Tag Archives: Creighton University

Beauty & the Cyborg Beast

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Less than three years ago, it dawned on scientist Jorge Zuniga why a childhood friend wanted nothing more than to play baseball.

It was odd. Growing up in Santiago, Chile, there were not many baseball fans. Just the one, as far as Zuniga knew (after all, soccer reigns supreme in Chile). Even more curious, Zuniga’s friend had just one hand.

Why baseball?

“There’s not one baseball field in the whole country,” Zuniga says, laughing at the exaggeration, “but this one kid without a hand wants to be a baseball player.”

Then, 20-odd years later, Zuniga and his 7-year-old son are playing catch in the long shadows of the front yard. Zuniga remembers his one-armed friend and his inexplicable love of baseball. Then it hits him.

“Oh,” Zuniga says, “I bet this kid that didn’t have a hand just wanted to do what every kid wants to do.” He yearned to play catch.

Biomedical2Earlier that same day, he had listened to a radio news report about “Robohand,” a project in South Africa that creates 3D-printed prosthetics for children. Zuniga—with a doctorate in exercise physiology and a lab at Creighton University—wanted to know more about the Robohand. But he had difficulty connecting with the researchers involved.

After several attempts to reach the people in South Africa, he relied on his own knowledge, resources, and expertise to make a prosthetic on his own. It took several months to perfect his prototype, but Zuniga’s journey highlights how the health care industry is utilizing new breakthroughs in 3D printing technology.

Nothing is more personal than health care. And few things are more customizable than the 3D-printed object. The field of prosthetics represents just one obvious medical application for the technology, one with many advantages: to provide a custom-fitted solution for an amputee; to shave thousands off the cost of traditional prosthetic limbs; to negate the financial burden if insurance doesn’t cover the device; and especially for children, to provide a fast solution to wear, tear, and outgrowing the artificial body part. 

But prosthetics only scratch the surface of possibilities awaiting biomedical 3D printing. The FDA, for example, recently approved the first 3D printed drug—an incredibly fast-acting seizure medication that dissolves in seconds thanks to a structure only possible through 3D printing.

Improvements to medical devices that were once too expensive to contemplate can be prototyped on the cheap. Zuniga, who now (as of August 15) works out of the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Biomechanics Research Building, says he has printed the model of a fetus for a blind mother who wanted to “see” her unborn baby. He has also worked with physicians at Omaha Children’s Hospital to print three-dimensional models of patient hearts so surgeons can study the organ long before they pick up a scalpel.

Zuniga’s use of 3D printing carries immediate significance and practicality. A glance at the more fantastic applications, however, can be found at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. There, biomedical engineer Bin Duan is heading up a new bioprinting unit that is printing and growing bone and cartilage for regenerative purposes. Later this year, Duan and his team will implant small plugs of printed bone into animals that should eventually integrate with the animal’s existing tissue.

Bioprinting works by printing with at least two different materials. First, a biocompatible polymer creates a scaffold or lattice in the desired shape of the tissue, such as an ear or a piece of bone. The second material, living cells, are printed onto the scaffold. The cells cling to the structure, and over the course of several weeks they live and multiply as the scaffold slowly degrades and disappears. Eventually, the scaffold material is gone, but the tissue remains.

One potential application of UNMC’s bone tests could be used to help future children born with certain defects. A printed bone implant made from the child’s stem cells would then grow with the child, eliminating the need for multiple surgeries.

In a more distant future, an organ transplant might not be from a random donor, but from the patient’s own stem cells: a new, perfect organ printed when it is needed, and far less prone to rejection. Skin grafts and bone regeneration, all of it made with a patient’s personal cells.

UNMC’s bioprinting program is still in its infancy, so a breakthrough with more complex systems will likely come from a place like Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Widely regarded as the national leader for 3D bioprinting, researchers there have already printed skin, blood vessels, bladders, and muscle—some of them implanted in humans. But complex organs like the heart, kidneys, and liver remain unsolved puzzles…for now.

In the here and now, researchers like Zuniga can make accessible what was once out of reach for many.

When he finished his first 3D-printed prosthetic arm, he showed it to his young son. The elder Zuniga expected to impress his son with the level of realism it held. The boy was not impressed.

“He said, ‘If that’s for children, that’s not gonna work,’” Zuniga says. “’Daddy, that hand is too real. You need something cooler than that.’”

Inspired by his son’s insight, Zuniga created “Cyborg Beast,” a brightly colored, prosthetic, cybernetic hand that more closely resembles something out of a science fiction movie than a human limb. The plans and instructions on how to use them are open and free to anyone with access to a 3D printer.

“You’d be surprised at how many people around the world have access to (3D printing) machines,” Zuniga says. “…It’s like the start of a revolution.”

An artificial limb that once cost $4,000, can now be had for about $50—about the cost of a trip to the ballpark.

Visit cyborgbeast.org to learn more. B2B

Constitutional Law Professor G. Michael Fenner

July 14, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Among the diplomas, plaques, commendations, papers, family portraits, artifacts from a life well-traveled, and tons of books that decorate G. Michael Fenner’s office at Creighton University School of Law, one photo in particular triggers a double take. Inscribed “To my dear friend Mike, I simply love spending time with you,” the photo is signed “Clarence.”

