Tag Archives: Canada

The Queen of Omaha Ice

October 24, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann and provided

The ice rink is smooth like glass. A young woman glides across the surface, breaking it in with her skates’ sharp blades. Across the rink, her coach watches closely, analyzing
each move. 

Barbara Foster has been working at the Tim Moylan Tranquility Iceplex as a coach since it first opened in November 1995. Throughout her extensive career, she has coached students as young as 2 and as old as 82.

Foster was born and raised in the small mining community of Noranda, in Canada’s Quebec province. She attributes her perfectionist tendencies to her no-nonsense upbringing. 

Named after Barbara Ann Scott—a Canadian Olympic gold medalist and world champion in figure skating—there was little doubt that she would become comfortable at the rink.

Her father put her on the ice for the first time when she was only 2 years old, during the intermission of a local hockey game. Her first pair of skates were actually hockey skates. 

Dad was a high school principal and also refereed games in his spare time. He laced up her tiny skates, and she was a natural on the ice from the very beginning. Foster’s parents knew then that she would live up to her namesake. 

As a young student of figure skating, she trained with coaches in the summer, but was left to practice on her own during the brutal Canadian winters. She trained at a recreational rink, where she would come in through the back door and practice before school every morning.

Photo provided. Foster coaching a senior student.

When she was 14, she began training with Hans Gerschwiler, a World Figure Skating Champion and silver medalist at the 1948 Winter Olympics. When Gerschwiler moved to the United States in 1960, he asked Foster’s parents for permission to take her with him to continue her training. 

“He was an incredible skater for a long time,” Foster says. 

Foster trained with Gerschwiler in New Jersey and eventually became a teacher for his young students. While there, she developed a passion for coaching.

“The best part about teaching is the relationships,” Foster says with a smile. “There is no better job, and I get a lot of satisfaction from feeling that I’ve impacted my students.”

Since her days in New Jersey, she has coached all around the Midwest, Australia, and New Zealand. A perfectionist by nature, she stood out from other coaches and pushed her students to achieve the goals they placed for themselves. She eventually settled down in Omaha with husband Larry Foster, who retired from his job as the director of Council Bluffs Parks in August.

As a 74-year-old retired coach, she still enjoys teaching students of all ages, but she says she does not miss the rigorous seven-day training schedule she once lived by. 

In the past five years, she has undergone numerous procedures, including two back surgeries, total knee replacement, and treatment for a torn rotator cuff in her shoulder. But she refuses to let these procedures discourage her.

After knee surgery this past February, she was in Boston to support two of her students who went to the U.S. Adult Figure Skating Nationals in April. After her first back surgery in 2013, she was lacing up her skates again after three weeks of recovery (instead of the three months that doctors had expected to be necessary). 

Photo provided. Foster and her coaching mentor.

While teaching has always been a passion of hers, there is one passion that surpasses all others: her family. As a grandmother of nine, she is often on the road to visit her grandchildren, who are scattered across the country from Jacksonville, Florida, to  Olathe, Kansas, to Takoma Park, Maryland. 

Each summer, the grandchildren make a trek to Nebraska for one of their favorite annual events: “Camp Nana.” Foster started Camp Nana when the oldest grandchildren were toddlers. The parents drop off the grandkids for two weeks of fun-filled activities and bonding time.

“I never had an opportunity to be connected to my cousins,” Foster says. “I just really wanted to make sure that I could provide that opportunity for my grandkids.”

For the last 23 years, Foster has worked with youth and adult hockey players, and she even worked with the University of Nebraska-Omaha men’s hockey team to help correct players’ skating technique. 

“Figure skaters have techniques that even hockey coaches don’t quite understand,” Foster says. “It really helps if you can break it down and help them get the most out of their legs while their body is still handling a puck.”

Although she considers herself retired, she does still instruct a few students (teaching two days a week instead of seven). Even aside from her teaching, Foster says she would be at Tranquility Iceplex at some point every day doing a variety of jobs and chores that need to be completed: mounting figure skate blades, selling equipment at the rink’s pro shop, and fitting customers with new skates.

“It’s allowed me to have a lot of diversity,” Foster says. “So even at this age, where I’m not actively teaching, I have lots of other interests that keep me involved with the rink and the people in it, which is the fun part.”

Foster says she is never bored because of all the activities she has taken on. She works at the rink, teaches lessons, spends time with friends and does Pilates, which helps align her spine and strengthens her back.

“I am really looking forward to skating again,” says Foster, who gets on the ice with her students for instruction but is not attempting toe jumps, double axels, or triple lutzes. “After my knee replacement, I’m struggling to be able to demonstrate the power that correct technique can generate. I think that as everything settles down, I would like to get myself feeling really comfortable again on the ice.”

Foster is an unstoppable force to be reckoned with. She holds students to her own high standard of excellence, too. They shouldn’t expect coddling or ego-stroking. If that’s what a student wants, then Foster says, “you’re with the wrong coach.” 

