Tag Archives: 60 Plus

Greg S. Cutchall

December 27, 2018 by
Photography by Heather and Jameson Hooton

Editor’s note: These autobiographical pieces and corresponding photos are part of a special edition of 60PLUS featuring local residents who prove that fashion has no age limits. Click here for the full list of featured models. 

Greg S. Cutchall, 66

I am the president and CEO of Cutchall Management Co. I have also been husband to Molly Cutchall for 19 years, and we have three children and four grandchildren.

When I think back on my accomplishments, I am most proud of my family, and of not only surviving, but flourishing in a tough business (restaurants) for 36 years.

My family brings me happiness, as do my friends, and I also enjoy helping my employees grow and succeed within my company.

My advice for living life is to enjoy every day, look for the positive, and don’t sweat the small stuff. As for aging gracefully, I think I’m lucky to have good genes, but I also think people should stay active and engaged in both work and life.

This article first appeared in the January/February 2019 edition of 60PLUS in Omaha MagazineTo receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Omaha’s Fire-Eating Santa

December 20, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Tom Plith—the jolly old man with the snowy white beard—can often be seen breathing fire for a mesmerized audience outside the Imaginarium downtown. During the holiday season, he can be found laughing with a herd of small children and their parents in his elaborately decorated and bubble-filled Santa’s Workshop.

Plith’s unorthodox retirement has been nothing short of magical. Along with his fire- breathing Santa skills, he also works as head clown at one of Omaha’s most successful clown companies. (Yes, Omaha has multiple clown companies—at least four.)

Born in Amarillo, Texas, the story of Plith’s career begins in Saigon, South Vietnam.

Though he can’t say much about his military service, Plith will admit that he only carried a weapon twice: “Both times they told me if I had any trouble, they’d bring me some bullets.” After Saigon, he moved to Fort Ritchie, Maryland, where he held a Cosmic security clearance level with the Army Signal Corps. He insists that all he heard were voice levels during the Paris Peace Accords (they were too busy monitoring signal quality and volume to make sense of actual discussions).

After four years in military telecommunications, Plith got his master’s degree in social work from the University of Nebraska-Omaha and opened Blue Valley, a private treatment center for troubled youth in Valley, Nebraska. He and his wife, Rose, ran the facility for 12 years before moving to Omaha after their two daughters graduated high school.

With his naturally white beard, Plith was enjoying dinner at a local restaurant when someone approached him to ask if he was Mr. Claus himself. Twenty years later, Plith and his family have made Santa’s Workshop in Countryside Village one of Omaha’s most popular Santa experiences.

This Santa’s background in psychiatric social work sets him apart—Plith is an expert in soothing children and working with families to create not just a photo, but a joyous holiday memory for parents and children alike. Plith works with more than 300 families each season, including several days committed for work with The Autism Society and for military families.

Plith’s social work experience also helps him to continue staying active in the clown business. Educated at Omaha’s Wild Clowndom, he adopted the clown name RoliPoli. As RoliPoli, he organizes about 15 face painters, stilt walkers, and balloon twisters to run A Company of Fantastic Clowns. The company works with many local charity organizations and youth events to provide safe and hilarious entertainment at Werner Park, Boys Town, and elsewhere throughout the metro.

Omahans not familiar with Plith as Santa, or RoliPoli, may know him as the fire eater in the Old Market. A typical show consists of jokes and magic tricks he performs alongside “Phillip the Tip Bucket” in between mouthfuls of flames.

The show ends with the old man taking a swig out of a soda bottle and using a burning wand to exhale a dazzling cloud of fire into the night sky. The actual contents of the bottle are a mystery, though many suspect it is not actually full of Mountain Dew.

Depending on the weather, Plith often finds himself entertaining a crowd of 20 or more people, but he is happy to perform for any passersby. Plith has been performing fire- eating shows, sometimes alongside one of his four grandchildren, for two years. One might think he learned the skill from a professional.