The friendship between the law professor and Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Clarence Thomas goes back many years. “His wife (Virginia Lamp of Omaha) was one of my law students and we met him when he was just Clarence Thomas,” Fenner explains. “Every other year here in Omaha I co-teach a seminar on the Supreme Court with Justice Thomas.”

Fenner has focused his professional life on our fundamental freedoms. Along the way he has gained a national reputation as a constitutional scholar—a reputation that has allowed him to get to know jurists such as Thomas as people, allowed him to understand their points of view, and respect their decisions, whether he agrees with them or not.

“My wife, Anne, and I spend about a week with him when he and Virginia return to Nebraska,” Fenner says. “He’s really a very likable guy.”

Teaching the supreme law of the land, which Fenner has done for 44 years at Creighton, can be fraught with pitfalls because even the Constitution inspires division. Should interpretation be guided by what our Founding Fathers meant, or should it be seen as a living document, changing with the spirit of the times? How does Fenner balance the two?

“I teach the cases without teaching a particular preference or point of view,” says Fenner, a past president of the Nebraska State Bar Association. “I occasionally have the students argue a case we’re reading, so they understand both sides.”

Then, in his quiet, thoughtful way, Fenner continues, “Personally, it seems to me the Founding Fathers were smart enough to know that they weren’t smart enough to know everything…they were writing rules that would need interpretation in the future.”

Fenner’s even-handed approach to the most divisive issues facing our judicial system not only wins the respect of colleagues, his students revere him as well.

“The Supreme Court isn’t easy to understand, but he’s able to break it down so you do understand it,” says Tyler Seals, a second-year law student. “He’s objective. He explains what the high court says, not his ideological beliefs.”

A belief in basic human dignity took root early in the professor’s childhood. The eldest of three sons born to a dairyman and his wife, Fenner grew up in St. Joseph, Missouri. His father, George, after whom Fenner is named, had a business membership to the local country club. Whenever the family went to the club for dinner, “My father would walk into the kitchen and talk to the wait staff and cooks. They were the only African Americans there.”

Fenner’s father still looms large, years after his death from Parkinson’s disease. “He was honest and quiet, a lot like those western stars from my childhood.”

It wasn’t Marshall Matt Dillon who inspired Fenner to go into law; it was Gregory Peck. To Kill A Mockingbird had a profound affect on him. After graduating from the University of Kansas in 1966, Fenner obtained his law degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. In fact, the Fenner boys hit the legal trifecta. His brother, U.S. District Court Judge Gary Fenner, presides in Kansas City, while the youngest sibling, Robert, recently retired as chief counsel for a federal agency in Washington, D.C.

Professor Fenner also worked in D.C. as a trial lawyer for the Justice Department, taking the job right after he and Anne married. Following the birth of their daughter, Hilary, now the general counsel for Patagonia outdoor clothing and equipment, the couple decided to move back to the Midwest, where “I’d be able to see my baby instead of commuting,” he says. His son, Ben, was born following the move to Omaha. Ben now works for a law firm in D.C. that represents Native Americans. 

The current vacancy on the Supreme Court following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia poses a real challenge, both politically and judicially, Fenner believes. With big cases looming that deal with abortion, freedom of speech, and affirmative action, the possibility of a “no decision” ruling could very well occur with the court split 4-4. “There’s a reason for nine justices,” Fenner says. “There can be no ties.”

The political vitriol regarding any nomination to succeed Justice Scalia dismays Fenner, but he also sees the unfolding confrontation as an inevitable part of history. “There will not be an Obama nominee who gets confirmed, who gets a hearing, or who even gets a handshake,” Fenner intones. “I don’t know who he could put forward to change that.”

But what fodder for discussion in a constitutional law class…


Nichol Mason Lazenby

April 22, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When Nichol Mason Lazenby left the L.A. Contemporary Dance Company to relocate to Omaha less than two years ago, she knew nothing of her new home and had decidedly low expectations regarding the breadth and depth of any opportunities that might await.

“I had no familiarity with the Midwest, let alone Omaha, and I panicked a bit at the thought of moving here,” says the southern California dancer/choreographer who had been a professor at the University of Arizona and now teaches at the Omaha Academy of Ballet. So Mason Lazenby decided to send out some feeler emails to the usual suspects in the dance community here. Less than 30 minutes later in some cases, she recalls, replies came pouring in from the likes of Creighton University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Omaha may have been a big fat question mark for her, but no question mark is needed when assessing the immediate impact she has made on the local scene.


This winter found her in performances with both the Omaha Dance Project (at Marian High School’s new Mary Joy and Tal Anderson Performing Arts Center) and the tbd Dance Collective in “Making Space II: An Evening of Curated Choreography” (at KANEKO).

In April she had a hand in choreographing “Vive Paris” at Creighton University and “Evenings of Dance” at UNL. In May she’ll choreograph Heathers The Musical at the Blue Barn Theatre. And she is now preparing for a yet-to-be-named performance of her work in Motion41’s Encore space as a result of her winning last year’s OMAHAgraphy competition.

“I’ve been fortunate to be embraced by the dance community this way,” Mason Lazenby says, “especially the women of tbd.”