This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of 60Plus in Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Chasing the Aurora Borealis

February 6, 2018 by , and
Photography by Derek Burdeny

Editor’s note: Derek Burdeny told this story to Omaha Magazine in an interview with Doug Meigs. Sydney Sheldrick adapted the interview transcript to this narrative.

The northern lights were a common sight during my childhood in Winnipeg, Canada. Sort of like the red Cornhusker flags so common across Nebraska, you stop noticing the display after a while.

I’ve always said that Nebraska is the farthest south I could ever live without melting. It took moving here to reawaken my wonder and appreciation for the aurora borealis, the ribbons of green and red that danced across the northern night sky.

Working as a musculoskeletal radiologist in Omaha for 21 years, I’ve led a life dedicated to photos. In my occupation, I work with the black and white images of MRIs. In my free time, I chase storms and the northern lights with a camera in hand.

My obsession with photographic adventure-seeking began about 10 years ago. Since then, I’ve traveled the Arctic—Alaska, Canada, Iceland, Finland, and Norway—to shoot auroras. There are many countries where the astronomical phenomenon is visible. But it is Norway that keeps pulling me back year after year.

Grotfjord, Norway (2016)

Auroras are caused by plasma energy streaming into the atmosphere and striking nitrogen and oxygen particles while interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field. This plasma energy gets to Earth as solar winds that blow off of the sun after a coronal mass ejection (which often follows a sunspot eruption or solar flare). The stronger the solar storm, the farther south the aurora is visible on Earth.

Charged particles blowing off the sun will take two days to reach Earth. As they get closer, they are attracted by our magnetic field and pulled into holes in the atmosphere. Color variation occurs when solar winds collide with atoms in the Earth’s atmosphere, mainly oxygen and nitrogen. The most common color we see is green—caused by atomic oxygen—while reaction with nitrogen produces reds and blues in the northern lights.

From time to time—coinciding with especially large solar storms—the northern lights reach all the way down to Nebraska. But on those rare occasions, the display is fairly low on the horizon. Cornhusker territory is about as far south as the northern lights will appear, and I’ve never personally witnessed auroras in Nebraska.

When I drive back to Winnipeg, however, they are like a homing beacon that greet me over the interstate through the Dakotas. It’s like I’m following the twisting celestial lights back home.

Winnipeg is near the center of the aurora belt, and I’ve become a bit of a tourist when I return home. While visiting friends from high school on a recent winter trip, they picked me up at the airport for dinner. But I couldn’t get in the car. I was frozen, transfixed by the night sky.

“Oh, look! There’s the aurora,” I gawked as we stood in the subzero temperatures. My friend’s response? “Oh, nice. Let’s get in the car.” But the display was just getting started. “Corona!” I exclaimed. (A corona occurs when the colors just burst over top of you, like beams of light showering to the ground.) My friend didn’t share my enthusiasm: “Oh, yeah. Nice. Let’s get in the car.” To him, it was like just another red flag with an “N” in Nebraska.

Sunrise over the Lofoten Islands (Reine, Norway)

The flat and tree-covered expanses of central Canada are rich in northern lights. But there isn’t much else of interest when composing a photograph. When I’m in photography mode, I want more than just the spectacular light display available in any other Arctic locale. That’s what draws me to Norway—a high likelihood of seeing auroras combined with breathtaking scenery, snow, mountains, icy seas, and fjords.

Unlike my storm chasing hobby, shooting the northern lights is much more sedentary. Dress warm. Set up the camera. Hope that bad weather doesn’t move in. Wait. Behold the lights. Snap. And if the weather doesn’t cooperate, stay in the hotel restaurant enjoying the delicious fish served in Norwegian cuisine.

Although there is a huge northern light tourism industry in Arctic countries, I avoid these crowds for a more personal experience. On my first trip to Norway (with a friend and his son), my companions were sure that we needed to go with a tour group for at least one day. “Not so,” I told them. I just needed a map. They didn’t believe me until I proved it.

We flew into the city of Tromsø, Norway (above the Arctic Circle). I found the small village of Sommarøy on a map. We loaded our equipment into a rental car, and we drove out. On the map, the settlements are only 35 miles apart, but because of the mountain roads, the trip requires about an hour driving from Tromsø.

Both Tromsø and Sommarøy are dead-center in the aurora belt, the fluctuating strip of geographical space where auroras are visible. The closer you are to the center of this belt, the stronger the auroras are. No matter how weak the aurora is, as long as you have clear skies, you will be able to see and photograph the lights. For truly amazing photos, all we needed was a strong solar storm and clear skies. Both of these conditions were predicted for our first day in Norway. Sure enough, just outside the village, we witnessed an amazing aurora.

Ever since that first Norwegian trip, I go back to Sommarøy every year. In fact, I have two trips to Tromsø planned in 2018. On one of these trips, I hope to do some exploring to identify another beautiful spot like Sommarøy.

An average aurora on a clear night in Asheim, Norway.

