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Wicked Omaha

April 27, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Musty newspapers, photos, archives, public records, presentations, and endless hours of research. Sure, the life of a modern folk historian sounds glamorous, but it’s not all like Raiders of the Lost Ark. In many ways, history is an occupation reserved only for those obsessive truth-seekers disconnected from their place on the space-time continuum.

Local historian, author, teacher, and Glenwood native Ryan Roenfeld has been making history entertaining for nigh on two decades. The 44-year-old nontraditional UNO student describes himself as a “hick-from-the-sticks.” A quasi-Luddite with a passion for the past, he doesn’t have a cell phone but he uses Facebook.

“I don’t know how I got so interested in history,” Roenfeld says. “Most folks see history as dry and dull, but it’s not. It really is—good, bad, or indifferent—the story of why things are the way they are.”

While decrying the modern age, Roenfeld helped popularize one of Omaha’s most frequented social media sites: Chuck Martens’ “Forgotten Omaha” Facebook page.

As one of three administrators, Roenfeld has seen “Forgotten Omaha” grow to more than 45,000 likes over the last year.

“I was surprised at the interest. Omahans didn’t know as much of their history as I thought,” says Roenfeld, who also teaches classes on Omaha history for Metropolitan Community College at Do Space. “History really is the story of us all, and I like telling people their stories.”

A folksy populist with an encyclopedic knowledge of colorful locals and criminals, Roenfeld tells the lesser-known tales of underrepresented populations, colorful characters, and swept-under scandals. He has self-published a dozen books and contributed to many articles on topics ranging from old postcards, railroads, steamboating, and local 19th-century brewers. To date, his most popular book has been Tinhorn Gamblers and Dirty Prostitutes, a colorful history of vice in Council Bluffs, which offers a glimpse at the city’s exploitation of prostitutes in the late 19th century.

“The highlights are always the lowlifes,” Roenfeld says. “People like hearing stories of cowboy shoot-outs in the street. People think the Old West happened in Arizona, but this area was really the archetype for every Wild West trope.”

The popularity of Western depravity was also obvious to Roenfeld’s publisher, The History Press. Roenfeld’s latest book, Wicked Omaha (not to be confused with David Bristow’s book, Dirty, Wicked Town [Omaha], published by Caxton Press in 2000), looks closely at “Hell’s Half-Acre,” Omaha’s red-light district in the 1880s.

Hell’s Half-Acre stretched from the Missouri River to 16th Street and from Douglas to Cuming streets. The city portrayed in Roenfeld’s Wicked Omaha makes all the stereotypes of Deadwood seem trite.

“People don’t realize that anything went in Hell’s Half-Acre,” Roenfeld says. “It was a different Omaha, when the saloons ran all night and strangers were victimized by every scheme going, all right downtown, nothing secret about it. Brothels were illegal, but ran in the open. There was drug addiction, suicide, and systematic exploitation. Prostitutes paid ‘fines’ monthly to keep operating. If they couldn’t pay, the city gave them a few weeks before they were hauled in front of a judge to either pay up or get shut up.”

Wicked Omaha made its debut Thursday, March 9, at the UNO Criss Library’s Read Local Author Showcase. Roenfeld plans to present his book at Omaha’s W. Dale Clark library May 6. The book is sold at The Bookworm, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and elsewhere.

Visit arcadiapublishing.com for more information.

This article appeared in the May/June edition of Omaha Magazine.

Parkinson’s Disease

January 26, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The way Terry Currey looks at it, Parkinson’s disease is a battle of the mind versus the brain.

Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2009, Currey describes his brain as an antagonist that controls his body. The protagonist is his mind, which he applies with persistent determination and will power to overcome the malevolent part of his brain.

Currey knows that in the end, his brain will be the victor. “But it’s not whether you win or lose,” he says, “it’s how you play the game.”

Parkinson’s disease is the second most common neurodegenerative disease—Alzheimer’s disease is the first—and usually occurs in individuals after age 60. The disease typically advances over a period of many years and affects movement, muscle control, and balance. Symptoms include a tremor, slow movement, loss of balance, and stiffness of the limbs.

“When the disease reaches a moderate stage, the motor [skills] problems become more pronounced, medications may begin to lose their effectiveness, and non-motor symptoms begin to develop, such as swallowing issues, speech and sleep problems, low blood pressure, mood and memory issues,” says Dr. Danish Bhatti, neurologist and co-director of the Parkinson’s Disease Clinic at Nebraska Medicine.

Dr. John Bertoni, co-director of the Parkinson’s Clinic, is Currey’s physician. “The needs for Parkinson’s patients are very diverse and become more complex as the disease progresses.”

Early diagnosis is the key to beginning proper treatment and helping manage progression of the disease, Dr. Bhatti says. Most people with Parkinson’s can get significant control of their symptoms with medications and a combination of other therapies, including occupational therapy, speech therapy, nutrition counseling, support groups, and regular exercise.

“The benefits of exercise early on, and throughout the disease process, is significant,” he says. “People who are independent after 10 years are the ones who were very active early in the disease. The more active you are, the less likely you are to have severe symptoms.”

Currey has been fighting the disease with an arsenal of tools that include medications, exercise, diet, and mind games. He says exercise has been critical in helping him stay active and keeping his muscle memory in place. He regularly uses his treadmill or elliptical, lifts weights, and participates in other activities like fishing, camping, mowing the lawn, snowblowing during winter, reading, and writing. Each is an important element in staying in the battle, he says.

“Some days it’s not only hard to move, but to want to move,” he says. “You have to have a mission. You have to set your mind to whatever it is you want to accomplish and not let the enemy win.”