She was a guest artist last year when tbd took the Encore stage for its own OMAHAgraphy gig. Lazenby’s “Strange Mercy,” a solo work that she both choreographed and danced, was the showstopper of the evening and drew the loudest and most sustained applause.

“Lazenby’s movements,” this reviewer wrote at the time, “had me conjuring images of Anna Pavlova dancing Mikhail Fokine’s ‘The Dying Swan.’ Except that Pavlova was dancing all the wrong steps. And that she was thoroughly, over-the-top insane. And on acid.”

The art form has always had an intractable power over me. My most spine-tingling encounters with the genre, as was the case with Mason Lazenby and “Strange Mercy” and just as it is with any theater or performance art or opera or visual art that pushes boundaries and pushes buttons, runs along the lines of “I’m not exactly sure how to process what I just saw…but I love it.”

“That’s what’s amazing about modern dance, Mason Lazenby says. It is innate…primal. It can be just as percussive and frantic as it is sinewy, graceful, and luxuriously indulgent.” The key, she adds, is that modern dance is thoroughly experiential. It can be no other way.

“Every audience member will react in their own way,” she says. “It’s a form of communication…a movement-based form of communication. Every dancer communicates in a way that translates their world. And every audience member will experience those movements as framed by their world.”

Visit nicholmason.com to see her work.


Choreographing a Modern Life

April 7, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Patti Zukaitis often does what is termed plié relevé. The 64-year-old bends her legs down, keeping her knees in alignment over her feet, then she stretches up, up onto her toes as high as she can.

She has reached many heights in her 40-plus years as a dancer, yet she doesn’t see herself a star.

“Patti’s not the type of person who looks to be in the spotlight very much,” says Patrick Roddy, who heads Creighton University’s dance department, where Zukaitis is the other professor.

Zukaitis began classes at age 9, but discovered her true passion for dance as a college student. She studied at Creighton with her longtime teacher Valerie Roche and became one of the first graduates of the dance program.

Roche, a professional ballerina since age 12, drove Omaha dance from the beginnings of Omaha Regional Ballet Academy in spring 1964 into the early years of the now Omaha Academy of Ballet and beyond.

Zukaitis became a teacher at Creighton’s dance program while a student.

“Valerie kind of pushed me in this direction, and I fell into it,” Zukaitis says. “I didn’t have a dream to be a ballerina.”

It was at Creighton that Zukaitis discovered modern dance, a form she has loved and performed since with Creighton and local companies DanceScape and Omaha Modern Dance Collective.

In 1982, Zukaitis’ husband, John, had just finished medical school and obtained a job in New York City, partially because living in New York was a dream of Patti’s. She wanted to attend New York University, and true to form, she entered their prestigious Tisch School of the Arts in a nontraditional way.

“I was so naive,” Zukaitis says. “I called and said, ‘I’d like to enroll.’ I got a secretary who said, ‘Oh. People have been auditioning all spring for this.’”

Heartbroken, her brain pirouetting from the rejection, Zukaitis called her mother, who told her to just march down there and prove to them she was worthy of being in the program.

Zukaitis went to the campus and spoke to the director, who told her to come down for the first day of classes. As it turned out, one student had been accepted, but had not yet committed to the program. “I took a ballet class and I took a modern class,” Zukaitis says. “I was auditioning, but I didn’t realize it.” At the end of that first day, the director offered her the final position in the program.

Their first daughter, Kathryn, now 30, was born while she was in school. Even with a young baby, Zukaitis earned a Master of Fine Arts in dance in 1986.

A second daughter, Lucy, was born in 1988. When their son Jack was due in 1991, the Zukaitis family, cramped into a one-bedroom apartment, moved back to Omaha. Patti returned to Creighton.

“It was almost as though I never left,” she says. “I just contacted Valerie and she said come on over.”

A third daughter, Julie Rose, came along in 1994. 

The professor and mom also taught for Omaha Academy of Ballet with Roche until 2002, when Roche retired after 40 years with the school.

“I told Valerie, OK, I’ll do it [be the director], but I want a co-director,” Zukaitis says.  She and co-director Sheila Nelson led the school for 14 years. They had big slippers to fill. Roche had taken the OAB from a small ballet company to a well-respected academy with a separate performing company.

Zukaitis stepped into the role gracefully and stretched the organization even further. A big part of the job, one which was important to Zukaitis as well as the school, was examinations.

The OAB is the only school in Omaha which uses the rigorous Imperial Society of Teacher of Dancing qualifications. Zukaitis holds an associate diploma through the ISTD and  brought in examiners each year to keep the school ISTD qualified.

Most importantly, the school became an environment where people wanted to bring their children to learn.

Roddy believes Zukaitis herself was one of the big factors in this.

“I think she’s one of the best ballet teachers in town, and she’s one of the nicest people I know.  She’s been an incredible friend and colleague.”

He would know. The two met when he was in high school attending advanced ballet classes at Creighton.

“She uses her knowledge and talents in the best way possible to get her technique across to all ages of people from very young to adults,” he says. “Her musicality is excellent, beyond reproach.”

He considers Zukaitis herself one of his very good friends, and that means a lot to her.