“Oh, [it was] just a fella in the neighborhood,” Plith says. He had been interested in fire eating for years, but “didn’t have the nerve” until he was in his 60s.

When asked the burning question of whether he eats fire in his Santa suit, Plith chuckles and shakes his head. “I have to stop eating fire in early November, because when you eat fire you do singe your mustache. I have to have my full mustache for the Santa season.”

Santa’s Workshop opens in November and is available by appointment, which can be made by phone at 402-201-5804. A Company of Fantastic Clowns can be reached at 402-216-6568.


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

The Pamphleteer

December 12, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Colleen Ramsey has always written what she knows: love, adoption, grief, and—more recently—aging.

“I have to feel something,” Ramsey says. “I have to have some emotion connected with it.”

At 85, Ramsey has self-published more than two dozen books. While most are shared with her friends and family, some are recommended reading for adoptive families at Catholic Charities and for grieving adults at Heafey Hoffmann Dworak Cutler Mortuaries.

Ramsey became a writer out of necessity. She battled depression in her early days of motherhood. Her psychologist prescribed writing. He told her to get up an hour early and write, write anything, even if it was just her name for an hour.

Though she was not a natural-born writer, she wrote. On her second day, she started jotting down things that were bugging her—and the words overflowed.

In her Ralston home, over hot tea, Ramsey recalls what writer Anna Quindlen wrote in a 2007 essay: “Writing is not just a legacy, but therapy. In the end, writers will write mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.

Eventually, she decided her stories needed to be told. She and her husband had five teenagers, all adopted, under their roof, and her first book, We Touch Each Other’s Lives, deals with issues of adoption and family.

Her kids did not know where they came from because in those days adoption was kept secret.

“I wanted to give them their story,” she says, even when some of those stories involved seeking out birth parents.

It was an account of adoption from an angle that doesn’t often get told: the adoptive parent’s perspective. Catholic Charities has, with permission, reprinted and distributed We Touch Each Other’s Lives to families for 19 years.

“Colleen is a wonder,” says Sue Malloy, family services program director at Catholic Charities of Omaha. “She gives a voice to so many things that are a part of the adoption journey for people. She has a perspective unlike many other people. She just has this incredible intuition about the adoption journey.”

When her husband, Bob, passed away in 2005, Ramsey turned to writing again. This time to process her grief. Those were the hardest books to write, but also the most helpful for her.

Sharon Zehnder, director of aftercare at Heafey Hoffmann Dworak Cutler Mortuaries, keeps Ramsey’s writing on grief in the mortuary’s support group library and shares passages on the mortuary’s website. Zehnder says Ramsey’s words are extremely relatable to people.

“They can identify with so much that she has written,” Zehnder says.

Her writing has helped others, and for that, she’s grateful. “I like to share what’s helped me,” Ramsey says.

Since writing We Touch Each Other’s Lives, Ramsey has penned her memories of growing up in the 1930s and through World War II, discussed prayer in her writing, and written books for each of her grandchildren. She types all her books, searches through family photos for illustrations, and then begins the time-consuming process of printing her books at home, placing photos on pages gently with tape, and then binding them herself.

There may be easier ways to do it, but this is the “write” way for Ramsey.

This article is printed in the November/December 2017 issue of 60 Plus.

Dr. Bruce Johansen Keeps Moving

November 21, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit unomaha.edu for more information.

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

Caregiver’s Golden Years, Between a Rock and a Hard Place

November 5, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt presented America with the Second New Deal, he created a national social safety net to prevent vulnerable senior citizens from dying in poverty.

Social Security came into being with the Social Security Act of 1935. Thirty years later, the federal safety net further expanded with the creation of Medicare and Medicaid during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson.

The system evolved to assist not only the elderly (with Medicare focusing on citizens aged 65 and older), but also the disabled and impoverished of all ages (with Medicaid), to become as self-sustaining and independent as possible.

