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Sentimental Journey

May 3, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Michael Heaton had a royal curiosity, which he ultimately satisfied by buying a palace.

Eleven years ago, Heaton and partner Barry Burt happily occupied an adorable English Tudor home in Florence, which they had lovingly remodeled. That’s when the Chiodo Palace came calling.

“I never thought we’d leave [the Florence house], but my friend Christy, who’d just started with NP Dodge, said ‘Michael, you’ve got to come look at this amazing house with me,’” Heaton says. “So, we came to look four times and would just sit on the floor fantasizing about living here…then we just went for it. I’ve never regretted it. It’s been an adventure.”

The Chiodo Palace, near 25th and Leavenworth, was built in 1922 by Vincenzo Pietro Chiodo. Burt and Heaton, together nearly 20 years, have worked diligently to preserve the legacy of one of one of Omaha’s more unique, storied homes since purchasing it in 2006.

Chiodo immigrated from Southern Italy to the United States in 1885 at age 16. He studied in Chicago before settling in Omaha, where he operated a tailor shop, then found his fortune in real estate.

“He owned 50 homes in the area,” Heaton says. “This was one of many he built, and his primary residence.”

According to the Nebraska State Historical Society, Chiodo wasn’t so much an architect or builder himself, but he had ample vision and funds to support the proliferation of his real estate empire.

“He was billed the first Italian millionaire in Omaha and was also very politically active,” Heaton says.

In fact, Chiodo was an Elk and a fourth-degree Knight of Columbus. His titles included Italian Vice Consul of Omaha, State Supreme Deputy of the Sons of Italy, Knight of the House of Savoy, and Cavalier of the Order of St. Gregory.

Heaton lights up when sharing stories of days gone by in his abode, many of which were relayed by longtime neighbor Angelo Bonacci, now deceased, who worked at the Chiodo Palace as a young man when it functioned as the consulate.

“Chiodo was very popular, and described as an elegant man,” Heaton says. “He could be seen walking the neighborhood and his domain wearing a long, white fur coat. When the Santa Lucia Festival parade made its way through the neighborhood, they always stopped in front of the Chiodo Palace and saluted Vincenzo, who’d be sitting up on his veranda. You can just picture him up there with the crowds passing by.”

“‘Chiodo Palace’ is what Angelo said they called it,” says Heaton, who believes the moniker comes from “palazzo”—Italian for a large, palatial building.

Chiodo passed away in 1949 at age 80, but his grand domicile lived on to weather years of general dirt and disrepair, water damage, and updates like ill-placed drop ceilings and gaudy, yellow wallpaper that spoiled or obscured the home’s unique character and verve.

Heaton and Burt, who are members of Restoration Exchange Omaha, purchased the house to preserve its history.

“We knew it had been an important house in the past and, seeing the sad condition, we thought we could have some fun, restore its appeal, and get the history back as much as possible,” Heaton says.

For Heaton, who owns and operates Legacy Art & Frame in Dundee, preserving historical homes and objects is a longtime interest.

“The house is a mix of styles,” he says. “The outside is very Craftsman. There’s some Italianate detail with the dentil molding around the tops of the eaves. The stained-glass windows are a mix: Some [feature] traditional designs, but in the dining room there’s a very Frank Lloyd Wright Mission-style design. So, there are unexpected elements here and there.”

The interior swims with stunning, rich mahogany woodwork, accented by a striking fireplace constructed of rough-hewn, imported Burmese stone. Colorful, original tile surrounds the floor of the fireplace, featuring a horseshoe that’s open into the room and closed toward the hearth.

“That was to deter unwanted spirits from entering the home through the fireplace,” Heaton says.

In the sunroom above another fireplace, a large painting in memoriam to Chiodo’s wife and daughter, both named Caroline, remains molded right onto the wall.

Ornate, hand-painted, original murals on linen grace the tops of walls throughout the main floor.

“Each of these murals depicts different aspects of Italian culture and Roman life,” Heaton says of the incredible illustrations of accolades, life phases, arts, animals, and plants.

“I love these dragons,” Heaton says, zeroing in on a mural. “They’re griffins, protectors of the empire, and their protection allows wealth and prosperity to extend from them, so they turn into these leaves. I’m just so glad no one ever ruined them.”

