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Elevating Hospital Cuisine

August 26, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Hospital cafeteria food can bring to mind sad combinations of mushy vegetables, mystery meat, limp salads, and green Jell-O. At the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center’s restaurant, those bland and boring foods are replaced by beautifully plated appetizers, perfectly cooked fish, and salads bursting with fresh, local produce.

Kale salads and cheese plates aren’t typical menus items in hospital cafes, but both dishes are among the options that guests can enjoy at the Buffett Cancer Center’s 75-seat dining venue, simply called The Restaurant.

Executive chef Tim Jones and his team deliver dishes using fresh, seasonal ingredients, much of it locally sourced. “We try to make as much from scratch as possible,” Jones says. The menu, which changes each season, features a handful of starters, salads, soups, and about a dozen entrees. The prices are reasonable, and there’s a focus on fresh, healthy ingredients such as leafy greens, lean protein, nuts, and whole grains. High-fat foods such as cream are used sparingly.

A bistro filet with accompaniments

A bistro filet, house greens, rosemary parmesan fries, and bearnaise vinaigrette

The $323 million cancer center is named in recognition of a gift from Pamela Buffett, through her foundation, the Rebecca Susan Buffett Foundation. Pamela’s husband, Fred, a first cousin of Warren Buffett, died in 1997 of kidney cancer. The facility, a joint venture between the University of Nebraska Medical Center and clinical partner Nebraska Medicine, opened in 2017. It’s the largest public-private partnership in the history of the state. To fund the project, the state of Nebraska contributed $50 million, the city of Omaha $35 million, and Douglas County $5 million. The rest of the funding was privately raised.

The cancer center doesn’t really look like a hospital, says Jones, and The Restaurant doesn’t look like a traditional hospital cafeteria. “It’s modern, eclectic, trendy,” Jones says. The open, airy dining space features soaring ceilings, bold artwork, a self-playing piano, and contemporary décor highlighting soothing colors and warm woods.

The good looks extend to the food as well. Long spears of chilled asparagus, draped with thinly sliced serrano ham, arrive topped with shaved Pecorino Romano cheese, fava beans, and juicy grapefruit segments for brightness and acidity. Another highlight among the starters: a cheese plate—complete with grilled brie, cheddar, blue cheese crumbles, Marcona almonds, aged balsamic, honeycomb, and microgreens.

Cheese plate, with seasonal accompaniments

Cheese plate with seasonal accompaniments

Grilled tiger shrimp, which popped with color and flavor, was served on a bed of diced papaya, crunchy cucumber, and hearts of palm drizzled with a zesty sauce that balanced spicy, sweet, and citrus flavors. Salmon with crispy skin arrived beautifully seared and served with rock shrimp-sweet potato hash and French green beans. A lightly dressed kale salad studded with nuts, fruit, and cheese delivered a nice variety of texture and flavor.

Grilled tiger shrimp dish, The Restaurant

Grilled tiger shrimp with papaya, cucumber, coriander, sweet chilies, and lime

Jones, whose fine dining background includes luxury hotels, is a native New Yorker who honed his skills at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. He has served as The Restaurant’s executive chef since it opened in June 2017. Soon afterward, he received a kidney transplant at Nebraska Medicine, made possible by his wife, Jennifer, who was the donor.

He’s grateful for the second chance and appreciates the work-life balance the Buffett Center allows him. Unlike most chefs, he rarely has to work nights or weekends. He also likes the creativity that cooking offers and enjoys showing others that hospital food and fine dining experiences can go hand in hand.

With fall on the way, Jones looks forward to getting inspired by what’s in season, what’s local, and what’s fresh. New menu items may include heartier salads, braised meats, and other comfort foods that are not only delicious, but also nutritious.


Visit nebraskamed.com or @eat.at.therestaurant on Instagram for more information.

This article was printed in the September 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Wading Through the Floodwaters of 2019

August 23, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It was roughly 4 o’clock in the morning when I reported back to the command post that Valley was going to be considered flooded,” says Mike Wiekhorst, chief of the Valley Fire Department, about the night he saw his town succumb to water.

The communities of Valley and Waterloo lie on the western edge of Douglas County. A small town and a village—sharing a public school, businesses, and a common lifestyle—were brought closer together this spring when flood waters threatened their homes. At the forefront of recovery efforts were the volunteer fire departments and the regular citizens who would lend them their talents.

Valley is near the Platte River, while Waterloo brushes against the Elkhorn River. Both rivers swelled beyond their confines through the latter half of March.

If there had to be a date that things took a turn for the worst, Wiekhorst would say March 14—the day Spencer Dam collapsed, sending an 11-foot wall of water down the Niobrara River. While the Niobrara isn’t upstream, the sudden rush would enter the Missouri, the same river that the floodwaters needed to drain into.

Waterloo Fire Chief Travis Harlow offered his station as a place to set up a unified command post, bringing the area’s high-ranking emergency responders under one roof.

“Luckily the village of Waterloo is surrounded by a levee, so we were able to be protected. At one time it was five inches from coming over the top of the levee, and just seven short years ago we raised the levee three feet,” Harlow says.