“I used to say when I was younger I wanted to grow up and work with my best friends, and that’s really what I’ve done,” Zukaitis  says. “I love the people I work with, and I have been very fortunate to have worked with them to build the dance community in Omaha.”

This past year, Zukaitis stepped down as OAB director to be with her family. Her daughters are all pursuing performing arts careers while Jack is training to be a firefighter.

“I hope they can make a living doing what they love,” Zukaitis says.

They should succeed.  After all, they have a successful role model.


Peter Cales

March 3, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Peter Cales sits on a comfortable couch and rests a glass of orange juice on a coffee table. Nearby sit shelves and shelves of record albums, and atop and beside the albums sit record carriers made by Cales.

He created the table as a summer project while attending college.  The rustic, yet sophisticated, piece foretold his career.

“I alternated between fine arts and English in college [at Creighton], but I didn’t see a clear path between that and making a living,” Cales says of discovering how to meld fine arts and woodworking.

“My father always had a woodshop,” Cales recalls fondly. “I just decided to make furniture. I wanted to do something artistic that had a practical application.”

Cales worked part-time for noted Creighton Associate Professor of Sculpture Littleton Alston, who helped him obtain studio space and taught Cales about the process of building things. He became fascinated by the beauty of woodworking. It didn’t take long for him to realize that he belonged in the woodshop.

In 2009, he became a full time wood artist in launching his studio, Measure Cut Cut. Cales’ process of woodworking turns nature into refined beauty. He finds working out, and on, details meditative. He finds inspiration in music, especially pop and rock ’n roll from the 1960s and 1970s.

Cales says. “I think it’s inspiring hearing something that someone put together perfectly. “I do a lot of furniture design, but I don’t identify as a designer because I think that could be offensive to people who went to school and studied it,” Cales says. “But I also have a hard time identifying as an artist.”


Along with hand-crafted wood pieces, Cales also sells a line of ceramic hot air balloons.

“I just love how it was the first form of flight, and so much scientific development went on through ballooning,” Cales explains. “My parents took us [Cales and his sister] to a hot air balloon international festival around 1990. It definitely left a mark on my brain.”

Customers won’t see a similar mass production of furniture.

“Furniture is furniture to me,” Cales continues. “It’s the process of making something for someone else. That’s why I’ve never done lines of furniture. There’s nothing personal about that for me.”


Personalizing pieces is vital to Cales’ craft. When he meets with clients he asks them about their lifestyle and what is important to them. He asks to hear stories, particularly those involving events or locations. From that meeting Cales selects materials from significant locations, particularly reclaimed materials when available.

“I like working with people and creating something that will be in their house for a long time,” Cales says. “It’s a reflection of my brief relationship with them.”

Designs are never repeated. Much thought is put into what will happen to a piece of furniture long-term. Cales wants his work to be retained, to perhaps be passed down to future generations, and he seeks clients who share his aesthetic and personal values.

Keeping these principles creates lasting relationships with the clients.

“Most of the commissions I like I have made for people I ended up being friends with. They were relationship starters.”

Leaving a lasting impression—creating a lasting relationship—that’s the essence of Cales.

Visit measurecutcut.com to learn more.


Symone Sanders’ Iowa Odyssey

December 18, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Symone Sanders’ childhood dream never came true.

As a young girl Sanders created an alter ego, that of an intrepid news professional she named Donna Burns. She would grab a spoon as a microphone and report live (from the kitchen of her home) in covering breaking news all across the globe.

“I so wanted to be Donna Burns,” Sanders said. “I so wanted to be that person.”

Donna Burns never really left her, she’s just been just turned inside out. Now Sanders is the one having microphones thrust in her face.

Last August the 25-year-old (she turned 26 in December) was hired as Bernie Sanders’ national press secretary. At a time when many of her classmates from Creighton University’s class of 2013 were still clawing for that first entry-level position somewhere—anywhere—Sanders was taking the national stage in handling an army of “Donna Burns” for the Vermont Senator.

The Mercy High School graduate who had earlier attended Sacred Heart School is the daughter of Terri and Daniel Sanders. Her first taste of politics came as a 10-year-old through her involvement with Girls Inc. At 16 she would be selected by the organization to introduce President Bill Clinton when he spoke at a 2006 Girls Inc. event in Omaha.

Omaha Magazine caught up with her at Bernie Sanders’ state campaign headquarters in Des Moines, Iowa, the day before the Nov. 14 National Democratic Debates at Drake University.


“I feel like I was in the right place at the right time,” she demurred in describing her formative years in Omaha. “Things were pretty stagnant in this town at one time. Now Omaha is breeding superstars. This city set me up for everything I’ve done. It’s an amazing place for exposure, opportunity, and access, and there are so many efforts moving the needle in a good direction…Willie Barney at the Empowerment Network [where Sanders was once communications, events, and outreach manager], the folks at the Urban League, the NAACP, Heartland Workforce [Solutions], Inclusive Communities, Women’s Center for Advancement, and tons of others. There are so many great organizations guiding young people and kids in building better lives and a better city. They’re doing it right, and they’re doing it right there in Omaha.”

In 2014, only 11 months after graduating from college, Sanders would become deputy communications director for Nebraska Democrat Chuck Hassebrook’s unsuccessful gubernatorial bid.