Part of one dining room mural suffered water damage prior to his ownership, so Heaton completely—and 100 percent convincingly—reconstructed it.

“I rebuilt the wall, put linen on the top, created a stencil off another wall, transferred it, and then, over about four weeks, hand-painted it,” he says.

With the scope of work Heaton puts into his home and a handful of rental properties, you’d think he had extensive training, but no. He says just the occasional HGTV show or YouTube video help him complete home projects.

“My grandfather was a real hands-on kind of guy, so I learned lots about working with wood, building, and fixing from watching him,” Heaton says. “He could do it all, so I just kind of hung out with him a lot.”

Like Heaton and Burt, Chiodo himself preserved Omaha history.

“Chiodo was a preservationist way ahead of his time,” Heaton says. “He got the salvage rights to the original county jail and courthouse, and used all of the marble, stones, cobblestones, and other materials he harvested from that in several of his other properties.”

We’ll never know whether Chiodo was a sentimental preservationist, simply a cunning businessman, or perhaps both. As for Heaton, that case is closed.

“I’m painfully sentimental,” he says. “That’s my inspiration.”

Visit Legacy Art & Frame on Facebook for more information about the homeowners’ business.

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

Laura Kirschenbaum

January 13, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Laura Kirshenbaum is a straight-A student, but it is not good grades that her mother talks about first when describing her daughter’s scholarly accomplishments.

“It’s comments that teachers make. It’s wonderful hearing about how she treats others and how she is respectful to teachers. They say that she’s an active listener in class, that she’s kind and courteous. That’s what I’m proud about,” Jennifer Tompkins Kirshenbaum says. “You may have it in your DNA that these things are easier than for other people, or you learn at a faster pace. That may be a gift with you, but what do you do with it? Some people may have an ego with it, but Laura doesn’t. She’s grateful for what she has and is highly motivated.”

Kirshenbaum, an eighth-grader at Alice Buffett Magnet Middle School in the Omaha Public School District, admits to being a fast learner but says her excellent grades in her honors classes don’t come effortlessly. “I work hard for that,” she says.

And she definitely prefers some subjects over others. “My top subject would definitely be math,” she says. “But I love science, too: chemistry, physics, and astronomy.”

Kirshenbaum has no shortcuts to academic success to share, she says. Being a good student means being diligent: finishing the assignments, completing the reading, following directions. It also helps to have good organizational skills that ensure she’s always prepared. “I turn homework in on time and I try to stay on top of things,” she explains. “I’m proud of that.”

She even enjoys learning outside of the classroom, watching informational YouTube channels in her spare time, and competing in multiple academic events like Quiz Bowl, Science Bowl, Math Counts, Academic Pentathlon, and Book Blasters. She has an artistic side, too, that brings some balance to student life—Kirshenbaum is active in dance (ballet, modern, and jazz) and plays the violin, even performing in the orchestra pit for Omaha Public Schools’ summer musical Peter Pan in 2016.

“I also do a lot of acting,” she adds. “I’ve been in a lot of the school plays, and I’ve done some community theater as well.”

She’s even managed to make time for volleyball and local volunteering at a food bank and a homeless shelter. Two summers ago, she was a classroom helper at Jackson Elementary School. Because she’s an honors student, she is also eligible to tutor fellow students. “I like being able to help others,” she says.

Kirshenbaum says her future plans absolutely include college, which her mother and father (Matt Kirshenbaum) like to hear. It may be a little early to start choosing a particular institution, but judging by the scholarly aptitude she’s demonstrated so far, it’s clear that she’s going to be able to take her pick of schools—and programs of study—upon graduation four years from now.

“I see myself becoming a chemist,” she says. “Or a college professor in math or science.”

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

Conner Rensch’s Extreme Weight Loss

October 13, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Conner Rensch gets recognized pretty much everywhere—at the salon where she works as a hairstylist, when she’s running errands around town, and even when she is out with friends for the evening.

It all started with a January 2014 “Half Their Size” People magazine cover. Since then, her YouTube video has gone viral; she’s appeared on television shows like Good Morning America, The Steve Harvey Show, and Inside Edition; she’s been the subject of articles in local publications and national websites; and she’s talked about her personal journey with numerous youth and community groups.