Fast forward to the 21st century. Ever since 2010, President Barak Obama’s Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) dramatically widened the nation’s social safety net. In the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, Republican efforts to undo and repeal the Affordable Care Act sparked concerns that 22 million Americans (according to the Congressional Budget Office) would lose their access to affordable health insurance.

With Republican control of the White House, House of Representatives, and Senate, the federal safety net seemed all but certain to shrink.

The Congressional Budget Office—tasked with determining how much any given piece of legislation will cost (or save) to implement, including reductions in tax revenue—concluded in a March 13 report that the American Health Care Act of 2017, popularly known as “Trumpcare,” would: “reduce federal deficits by $337 billion over the 2017-2026 period” with the largest savings coming “from reductions in outlays for Medicaid” and from elimination of Affordable Care Act “subsidies for non-group health insurance.”

While much of the 2017 health care debates have focused on repealing Obamacare, 74-year-old Marge Koley (of Bellevue) exists at the crux of Medicaid and Medicare. Koley is one of the many senior caregivers who attend to younger, disabled relatives.

She and her husband rely on the earned benefits of Social Security and Medicare, benefits that have made it possible for them to enjoy their golden years without working.

Watching the media spectacle unfold, Koley was most afraid for their 37-year-old daughter, Jenny, who has Down syndrome. Jenny qualifies for Social Security Disability Insurance, Medicare and Medicaid for health insurance, and receives support services to live and work independently through Medicaid and Nebraska Health and Human Services.

“Jenny has always had the dream of having her own apartment and living as independently as possible,” Koley says, speaking with Omaha Magazine in July on the eve of the so-called “skinny repeal,” the last ditch effort to repeal Obamacare by the Senate.

“What will happen to Jenny after I am not here to care for her?” she says. “That is my greatest fear. She has one sibling in Indiana. If the proposed caps and cuts in Medicaid are enacted, she could lose the services she needs to live and be part of the community. Also lost are the years of progress allowing people with disabilities to decide for themselves where they want to live and with whom. We may have for-profit insurance companies running programs and deciding the fate of our children. Will institutional living return? Will the waitlists continue to grow and grow?”

Jenny moved into her own place in September 2016; meanwhile, Koley still provides most of her transportation needs. Medicaid service providers take care of residential support and job coaching.

“Jenny currently works nine hours a week at the Ollie Webb Center,” Koley says, obviously proud of what her daughter has been able to accomplish with some compassionate assistance. “Jenny loves being responsible for herself, and now cleans her apartment and does her wash on her own without prompting, and has been able to decrease her outside support. Now, she has someone one day a week to help work on cooking, going out into the community.”

The current political environment is a source of anxiety for Koley, who says she has never before seen the American public so polarized.

“This is the most divisive political climate I have ever experienced. Neither side will listen to the other’s views,” Koley says, adding that if she had a chance to talk to lawmakers, her message for them is to save Medicaid. “I want them to save Medicaid and to get a full understanding of the consequences of their actions. Budgets should not be balanced on the backs of people with disabilities who are least able to defend themselves.”

Efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act—for the time being—came to a screeching halt with the pivotal thumbs-down vote from Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who flew to Washington D.C. for the vote shortly after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer.

Months after the failure of the “skinny repeal,” in the week following the failure of another repeal attempt (the Graham-Cassidy Bill), Koley experienced a sense of temporary relief.

“I’m very happy that it did fail, knowing how it would affect Jenny,” she says. “But I know politicians will be revisiting this, and we’ll need to gear up again to defend Medicaid benefits at a later time.”

Visit olliewebbinc.org to learn more about the Medicaid service provider that plays a crucial role in the lives of Marge and Jenny Koley.

From left: Marge and Jenny Koley

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

Planting Seeds of Community

October 27, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Although he grew up in Louisiana during the time of segregation, Edgar Hicks says he was more fortunate than most of his African-American peers. His parents were professionals—his mother was a teacher and his father a physician. This enabled them to better support their children financially, including helping out with college.

