Tag Archives: America

Pheasant Heaven

January 4, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“We went through 250,000 birds and 30,000 hunters in the last 30 years,” Bruhn says. “We had every celebrity you could think of out here.”

As urban sprawl takes over rural America, yesterday’s pasture transforms into tomorrow’s super store. Earl Henry Bruhn Jr. foresaw this trend long ago. He knew hunters would need a place to go where they could get inspired, stay in touch, and most importantly—hunt some birds.

Scott Bruhn is the son of Earl Henry Bruhn Jr. His family’s farm along the Elkhorn River Valley underwent decades of preparation before opening for commercial hunting.

“My dad bought the property in 1962,” Bruhn says. “He was a big hunter. He said, ‘We’ll buy our own property; we’ll have our own private hunting preserve and get a head start.’”

Pheasant Haven officially opened as a hunting preserve in 1987 after Scott and his brother, Earl Bruhn III, graduated from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The two wanted to realize their father’s vision for Pheasant Haven—opening hundreds of acres to hunters from all over the nation.

“We went through 250,000 birds and 30,000 hunters in the last 30 years,” Bruhn says. “We had every celebrity you could think of out here.”

Unfortunately, his brother Earl did not live to see the full realization of their Pheasant Haven dream. After his untimely death in 1991, just four years after opening, Bruhn was left to carry on the dream—alone.

In recent years, urban development has finally reached the gates of Pheasant Haven. Trophy homes now dot the beautiful Elkhorn River Valley. At this point in time, Bruhn says the preserve is no longer viable as a hunting retreat. The property shrank from a vast acreage to a mere 75 acres, and Bruhn has come up with a new focus for the business.
pheasantheaven2“Now I have a staff created, and all the buildings, and everything I need to do dog boarding and training,” Bruhn says. “I love dogs.”

According to Bruhn, there is a large and underserved community of hunters in Omaha who want to have their dog trained for hunting. He says a lot of people want their dog to be ready for sporting, but simply don’t have the space to do it.

“They can drop their dog off, and we can exercise the dog and keep it in good condition,” Bruhn says. “When they go up to South Dakota, or wherever they go, they will already have their dog trained, ready to roll, and in great shape.”

Tom Kazmierczak of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, says he would pay the more than $1,000 it costs to train a dog at Pheasant Haven. Kazmierczak himself trained his dog, Sam, with mixed results. In his opinion, having a well-trained dog is very impressive and makes the hunt go more smoothly.

“I have also hunted with old-school guys who got mad at me when Sam took off running and I couldn’t stop her,” Kazmierczak says. But he acknowledges that having a perfectly trained dog that can hunt is not what it’s all about. He finds joy in the quality time spent with Sam.

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“I read a book called Travels with Charlie by Steinbeck when I was in about eighth grade, which is all about a guy and his dog discovering America—that’s Sam and I,” Kazmierczak says. “I take her anywhere they allow, and I start every morning in the backyard with Sam and a cup of coffee.”

Talking to someone like Kazmierczak, it is obvious that a hunting dog is more than a utilitarian tool. It can be the family pet—the dog that flushes pheasants and drinks from the proverbial toilet bowl.

There is another sporting aspect of Pheasant Haven’s new business model that plays into the light-hearted side of dog ownership. Bruhn calls it dock jumping, but it is known nationally as “dock diving.” The premise of the sport is simple: dogs are trained to jump as far as they can off a dock over water.

Training dogs to dock dive goes beyond the fences of Pheasant Haven. Bruhn plans to partner with local animal shelters to give adoptee animals a second chance. He calls it “Wet Dog Jumps.” Pheasant Haven has already done fundraising dock jump events to benefit the Nebraska Humane Society, and this is another layer to that on-going effort.

“Those poor dogs that aren’t going to get a home—we are going to turn some of them into champions, sell them at the venues, and then give the money back to the shelters to feed more dogs,” Bruhn says.

Margaret Allen is Bruhn’s fiancée. When Bruhn retires, she says that will likely be the end of Pheasant Haven.

It is a little gloomy, seeing the beginning, middle, and end of a family business. But, as a game reserve, the destination was transient anyway. Encroaching urban sprawl has been a known threat for decades. Taking in dogs without a home, however, and giving them a new life—that creates a timeless legacy.

Visit pheasanthaven.org for more information.

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Marlin Briscoe

December 29, 2016 by
Photography by Contributed

Omaha native Marlin Briscoe made history in 1968 as the NFL’s first black starting quarterback. His success as a signal-caller carried huge symbolic and practical weight by disproving the then-popular misconception that blacks lacked the intelligence and leadership to play the position.

The same racist thinking not only applied to quarterbacks but to other so-called thinking-man positions on the field (center, safety, middle linebacker) and on the sidelines (head coach, general manager).

briscoe4Even in those racially fraught times, Briscoe’s myth-busting feat went largely unnoticed. So did the rest of the story. After overcoming resistance from coaches and management to even get the chance to play QB, he performed well at the spot during his rookie professional season, never to be given the opportunity to play it again. That hurt. But just as he overcame obstacles his whole life, he set about winning on his own terms by learning an entirely new position—wide receiver—in the space of a month and going on to a long, accomplished pro career. He made history a second time by being part of a suit that found the NFL guilty of anti-trust violations. The resulting ruling, in favor of players, ushered in the free agency era.