“I never set out to be someone people would recognize,” she says. “I set out to inspire and motivate.”

Over a period of two years beginning when she was 19, Rensch lost a total of 130 pounds from her peak weight of more than 270.

“As many weight loss shows as I watched, there was never really anyone I could relate to, in terms of growing up being bullied and being overweight your whole life and not ever knowing what it was like to be in shape and be healthy,” she says. 

Sharing her story meant including the honest details as well as posting the “before” pictures and unenhanced “after” pictures.

“Initially I hesitated because it’s very personal and it comes with a lot of baggage,” she says. “When you share your flaws or insecurities—and I am very public about the way I look now—there is always going to be backlash. Stretch marks are not something that people necessarily want to see or want to share, but the reality of life in general is that everyone has things that they’re embarrassed about.”

People come up to Rensch now and share their own transformation stories or thank her for inspiring them, she says. So knowing she has given people hope is worth the occasional strange Facebook message from admirers, the razzing from her friends, or even the negative online comments like “She doesn’t need to show that” or “Why is everyone giving her so much praise? It was a problem she created.” As Rensch phrases it, “It negates the negative.”

“I never set out to be someone people would recognize,” she says. “I set out to inspire and motivate.”

-Conner Rensch

“I always think back to when I was losing weight, I wish I would have had someone to look up to or be able to say, ‘She went through hard times and so can I’…I really wanted to be an example,” Rensch explains. “I would never not want someone to come up and tell me their story…It always comes back to why I did this. It’s not for the people who have been in shape their whole lives but for the people who are struggling.”

More than five years into being slim and fit, Rensch says her goals have transitioned from weight loss to staying healthy through good nutrition and an active lifestyle. She hasn’t weighed herself in many months.

Her professional goals have transitioned, too. Her website and her public speaking messaging has become more about transformation than specifically about weight loss. A book is in the works, and she is also looking into signing with an agency to expand her motivational speaking and schedule more corporate speaking engagements.

“If the publicity was all taken away, I’m still me and I’m the exact person I want to be, inside and out,” she says. “The benefit is that I’ve helped others. I’ve never felt a sense of happiness like helping others reach their potential. It’s so powerful.”

Visit mybutterflyjourney.com for more information.

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Terence Herrick

October 2, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Growing up, Terence Herrick figured he could make a difference in the world with a badge and a gun. Turns out he might do the most good with a microphone and podcast.

A one-time police officer for the City of Bellevue, Herrick is the originator of Police Academy Podcast, which encompasses a website, podcast, YouTube channel, blog, Facebook page, and Twitter account.

At the heart of each post is an in-depth conversation about controversial police issues in the U.S. And there’s been plenty to talk about: the shooting of Keith Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and of other black men in Minnesota and Louisiana; the shooting of five Dallas police officers; riots and rallies.

terenceherrick1It is an atmosphere Herrick calls “dismal.”

“It is discouraging to see how many powerful and influential people and organizations are willing to mislead the people of our country for whatever agenda they have,” Herrick says. “It is discouraging to see that those people and those groups are willing to literally get people killed to promote their agenda.”

That said, he is “hopeful because I do believe that most people—I think the majority of people out there—realize everything is not what it seems and are looking for the truth.”

They can find the truth, he says, at Police Academy Podcast.

The idea to start the podcast came while Herrick was spending “umpteen hours a day” driving for his job with MSI Consultants, a Colorado company that provides risk mitigation services to lenders for construction projects. Herrick had joined the company in the fall of 2015 with the idea he might one day take it over. He left behind five years with the Bellevue Police Department to do so.

“It is discouraging to see how many powerful and influential people and organizations are willing to mislead the people of our country for whatever agenda they have.”

-Terence Herrick

Before long, though, he knew the switch wasn’t working.

“I just realized that I personally cannot go to work every day if what I do isn’t literally changing someone’s life,” says the Gretna native. “That’s just the way I’m wired. To run a business that is about construction and banking risk mitigation isn’t something I can do for the next 30 years. No matter how much money I make, I would never be happy doing that.”

His Police Academy episodes are rant-free. “Just the facts,” as Sgt. Joe Friday might say, delivered in Herrick’s steady, even-keeled voice. There’s a classroom feel to it, as when he’s giving a detailed explanation for why Officer Darren Wilson’s gun didn’t fire during his struggle with Brown in Ferguson, demonstrating hands-on with a .40-caliber Smith and Wesson M&P pistol.