“Symone is the kind of person that people just love to be around,” said Hassebrook, who spent his career at the Center for Rural Affairs, including 18 years as a University of Nebraska Regent. “She’s very smart, but it is her principles and ethics that I perhaps most admire. I’m a huge Symone fan. She’s a person that I hope will be running things someday.”

The day after votes were tallied in the 2014 election Sanders was on a plane to Washington, D.C. to begin a job with Global Trade Watch, an arm of Public Citizen, the nonprofit advocacy think tank founded by Ralph Nader in 1971 to represent consumer interests in Congress.

Also passionate about issues surrounding juvenile justice, Sanders has served on the board of the Nebraska Coalition for Juvenile Justice and recently stepped down as the national chair of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice Youth Committee.

“The system isn’t set up well for minority communities,” Sanders explained as staff and volunteers scurried throughout the campaign headquarters in Des Moines in the run-up to the debate. “Young people need to be involved in juvenile justice because this is so often a young person issue. My brother was incarcerated when he was young. I’ve been arrested myself—I told Bernie all about that right upfront—and this is an epidemic. Black and brown kids are being locked up at a disproportionate rate. It’s a school-to-prison pipeline. What so many of them need is help, jobs—not jail.”

Sanders is also aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement, and it was through that relationship that the campaign team first came to know her. She was brought in to advise the candidate shortly after Black Lives Matter protesters had interrupted a campaign rally in Seattle.

She met with Bernie Sanders to help him better understand and connect with a voting bloc that skews toward Hillary Clinton. Two hours later she was his national press secretary.

“The original Civil Rights Movement,” Sanders said, “is a phrase that was coined so that everyday Americans could understand the issues…so they could wrap their heads around it. That’s what Black Lives Matter is. It’s the same movement, the same ideals, but now for a new generation. There’s nothing new about the movement. It’s the same struggle. It’s the same people shaking things up for social justice. Malcolm X, John Lewis, and Martin Luther King didn’t call themselves Civil Rights leaders. They were just…leaders.”

Sanders has a magnetic personality and speaks in a rapid-fire, staccato fashion. Trying to keep up with her words in transcribing the interview from a micro-recorder was a nightmare of stops and starts, pauses and rewinds. But just as she is known for her mile-a-minute delivery, Sanders also knows when to take it down a notch or three.

During the pre-debate walkthrough of the auditorium, spin room, and media center on the Drake campus later that day, she became a deliberate, finely modulated machine that spoke in an even, deliberate tone in asking questions and soaking up every detail of where, when, and how the candidate and campaign team would navigate the crucial debates in the state where America first goes to the polls in the process of nominating and electing the next occupant of the Oval Office.


And a chance encounter in the spin room had her taking her foot completely off the gas in coasting into a warm, engaging exchange with Donna Brazile, the political strategist and analyst who ran Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign and now acts as vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.

Sanders demonstrates a razor-sharp grasp of issues, policy, facts, and figures, and only hesitates when the ever-focused media pro is tossed questions about her personal life that take her at least temporarily out of campaign mode.

It took her seemingly forever, for example, to be able to conjure up her Burlington, Vermont, mailing address when that information was requested so that she could be sent a copy of this magazine. And a query about how many nights she’s slept in her own bed since taking the press secretary gig drew—if only for a nanosecond—a blank stare.

And then she was instantly “on” again in flashing her broad, trademark, light-up-the-room smile in replying, “Bed? You mean my air mattress? I don’t have time to furnish a place. The only beds I sleep in these days are in hotels.”

Over the course of the campaign Sanders has spent a lot of time crisscrossing the nation with Dr. Cornel West. The activist, author, and philosopher is a major Bernie supporter and was again stumping with the candidate in Des Moines.

“Symone Sanders is a visionary,” West told Omaha Magazine the next evening moments before he was to take the microphone as the headliner at a pre-debate tailgate rally where, true to its name, he and other speakers addressed the crowd from the tailgate of a well-worn farm truck in the state where agriculture rules and corn is king. “She has the power to be the voice of her generation. She has the intellect, the moral compassion, and the energy to become a great leader.”

Also “Feeling the Bern” at the rally that night was Creighton senior Dawaune Hayes.

“Symone was always involved in everything on campus,” Hayes said. “She was involved in everything all over town. Everyone at Creighton knew she could change the world someday. Now she’s actually doing it.”

Sanders may already be well on her way to becoming a world-changer, but one thing she hopes remains the same is the secret recipe at Time Out Chicken on North 30th Street.

“The first job I ever had was at Time Out,” she said, “and I worked there all through high school and college when I could—even after college. I miss Omaha. I miss my family. I would kill for some Time Out Chicken right now. And I miss the girls at Girls Inc.”

“Symone was the epitome of a Girls Inc. girl,” said Roberta Wilhelm, the organization’s executive director. “She was heavily involved in our media literacy program called Girls Make the Message. That’s where the girls made their own public service announcements and created their own messages to the world. Not surprisingly, Symone took to that like a fish to water. Ironically, the theme was Girls for President, and now she’s working on a real presidential campaign. Symone is doing big things. She’s going to matter.”