After retiring, Briscoe faced his biggest personal hurdle when a serious crack-cocaine addiction took him to the bottom of a downward spiral before he beat that demon, too.

Now, nearly a half-century since making history and a quarter-century since regaining sobriety, Briscoe’s story is finally getting its due. His 2002 autobiography spurred interest in his tale. Major media outlets have featured his story. Modern-day black quarterbacks have credited his pioneering path, and several lauded him in video tributes played at an event titled “An Evening with the Magician,” held in his honor in September at Omaha’s Baxter Arena. A life-size statue of his likeness was dedicated at the tribute event. Also in the fall of 2016, he received the Tom Osborne Leadership Award. In December he was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Now, he’s preparing to watch actor Lyriq Bent portray him in a major motion picture about his life, The Magician, set to film this spring.

If the movie, produced by his old Omaha University teammate-turned-actor John Beasley, is a hit, it will bring Briscoe’s role as a civil rights soldier to a much wider audience than ever before. Now in his early 70s, Briscoe fully appreciates all that has led up to this moment. He has no doubt he’s ready for whatever may come. Growing up in South Omaha’s melting pot, no-nonsense mentors and peers steeled him for life’s vagaries. Fierce competition toughened him.

“The training I grew up with was the best training any young man or woman could have,” Briscoe says.

On playing fields and courts, in streets and classrooms, he found an inner resolve that served him well through life’s ups and downs.

“That’s where I learned resilience—from my mom, my sister, and all my mentors, and neighbors. They all had this type of mentality and grit. It rubbed off on me and some of the kids I grew up with. It prepared me for anything. If I had not learned core values from growing up where I did, the things I did, the obstacles I overcame would never have happened.”

His cousin Bob Rose and Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson’s oldest brother Josh Gibson were among a cadre of local coaches who inspired youngsters of Briscoe’s generation. 

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“You had to go through them if you wanted to do something wrong, and you didn’t want to go through them,” Briscoe says. “Our mentors were down at the Northside Y, at Kellom School, Kountze Park, St. Benedict’s. They cared about where we were going in life.”

When Briscoe was bullied as boy, Rose gave him a “magic box” filled with the tools of various sports—a baseball, football, basketball, and boxing gloves—with the admonition that if he mastered these, he wouldn’t be bothered. He did and wasn’t. The magic box became the gateway for the Magician to do his thing.

Briscoe grew up respecting adults, all adults, even winos, hustlers, and prostitutes.

“They told you to do something, you did it, and went on about your business,” he says.

He conducted himself in a way that in turn earned him respect as a young leader. Virtually all the athletic teams he played on growing up consisted primarily of white players, which meant his entire athletic life he was advancing diversity. Long before he found immortality with the Broncos, he was the first black quarterback on youth teams, at South High, and then at Omaha University (now known as UNO).

Though he lived in South Omaha, Briscoe made a point of going to the proving grounds of North Omaha, where there were even more great athletes and a particular endurance test and rite of passage.

“Off Bedford [Avenue] by Adams Park, there used to be The Hills. It was like the barrier and motivational place where top ballplayers like Gale Sayers and myself would go and work out. Sometimes, I would be up there early in the morning by myself running those hills. I always tell young people today, ‘It is what you do when nobody sees you that defines and determines your work ethic and how you will turn out.’

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“There were plenty of guys with more ability than myself—who were bigger, stronger, faster—and while they worked hard when eyes were on them, they slacked off when they were alone. A lot of guys who never made it regretted not putting out the effort to match their ability.”

Briscoe might never have made history if not for some good fortune. He started at quarterback for Omaha University his sophomore and junior years, putting up good numbers and earning the nickname “Magician” for an uncanny ability to escape trouble and extend plays with highlight reel throws and runs. Just before what was supposed to be his senior year, 1966, he got undercut in an all-star basketball game at Bryant Center and took a hard spill. He went numb and was rushed to the hospital, where doctors decreed he was injury-free. He started the ’66 season football opener versus Idaho State with no ill effects. He had a monster game. Then, late in the contest, he took a hit that caused his neck to swell. When rushed to the ER this time, X-rays revealed a fractured vertebra. He’d competed with a broken neck.

Doctors told him his days playing contact sports were over. He accepted the harsh news and dived into his studies, ready to move on with life sans football. Then during a medical checkup, tests confirmed his bones recalcified, and he was cleared to play again. He got a medical hardship waiver from the NAIA and went on to have a huge senior season in 1967, earning small college All-American honors and getting picked in the 14th round of the NFL draft.

He’s convinced he wouldn’t have taken snaps in Denver, which drafted him as a defensive back, if he hadn’t negotiated his own contract to include a clause he be given a three-day tryout at quarterback. He so dazzled the media and the public during the open practices that once the season began and Denver QBs went down due to injury or were benched for poor play, he got his shot and ran with it.

Briscoe’s larger-than-himself magic enabled him to make history in a crucible year for America—a year of riots, anti-war protests, assassinations, and civil rights struggles.

“For some reason, divine intervention maybe, it just seemed the stars were aligned in 1968 for a black man to break the barrier at that position,” he says. “It just seems 1968 was the pivotal year for all African-Americans, for all Americans period. For me to do it in ’68 is just eerie, the way that happened.”

So much of his NFL experience, he says, involved fighting “injustices.” Released by Denver and denied playing quarterback again, he excelled at a new position. Blackballed by the league for challenging its power, he won a hard-fought battle for himself and fellow players.