Herrick’s first podcast was posted in April, a five-part series about Ferguson. Herrick will often post raw police footage and then offer play-by-play analysis. He provided such analysis of when police pepper-sprayed an 84-year-old woman in Oklahoma, and he used the same strategy to examine police shootings of Charles Kinsey (the therapist for an autistic man in Miami) and the fatal shooting of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Though podcasts were his initial focus, his YouTube channel now generates more traffic. A show discussing the Chicago Police shooting of Paul O’Neal in July had 19,000-plus views.

He laughs when asked whether his show is pro-police or pro-citizens.

“That should be the question everyone asks when they consume any content: What is the slant of this creator? I do not defend the police. And I try not to support any narrative.

“My goal is…the truth.”

Visit policeacademypodcast.com for more information.

Cirque de Amateur

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The term “amateur” gets a bad rap. While suggesting a lack of skill, the word actually comes from the Latin “amator” or “lover.” An amateur is someone who does what they do for the love of it, and in Omaha, some love the circus arts. People are flocking to the traditions of the big top for myriad reasons: hobby, self-expression, exercise, paid performance, or social activity. 

Ciara Searight is a professionally certified aerial trainer who studied with Aircats at the Boulder Circus Center, Aloft Loft in Chicago, and Circus School of Arizona. Searight is an aerialist, acrobat, and dancer. Gracefully, she performs above the ground, defying fear with seeming effortlessness.

“I’m a certified teacher, but I’m an amateur performer,” says Searight, who started FreakWorks Entertainment in Omaha to teach and reach out to those with a similar love for the art of the aerial performance. The group meets frequently on Sundays in Elmwood Park, and she welcomes the public to join them. Parks have always allured young acrobats.

“I did gymnastics when I was younger, but I was inspired by playing around on tall swings, flipping around and hanging upside down. I thought, ‘there’s got to be something like this out there,’” says Searight of what led her to aerial arts such as silks, corde lisse, sling, lyra, trapeze, flying trapeze, straps, chains, pole, Spanish web, and more.

Anyone can do something in the circus arts, from the highest tightrope to yoyo tricks, unicycling, or sleight of hand—the possibilities are limitless. All it takes is one specific talent and to know approachable circus folks like her, according to Searight.

Circus-Arts2“Even pets can be taught tricks to perform. FreakWorks has had fire breathers, sword fighters, aerial silk performers, a lyrist, unicycle, whip, rola bola, breakdance, acrofusion, juggling, fire fingers, fire staff, poi, ballet, hoopers, flag, hand tut, pole. I wish we had BMX and skateboarders. Contortion and hand balancing would be great. Also teeter totter and trampoline artists would be amazing.”

The athleticism in aerials is obvious, but performing in most circus arts is a guaranteed workout.

“It’s great exercise. It works every part of your body,” Searight says, adding that core strength is what makes it look so easy. “I always enjoy watching people for the first time and how proud they are after doing their first real pose.”

Sara Gray describes herself as one of the obsessed ones. As Purple Pyro (her pseudonym), Gray is pushing her limits.

“I practice several movement arts: I breakdance with a local dance crew, Organix, I perform fire spinning and fire eating with Animatikz Entertainment, and aerial acrobatics with Flight Motion Studios.”

As a kid, Gray used to attempt handstands and splits with her friends with little success.

“I never got them. I decided that it would just never happen for me, and that’s what I told myself my entire life. Now I can hold a handstand with a fire staff on my neck and do the splits.”

Gray believes everyone should revisit the limits they have set for themselves as she did when she came across FreakWorks.

“I got into the circus arts last summer when my boyfriend and dance partner introduced me to a small circus group in Lincoln. After climbing into the aerial hoop for the first time, I was hooked,” says Gray. “I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life and I can never get enough. When you start off barely being able to get into the hoop, and then you work hard enough to build up the upper body strength that most people lack, there is a sense of empowerment that becomes addicting. It really helps you realize that you can break any limit that you may have set for yourself at an early age.”