And what message will Sanders deliver the next time she has a chance to visit her hometown Girls Inc.?

“Be smart. Be strong. Be bold,” she said in echoing the nonprofit’s tagline. “You can do anything you set your mind to. Anything. Omaha needs you. The world needs you.”

Donna Burns covered a lot of stories from that kitchen in north Omaha, but it looks like she missed the most important one. Now her creator would be the interview of a lifetime for the ace reporter.


Radical Simplicity

November 19, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ron Dotzler grew up in defiance. The small town of Defiance, Iowa, that is.

“I’ve been rebellious ever since,” he says with a chuckle.

That’s a good thing for his home of the last four decades—a city some have referred to as the most dangerous place in America to be black.

According to a 2014 report by the Violence Policy Center, a Washington, D.C., research and advocacy center, 30 black people were murdered in Nebraska in 2011, the latest year for which data was available. Of them, 27 were murdered in Omaha. That put the state’s black homicide rate at 34.4 per 100,000 people—twice the national average. And in Omaha alone, Dotzler points out, the FBI reports an average of 23,000 major felony incidents each year.

Dotzler has seen the devastation firsthand. Four years after moving to north Omaha, two girls in his neighborhood were murdered. That’s what got his defiant nature fighting back.

“That was kind of the straw that broke my back,” Dotzler says. “I felt like God was saying to me, ‘Ron, will you give me your life so other children won’t have their lives cut by violence?’”

The murders made him ever more committed to Abide, the inner-city nonprofit he and his wife, Twany, had launched in 1989.

Abide works “one neighborhood at a time,” helping develop healthy communities through four main foci: community building, family support programs, housing, and partnerships. It has become one of the most successful—and increasingly well-known—nonprofits affecting change in Omaha.

But significant change didn’t come until 2007, when Abide altered its strategy. Most importantly, Abide began a holistic, grassroots tactic of “adopting” neighborhoods. With partners and volunteer power, the nonprofit began mowing lawns, cleaning litter, fixing abandoned properties, and more. They got to know neighbors personally. Relationships were built and change followed. People felt safer. Crime went down.

Law enforcement officers wanted to know what was happening. They were pointed to Abide. “The police showed up and said, ‘We don’t know what you’re doing, but it’s working,’” Dotzler says.

With help from partner Lifegate Church, Abide has since adopted more than 100 neighborhoods with help from 15 partners and more than 8,000 volunteers each year. They have targeted 600 other neighborhoods to adopt.

Abide also establishes “Lighthouses,” abandoned homes that are fixed up and occupied by families. More than 30 Lighthouses have been established since 2009.

It has three community centers and offers family support and employee development programs, plus basketball and swimming programs for children. It throws block parties, hosts grill-outs, and stages Easter egg hunts. Abide’s annual budget has grown to nearly $1.5 million.

Dotzler, 57, is board president. Son Josh, the former Creighton University basketball star, now is Abide CEO. Three other Dotzler children—Ron and Twany have 14 total—also are employees. Abide has 24 full-timers and 11 who work as paid, part-time interns. The organization’s work has earned recognition from Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert and Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts.

Dotzler says Abide doesn’t “market itself as the savior” of north Omaha. “We’re just one entity” among others working to make things better, he says. They’re just trying to “put the neighbor back in the hood.”

And those neighbors include Dotzler and his family.

Abide headquarters is a former Immanuel Hospital boiler facility on Fowler Street. The building doubles as the Dotzler home.

The family originally moved to north Omaha from Millard in 1988. Dotzler had worked as a chemical engineer in the computer industry but felt called “to really invest in the lives of others.” To him, that meant mission work overseas. The Dotzlers sold their house and many of their possessions, but needed a temporary place to live before deciding where they would serve. A friend said he could stay rent-free at his house in north Omaha—if Dotzler fixed it up while he was there. It needed more than a bit of work.

“I had grown up around pests, but not roaches like I saw in that house,” he says.

He was more shocked, though, by what he saw outside. “I started seeing the brokenness of lives like I’d never experienced before,” he says. “I saw more police in a couple weeks living in north Omaha than I saw in my whole life. I’d never dialed 911, and suddenly it began to be on my speed dial.”

In north Omaha today, he says, nine out of 10 homes are headed by a single parent. And at least 70 percent of families, he estimates, don’t own their own homes.

That’s radically unlike his childhood home in Defiance, Iowa, a small, rural community halfway between Denison and Harlan.

“I grew up with a mom and dad in the household, and the whole culture surrounding you had that kind of parental influence,” he says. “There was an infrastructure in rural Iowa. You were on the same page. There was a culture of understanding. We were all working toward the same things.

“In urban settings the autonomy is so greatly individualized and independence is so great that you don’t have those connections anymore.”

Before moving to north Omaha, Dotzler says he was “cold, callous, judgmental, and critical” of those living in the inner city.

No longer.

Now, he abides with them.

“We’ll never see the brokenness of crime and violence transformed,” Dotzler says, “until the brokenness of crime and violence transforms us.”

Visit abideomaha.org to learn more.



September 4, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appears in the Sept./Oct. 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine.