He insists he was not resentful for being shortchanged at quarterback.

“I wasn’t bitter, I was disappointed,” he says. “When you’re bitter, you give up, you take all this stuff personally, and you quit. I tell young people, ‘You’re going to have disappointments, and you’re going to be treated unfairly, but you can’t be bitter about it.’ Instead, you roll up your sleeves and fight whatever negative things come your way. Plan A doesn’t work? You go to Plan B. Life is just that way.”

Only after walking away from the game to be a broker in Los Angeles did he meet a foe—crack cocaine—that got the better of him. Before his recovery, he lost everything: his home, his fortune, his family. 

briscoe5“Here I was on a park bench trying to get some sleep in the heart of L.A. after owning homes and property,” he says.

What was so maddening about it is that he had done everything right. “It was not like I left the game with nothing,” he says. “I left the game correctly, sitting on easy street. I had wise investments. I prepared to leave the game by going to school and getting additional degrees. I was not hurt. I was in perfect physical condition.”

But in the vacuum of his post-athletic life, without the daily disciplines of workouts and team dynamics, he slipped into an unhealthy lifestyle.

“I let my guard down. I wasn’t really prepared for the L.A. scene because my whole life was always about precision, being responsible,” he says. “Then, when I didn’t have to meet all these different obligations and being single, I wasn’t rooted in one direction—I was just partying. You know, bring it on.”

No one who knew Briscoe before could believe he was in the grip of something that controlled him so completely, least of all himself.

“I had been a player rep. I was the one they always came to just as I was when I was a kid. I was the one people always came to for sage advice. And I never did drugs in the NFL,” Briscoe says.

But there he was, enslaved to a habit he couldn’t kick. Through it all, even losing his Super Bowl rings as collateral for a bank loan, he never forgot who he was inside and what he had done. Though homeless, penniless, and stuck in a jail cell when Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to lead a team to an NFL title, Briscoe felt he shared in that victory, too.

“I felt proud on one hand, and disappointed in myself on the other hand,” he says.

He sank lower than he ever thought possible, but he came back to whip that challenge, too: “The thing is, I always knew I would let go of that descent. I always knew and prayed I’d get back to that person all Omaha knew as this accomplished individual who conquered the NFL and enjoyed all these triumphs. The people that knew me are so elated now I’ve overcome my post-career meltdown because I had been a champion for them, fighting the NFL. I was always fighting for them and fighting for myself. I put myself in positions as a player where my voice could be heard.”

Even though it was decades ago, he believes defying and defeating the NFL’s monied interests left a blemish on his career that got further stained when he was traded several times as persona non grata.

“I’m not bragging or anything, but if I had been any other player, I guarantee you, I’d have been in the NFL Hall of Fame a long time ago. Nobody had ever done it—making history as the first black starting quarterback. People don’t realize I was also the first black holder on extra points. Counting cornerback and wide receiver, I played four different positions in the NFL, and I’m not sure anybody did that before. Then you add in the fact I made All-Pro as a receiver within two years of switching positions and went on to win two Super Bowls.”

Efforts are underway to rectify his absence as a Canton inductee via a write-in campaign to the Hall’s Veterans Committee.

Just as Briscoe wasn’t bitter about being shut out from playing quarterback after his rookie year, he wasn’t bitter that other blacks followed him into the league at that position.

“If I had not succeeded in 1968, James Harris would not have gotten drafted by the Bills as a quarterback out of Grambling in 1969. If I would have failed, they would have brought James in as a tight end. But the fact I was a litmus test and succeeded, they could take a chance on a black quarterback, and James was drafted.

“Ironically, he and I ended up being roommates in Buffalo. We knew each other’s plight. We would have conversations after practice. I would tell him different things that were going to happen to him and to be prepared for them.”

While Briscoe is known as the first black starting QB, another black man, Willie Thrower, briefly got into two games as a QB with the Bears 15 years before Briscoe’s experience with the Broncos. High off his rookie year success, Briscoe had a chance meeting with Thrower in Chicago. The two men hit it off.

briscoe6Briscoe, Harris, Doug Williams, and Warren Moon have formed an organization called The Field General that uses the still-exclusive legacy of the black quarterback to educate and inspire young people. Blacks still comprise but a fraction of the professional QB ranks. The same is true of head coaches, coordinators, and general managers. That fact, combined with the journey each man had to make to get to those rarified places, reveals just how far the nation and league still have to go.

Never in his wildest dreams did Briscoe imagine his story would get so much attention this many years after he played.

“It just goes to show that, if you never give up, a lot of these things will come your way. Sometimes things come late, like this movie project about my life,” he says.

Briscoe says he only agreed to let his story be told in a movie if it stayed true to who he is and to what happened.

“It’s not for self-gratification,” he says. “It’s hopefully as an inspiration for others that you can overcome any obstacle if you really want it. I look back on my life and see what it can do for others. It’s not just a football movie. If it were, I probably wouldn’t be a part of that interpretation of my life. My life is a lot more than just football.”

He’s sure the movie’s message of “if you never give up, you’ve got a chance” will resonate with diverse audiences. He’s proud to be living proof that anything can happen when you keep fighting.


Visit marlinbriscoemovie.com for more information.