Andrea Grove fits the enamored hobbyist profile. She discovered circus artistry through a roundabout route. While she had excelled at gymnastic floor exercises as a child, she eventually gave up the sport. She tried replacing gymnastics with cheerleading, but she hated it.

“Unfortunately, I felt too old to be a gymnast, and then I eventually got caught up in being a confused teenager,” says Grove. Around 20, she began attending music festivals, where circus performers flourish.

“I saw my first hula hoop dance at a festival in Minnesota and was blown away. It looked like magic. So I went home, bought a hoop from Target, and started teaching myself through YouTube tutorials.” 

Elmwood meet-ups with FreakWorks, as well as contortion training at Laurel Feller’s FlightMotion Studios, helped Grove branch out, adding to her list of skills and her family. Because circus people are tight like that.

“It captured my heart,” Grove says. “That magical feeling of seeing my first hoop dance hasn’t gone away; it’s only grown. That’s why I do it. It is an escape from the mundane, and I hope to someday spark that magic in someone else’s life. They can join my family.”

Visit facebook.com/Freakworks for more information. Omaha Magazine

A Hole Truth

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

There are two things everybody has…” Those are the wise words of my grandfather, Johannes, who hated Kaiser Bill, loved bacon ends, and worked the hard soil of northern Iowa for most of his life. I won’t complete his sentence because people are easily offended these days by references to certain anatomical features of the human animal. 

One of those things is an opinion. I’ve got one—an opinion that is—that matches up with about any subject. So do you. We’re all opinionated.

In fact, we live in the Golden Age of Opinions. They’ve never been easier to access: Facebook, Twitter, blogs, pundit TV, talk radio, YouTube, and your inebriated uncle at every family gathering no matter whether it’s a funeral or a feast.

Surveys and polls suggest that 95 percent of us have an opinion about everything. We opine about subjects left and right with barely a breath in between. Vapor trails in the sky, head football coaches, the kids today, whether pumpkin spice flavor has any place in a sane world, and politics—whatever the subject, we have our own personal take on the matter. The five percent who answer “no opinion” are bald-faced liars. At least, that’s my opinion. As for “undecided” voters, don’t get me started. As the Mean Farmer once said, “They know. Oh, you know they know.”

Now, it is also true that most of the opinions we have are not original. Mostly, we just parrot other people’s opinions that our sources are repeating from other sources that are sourced somewhere in the same mysterious underworld where dirty jokes come from. For example, it’s likely that we all have some political opinion that a pithy, made-up quote from Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, or Nelson Mandela will back up. As Lincoln himself once said, “There are two things everybody has…” Again, I can’t complete the sentence.

You may have noticed that I have not mentioned religion. That’s because Faith is a special case. Our own religious beliefs are just that, beliefs deeply held—a whole different basket of loaves and fishes. Our creeds are beyond any mere earthly opinion, except perhaps what we thought about last week’s sermon. We do, however, have any number of opinions about other people’s religions because…well, just because.

You may have also noticed that I have not mentioned “facts.” There is a simple explanation for that. When it comes to opinions, “facts” don’t matter. They are troublesome things that, most of the time, don’t fit comfortably into our mental pockets. Besides when my grandfather said, “There are two things everybody has…” trust me, he was stating a fact.

Anyway, that’s my opinion. Omaha Magazine

OtisXII

Out of the Shadows

August 21, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appears in July/August Omaha Magazine.

At the risk of stating the obvious, Michelle Troxclair commands a full life.

She’s a poet, spoken word artist, and founding member of the storytelling troupe The Wordsmiths. By day, she works as deputy director of the Nebraska Writers Collective, a nonprofit organization that promotes creative writing and performance poetry throughout the Midwest. With fellow poet Felicia Webster, she runs the Verbal Gumbo open mic at House of Loom every third Thursday of the month. She will graduate this July with a Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Nebraska-Omaha—her second postgraduate degree. She’s a mother of three, an advocate for individuals living with autism, and an awe-inspiring woman who makes at least one Omaha Magazine contributor feel like an indolent narcissist by comparison.

As if all that weren’t enough, Troxclair is currently engaged in a residency with The Wordsmiths at Bemis Center’s Carver Bank. The group is working on a spoken art showcase addressing domestic violence (Love Didn’t Do That To You) and a new project dealing with corporal punishment and violence within the African-American community (From the Whip to the Switch to the Gun).

