gently guiding new tenants away from the clichéd and vulgar, and to more thoughtful and honest approaches to development of the beautiful old structures,” says duRand. “Even though Sam lived and worked in Paris, his presence was in every decision of significance in nurturing the Market. He made frequent visits to Omaha in the early days and was instrumental in bringing the city fathers around to acceptance, then eventual approval, and finally enthusiasm for the preservation and rebirth of our neighborhood. His passing leaves a permanent and poignant void.”

Sam Mercer viewed the Market as an evolving social experiment and art project aligned with his own desires. Mark says the family has continued that philosophy by encouraging unique ventures that “fit our tastes and interests.” He and Vera say creating new things is their passion. They vow to retain the vibrant charm of this historic neighborhood that Mercer lovingly made happen.

Samuel Mercer passed away Feb. 5 at his home in Honfleur, France. He was 92. Services were held at Trinity Episcopal Church in Omaha.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.