This article was printed in the January/February 2017 edition of 60Plus in Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

The Matriarch Behind the Scenes

October 12, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The bright flavors and colors of Hidalgo, Mexico, pop at family-owned and operated Maria Bonita Mexican Cuisine. Matriarch and head chef Miriam Lopez authentically re-creates the food she recalls from her native land.

Tropical floral motifs by Omaha artist Mike Giron decorate the 5132 L St. restaurant, as well as the family’s two food trucks.

“The colors not only inspire us and make us remember where we come from but also transmit some of our culture and the way we envision life, which is colorful and positive,” eldest daughter Itzel Lopez says. “Our culture is really within us.”

She and her two sisters help mom continue a proud legacy of strong, accomplished Latinas.

Miriam and husband Miguel opened the eatery in 2011 at 20th Street and Missouri Avenue. Business boomed before Miguel fell ill.

“He was our backbone,” Itzel says. “For us, family’s always been more important than business, so we said, ‘Let’s take a break and get our dad where he needs
to be.'”

miriamlopez1Maria Bonita closed; however, the customers refused to leave. Itzel says, “Our customers really didn’t let us go, but the only way we could continue what we’d started was to go on wheels. So, we acquired our first food truck right in 2011, and in 2014 we acquired our second food truck.”

A new brick and mortar was sought to serve sit-down diners and to prep-host catering gigs. Thus, the former Sizzler site became the new Maria Bonita in 2015.

“Same food, same concept, just bigger,” says Itzel.

They opened it with help from the Nebraska Enterprise Fund. With Miguel recuperating in Mexico, Miriam wants it to be like coming to the Lopez casa for “a home-cooked family meal,” adding, “The kitchen is the home of the home.”

“These are dishes my mom will cook at home,” Itzel says. “Everything my mom does she makes with love. Mom wants to see tables full of families enjoying a good dinner. That’s something we grew up with. Every Sunday after church we come and enjoy our own food here.”

Miriam says she doesn’t use “complicated recipes, processes, and ingredients,” adding, “This is very different—this is simple food the way I remember when I was a kid. My memories are all about food—about my mom all the time cooking for everybody.”

She inherited her mom’s cooking talent, and her folks paid for culinary training. She worked as a line cook in Mexico and America. “All the time I was learning—I learned a lot.” Even though the hours are long, she finds joy. “All the time people ask me, why you work so hard? But I don’t feel like I’m working. It’s special—that’s the difference. They think it’s for the money, but it’s not for the money. It’s passion. I love this. It’s my dream.”

Miriam’s college-educated daughters have jobs and lives of their own, and she wants them to be successful.

“It’s my faith for them. Happiness is everything.”

“We move by faith in our family,” says Itzel. “We’re just hard working women. All we have to do is just follow that.”

Itzel says she admires her mother’s “consistency and perseverance” and how “she molds the family to the same mission.”

“We’re a good team, each with different roles and strengths, all of us guided by Mom and her passion for food.”

Mother and daughter are “proud” their family of “Mexican transplants and language learners” has come so far here.

A rotating traditional Mexican buffet is served daily from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Visit mariabonitaonline.com for more information. Sixty-Plus in Omaha

A Little Black Berry Farm

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Rachel Joy

These days, countless products claim to slow the process of aging and avert health concerns. What if the solution was as simple as a little black berry? Kurt and Tina Geschwender think that may just be the case.

The Geschwenders’ introduction to this wonder fruit came by way of chance. In 2010, Kurt was at a neighborhood picnic where his friend, chiropractor Bill Caster, introduced him to a cancer survivor who told him about the health benefits of aronia berries. Kurt’s interest was piqued, and he decided to do his own research on the fruit (which is also known as a chokeberry).

Although neither Kurt nor Tina ever suffered from cancer, they have lost multiple loved ones to the disease and live a health-conscious lifestyle. As they further researched aronia berries, they became convinced that they had discovered an untapped market with incredible healing potential.

Studies claim aronia berries improve circulation, balance blood pressure, and assist in decreasing inflammation in the body. Even more research has come through recently, but there remains a lot to be learned about the positive effects of this unique berry.

Geschwenders1The Geschwenders decided to take the leap into berry farming. They knew they could use land on their property to cultivate bushes. Five years and 1,500 bushes later, they can barely keep up with the demand for their product.

Outside of their agricultural startup, the Geschwenders  run a successful real estate company. With such busy lives, Kurt jokes that the berries made him question his sanity in the beginning. After all, the crops required him to wake at the crack of dawn to water each row by hand.

Still, Tina and Kurt are clearly passionate about educating the public and providing something that helps members of their community take charge of their health. Tina says she welcomes public inquiries about the berries by phone at 402-451-5300.

This year, the Geschwenders experimented with a new berry-picking strategy. The regulars at the Florence Mill Farmer’s Market set up a booth to collect names and contact information from folks interested in picking berries.

Berry ripening varies by year, typically occurring between late-July and mid-August. When the fruit was ripe, they notified their contact list that the “you-pick” season had begun. They charged $2.50 per pound and donated 50 cents from each pound to the Florence Mill Farmer’s Market.

Aronia berries have officially caught on as one of America’s favorite new superfoods, and the Midwest has become the hub for this booming industry. The North America Aronia Cooperative was formed in Omaha in early 2014 and includes 10 surrounding states. Some of the nation’s largest distributors also grow in the area.

Native to North America, the berries thrive in the Midwest. Once on the vine, it takes three weeks for them to ripen. Once ripe, they roll off the vines easily.