Brandeis-Millard House owner Mark Maser moved to the Blackstone neighborhood more than 25 years ago, drawn to its “old houses and quiet streets.” Recent growth dotting the area’s periphery—and now in its very heart—has made the Blackstone neighborhood a destination hot spot and a hip new (in the “old is new again” way) place to live and work.


“Nationally, there is a movement towards moving back to the urban areas of cities,” says Rhonda Stuberg, Blackstone Neighborhood Association president and member of the Blackstone District board. “A new generation has arrived who seems to think that old buildings are pretty cool and likes living where a lot is going on in a smaller area.”

Indeed.  Blackstone, which encompasses Leavenworth to Dodge streets and 36th  Street to Saddle Creek Road, may be small in terms of square miles, but it teems with activity and attractions. Consider these highlights: a former historic hotel credited with creating the rueben, the headquarters to one of Omaha’s Fortune 500 companies, a craft beer lover’s dream strip, several stately mansions renovated for both private use and public events, a nationally-ranked hospital, and an old-time business strip newly resuscitated by a handful of young entrepreneurs.  This is a mere surface scratch.


Stuberg and her husband moved to the neighborhood in 2007 when they discovered Creighton University put an historic home in its possession up for sale. Fans of old neighborhoods (“neither of us has ever lived west of 72nd Street”), the Stubergs decided to buy and restore the home.

“When we moved in, we had no idea that Midtown Crossing was being built or that the Blackstone District would resurge like it has,” Stuberg confesses.

Resurged it has.


Maser attributes the new growth, in part, to the Nebraska Medical Center’s investment in the area and the Midtown Crossing development, both of which created an exciting ripple effect of restoration. GreenSlate Development is at the forefront. Partners Jay Lund and Matt Dwyer steered the reinvention of the west Farnam corridor at the corner of 40th and Farnam streets. A mix of retail, service, and dining businesses, not one chain store lies in the mix. “It is all about locally owned and operated businesses, most of which are completely original concepts,” states Lund. “These business owners decided to take a chance on our [GreenSlate’s] vision, and the result has been an organic resurgence of this neighborhood that has exceeded all my expectations.”

Grab a New York-style slice at Noli’s Pizza for lunch, then pop next door for a quick trim at The Surly Chap Barbers. Or try a tequila and taco at Mula. Settle into one of the seats at Archetype Coffee with your laptop and a cup of joe. Want to relax with a pint of beer or glass of wine post-work? Consider Scriptown Brewing or the Corkscrew’s newest location along Farnam.


The corner of 40th and Farnam has historically been a hub of commerce. Lund feels its latest reinvention is just another life cycle in a strip that once housed such long-time notable businesses as the Admiral Theater and Kaufmann’s Pastry Shoppe.

Kleveland Clothing shop owner Katie McLeay Cleveland says her mom remembers popping into Kaufmann’s when she was a child. Now the daughter is the next generation of shop owners along Farnam. Kleveland Clothing carries a mix of eclectic, affordable, new and vintage clothing and accessories. Local artists create much of the jewelry available.


The boutique’s unique merchandise fits the non-homogenized Blackstone vibe. “My store needed a specialty location,” says Cleveland. “It’s not a strip mall business. And the developers are invested in the neighborhood to make it work.”

“Development that is in context with the overall neighborhood” is what Lund, also president of the Blackstone Business Improvement District, feels the area needs. That means converting old row houses into updated townhomes or incorporating new construction seamlessly into its environs. It also means attracting young, forward-thinking business owners who have the energy and vision to make something old new again.

Thus far the Blackstone neighborhood has balanced revitalization with regard for the past. As Maser puts it, “The houses are still old and the streets quiet, but now, with more retail shops and restaurants flourishing, we have all the excitement of a modern city within walking distance.  It’s the best of both worlds.”



Retirement on the Road

July 30, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appears in 60-Plus June/July 2015 edition.

Fritz Sampson says he likes to travel slowly, but the words “travel” and “slowly” can conjure up thoughts of lounging over three hour-long dinners in Italy, or spending an entire afternoon wandering through a village in France.

For 65-year-old Fritz, “traveling slowly” means moving about 200 miles a day across Europe and Asia by motorcycle.

Last March, Fritz undertook a 115-day motorcycle journey through southern Europe, the former Soviet bloc, and Mongolia; but his plans were cut short by more than three weeks after an accident
in Mongolia.

It’s an itinerary that sounds crazy, but, when explained calmly by Fritz, seems perfectly reasonable.

“Whether it’s breaking a shoulder, or getting stopped by police, or running out of food, things are going to happen,” Fritz says. “And that’s why you take the trip, because it’s an adventure.”

According to Sampson and his wife of 40 years, Mary, he always had a daring spirit.

“That’s what I loved him for, was his sense of adventure,” Mary says. “No one is comparable to Fritz—he’s all out for the experience.

The couple met on the Model United Nations Team at Creighton University and married in 1975, right out of college. They, and their two children, moved to Germany in 1998 while Fritz pursued a degree in international tax law. His career took him everywhere from China to Belize; but he still craved different ways to see the world.


A long-distance cyclist, he rode for years all over the United States. But as he aged, he turned to a new mode of transportation: motorcycling.