“I had a good father, good mother—they took care of me,” Hicks says, adding that in spite of racial segregation, he remembers a stronger sense of community than what he sees available for young people in Omaha. “It caused you to know your neighbor.”

He now works to encourage community bonds among Omaha youths by teaching agricultural skills to the next generation.

Hicks graduated from Pace University in New York City, where he studied finance. His first job out of college was as a floor clerk at the Chicago Board of Trade in 1971. He subsequently worked with various aspects of agricultural commodities. In 1985 he moved to the middle of Nebraska for a grain mer- chant job at a Merrick County cooperative (in Clarks, Nebraska), where he was eventually promoted to general manager. Risk management consulting work for a Fortune 500 company (INTL FCStone) brought him to Omaha in 1989.

The 69-year-old Hicks can’t seem to stop working. The part-time director at CFO Systems LLC says his mission now is to pass on his love for, and knowledge of, all things agriculture to those he believes it can benefit—especially young people.

Hicks says he believes that if the city’s young people better understood where their food comes from—and how everything is connected, from water to land—the world overall would be a better place. He says some of the horrible things that are happening in the world are happening because people don’t feel a part of it, and as a mentor, he hopes to help change that.

In order to help youth gain a connection to their food, he became a charter member of Carver Grange of Omaha in 2011. The organization’s focus is to expand hands-on education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics; promoting leadership skills; and striving to cultivate an interest in food (and careers in agri- culture). And if this does not keep Hicks busy enough, he also serves on the board of directors for Friends of Extension & 4-H Douglas- Sarpy County Foundation and 100 Black Men of Omaha. He was a founding member of 100 Black Men of Omaha, and he is currently mentoring three high school students through them.

Hicks is also an avid stamp collector and active member of the Omaha Philatelic Society. Vernon Waldren, the executive director of Friends of Extension & 4-H, says he has known Hicks for more than 20 years. The two bonded over their love of agriculture and stamps. Even Hicks’ stamp collection focuses on agriculture.

“He has a passion for getting people to understand where their food comes from and how all of it ties together,” Waldren says. “You know, it’s kind of a joke, but it’s not a joke: Everybody eats, so everybody has an interest in agriculture.”

Through the federal USAID Farmer-to-Farmer program, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Hicks was asked to travel to Africa to help farmers start a co-op in Toubacouta, Senegal. That summer 2016 trip made him think about food, and America.

“The only thing they have in Senegal that we don’t—they eat well,” he says. “They eat fresh food. The eat much more than we do.” However, Hicks also discovered that much of the West African country lacks essential public services—running water, dependable electricity, post offices, and traffic lights.

“I never thought about traffic lights as a big deal, until you try to go to Africa and turn left,” he says, noting that the trip made him appreciate the services provided by the U.S. government.

In the future, he suspects Africa will be the answer to the world’s rising demand for food. “If there’s ever going to be a need 100 years from now for land, I’m sure we’ll be using Africa as a food base,” he says.

During his interview at Omaha Magazine’s West Omaha office space, he gestures out a window to the surrounding buildings and says, “As we put more concrete up and run out of [land], how are we gonna feed ourselves in the future?”

This question seems to be a part of what drives Hicks’s mission to educate youths about agriculture and animal husbandry. He adds there’s a lot he has wanted to work on but hasn’t gotten done.

“That’s why I gotta go back to work!” he says. Not that he ever stopped.

Visit 4h.unl.edu to learn more about 4-H in Nebraska. The Douglas-Sarpy County 4-H is a community partner for Omaha Magazine’s 2018 Best of Omaha Festival (which takes place at Baxter Arena on Nov. 5, 2017).

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

We Can’t Drive 55

June 8, 2017 by

I have a little pinback button with a red flag emblazoned with the words “Safety First.” It was produced in 1915 by the Nebraska Safety League, which seems to have been one of a number of grassroots efforts to improve public safety.