On their own, the berries taste tart yet bittersweet. It’s no wonder; these tiny berries have the highest recorded antioxidant level of any fruit. Red wine drinkers may appreciate their sharp quality, but anyone can enjoy the many recipes that include aronia berries.

Tina says she does not eat them on their own but uses them as a versatile ingredient. She turns to cookbooks, and her own experiments, to discover new ways of working them into her diet.

“Any baking I do, I use aronia berries. They mix really well with other fruit.” The recommended daily dose is 15 to 20 berries, but Tina says she will add more to her morning smoothie, “because if a little is good, a lot is better.”

Tina also lets Florence Mill market-goers sample her signature strawberry pecan aronia bread, a recipe she perfected over a two-year period. She swears she will never share the recipe: “It just took too long to get it right!”

The bread itself is extraordinarily moist, and dense without being heavy. It’s sweet, and the berries can clearly be noted, but the pecans and cinnamon cut through any tanginess, creating a more subtle, wholesome profile of flavors. Tina takes orders for the bread at the market, but her stock is limited. She light-heartedly laments that friends and family keep her busy with orders year-round.

America is still getting to know this super berry, but there is good reason to give it a try. The Geschwenders would be thrilled to share what they know, and may even dish out a new recipe or two, such as this one:

Tina’s Aronia Berry Breakfast Smoothie

Ingredients:

1 cup skim milk

1 banana

8 ounces (or one 8-ounce container) of cherry or blueberry Greek yogurt

1 cup of ice

15 to 20 aronia berries

Directions:

Blend all ingredients for one minute. Serve immediately in tall glasses.

Visit aroniacoop.com for more information. Sixty-Plus in Omaha

Fat BBQ Shack

July 1, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Barbecue is gaining in popularity. It has become so popular that Europeans now consider barbecue to be the cuisine of America. I am OK with that. Real barbecue does not come from that thing on your deck used to create char marks on steaks. Real barbecue refers to the culinary style that involves slowly cooking tough, inexpensive cuts of meat over hardwood charcoal until they become tender, smoky, and delicious.

FatShack1Barbecuing is not easy. It’s an art form, and good barbecue technique is something that takes people years to master. Fat BBQ Shack owner Cary Dunn has perfected his style of barbecue. The original Fat Shack started as a food truck and has since become a brick-and-mortar restaurant at 30th and Webber streets. It’s easy to figure out where the restaurant is in the Webber Place shopping center, since the line often stretches out the door.

The inside of the restaurant is nothing fancy, but it’s clean and serviceable. Most folks might refer to the place as a barbecue joint. It’s a small place that looks smaller because it is usually packed. Wood chairs surround lacquered wood tabletops. A roll of paper towels and two bottles of the Fat Shack’s housemade barbecue sauce top each table. You order at the counter from a well laid-out menu board. Then you can either take your barbecue to go or eat it there—if you can find a table.

The menu is quite extensive for a barbecue joint. The Fat Shack has a large selection of sandwiches, burgers, hand-breaded seafood, and, of course, smoked meat dinners with all the sides. The meats include brisket, pulled pork, ribs, rib tips, sausage, smoked turkey, and smoked half chickens. The sides include baked beans, potato salad, coleslaw, macaroni and cheese, green beans, corn on the cob, fresh-cut fries, fried okra, collard greens, and homemade potato chips.

On a recent visit, I braved the crowds and ordered a “Three Meat Dinner” ($14.99) which comes with two sides and choice of sliced bread or cornbread. I ordered brisket, pulled pork, and ribs. Brisket must be the chef’s specialty. It had a crisp black exterior, pink inner smoke ring, and a juicy, melt-in-your-mouth texture. It tastes incredible. The pulled pork is also good, but not on the same level as the brisket. The rib meat falls off the bones and tasted great, but I like ribs to stick on the bones a little more. For sides, I had the macaroni and cheese, and the collard greens. The macaroni and cheese is amazing—easily the best I know of in Omaha. The collard greens are also a real treat, perfectly seasoned and braised with smoky bacon. I also sampled the cornbread, which was hot, moist, and yummy.

FatShack3On another lunchtime visit, I tried the “Carolina Sandwich” ($7.99). This giant sandwich is piled high with moist smoked pork then topped with a vinaigrette pepper sauce and their crisp, creamy coleslaw. The combination is incredible, definitely a must-try. I also tried “The Shack Attack” ($8.99). This gluttonous dish is a giant mound of fresh-cut fries, nacho cheese sauce, choice of meat (I went with the brisket), barbecue sauce, shredded cheese, sour cream, ranch dressing, jalapeños, and chives. If this does not fill you up, nothing will. I have never enjoyed stuffing myself more than with this decadent and delicious pile of a meal.

If you’re getting the feeling that I like the Fat Shack, then you are right. The Fat Shack has moved itself to the No. 1 spot on my list of favorite barbecue joints, and that is really saying something. You owe it to yourself to go give it try.

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Stranger in a Strange Land

December 30, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Growing up in London, Stuart Chittenden found himself a bit obsessed with America: its historical complexities, its social turmoil, its pioneering spirit, its glitz and glamor. He read tons of American authors, luxuriating in the majesty of the open road as portrayed in works like John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. He watched Taxi and Mash.