There is a science and method behind my trips. I plan many of them around February or March to guarantee enough daylight to prepare and scout (with hopes that there will be snow on the ground for my photo composition). As a general rule, the fall and spring equinoxes are optimal times for watching the northern lights. But a solar storm can occur at any time. Although March is an equinox month, there is still incredible solar activity in February (and snow on the ground). I have gone in November before, but the days were much too short to explore new beaches and compositions. I always make sure I am there for two weeks, that way I’m almost guaranteed to see an aurora, around the times they are most common.

By making flight and car rental arrangements several months in advance, I make sure that my travel logistics are ready when I land overseas. I also check multiple websites for weather and solar activity updates in the areas before and during my travel. Solar eruptions—which cause the solar wind and storms that produce auroras—take about two days to reach the Earth, so keeping up to date on this activity during your trip could help you to witness some spectacular solar storms.

The longer you spend the better your chance to capture that epic image. Over the course of my two-week-long trips, I’ll usually come home with what I feel are two or three excellent shots.

But it’s hard to anticipate sometimes. One night in Tromsø, when we were snowed in, we met an Australian pilot who had been coming there with his wife for six weeks total. But he was coming for only a week at a time, and he still hadn’t seen the northern lights. We showed him some pictures from our cameras, and he was just shaking his head.

A Tromso Bridge and Tromsoysund Church (aka the “Cathedral of the Arctic Sea”) under the aurora borealis in 2016.

In addition to making the time investment, it helps to always have a camera ready. I remember driving through the mountains of Norway, when all of a sudden, a beautiful aurora spread across the sky. I slammed on the brakes and pulled to the side of the road. You never know how long the display will last. I grabbed my camera, set up my tripod, and got a couple beautiful photos. If I had to dig gear from my bags, I would have missed the window of opportunity.

For the exposure of my northern light photos, I set my camera’s ISO to 8,000 with an aperture of 2.8 and a shutter speed of 10-30 seconds. Any longer than 30 seconds will produce star trails in the sky. Even a really boring aurora will appear as a darker green at 30 seconds, but if the aurora is active with spikes and movement, the lights will smear into a big blob. For this reason, my default shutter speed is 10 seconds, and I’ll use a shutter speed of 1-to-4 seconds when the lights are really dancing.

Sometimes, the images will surprise you long after the trip is over. Some of my favorite images were shots that I thought might have been duds until I sat down at the computer to review. And it’s another opportunity to relive the adventure.

For some of the online resources used by the author to plan his Norwegian photo trips, visit the University of Alaska-Fairbanks Geophysical Institute’s aurora borealis forecasting site (gi.alaska.edu/auroraforecast), a solar storm and flare monitoring site (spaceweather.com), and a European site featuring a solar wind gauge for chasing the northern lights in Europe (aurora-service.eu). View the author’s photography at derekburdenyphotography.com. The author himself is pictured below.

This article is printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

High on Jesus

October 12, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Getting high on Jesus in the Rocky Mountains, however, is always 100 percent legal.

The Front Range looms overhead as Dan and Dawne Broadfield sip their morning coffee. Towering at a height of 14,259 feet, the snow-capped Longs Peak is the highest point in the adjacent Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

Residing at an elevation of nearly 1.5 miles above sea level, the Broadfields live on the forested grounds of Covenant Heights. The year-round Christian camp is located nine miles south of Estes Park, on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, near the base of Longs Peak.

estespark6The parents are career missionaries and together have visited Haiti, Mexico, Canada, England, France, Belgium, and Holland, among others. As assistant director of facilities, Dan helps to maintain the 65-acre Covenant Heights, while Dawne home-schools their three children: 18-year-old Darby, 14-year-old Dakota, and 11-year-old Max.

Their days are filled with hiking, fishing, backpacking, paddleboarding, archery, and kayaking. They have unfettered access to high ropes, zip lines, and a climbing wall—perks of living at a wilderness retreat. The same activities draw campers from across the country.

If the weather is nice, Dan and Dawne say they might go six to eight hours without seeing their offspring, and that’s fine for both parents and frolicking children alike.

In summer, nighttime unveils an infinite heaven of twinkling stars, with the Milky Way shining down on three hammocks arranged in a triangular formation in the trees. Each hammock cradles a Broadfield child, peacefully sleeping.


Once the weather turns chilly, they gather firewood for campfires. The winter season also brings snow-shoeing, ice hockey, and cross-country skiing.

Wildlife is an integral part of living at the campground, where animals also make their home. Coyotes, moose, and deer frequently wander through Covenant Heights. Herds of elk are common visitors; during the fall rut, the bulls’ high-pitched bugling will echo for miles.

“The other day, an elk walked through the middle of (the triangle of hammocks),” Dawne says. “Our youngest woke up and thought, ‘Uh, oh. This isn’t good.’ But the elk eventually moved along.”

estespark5The free-spirited mother of three does have one rule about sleeping outdoors. Her kids can’t have lipgloss, sunscreen, or other scented items in their pockets. Bears live in the neighborhood, and scented items or food will attract them. Dawne even brings her bird feeders inside at night so as not to attract unwelcome scavengers.