To help others with the battle, Currey recently wrote a book, titled Neural Combat: Strategies and Tactics for your War with Parkinson’s Disease, available on Amazon. There were several goals Currey says he wanted to achieve with his book, such as helping individuals newly diagnosed with Parkinson’s to overcome their fear of the disease; to explain what is happening to them medically; and to assist them in developing tools to cope with the symptoms.

“With Parkinson’s disease, you go through the stages of grief and denial, and finally resignation and acceptance,” Currey says. “It took me a while to accept it, but once I came to that realization, I decided that I’m in it to battle this to the end for as long as I have my cognitive abilities.”

Visit pdf.org for more infomation.


Keith Reid

August 25, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Coming home to a pile of packages on the doorstep is like…well…celebrating Christmas. Postmaster of Omaha Keith Reid knows that, because his team of postal workers deliver tons of packages to people each and every day.

Those packages that come from UPS? They actually come from the U.S. Postal Service…at least they are dropped off by someone at the USPS. Those books and electronics from Amazon? Yep, USPS again.

KeithReid1It is one of the many ways the postal service is combatting the decline in correspondence.

Reid says Omaha, specifically, has found increased revenue in packages.

“Packages have increased by 20 percent over 2015 and 18 percent over 2014,” Reid says. “That is a volume count from our machines. We now track every package. For Omaha, our package delivery volume was up 21.9 percent from same time last year.”

That 20 percent increase represents eight million packages delivered as of early July.

They also created a revenue stream by delivering packages for United Parcel Service. While UPS delivers 90 percent of the way to a home or office, the USPS goes the extra mile to send those packages down the last mile.

“The last mile is the most costly,” Reid explains. “For them it’s more practical to bring it here. If you think about it, just at Boys Town (Post Office), I have about 55 routes. It’s more cost effective for them to drop it at the post office when we have seven carriers going to those places anyway.”

UPS pays the USPS for that last mile.

Conversely, packages that need to fly from one place to another, even when mailed from the USPS, often come through FedEx, for the same reason. It is costly to fly packages.

In terms of revenue, however, the biggest increase has come from efficiency.

Need a passport? There is only one place in Omaha to go. That’s Postal Impressions at 132nd and Q streets. And an appointment is necessary.

“That way the customer knew they wouldn’t need to wait,” Reid says. “It used to be 15 minutes per passport.”

In order to reduce the wait time, customers go online and make the appointment. The customer is then emailed with instructions on what to bring with them.

“It’s down to seven or eight minutes,” Reid says. “I have four clerks doing passports.”

Postal service employees also offer more personalized services than they used to.

Need stamps to send a letter or bill? Need to send a stack of fliers regarding a coming sale? Let your local carrier know. He or she will help you.

“We are getting our employees involved,” Reid says. “We originally looked at where our competitors went. Now, we will go right up to businesses and ask how we can help them.”

Friendliness goes a long way.

“We’re over a million in revenue, just by having our carriers talk to customers,” Reid says.

Reid also believes the USPS’ positive results will continue.

“Every time people refer to us as a dinosaur, we establish ourselves as bigger and stronger.”

Visit usps.com for more information. B2B

A Hidden Myth in Elkhorn

December 15, 2014 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

On one late fall day, as most high school students were shuffled to and from sports practices, band rehearsals, and gatherings at friends’ houses, 15-year-old author Brandon Bauer was hard at work at a local Barnes & Noble signing copies of his first book, the Greek mythology-inspired A Hidden Myth. It’s a process that’s been more than four years in the making, but one that didn’t come as a surprise to the diligent teenage scribe.

Brandon, a sophomore at Elkhorn High School, released his first book of seven in his series, Heroes of Light, through Tate Publishing this October. The first entry, which will be available on Amazon and in some Barnes & Noble stores, follows the three main characters of Perseus, Hercules, and Athen, as they are pulled back in time by Kronos, the Lord of Time. The rest of the series will follow other characters in Greek mythology as they attempt to defeat the three Dark Prophecies set forth by the evil Kronos.

Despite the intense amount of work creating such a complex series entails, Brandon never had any doubts that he would finish his book. If there’s one trait that Brandon has, it’s focus, says his mother, Cathy.

“Even when he was a baby, you could put him in one spot, and he could play for hours,” Cathy says. “He had an imagination—he wasn’t all over the place like some other kids were, but he was focused.”

It’s this focus that has kept Brandon consumed with writing even as his life is constantly sidetracked by health issues. Brandon was born with a cleft palate, and has had approximately 10 to 15 surgeries to fix it during his lifetime. This December, he is also receiving surgery to treat his scoliosis. However none of these surgeries will set back the timeline of the release of Brandon’s future books.

According to Cathy, Brandon was bitten by the writing bug around age 9. While Brandon has written piles and piles of short stories over the years, he didn’t begin writing the Heroes of Light series until he was in sixth grade. Brandon had enjoyed reading Greek mythology and thought he had enough ideas that he could actually put together a book. But not just one book—Brandon knew from the beginning that he wanted to do a series of seven.

“I like long, complicated plots more,” Brandon says. “They keep me guessing more, and you’re more into the story.”

After numerous edits, Brandon and Cathy began reaching out to publishers in January. They heard back almost immediately from Tate Publishing, and signed a contract in February. After five more rounds of edits and selecting cover designs, Brandon received the first copy of his book in September. Now Cathy and Brandon are in the process of setting up book signings and presentations to schools to promote the series.

Brandon hopes to continue writing or to go into film production. He’s coy about what lies next for him—“I have some ideas”—but doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon. He is already editing the second book in the Heroes of Light series, writing the third one, and has outlines for the fourth and fifth.

“Brandon is pretty laid-back, and he kind of goes with the flow,” Cathy says. “But it’s an accomplishment; I would never have been able to do this at his age.”