This was in response to the nationwide development of a group called the National Council for Industrial Safety, which initially focused on workplace safety, but expanded its scope in the next few years to include traffic and home concerns (changing its name to the National Safety Council).

About that time, Omaha’s city commissioner, John J. Ryder, visited New York and discovered something called the “American Museum of Safety,” which functioned, in part, to instruct school children about street safety. He was enamored with this idea and advocated for a local version.

Both recommendations came at the end of an era of almost unbridled carnage in the streets. To read the newspapers of the era, crossing the street sometimes sounded like a game of Frogger, with pedestrians dodging carriages, streetcars, automobiles, and runaway horses. Auto fatalities had skyrocketed—a total of 54 people had died in crashes in 1900, but by 1915 nearly 7,000 Americans had been killed on the roads.

The first talk of speed limits in Omaha seems to have occurred as far back as 1903, when an automobile ordinance was proposed. There weren’t many car owners in town, and they tended to be wealthy, and tended to get their way as a result. When the ordinance suggested a low speed limit of six-to-eight miles per hour, the car owners rebelled. Included among them was Gurdon Wattles, who made his fortune in transportation. He complained that cars only went two speeds, slow and fast, and slow was too slow to be much good, and fast was too fast for the speed limit. He suggested 12 miles per hour would be satisfactory.

They got their way, but almost immediately advances in auto technology rendered this limit moot. By 1905, cars were speeding around Omaha at 40 miles per hour, and police were complaining it was nearly impossible to enforce the limit—to tell a car’s speed, police had to watch a car travel from one area to the next and count seconds, and then do some quick math. In 1909, there was even a proposal to reduce the speed limit again, back down to six miles per hour, to discourage cars driving at dangerous speeds.

Instead, the speed limit crept upward. By 1911, it was 15 miles per hour. By the 1920s, with the advent of highways built specifically for automobiles, the maximum speed jumped to 25 miles per hour. By 1935, it was 35. And in 1969, speeds on the highways leapt to 60 miles per hour.

So it has been ever since, but for a brief period in the 1970s when, in response to spiking oil prices, there was a national maximum speed limit off 55 miles per hour, which proved unpopular enough for Sammy Hagar to enjoy chart success with a song titled “I Can’t Drive 55.”

The federal limits were repealed in 1995. Currently, the maximum speed limit in Nebraska is 75 miles per hour, a speed that Gurdon Wattles probably would have enjoyed.

This article was printed in the May/June edition of 60 Plus.

Memorial Day Tribute

May 8, 2017 by

Memorial Day is a federal holiday—a day of remembrance for those who have died while serving in our country’s armed forces.

The May/June issue of Omaha Magazine features the stories of several Nebraska veterans and their war experiences. My husband, Raymond Lemke, was drafted to serve in the Korean War. He was somewhat reluctant to talk about his experiences, but he wrote about his service in a memoir. I’ll share some of those experiences here.

His basic training was in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, which had been closed since World War II. When he first got there, it wasn’t even completely open. Today, it remains open and is known by the nickname “Fort Lost In The Woods.”

He trained in engineering—which consisted mainly of building Bailey bridges—and also trained with dynamite, TNT, and other explosives to blow up bridges. After training, he was sent straight to Korea. He was assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division’s M114 155 Howitzers, which had nothing to do with his basic training.

He said that Korea was very difficult for him, and he felt that it was a controlled war. He said they would take a hill, back off, then take it again the next day. The loss of life was tremendous.

The winter weather in North Korea was nearly identical to the winter in Nebraska. Growing up dirt poor in rural Nebraska provided the right experience for dealing with Korean winters. By layering newspapers inside his clothes, he was able to stay warmer while so many U.S. troops froze to death.

On top of the constant cold, he was always hungry. He fondly remembered taking a big jar of peanut butter from a resupply group.

After 11 months in the service, he became a staff sergeant. He believed the promotion was because he was still standing.