She loves life amongst the animals. In fact, her animal-watching pastime vaguely reminds her of childhood years spent in Omaha. “We went to the Henry Doorly Zoo about every two weeks,” says the one-time Omahan. Dawne’s father served in the Air Force at Offutt Air Force Base for three years, when she was in fifth through eighth grades.

Her adult life unfolded away from Omaha. Before relocating to Colorado in 2015, Dawne and Dan were living in San Antonio, Texas, where they ran an art gallery and online networking platform for artists called ArtLife.

“Here we are now in Estes Park because we felt like we ran out of space in San Antonio. We wanted to become more of a starving artists community,” says Dan. “We want to develop an artists community up here. I want to create a safe space for people to come and hone their skills. It’s the idea of not being in their normal circumstances.”

estespark4Surrounded by natural abundance, the family feels rich. Not so when it comes to the latest technological amenities. They have a satellite television, the only reliable phone is a landline, and mobile internet service is patchy from camp.

Dawne says “there’s a 20-minute window about twice a day” for internet access. An avid photographer, she posts almost daily on Instagram from her smartphone during those limited windows of online accessibility.

Her photo stream documents their neighbors, mostly the wildlife (@adeltadawne). “We have lots of moose that hang out,” she says. “The elk, the deer, the eagles, and then I sprinkle in family stuff.” If it is necessary to check something online, they head to a coffeeshop or the library in town. Dan and Dawne enjoy their wireless existence. “I kind of like the idea of being disconnected,” Dan says.

Christian wilderness retreats have a rich history on the Front Range near Covenant Heights. Even before Colorado was a state, missionaries were spreading the gospel across the landscape.

estespark3Summer encampments for the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) date back to the 1890s. The YMCA summer campsite from 1908 remains the site of the modern-day YMCA of the Rockies. Today, the organization hosts Christian gap-year programs for 18-to-24 year olds “seeking personal and spiritual growth while working in a seasonal job at Snow Mountain Ranch.”

On January 26, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Rocky Mountain National Park into existence, and the nationwide National Park Service came into being the following year (celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2016).

Covenant Heights arrived on the scene in the early 1930s through the fellowship of the Covenant Young Peoples and Sunday School Conference of Colorado and Wyoming. The coalition of Rocky Mountain churches sought to give “a concerted effort to provide inspiration, Christian fellowship, and evangelism for the young people of the churches in Colorado and Wyoming,” according to its website. Covenant Heights’ current permanent campsite became operational in 1948.

Separate from the YMCA or Covenant Heights, the nonprofit Wind River Ministries also runs the ongoing Wind River Ranch, a “Christian Family Guest Ranch Resort”complete with dude ranch.

Regardless of one’s spiritual inclination, the sweeping mountain vistas are inspiring throughout the vicinity of Estes Park.

In the wake of Colorado’s legalization of marijuana, residents of Estes Park voted to block the opening of recreational and medicinal dispensaries within the limits of town and Larimer County. It was a strategic move to preserve the region’s wholesome reputation as a family destination. Meanwhile, federal marijuana laws reign supreme over Rocky Mountain National Park and other federally owned lands.

Getting high on Jesus in the Rocky Mountains, however, is always 100 percent legal.

Visit covenantheights.org for more information.


Prince of Cups

August 10, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Most folks use cups only for drinking. Not Andrew Dale. The unconventional 12-year-old athlete from Omaha uses cups to travel the globe, forge international friendships, and hone his world-class sport stacking skills.

“Not many people know that stacking is a sport,” says Dale, Nebraska’s top-ranked stacker. “It takes dedication and lots of practice to become a top competitor. You actually sweat from it.”

Sport stacking—governed by the World Sport Stacking Association (WSSA) and sanctioned as a Junior Olympics sport—is both an individual and team sport where competitors stack plastic cups in regulated sequences as quickly as possible.

In his basement stacking lair, surrounded by scores of trophies, medals, and an army of aerodynamic cups, Dale demonstrates why he’s nationally and internationally ranked. His expert hands fly into a blur, growing and shrinking pyramids of cups as they tap out a distinct beat.        

Sport stacking was pioneered in 1981 by Wayne Godinet at a Boys & Girls Club in Oceanside, California. Bob Fox, a Colorado elementary school teacher, took the sport to the next level in the late `90s when he founded Speed Stacks and the WSSA. While primarily a youth sport, divisions range up to seniors.               

Dale casually began sport stacking in 2012 after watching a 2002 video of Emily Fox—Bob Fox’s daughter—setting one of the sport’s early world records.   

“I thought it was just awesome, so I started stacking at home with plastic drinking cups,” says Dale, who currently holds world and national records in the 11-12 division, and is WSSA-ranked  No. 5 worldwide and  No. 4 in the U.S.

Although sometimes peeved to search in vain for cups, Mark Dale appreciated his son’s enthusiasm for what he initially thought would be a passing fancy. So, Mark and his late wife, Kate Dale, allowed the house-wide stacking, the missing cups, and the percussive clamor of practice, eventually granting Andrew’s wish to compete in his first tournament in Maryland in 2013.      