Eventually, Chittenden moved to Omaha, married an American woman (fashion writer Amy Chittenden), and landed probably the most interesting job title ever: chief curiosity officer for David Day Associates. He’s a perennial TEDxOmaha presenter and something of a conversation artist. His consultancy, Squishtalks, offers conversation-based workshops for businesses, organizations, and individuals.

Chittenden’s recent project, “a couple of 830 mile long conversations,” marks his most significant offering to the cultural fabric of our state (so far).

“a couple of 830 mile long conversations” traverses the state’s vast geography to explore the ways in which landscape—physical, historical—informs a sense of community. The effort, one that received funding from Humanities Nebraska/Nebraska Cultural Endowment, Omaha Creative Institute, and several individuals, is part field recording, part personal quest to understand an unfamiliar place.

Last summer, Chittenden packed some pricey mobile audio-recording equipment—on loan from Clete Baker of Studio B—into an aging R.V. and rambled west down highways and gravel roads seeking to capture a representative sample of the voice of Nebraska as it exists in the moment.

By recording unscripted, spontaneous conversations in public (libraries, cafes, sidewalks) he began to discover the feeling of life in Gordon, Chadron, Norfolk, Alliance, Broken Bow, and other places formerly alien to him.    

“I had a sense of what Nebraska could be,” he says. “I’d seen photographs. I’d heard people describe their experiences growing up in smaller towns. I expected to be surprised by some of the beauty in different places, and maybe to find some places to be a little drab—this idea of rural communities sort of collapsing in on themselves.”

That’s pretty much what happened. Some communities emanated vibrancy; others seemed bleak. The prairie’s “very quiet but intimidating beauty” struck him as sublime, most evidently in the lakes and waterways. The Sand Hills, greatly exaggerated by friends and colleagues over the years, did not blow his mind.

“Overwhelmingly, I was warmly received,” he notes. “I was really impressed with the courage of many people to engage with someone who was obviously a stranger. Even those people that didn’t choose to join in the conversation, they were warm.”

Happily, the conversations he recorded dug deeper than weather and the Huskers. “I remember one gentleman, he was in a mobile electric wheelchair. I literally sat on the curb for 90 minutes and chatted with him.”

As for how landscape shapes a community’s self-perception, Chittenden noticed a marked shift the further west he went. The primary difference between eastern and western Nebraska, he contends, has to do with geography’s time-compression effect. The buttes, vast skies, and wagon ruts of western Nebraska seem to shrink the years, creating a visceral connection to history.

That’s not to say the pioneering spirit is dead in Omaha. It simply takes a different form here: the entrepreneurial mindset.

“In Omaha,” Chittenden says, “they don’t look for wagons. They look for Warren.”

Visit 830nebraska.com to listen to stories from the project.

StuartChittendenWeb2

To Tanzania with Love

January 15, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann and provided by Alegent Creighton Health

Life-changing work by Alegent Creighton Health in Tanzania is the focus of a forthcoming documentary from a one-time Omaha television news personality. When former KMTV anchor-reporter Mary Williams and videographer Pete Soby travel to the African nation in February, their main point of contact will be ACH’s man-on-the-job there, Bob Kasworm, whose life has been transformed by the calling he follows in that distant land.

Kasworm, a biomedical engineer and devout Christian, combines career and faith in Tanzania, his home the last 10 years.

“This was never in my plans,” says Kasworm. “I really wasn’t thinking I would ever go to Africa or have a life of service,” he says.

He first visited in 2001 on a Nebraska Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America-sponsored trip. He went to evaluate the potential of Alegent assisting hospitals, dispensaries, and public health programs there.

The pull of Africa began then.

“From the very first trip there was never a day and rarely an hour when Africa was not on my mind,” he says. “Yes, it was the poverty and the need, but it was more than that. Somehow Africa just got into my blood.”

He made a dozen or so additional visits in a three-year span as Alegent committed itself to working with the evangelical church and various health and civic partners in Machame, an area on the southeastern slope of Mount Kilimanjaro. He cultivated and coordinated the growing relationship between the partners and implemented various initiatives.

The organization’s efforts there include training medical staff at Machame Hospital, developing Machame Nursing School, providing nursing scholarships, and delivering medical equipment and supplies. Kasworm leads the Homes for Health program that uses local laborers to build new, cleaner, safer homes for residents.

At the end of 2004 Kasworm decided to live in Tanzania full-time. He says it was then his wife “realized that what she thought was just a temporary ‘mid-life crisis’ was something I was powerless to resist.”

He’s since learned Swahili well enough to speak it fluently.

Machame Lutheran Hospital, founded some 110 years ago by German missionaries, is at the center of much of Alegent’s 
work there.

“We have the hospital with about 120 inpatients and many outpatients and clinics,” he explains. “We also have a Clinical Officer Training school and now the nursing school. There are about 20 homes for staff.”

The campus is on a rare paved road. There’s running water (“usually”), electricity (“much of the time”), and internet access (“slow”).

Bob Kasworm in Tanzania

Bob Kasworm in Tanzania

Progress is plodding but rewarding.

“The most satisfying thing is that, in many cases, if not for our efforts and involvement many would simply not get help,” he continues. “A child with a club foot would become an adult with a club foot. The nursing student would not have had a chance to study. It is not like you can just go down the street to an alternative. There is no safety net. We do it, or it won’t happen. We can now point to a number of successes.