The American and North Korean forces would shell each other continuously until one knocked the other out. They never thought about ear protection, and the battery fire took its toll. Despite suffering tinnitus since the war, he didn’t complain. “I’m the lucky one—I am still here,” he said. He was discharged on Nov. 6, 1953.

Later, living in Papillion, he was on the Papillion Draft Board. As a protest against the escalation of the Vietnam War, he resigned from the board, refusing to send more boys there.

I am proud of my husband’s service, and I have deep respect for all who have served and sacrificed for our great country—they are truly heroes!

Raymond Lemke

This article appears in the May/June 2017 edition Sixty-Plus, a publication within Omaha Magazine.

A Treasure in Stained Glass

April 16, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Sometime around 1904, when Omaha Bishop Richard Scannell visited Europe to invite young men to serve as priests among the German-American members of the Omaha diocese, the Rev. Bernard Sinne was among those who responded.

Sinne was born Dec. 9, 1878, in Elsen, Westphalia. He was ordained to the priesthood May 5, 1904, in Freiburg. The following August, Sinne was appointed pastor of St. Mary Magdalene Church in Omaha. He was 27 years old and served as pastor for 57 years.

Before Sinne left Germany for Omaha, he was told by his bishop that he was “a goat to go to Omaha, where he would have to ride horseback all day and sleep in an Indian tent all night.” Sinne ended up in Omaha doing neither.

What Sinne did do was build and preserve a church that holds the most beautiful stained glass windows in Omaha, windows from the studios of Franz Mayer in Munich, Germany.

There is no other church in Omaha, no other church in the state of Nebraska, and probably no other church in the United States that has such a fine collection of stained glass as does St. Mary Magdalene at 19th and Dodge streets. This church could be considered the Sistine Chapel of stained glass in the United States.

It wasn’t an easy thing to do, to keep St. Mary Magdalene Church above ground. In the 1920s, the city administration decided to lower Dodge Street because the incline was too great. The church was then “built down” to accommodate the new street level.

After building the church down and turning the basement into the main level, Sinne ordered a new set of windows from the Franz Mayer company for the new main level.

In 1926, Sinne was honored for his work lowering the church and his many years of service at St. Mary Magdalene. At the ceremony, he admitted that the cutting down of Dodge Street’s hill “was the greatest cross that ever visited me. But with your assistance, we have been able to bear the heavy expense [estimated to be $150,000].”

There are other churches in the United States that have stained glass windows from the Franz Mayer studios, but none have two full sets, spanning a generation, that display the work of artisans from Munich so well.

Ironically, representatives of the Franz Mayer company had forgotten about their windows in Omaha. It seems that the destruction brought about by two world wars had devastated the company’s records. It was only after an inquiry was made about the “Good Samaritan on the Battlefield” window did they search their remaining records. To their surprise, they realized they had shipped stained glass to Omaha in the 1930s.

Of all the windows in the church, the “Good Samaritan on the Battlefield” is probably the most unusual. This window was installed between the two world wars, at a time when German immigrants to Omaha were involved in a difficult question of identity—were they Americans or were they Germans?

With Hitler on the rise in Germany, the question of patriotism took on new meaning for both  Sinne and his many German parishioners. In the battle scene depicted in the Good Samaritan window, we see written in Latin, “Pro Deus et Patria.” For God and Country.

The Good Samaritan window is also significant because, while working with a representative of the present-day Franz Mayer company, the church discovered the original cartoon for the window design.

Other windows in the church also have stories to tell. The window that depicts the Evangelist Luke bears a dedication to the contractor Benno Kunkel, who built the present church for $40,000.

As the German community in Omaha moved west into St. Joseph’s parish and the bishops were working to build St. Cecilia Cathedral, Sinne quietly made St. Mary Magdalene Church into an Omaha artistic treasure. In so doing, he also left us with some mysteries.