“I’ve got my fingers in a lot of stuff right now,” she quips.

For a good introduction to Troxclair’s poetry, check out her YouTube videos, particularly “The Trigger,” an urgent work addressed to an unnamed police officer that has unjustifiably killed a black woman. The performance starts with a single shadowy figure clad in a black hoodie staring at the floor of a stark white room whose brick walls are cracked and peeling—a subtle visual symbol of the entrapment many black Americans feel subjected to by a predominantly white bureaucratic power structure. The poem surges on the waves of Troxclair’s words as her cadence quickens, slows, and syncopates around gut-punch metaphors and unflinching appeals to civility. At the piece’s climax, the shadow-figure, Troxclair herself, removes her hood and speaks directly to the camera:

You don’t know me. I am a 46-year-old mother of three. I’m a homeowner, taxpayer, and I got a master’s degree. I don’t want you to love me, like me, or even respect me. I just need you to let me be. So please take your finger off the trigger. 

It’s an uncompromising performance that stays with you, a piece that wouldn’t cut so soul-deep if rendered only in print.

Besides developing her own powerful art, Troxclair takes pride in cultivating Omaha’s young poetic talent through Nebraska Writers Collective’s Louder Than a Bomb initiative: an extensive poetry-writing and performance workshop conducted in area schools and capped by a friendly tournament. The program strives to reach students who might not be served by such activities as sports, music, or visual arts.

“[Louder Than a Bomb] gives me, at age 46, hope that the next generation is thinking and they’re active and speaking truth to power…and using words to do it. It’s absolutely amazing what they have to say.”

Some of these students will go on to become the next powerhouses in Omaha’s poetry scene. In fact, Troxclair says, The Wordsmiths are bringing in younger members “just for some new energy and innovative stuff.

“I’m the elder here,” she adds, laughing, “and eventually, I will be leaving.”

But not before leaving a legacy that will cast the longest of shadows.

MichelleTroxclair

The Break-Point Generation

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It’s not an uncommon tradition. The Roemmich family gathers every year for a reunion. It’s also not uncommon at such reunions to have boxes of black-and-white photos of family members no one can identify any more.

So Ron Roemmich decided to create a video cataloging all the family he and his siblings still could name—a historical record for the younger generations.

Just one problem. Ron didn’t know how to create this video.

Ron and his wife, Berdeen, signed up for a movie-making class at Metro Community College. Their class was taught by Laurie Brodeur, a semi-retired Millard teacher who now leads six technology courses in Metro’s continuing education curriculum.

Although Brodeur was “very gracious with senior citizens,” Ron admits to feeling behind the other eight or nine students—and like he was taking up a lot of Brodeur’s attention during the class period.

“I suppose the real confession is: We had her come back and help us after the class was over,” he says.

“We’re kind of the break-point generation. People 10 years younger than us are probably okay. But anybody over 60, I bet 50 percent know what they’re doing [with computers].” – Ron Roemmich

Having a project with a firm deadline made learning the program an imperative goal. “It was fun, but it would be desperately frustrating if you didn’t have a goal,” Ron says. And though they had 500 photos, “It was not gonna whip us.”

The Roemmiches were pleased with their final product. In fact, they made two more videos for a reunion of Ron’s doctoral classmates, making good use of their new movie-making skills.

Even so, Ron says, “We’ve explored I’d say 1 percent of what a computer can do for us.”

The Roemmiches do have a Facebook account but only check it when their kids tell them to. After checking their 100-200 e-mails per day, Berdeen says, “you don’t want to go on Facebook. You’re just tired.”

“We’re kind of the break-point generation,” Ron says. “People 10 years younger than us are probably okay. But anybody over 60, I bet 50 percent know what they’re doing—or would that be 20 percent? Not a lot.”

It doesn’t take much to fall behind in technology. “When it could have burst open for me,” Ron says, “would have been in the ’80s maybe. But my boss was afraid of computers, so he told the rest of us we should leave them alone. So we really got behind. And now we don’t even know the language.”

Along with computers are phones, televisions, and other electronic systems. Like the DVR the Roemmiches got for Christmas and don’t really understand how to use.

Asking people for help is the best way Berdeen knows to learn something new. That and practicing. “You just have to keep using it and trying different things,” she says.