He bought a new Harley Davidson in 2007, and in 2008 rode with his son, Marty, from Omaha to Tierra del Fuego, an island chain off the southernmost point of South America.

“One of the reasons I do this—I like meeting people on the road,” Fritz says.

After his South American excursion, Fritz was itching to do a similar trip elsewhere. He read about two motorcycle adventures on travel blogs that looked really interesting—one to the Russian far east, another in outer Mongolia—and decided to combine the two by retiring and traveling to 17 countries. He planned to begin in Ireland, meet Mary in Turkey, and eventually end up in Mongolia and Russia, but had no other itinerary.

That meant he spent a week in Bulgaria because he felt like it. He chose to go to Kazakhstan instead of Turkmenistan because he met a fellow motorcyclist who was headed there. And when he told local policemen in Turkey the name of the hostel where he was staying, they told him he shouldn’t sleep there and took him to a friend’s house, where they hosted a barbecue for him.

He also had a run-in with corrupt police in Azerbaijan, lost 22 pounds, and experienced that fateful fall in Mongolia that cut his trip short and left him with a broken shoulder.

There’s only one thing he’s cutting out of his routine: off-roading on his motorcycle, which led to his accident. But he still wants to ride on motorcycle trips across the continental United States, Alaska, and Mexico.

After all, he says, those are “easy” rides.



Fritz 1

He Ain’t Heavy

July 13, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article published in July/August 2015 Omaha Magazine.

Chris and Lori Mathsen received a surprise phone call recently that reminded them why their planned one-year stay as live-in family teachers at Boys Town has stretched into 26 memory-filled years

The Mathsens hadn’t heard from this particular young man—one of nearly 200 teenage boys to move through their family home on the West Dodge Road campus—for more than 20 years. If they did hear from him again, they figured he wouldn’t say much.

“He didn’t do anything to really stand out while he was here,” says Chris, “Nothing too crazy. Nothing that positive. He was only vaguely interested in what was happening.”

All those years later, the young man reached out.

He couldn’t believe the Mathsens were still at Boys Town, still overseeing the same house full of teenagers, still with the same Michael Jordan poster that has survived countless Nerf gun wars and sometimes less playful confrontations in the home’s spacious basement.

The young man, now married with two children, had a message that never gets old to those dedicating their lives to helping troubled teens.

“He told us his time here totally changed his life, and he doesn’t know where he would be without it,” Chris says. “We had no idea, especially with him. There is power in that.”

Indeed there is, so much so that Lori Mathsen, who took a one-year sabbatical from earning a Ph.D. to obtain real-life experience, turned it into 25-plus years of helping teenage boys turn from trouble to sports, music, ROTC, good grades, and a brighter future.

So much so that Chris shut down his roofing company and went to Creighton University for an MBA that’s still waiting to be deployed while the Mathsens raise their 11-year-old son, Karsten, and 10-year-old daughter, Kari, in a house full of boys who are learning what it’s like to be treated like family in a place they can call home.

“There have been plenty of times when we ask ourselves, ‘What have we done?’” Lori says. “Let’s take a normal job…and have some privacy…and not get cussed out by kids. But then there are always special kids that you think, ‘I want to stick around to see that kid through.’ Then another one grabs your heart,” and the Mathsens repeat the process. “You bond with them and they bond with you. They ask us sometimes, ‘Are you going to leave before I graduate?’ We don’t want to let them down.”

The Mathsens have certainly passed the perseverance test. The average tenure of Boys Town’s live-in family teachers is around three years. Life with young people who need to reshape behaviors and relationships can get intense. “We’re on a treadmill that never stops,” Lori says. “We don’t like to be bored, and there’s no danger of that.”

The couple have grown to love their Boys Town life even more since their kids were born. The older boys in the home provide role models—good and, sometimes, bad. And there’s never a shortage of playmates as the Boys Town kids are almost always willing to shoot hoops or pool, battle at Just Dance, or strike up a wiffle ball game.

“When we go on vacation, before the week is even up our kids start asking, ‘I wonder what they’re doing at home? I wonder what’s going on with so-and-so?’ Chris says. “They told us, ‘We’ll be mad at you if we ever leave Boys Town,’ and they mean it.”

It’s all part of helping kids move from turmoil (home, school, the legal system) to a shot at a coveted place in the Mathsen “Hall of Fame.” That select group is represented by a large picture on a stairway wall. It’s an elite group—a coveted position reached by only four boys over the decades through demonstrating uncommon character, leadership, academic excellence, and extracurricular achievement.

There’s Robert, who graduated from Boys Town with a 4.0 GPA, three varsity sports letters, and no incidents on his record. And there’s Jay, who was identified by a police officer as a teen with potential but heading down the wrong path. He now serves as an assistant family teacher at Boys Town.

“We get to watch him come to work every day and give back what was given to him,” Chris says. “These kids can be the biggest pains in the hind end, but then something breaks through and you see a kid change and head the right direction. There aren’t many places where you get the opportunity to spend your life being part of that.”

“It’s a place for second chances,” Lori adds, “and maybe even third or fourth chances.”

The Mathsens view their time at Boys Town as one small part of something special that’s been happening for nearly a century at the place known for its iconic motto of “He ain’t heavy, Father, he’s my brother.”