Why is there no window depicting the crucifixion at St. Mary Magdalene? Most Catholic churches have a window that shows the crucifixion. Instead, opposite each other in the church, windows depict the birth and resurrection of Jesus. Furthermore why in a church named after St. Mary Magdalene, is there no window dedicated to her? Instead, there are two windows dedicated to St. Cecilia.

What will be the future of this Nebraska treasure of stained glass? In a city that often seems dead set on demolishing its past and replacing it with more glass and steel boxes, the future does not look bright for these historic windows or the church.

Many of the windows are now more than 100 years old and are in need of repair. Parts of some windows are missing. The church itself needs extensive repair, and just like a masterpiece by Rembrandt that has an elegant frame around it, so the building that holds these stained glass treasures has to become the elegant frame that holds the windows up.

We owe it to the memory of Sinne that the art treasure he has given Omaha be preserved and restored. Some men build a cathedral on a hill to demonstrate their power, other men build a church (and decorate with windows from the Franz Mayer company) to show their love.

Researching the Windows

The gravel walk to the Douglas County Historical Society is strewn with red maple leaves. It is early in a dry November. Already, the Crook House next door to the society library is decorated with Christmas garlands.

Then Monsignor Sinne had given an interview to the Greater Omaha Historical Society in 1959. The interview was conducted in the rectory at St. Mary Magdalene Church. That tape is now in the possession of the Douglas Historical Society, and I am on my way to hear it. The interview was conducted by the Rev. Henry Casper, S.J., author of the History of the Catholic Church in Nebraska, and an unidentified woman.

The old tape player in the historical society’s listening room is covered in dust. Sinne’s voice, the voice of an older man, sounds dusty, too. He was 83 years old at the time of the interview.

On the tape, which breaks up from time to time, Sinne relates his experiences as a young man and new pastor in Omaha. You can still hear a German accent in his voice. In the interview, he admits that when he came to Omaha his first impression of the city was seeing all the beer signs. When asked about that, he remarked, “Lord in heaven!”

We learn from the tapes that Leo A. Daly was one of the architects of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. The Leo A Daly company still works in Omaha today (and maintains its international headquarters in the city). After getting an architect, the monsignor went to Chicago to get a construction firm. He claims, all together, the work on the chapel cost $275,000.

All in all, the taped interview does not reveal much about the windows at St. Mary Magdalene. But the oral history does shed light on the monsignor’s personal background. He came from a wealthy German family. This may account for where the money came from to decorate the church and buy the windows.

It’s disheartening to realize that the interview recording—which lasts more than an hour—does not answer questions we would like to ask Sinne. At the end of the tape, I realize this voice from the past is also a voice from another world.

Then, there comes a surprise. Besides the two cassette tapes, the Historical Society has a manila folder with newspaper clippings about Sinne. Mixed up among the yellowed clippings is a copy of a short article from the World-Herald on Thursday, Aug. 6, 1914. The article says that Sinne had three brothers: Two of them were in the German army, to be posted to Cologne, no doubt preparing to fight in WWI. The third brother was in the United States and “responding to the reserves call.”

The tape rewinds. The monsignor’s voice sounds weary. I pack the laptop and sling my backpack over a shoulder. The old door to the library creeks open as I leave and walk down the wooden steps. I kick at fallen red maple leaves on the way to my car.

Did it happen that Sinne’s brothers fought on different sides during WWI? Could this be the reason for the war memorial window, for the Good Samaritan on the Battlefield? Could it be that Sinne had this window installed to remember his brothers? More unanswered questions.

The late afternoon sunlight is brilliant while casting long shadows. This glow of a dwindling autumn holds not the promise of spring. It lends its light only a short while.

Robert Klein Engler is a member of St. Mary Magdalene parish and works part-time at Joslyn Art Museum. He holds degrees from the University of Illinois-Urbana and the University of Chicago Divinity School. Visit archomaha.org for more information.

“The Good Samaritan on the Battlefield”

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

On Bread

April 10, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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