“After day one, he was first in his division across the board,” says Mark, adding that Andrew’s performance pleasantly surprised him and Kate. “We came back the second day for the finals, and now we’re nervous!”

Nerves gave way to celebration when Andrew finished first across the board and won the national championship, shortly after which he was invited to join the Team USA Junior Olympics sport stacking team.

“It’s very rare to get invited after your first tournament. When I was first getting into it, I never thought I’d actually become one of the fastest kids in the world. I thought I’d just be a regular kid, just stacking cups,” says Dale, who is consistently humble about his incredible talent.

While Dale enjoys stacking and excelling in competitions, he also loves the camaraderie of the sport stacking community, which gives him the opportunity to make friends worldwide. He scrimmages and hangs out online with friends from South Korea, Malaysia, Germany, Canada, and cities across the U.S.

Dale’s stacking career allows him to explore the U.S.—he’ll be in Houston this summer for the 50th Anniversary Junior Olympic Games—and travel internationally, too.

“It’s so interesting to see new places in person. It’s just amazing,” he says.

Dale’s been to Montreal, where he finished second in the 2015 World Sport Stacking Championships, and his mother Kate’s hometown of Seoul, South Korea, which was especially poignant after her passing from cancer in February of 2016.     

“Kate and I really tried to instill maintaining humility and the Golden Rule in Andrew,” says Mark, who is as proud of Andrew’s sportsmanship as his talent. “I’m thrilled with his discipline and astounded at how calm and collected he is at these major tournaments. To be considered a top competitor in the world in anything is a remarkable, unbelievable achievement.”

Visit youtube.com/user/SportsStacker16 for more information.


Omaha Ski Club

January 14, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When Janet Tuttle was in her 40s, she wanted to take up skiing again, an activity she started at age 14 but stopped when home and family life took over. She joined the Omaha Sports Club, but when that group decided to focus less on skiing, a new group branched off from it: the Omaha Ski Club.

Today, Tuttle is 79 and still going strong as a member of the Omaha Ski Club. Her favorite part of skiing is the scenery.

“I love the mountains,” she says. “When you ski in the mountains, you see things you don’t see when you’re driving.”

Teri Hammon, 57, a board member who plans all of the club’s trips, says about three quarters of the members are age 60 or older.

“We’re not old fuddy-duddies,” Hammon says. “We ski hard and ski all day.”

The Omaha Ski Club generally takes two to five skiing trips a season and members bicycle in the summertime (“to stay in shape for skiing,” Hammon says). The group has skied in Colorado, California, Utah, Wyoming, and Canada.

“Anywhere there’s powder!” Hammon says.

The group recently traveled to Snowmass, Colorado, for their first trip of the 2015-2016 season. Trips vary in length and typically involve the members meeting at a ski resort. Members enjoy participating in social activities, including a pre-trip party to discuss travel arrangements and a welcome party on the first or second day, along with lots of skiing.

In order to go along on a trip, one must be a member of the Omaha Ski Club (or one of its reciprocal clubs with the Flatland Ski Association). Annual dues are reasonable. Each member pays for his or her own travel, lodging, and equipment, but group discount rates often apply.

One need not be an expert skier to join the club, which welcomes all skill levels along with non-skiers who want to go to the resorts and do something else. Knowledgeable, experienced members often help beginners. Tuttle says she particularly likes to go out with the beginning-level skiers along some of the easier slopes.

Tuttle and Hammon agree that the club gains stability from the large percentage of retired members, who tend to have more free time and savings that allow them to go on the trips. Tuttle says she appreciates the social aspect of the club, which includes and welcomes anyone regardless of age.

“The socializing is a nice part of the skiing,” she says.

What about the risk of injury? Tuttle and Hammon have bumped and bruised themselves on the slopes—that’s why Tuttle says she’s become more careful as she’s aged.

But it takes more than a few accidents to keep her from returning to the mountains.

“It’s kind of like falling off a horse,” Tuttle says. “If you love what you’re doing, you get back on the horse again.”

Visit omahaskiclub.org to learn more.


Nebraska’s Most Controversial Woman

June 6, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Article originally published in July/August 2015 Omaha Magazine.

The founder of Bold Nebraska— Jane Fleming Kleeb—travels to Omaha once a week. Although the Nebraska transplant lives in Hastings, she has grown accustomed to the five-hour round-trip drive on I-80. “I call it my windshield time. It’s quiet,” says the liberal firebrand who has gained national notoriety fighting construction of the Keystone XL, a 1,179-mile pipeline slated to transport daily 830,000 barrels of diluted crude bitumen from Canadian tar sands across central Nebraska to gulf coast processing facilities.

“The Lakota call the proposed Keystone XL the Black Snake Pipeline,” says Greg Grey Cloud, a pipeline opponent who describes himself as an indigenous defender. For the Lakota, the black snake represents nothing less than a reset button on the creation clock. “For over a thousand years, our spiritual leaders have prophesied that a great black snake will one day wind through the land, bringing doom by robbing us of our natural resources as Grandmother Earth remakes herself and introduces a new coming.”