Brodeur is one of those people the Roemmiches will ask for help. And she would agree with Berdeen: Practice and patience are key.

“Students can see their progression from one class to the next and enjoy being able to go home and try their skills and return to the next class in the series with questions.” – Emily Getzschman, marketing and media relations manager with Omaha Public Library

Among her Metro classes is a series of technology update courses for seniors (although non-seniors are of course also welcome). The first class is broad, covering things like the difference between a browser and a search engine; the many uses of Google; and introductions to some sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Hulu. It helps students become comfortable using the computer.

Exploring those sites is important, Brodeur says, because “you can use Google and YouTube to learn how to do almost anything on your computer.”

The second and third levels help set students up with Facebook accounts and learn more and more about using the program.

Brodeur loves to see her students have an “aha” moment and tries to always stress that no question is a stupid one. This is important, because adults rarely like to admit when they don’t know something. Overall, she says, it is a very positive experience because her students come eager to learn with optimistic attitudes.

Omaha Public Library also offers computer classes for beginners and older adults. OPL partners with AARP for a series that gives an introduction to computers, including training on Microsoft Word, e-mail, and the internet. Seniors who are not new to computers can take classes for specialized software to manipulate photos, create greeting cards, and learn how to use social media tools, like Facebook and Pinterest. Classes can even aid seniors who are unexpectedly re-entering the job market.

Emily Getzschman, marketing and media relations manager for OPL, says that the introductory classes offered in a series are very well-attended. “Students can see their progression from one class to the next and enjoy being able to go home and try their skills and return to the next class in the series with questions and to build on their new computer experiences,” Getzschman says.

Classes are free, with no limit on the number of times you can take them. And they’re offered every month.

Like at Metro, the library class instructors strive to make students feel supported, never stupid. Getzschman has heard students say the instructors “were patient and let the student work at a comfortable pace.”

 

A resource guide for seniors can be found at http://guides.omahalibrary.org/Seniors.

OnTrack, Inc.

May 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

If you’ve ever found yourself singing “Pepper, Pepper, Pepperjax Grill,” or “You’ll like it…Kelly’s Carpet,” or “It pays to cross the bridge…Lake Manawa Kia,” Johnny Ray Gomez IV is the man largely responsible. He created these jingles, along with dozens and dozens of others, and it’s only a facet of what he does as the owner, president, and creative director of OnTrack.

Gomez rattles off a long list of OnTrack’s offerings: “We’re an audio post-production facility. We do original music jingles for radio, television, web, and multimedia. I do demos for singers and musicians. I do audio for video. We do ADR [Additional or Automated Dialogue Recording for TV and movies]. We do sound design, sound effects, a lot of voiceover work.”

Gomez manages all of this from his 3,200-square foot facility near 118th and Harrison streets in Omaha. “We have a main studio, one smaller studio, and what I call the composing suite. We have the latest computers with music software, industry standard. And we also have the capability to link up to studios worldwide, which basically brings anybody to your doorstep with the touch of a button,” he adds proudly.

This technical capability means Gomez works with clients from all over the country.

“Just last October, [actor and Saturday Night Live alum] Will Forte was in town working on the new Nebraska movie with Alexander Payne. He was in Norfolk filming for a month and doing a sequel to Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, so we actually recorded all of his voice animation parts here,” he says. “For three years, we did work for Teen Mom with Farrah Abraham. Instead of MTV flying her to New York, they just brought her here to OnTrack.” He adds that even YouTube sensation and Columbus, Neb., native Lucas Cruikshank recorded dialog as Fred Figglehorn for Nickelodeon’s Fred: The Movie.

“When I first started I did spec work, where you just pick a client and write a jingle [without] having it sold. I just kept going and started networking with ad agencies.” – Johnny Ray Gomez IV, owner

If Gomez seems rather casual about these brushes with fame, it’s because he’s met and worked with lots of well-known names in the music industry over the years, from Marvin Hamlisch and Bo Diddley to Peter Noone and Reba McEntire. A third-generation musician and master of multiple instruments, Gomez actually cut his teeth on the other side of the business. His father was a prolific regional performer who first brought his namesake onstage at age 3 as part of a family revue and later, to sometimes collaborate with nationally known singers and musicians.