“There is such a shortage of trained healthcare workers that our efforts in education may well be our biggest legacy. If you educate one nurse they will care for thousands over their career.”

Williams, who interviewed Kasworm on one of his periodic visits to Omaha, describes him as a “strong, driven” man who “sees opportunities where others don’t.”

ACH mission integration consultant Lisa Kelly says, “He’s so embedded in that culture now it’s amazing. He’s definitely a problem-solver, which is huge in that country. Everything from unloading containers of things we send to fixing machines to keeping a water source going or getting an internet connection set up…you name it, Bob is the guy who figures out how to do it.

“He has to navigate what’s possible in the developed world with what’s possible there in that culture and that setting. So you have to think of medicine in a whole new way and what he has been able to do is to bridge that gap.”

Williams and Soby are eager to capture the story from a grassroots perspective.

“You can’t really tell the story without talking to the people on the ground who are being helped, and that would start with the patients coming through the door,” says Williams. “You cannot tell the story without talking to all the players—the patients, the nurses, the young women who have a fighting chance now. We can’t tell the story unless we go past the borders and see how exactly the people live and the challenges they face every day. We’re going to experience that first-hand. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

When Williams left KM3 in 2009 and launched her own marketing and media production company, she set her sights on telling stories that engage people’s hearts and minds. From reporting medical news she knew Alegent had compelling stories to be told and she wanted to be the storyteller that shared them.

Kasworm and a villager inspect the bounty of harvest.

Kasworm and a villager inspect the bounty of harvest.

There wouldn’t be a Tanzania story without Kasworm, whose year-round presence in that county makes the Alegent Creighton mission model unique. Much emphasis is placed on building relationships and making connections through ministry and medical mission trips organized by ACH and the Nebraska Synod of the ELCA.

For Williams, whose only previous overseas assignment was covering local airmen serving in Desert Storm, it’s an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.

“I’m sure it’s going to be a life-changing experience.”

She and Soby expect to complete the 30-minute documentary in the spring.

Kasworm sees the project as another vehicle to foster awareness between Tanzanians and Americans.

“Our experience lets us serve as a bridge between the cultures and reduce misunderstandings. It seems much of our important work has not come from analysis or needs assessment. The work has just found us. I am sure more will present itself.

“As long as the doors keep opening and my health stays good, I hope to continue.”

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

Is Our Liberty to Succeed or Fail in Jeopardy?

May 25, 2013 by

It’s an issue that affects small businesses—the push for more and more sharing with others who don’t have as much as you do. This trend can be seen in many business practices, too. For example, the sales commission question below:

“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” This Benjamin Franklin quote, with its many derivations, points toward a simple fact that, for one to expect a government to guarantee something, a part of one’s liberty will be the price.

The questions is: How much of your liberty will you gladly trade for an increased level of governmental protection? In other words, is it the responsibility of government to feed you, house you, educate you, care for you, etc…if you are sick, unwilling, or incapable?

Most of us feel that it is the obligation of government to provide us with some of these needs and desires. Others feel that government should do that and much more.

This is the age-old contest between those rowing the boat and those along for the ride. The sales adage says 80 percent of the sales are made by 20 percent of the sales force. In school, grades tend to follow a bell curve with a few students getting excellent marks while most are average, and a few bring up the rear. Should the sales staff getting 80 percent of the sales get the same commission as the rest of the team? Should the top students share their grades with those less fortunate, thus everyone getting a grade of C? What level of “sharing” do you consider fair?

What if you were a doctor who endured many years of school with considerable effort and expense? Economic justice would dictate that the doctor’s earnings be shared with those who were not capable, for whatever reason—even laziness—to achieve the same degree of earning capability. Would you be willing to have the government decide how much of a doctor’s income gets redistributed? If so, what incentive would current medical students (or anyone considering entering into a lengthy and expensive effort) have to continue becoming a doctor only to have their efforts taken away?

To the consternation of so many, life isn’t fair. Is it the role of government to make life fair? This exact precept was explored throughout the 20th century. The direct result of these experiments offered two class societies: the ruling elite and everyone else. Sadly, the ‘everyone else’ class was considered expendable by those ruling. China squandered the lives of over 60 million in an effort to purchase world power status. The average Chinese existed and died on a daily caloric intake smaller than that of the slaves of Auschwitz. Russia bartered the lives of their bread basket Kulaks by the millions in exchange for the materials of industrialization. No, the only way a government can enforce equality is by reducing the living standard of the ‘everyone else’ class.

As America celebrates the 4th of July, a time for quiet contemplation of the uniqueness of this American experiment is due. All throughout history, tyranny is the norm. The liberty Americans have is truly unique. The thread that holds this together is the Constitution. I contend that the freedoms across the globe are there only so long as Americans remain free. Free to succeed, free to fail, free to risk their all in the pursuit of personal happiness. If Americans lose that desire for liberty, the rest of the world will lose as well.

Any views and/or opinions present in “The Know-It-All” columns are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of B2B Omaha Magazine or their parent company and/or their affiliates.

Mid-Century Modern

December 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann, Kristine Gerber

In post-World War II America, a contemporary design style borne of the modernist movement and emphasizing a balance of form and function came to the attention of visionary Omaha developers and architects. The resulting homes and buildings completed in that style made for some distinctive neighborhoods that endure as models of aesthetics and utility and that continue to fascinate owners and onlookers alike.