For years, TransCanada has been planning to build the Keystone XL across Nebraska’s fragile Sandhills ecosystem and the deep-underground Ogallala Aquifer. Eminent domain lawsuits have plagued the pipeline’s route across much of the United States, and courts have ruled against taxpaying landowners in favor of the foreign corporation. Thanks to Kleeb’s activism with Bold Nebraska, the Keystone XL has stalled outside of the Cornhusker State.

Kleeb is a pipeline-fighting road warrior. She has visited the stripped boreal forests of Alberta where the tar sand oil originates. She has seen TransCanada seize lands in Texas and South Dakota. Her regular trips across rural Nebraska to meet with landowners and frequent cross-country speaking engagements make her Omaha commute time seem insignificant.

The Keystone XL has consumed Bold Nebraska’s attention since its inception five years ago. Kleeb says her agenda is all about progressive and populist politics. According to the Bold Nebraska website, the organization’s mission is to “mobilize new energy to restore political balance” in a state “dominated by one political voice” and “dominated by far-right ideas and policies.” Focus will shift once courts confirm the pipeline’s fate. Bold Nebraska is already preparing, surveying supporters on the next social and legislative battles to prioritize.


Omaha’s liberal (by Nebraska standards) political atmosphere has fostered an important support base for Bold Nebraska. Out of approximately 25,500 Facebook fans and 40,000 email subscribers, 25 percent hail from the metro area, says Mark Hefflinger, Bold Nebraska’s communications director.

A local Omaha brewpub was the logical place for Kleeb to launch Bold’s latest initiative: a statewide network map of local businesses branded “In the Neb.” She arrives early in the afternoon. Bumper stickers on the back of her minivan—a beige Honda Odyssey—reveal her double-life. The 42-year-old activist is also a soccer mom with three daughters. A flaming soccer ball decal represents her eldest (age 14) daughter’s team alongside a slew of anti-pipeline and environmental slogans.

She steps onto Farnam Street in midtown wearing a white dress, suit jacket, and custom red leather cowboy boots (the boots are covered with grey leather crane silhouettes, a nod to the Sandhills where her husbands’ ancestors had homesteaded). Her hair is a short, no-fuss style symbolic of her life’s always-on-the-go pace. Hoops of turquoise beadwork, made by members of the Omaha Tribe, hang from her ears, matching the turquoise rings on her fingers, gifts from husband Scott Kleeb.

She walks into Archetype Coffee with a burst of friendly energy and an armful of promotional material. She has one hour before introducing her “In the Neb.” concept at Farnam House Brewing Company a few blocks away.

“In the Neb.” consists of an interactive online map and mobile app promoting small and local businesses: family farms, breweries, boutiques, clean energy vendors, farmers markets, etc. Omaha and Lincoln residents are the primary target users—“because in small towns, you know who sells eggs,” Kleeb says—but rural communities could also use the effort to source urban Nebraska-made products.

“In order to get on the map, you have to agree on some values, things like we want to see 25 percent of our energy coming from renewables by 2025, and that the Ogallala aquifer should be a protected water source,” Kleeb says. The network of businesses would also provide a pool of supporters for Bold Nebraska when pushing bills of interest to small farms or clean energy interests in the state legislature.

The local bar meet-up for debuting the project might also become a regular thing. Kleeb hopes it will be the first in a series of political talks called “Politics and Pints.”

The business map and barroom talks are indicative of Kleeb’s innovative approach to activism. “Creative actions are super important to us; we draw a lot of inspiration from the Omaha creative community,” says Kleeb, noting that Omaha native Justin Kemerling is Bold Nebraska’s main designer.

Kleeb’s lifestyle bridges Nebraska’s urban-rural disconnect. She and Scott are renovating a farm in Ayr and hope to move in by next year. The property is located en route to Red Cloud, Willa Cather’s hometown south of Hastings. They named their youngest “Willa,” (age 4) after the iconic Nebraska author.

To manage their chaotic schedules, the couple sit together once a month to block off their shared Google calendar. Her husband, once an aspiring Nebraska politician, is now the president and CEO of Omaha-based Pioneer Energy Solutions and its 50 employees. He makes the long Hastings-to-Omaha commute even more frequently than his wife. “I keep trying to twist his arm to get a loft apartment in Omaha or Lincoln,” she says.

“When we started Bold, one of the things we wanted to do was to connect our rural communities—often rooted in agriculture, small family farms, and ranches—to the creative class in Omaha,” she says.

“There is a lot that we can learn from each other, and, from my perspective, there isn’t this ridiculous divide that everyone tries to say there is when you start visiting with people (rural vs. urban Nebraskans).”

Bold Nebraska organized a Neil Young and Willie Nelson concert last September. “Harvest the Hope” was situated in a cornfield near Neligh on the pipeline route. The event drew roughly 1,700 Omahans out of 8,500 spectators. A winter season passed, and Kleeb just completed a new creative action on the same cornfield where concertgoers had parked their vehicles.