“Back in the ’70s, my dad and brother and I had publicity shots with the ruffles and tuxes,” Gomez says, grinning at the memory. “We also had one where we kind of had the Elvis look…the jumpsuits.”

Gomez left home after high school at 17 and traveled the world for four years as the music director and pianist for The Platters, one of the most successful vocal groups of the ’60s.

“I got tired of being on the road. I literally lived out of a suitcase for five years. I knew I wanted to be in music, but I didn’t want to travel,” he says, explaining his impetus for starting a recording studio in his hometown and getting into the jingle business.

“When I first started I did spec work, where you just pick a client and write a jingle [without] having it sold,” he recalls. He sold his very first jingle to Camelot Cleaners and landed his second for Idelman Telemarketing. One of his early works, for Garden Café, ran for 12 years. “I just kept going and started networking with ad agencies.”

OnTrack is a one-man show, but Gomez says the connections and partnerships he’s developed over the years make it possible to offer a wide spectrum of services to his clients. “Even with the workflow I have, I’ve been able to do everything by using all of the resources I have.”

What lessons has Gomez learned in his decades in the biz? “Have a good quality product and do what you do well. And surround myself with people who also do what they do well.”

Karen Sokolof Javitch

February 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The image of Karen Sokolof Javitch singing and camping it up on YouTube in the music video of her song, “I’m Not Obama’s Babe” doesn’t square with the unassuming, quietly engaging, makeup-less woman who buys flavored water at her favorite coffee shop. Not surprising, since there are many facets to the Omaha native: singer, songwriter, author, playwright, radio host, advocate, teacher, wife, mother, daughter, philanthropist.

Music is actually Karen’s second act. After earning a degree at the University of Texas, she began as a teacher of visually impaired children, a career inspired by her late mother, Ruth Sokolof. “My mother taught blind children for years. Everyone loved her. Film Streams Theater is named after her.”

It wasn’t until Karen’s own three children were in school that her life headed in a different direction. “It was around 1993. I was talking to a friend of mine, Jim Conant, and he said he had just written the book for a musical, but he hadn’t written any of the songs. And I said to him, ‘Um, can I try this?’”

Karen proved to be a natural at writing both the words and the lyrics to 13 songs for the production entitled Love! At The Café! The show ran for about seven weeks at a small venue in Benson. “It was like a faucet turned on in my brain. The lyrics came first, and then I could hear the music in my head to go with them.”

Karen next collaborated with her good friend, local actress and author Elaine Jabenis, to write more shows, including the tribute Princess Diana, The Musical. Another key player in Karen’s success, Chuck Penington of Manheim Steamroller, orchestrates her music. Whether a song is catchy, rhythmic, and Broadway-like, or a touching ballad, Karen’s melodies stay with the listener.

“It was like a faucet turned on in my brain. The lyrics came first, and then I could hear the music in my head to go with them.”

Where did her talent come from? “My father, Phil, was a song-and-dance man before he became a successful businessman. He tried his luck in Chicago when he was 17. He finally realized he couldn’t be the next Frank Sinatra.”

Phil Sokolof would later use some of his fortune from his drywall company to wage a one-man crusade against cholesterol—a decades-long fight that resulted in nutrition information on food packaging.

Karen has written hundreds of songs, penned four musicals, and released 13 CDs, singing on many of them. While she should be swimming in royalties, the Westside High graduate has instead followed her parents’ legacy of giving back to their community.

“All proceeds from my music go to charities, mostly in Nebraska,” says Karen.

Does she make any money at all?

“Well, let’s just say my goal is to break even,” she says with a smile.

Over the past 20 years, Karen has raised over $300,000 in service to others. One project in particular remains dear to her heart. The “Nebraska Celebrities Sing for Sight” CD, for which she wrote most of the music and lyrics and featuring 20 celebrities from the area (including a terrific country vocal from former U.S. Senator Ben Nelson), raised money for visually impaired children. The man who couldn’t compete with Frank Sinatra also sings a track.

“Dad was alive when I started to do my music. He was very proud.”

Karen’s CDs can be found at the Nebraska Furniture Mart or online at CD Baby. Her radio show, “It’s the Beat!” with Jody Vinci, airs Saturdays at noon on KOIL 1290.