What became known as Mid-Century Modern is seeing a resurgence in interest today among preservationists and restorers, thanks in part to television shows like Mad Men and their celebration of vintage culture. That interest was never more evident than during a October Mid-Century Modern tour sponsored by Restore Omaha and Omaha 2020 that drew a record 850 participants.

elevation drawing 106 s 89th crop copy

Sketch drawn by architect Donald Polsky

Restore Omaha President Kristine Gerber says it was the organization’s first tour to focus on an architectural style, and the Indian Hills neighborhood offered “the best collection” of Mid-Century Modern. A 2010 Omaha Historic Building Survey of Mid-Century Modern neighborhoods by Leo A. Daly architects Christina Jansen and Jennifer Honebrink offered a blueprint or map for the tour.

For tour participants, it meant getting inside homes they may have long-admired from afar or been curious to see for themselves the various ways in which these structures bring the outdoors “in.”

Mid-Century Modern homeowners like Mark Manhart and Bonnie Gill love their residences. “We both feel we have lived here forever and plan no move now or later,” says Manhart.

Gerber says there’s growing appreciation for the style’s ahead-of-its-time characteristics of flat roofs, open floor plans, floor-to-ceiling windows, ample natural light, and green design-construction elements.

There’s motivation, too, in obtaining National Register of Historic Places status for select Mid-Century Modern structures and neighborhoods that qualify.

Mid-Century Modern can be found in other metro neighborhoods besides Indian Hills, but some intentional decisions made it the prime site for it to flower here.

Food manufacturer brothers Gilbert and W. Clarke Swanson, along with architect Leo A. Daly, saw potential to develop a modern, upscale suburban neighborhood taking its name from the old Indian Hills Golf Course. Commercial structures, such as Christ the King Church and the Leo A. Daly company headquarters, became shining examples of this modernist-inspired architectural style.

Leo A. Daly company headquarters.

Leo A. Daly company headquarters is a shining model of modernist-inspired architecture.

But it was left up to a pair of edgy young architects, Don Polsky and Stanley J. How, Sr., to design dozens of residential homes in this new development featuring the attributes, values, and principles of Mid-Century Modern. How also designed one of Omaha’s most distinctive luxury apartment buildings, the sleek Swanson Towers, in Indian Hills. The building has since been converted to condominiums.

Together, the Swansons, Daly, How, and Polksy transformed the “built Omaha.”

“They were young tigers and weren’t necessarily rooted in doing the same old thing, and I think they saw an opportunity to do some things that were really unique and new,” says Stan How, president of Stanley J. How Architects, the company his late father founded. He says his father was “a cutting-edge guy.”

Polsky apprenticed with superstar modernist architect Richard Neutra in Los Angeles and borrowed concepts from his mentor and others for the work he did in Omaha. He says Mid-Century Modern’s appeal all these years later makes sense because its forward-thinking approaches and emphasis on clean lines, simplicity, and efficient use of space are what many homebuyers look for today.

“We were green before its time, we put in a lot of insulation, we shaded our windows, we oriented things towards light, and brought light into the home. We used insulating glass, we planted trees to give us shade, we broke the wind from the north, and we worked with the client’s budget on the configuration of the sight,” Polsky says. Passive solar features and energy-efficient systems were rarities then.

Stan How says his father began practicing architecture for Leo A. Daly right as the modernist movement caught on. “He started his career at a perfect time to absorb all these new things going on. When he went out on his own, he had some clients who had the guts, he’d always say, to explore some of these ideas and let him toy around with that.” Mike Ford became a key early client.

Stan How, Sr., turned his business over to his son in 1990 but still came into the office every day until his death in December 2011.

Stan How, Sr., turned his business over to his son in 1990 but still came into the office every day until his death in December 2011.

“Mike was a young guy who wanted to do something really new, so my dad floated out the contemporary style or what we now call Mid-Century Modern, and Mike loved it. But he also didn’t want to be the only one on the street with a house like that, so he bought four lots and said, ‘Let’s do four spec houses,’ and that’s what they did.”

One of those Stanley How-designed homes, built in 1963, was later purchased by Mark Manhart and Bonnie Gill. Homebuyers like Ford were the exception, however, not the rule, as Mid-Century found relatively few takers.

“We’re a pretty conservative [town], Omaha. It’s not Los Angeles. I thought you’d just show a few things and they’d be beating a path to your door, but it didn’t turn out that way,” says Polsky. “There’s still a limited supply of buyers for this type of architecture but you do what you can, you carry the torch.”

Polsky marveled though at the huge turnout to see his homes and those of his old colleague, Stanley How, Sr. “It’s amazing how many people showed up,” he says.

Don Polsky at his drafting desk.

Don Polsky at his drafting desk, circa 1979.

Stan How says designs by his father and Polsky are the antithesis of the overblown, oversized McMansions many homeowners reject today. “I think people are coming back to simplicity.” Indeed, Mark Manhart says, “the clean lines and classic simplicity” of his home are major attraction points for he and his wife and the many inquirers who call on them.

The only regret How has is that his father wasn’t around to see all the love his homes are getting today. “He would have absolutely reveled in it. He would have loved it.”

The March 1-2 Restore Omaha Conference will once again offer a strong lineup of expert preservation and restoration presenters, says Gerber, who promises a dynamic host site that gives attendees an insider’s glimpse at some landmark. For more information, visit restoreomaha.org.

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