Bold created a 15-acre crop art message for the White House, a replica of the presidential seal that reads “Climate Legacy #NOKXL.” “My body is still sore,” she says, recalling the previous week’s work of placing flags for the image’s tractor and laying landscape mulch fabric. “It was our way to tell the White House that the president’s climate legacy, which we know he cares deeply about, is directly tied to the rejection of the Keystone XL.”

Whenever Kleeb talks about Bold Nebraska’s progressive and populist mission for the state, she uses the first-person plural possessive: “our state.” Though not originally from Nebraska, she made it her permanent home in early 2007.

She grew up in south Florida. Both parents were staunch Republicans. Her stay-at-home mother led Broward County Right to Life. As a child, Kleeb often made posters, sat in the back of community meetings, or simply watched mom lead rallies. That was the beginning of her political awareness. Her father owned several Burger King franchises. The whole family would help during the weekends to slice pickles (they didn’t used to come pre-cut) and other chores. “I thought all families did that,” she says with a laugh.

She went to school in northern Florida then headed to Philadelphia and D.C. for the next decade. Despite voting for Bill Clinton and running an AmeriCorps program, she claims to have remained a registered Republican up until taking a job with Young Democrats of America. She became executive director in 2003 and worked with “Rock the Vote.”

A chance encounter at the 2005 Democratic Convention in Phoenix would eventually tie her fate to Nebraska. That’s where she met Scott. The handsome Yale graduate, a bull-riding grandson of a Western Nebraska rancher, was considering a bid for the state’s third congressional district.

“I thought he couldn’t get out of the Republican primary so he ran as a Democrat,” she says with a laugh, recalling her first impression of the man who would become her husband. Her admitted “very stereotypical view of Nebraska” changed after she became involved with Scott’s campaign. Her life changed when she first visited the Sandhills.

“I had this really fundamental shift when I came to visit Scott on the ranch,” she says. “Just talking with young and old ranchers, they have this beautiful view of family and the land—they know every blade of grass on their property, and they know the weather cycles, and they can name every cow that’s on their property.”

She fell in love with the aspiring politician and his state. Four months after the campaign ended in narrow defeat, they married in March 2007. Her immersion in Nebraska politics was just beginning.

The newlywed Kleeb took a political correspondent job with MTV during the 2008 presidential election. She also helped run her husband’s 2008 Senate campaign, which ended in a general election loss to Mike Johanns. Then, after Obama took the White House, the Service Employees International Union sponsored “Change that Works” to petition support for health care reform; Kleeb was named the organization’s Nebraska director. She mobilized community support across small towns and cities. She aggressively lobbied then-Senator Ben Nelson, and she found success. Nelson would eventually provide a crucial swing vote for Obamacare in exchange for the notorious “Cornhusker Kickback.”

“I knew (Change that Works) would end as soon as the bill got passed in Congress,” she says. “I looked around, and I didn’t see a statewide organization that was using creativity, that was aggressive online, and wasn’t afraid of throwing a punch to politicians who weren’t being accountable on issues we cared about. So, I thought that’s something that we needed to start.”

The concept for Bold Nebraska was born. She met with Omaha philanthropist Dick Holland, a powerful contributor to progressive Democratic causes and candidates. Kleeb pitched her idea. Inspired, Holland offered start-up funds, and she transitioned from health care reform to her ultimate, bold ambition for Nebraska: “to change the political landscape of our state.” But she still had no idea her life was about to plunge into a pipeline-induced rabbit hole.

“About three months after we started, I got a phone call about the pipeline. It was from a friend who works at an environmental group, and he said, ‘Have you heard about this? It’s going to cut across the Sandhills,’” Kleeb says of her first introduction to the Keystone XL.

“I’d never worked on an environmental issue. I didn’t know anything about eminent domain or what the tar sands were. But I was intrigued because it was going to cross the Sandhills—and it still will—and that’s where my husband’s family all homesteaded, where I fell in love with Nebraska. So I was like, okay, I’ll go to the meeting.”

She traveled to York for a State Department meeting in May 2010. She listened to Nebraska farmers and ranchers voice concerns about threats to livestock, crops, and water supplies. She saw a clear example of “right and wrong,” and Bold Nebraska found its first big cause.

Pipeline advocates have alleged that Keystone XL opposition is linked to backing from Omaha’s Warren Buffet and Berkshire Hathaway. Some believe that oil transport by rail rather than pipeline would benefit Berkshire-owned BNSF Railway. Bold’s early key donor—Dick Holland—is a major Berkshire shareholder and made a fortune investing in Warren Buffet. But Kleeb says the critique is misleading; Buffet has expressed support for the Keystone XL.

“That’s a conspiracy theory,” she says. “I wish I had Warren Buffet money. I’ve asked. Life is not that filled with conspiracy. But the conspiracy theory about the FBI secretly taping us, that turned out to be true [and was reported by The Guardian and The New York Times].” The FBI and TransCanada had been advising law enforcement how anti-terrorism laws and tactics could be used against pipeline activists. After completing her latest crop art project, Kleeb filed a Freedom of Information Act request to find out what the FBI has on file for her.

Weighing the danger of rail versus pipeline, both are risky. “But they are different risks,” she says. “There are more accidents on rail, but they spill less oil. Pipelines have fewer accidents each year, but when they spill, they spill more oil into the ground and water. So it’s not either/or for me. Both need to be made safer.”

As Kleeb’s pipeline fight drags on, Omaha continues to play an important staging ground. The locally headquartered Domina Law Group is representing landowners and Bold Nebraska. In January, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that the proposed Keystone XL route could remain in place; however, attorneys with Domina are ready to file lawsuits contesting TransCanada’s eminent domain. Final say on the permit must be determined at the federal level. At the time of publication, the State Department’s analysis of the pipeline remained underway, and Kleeb anticipated that President Obama would reject the pipeline permit. “We think that we will prevail. Because it’s a very clear constitutional question,” she says.

Several Omaha musicians were featured on a Stopping the Pipeline Rocks album recorded last spring in a solar barn on the Keystone XL route. Over the summer, Kleeb and Bold Nebraska’s team organized a solidarity event at the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge as climate marchers passed into Iowa on their walk from California to Washington D.C.

During the fall election season, Kleeb and the Cowboy Indian Alliance canvased Omaha neighborhoods door-to-door on horseback. They pushed hard to prevent reelection of Republican Congressman Lee Terry, a vocal advocate of the Keystone XL. His replacement, Democrat Brad Ashford, is, much to Kleeb’s dismay, also a pipeline proponent of the Keystone XL.

“Brad Ashford says he is concerned about climate change. But you can’t be concerned about climate change and then want to expand the tar sands, which is one of the dirtiest forms of oil,” she says.

Keystone XL has fractured political alliances along fascinating lines. While labor unions and corporate interests generally endorse the pipeline, many libertarians oppose it on the grounds of government taking private land while environmentalists oppose it for ecological reasons. “It is definitely an unlikely alliance,” Kleeb says, noting that some of Bold’s regular donors are conservative Republicans.


National polls by CBS News, the Pew Research Center, USA Today and the Princeton Survey Research Associates International found that between 56 and 60 percent of the American public supported the Keystone XL. Kleeb says that Bold Nebraska’s polls for Omaha specifically have found support/opposition split closer to 50-50.

In spite of her affiliation with the Democratic Party, Kleeb would like to see Bold Nebraska straddle bipartisan politics. Growing numbers of registered independent Nebraskan voters gives her hope. “My mom and dad raised me as a Republican,” says Kleeb. “That’s why when I see the majority of Republicans in our state, including Omaha, it never deters me that someone in our state with populist and progressive ideas cannot get elected.”

During the course of the one-hour interview with Omaha Magazine, Kleeb never once checks the time. She has been speaking confidently and eloquently about her life, her politics, and the Keystone XL until minutes before the start of “Politics and Pints” and the launching of “In the Neb.” The interview concludes, and Kleeb has to leave. She heads to her minivan. She picks up another pile of signs and flyers. She walks down to the Farnam House Brewing Company.

The bar is packed. Petitions, surveys, and tickets for complimentary beers float freely. Kleeb stands amid the chattering crowd and calls for attention. Silence. Her stage presence exudes the same sense of friendly, genuine sincerity that she has practiced as a pundit on Fox News and in one-on-one conversations across Nebraska.

Kleeb introduces the current status of the pipeline. Other speakers from labor unions and environmental groups take the floor: opposing the Trans Pacific Partnership, lamenting out-of-state fracking waste disposal proposals in western Nebraska, introducing Bold Nebraska’s “In the Neb.” project.

Enthusiastic clapping follows each call for change. Especially boisterous applause comes from 64-year-old Deirdre Evans of the Joslyn Castle neighborhood. A regular at Bold Nebraska events, Evans even went to Washington D.C. in 2011 to be arrested for the first time while protesting the Keystone XL outside the White House. “Jane is my hero,” says Evans after the speakers conclude.

As Kleeb chats with glowing admirers, her ascendance in regional progressive politics becomes apparent. But her compatibility with the general electorate has yet to be tested.

In 2010, she was elected as a school board member in Hastings on a platform of healthy lunches, “which prompted the GOP in Nebraska to run robocalls telling voters I wanted to make their kids vegetarians,” she says, noting that she loved serving on the school board.

An important question remains. What are Kleeb’s future political ambitions? Does she see herself elected someday to represent Nebraskan constituents in the state or national capitol? She responded to the follow-up question by e-mail without delay:

“If I run for office, it will be focused on a platform of ending eminent domain for private gain and working towards energy projects that protect our land and water. I still also deeply care and worry about the lack of residential treatment facilities in our state for eating disorders and other mental illnesses that need that type of care for folks to recover.

“So, yes, I am considering running. When, where, and for what office—that I am not sure about. Right now, I keep listening to folks to see where we can make the most impact to keep showing the rest of the country what Nebraskans are made of—grit, creativity, and the resolve to get things done.”