Valley Fire Department Rescue Lieutenant Natalia Menard was focused on getting supplies and medical attention to those who were extracted, but the volunteer nature of her department exposed her to all aspects of the rescue effort.

“Honestly, it’s kind of blurry to remember it. We had no sleep. We hadn’t eaten. We were going nonstop,” Menard says. “On top of that, we’re worrying about our families.”

Menard was dedicated to those in danger, which kept her away from her family, including her 3-year-old son, as they evacuated. Despite her mother falling ill and the quickly rising water, the family was able to safely escape the flood zones.

Not everyone was so lucky.

Wiekhorst and two of his volunteer firefighters were thrown into a high-stakes rescue situation. A rescuer experienced a technical difficulty while trying to reach an individual stranded on a diminishing island—a complication that sent him to the hospital with hypothermia.

Wiekhorst was nearby. He had two volunteers with experience on the water and a boat at his disposal. Wiekhorst contacted Harlow and told him they were going to try rescuing the individual, but while en route, the boat became too damaged to keep moving.

The three rescuers waded through rushing floodwaters while using a submerged barbwire fence to guide them.

“We finally get up to the homes and we found our first patient that we thought we came for. Then we found a second one in [a] different house. Then we found a third,” Wiekhorst says. “Now I’ve got three people.”

Wiekhorst and his two crew members conceived a plan to get the three stranded civilians and themselves to safety. Harlow called the Council Bluffs Fire Department, who used their hovercraft to transport one individual before becoming too damaged to make another trip.

Faced with no other options, the trio found a canoe. They put the last two stranded people in it and walked the vessel through the high waters. Wiekhorst, who stands over six feet tall, had water reaching his neck at times.

Valley Volunteer Fire Chief Mike Wiekhorst

Valley Volunteer Fire Chief Mike Wiekhorst

“That was the most physically demanding part of that whole flood. Halfway through I thought I couldn’t move my legs anymore, but I literally didn’t have a choice,” Wiekhorst says. “It was move or die.”

The hovercraft was repaired and able to retrieve Wiekhorst, two firefighters, and two civilians from the last leg of their trip across the rushing waters. The incident marked one of several life-threatening situations that Wiekhorst and volunteers encountered to save the stranded.

Wiekhorst, Harlow, and their volunteers prepared for these disaster situations for years, but some of the greatest assets to rescue and recovery efforts during the flooding were locals. Brad Brown of Valley was one of those people.

“Well I have an airboat, so I couldn’t just sit there without helping,” Brown says. “So we made some phone calls to the fire department asking if they needed help, and they took us up on it.”

During the worst week of flooding, Brown made himself readily available—waking early each morning and staying up late into the evening. There was a constant need for the skilled airboat captain and his vessel.

“[The fire department] was reluctant in the beginning because they didn’t know me at all,” Brown says. “But they were kind of desperate and needing airboats. Mine is much wider and bigger than most airboats, which makes it very stable when you’re bringing multiple people on board.”

In all, the fire departments rescued 217 people and 175 animals this spring.

The waters may have receded, but the problems are far from over. Some lost everything and the toll on the community is apparent. Harlow recalls one person who committed suicide shortly after losing most of their property to the floods. He feared that the individual was pushed by the overwhelming situation.

King Lake, an unincorporated community near Waterloo, was one of the hardest hit areas. The area flooded in 2011, but the 2019 flood was far worse. King Lake and other low-lying residencies along the river were mostly destroyed beyond recovery. Even the areas that avoided ice flows—which leveled buildings—still face water damage so great most infrastructure must be condemned.

“There’s still people going through this. As we’re recouping and getting back to normal lifestyles, there’s other people who still have water in their houses. There are roads that are still out,” Harlow says.

Contractors and public workers for the city of Valley are in the process of restoring the city park, repairing the edges of the roads, rehabilitating the water pumping system, “and about a hundred other things,” says Joan Suhr, Valley city clerk.

Group efforts to repair the region are in full swing. More volunteers and organizations have helped clean flooded properties and donated supplies to those who lost their belongings. While nonprofits such as Valley Flood Relief have assisted residents in the area, the city has relied on its own funds for recovery efforts.

“The floods wiped out our cash on hand,” Suhr says.

Menard says there’s an increased number of people volunteering at the Valley Fire Department, and she thinks it’s due to people wanting to help during the flood.

Brown plans on offering his airboat for future emergency situations or even becoming a volunteer firefighter himself.

“I really got a chance to see what these volunteers do. Those guys are true heroes. What they do every day—put themselves out there without getting paid,” Brown says. “And there is some treacherous stuff.”


Visit valleyfiredepartment.com and waterloofire.ne.gov for more information on the fire departments in this story.

This article was printed in the September 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Chicken Pedicures & Slumber Parties

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It started with three chickens in a store-bought, redwood playhouse. Now the Donscheski family has 20 chickens in a custom-built cedar coop that’s 20 feet by 6 feet and tall enough to stand in, with quirky windows and a brick patio.

Josie Donscheski, at age 7, visited a friend who had chickens, and then begged her dad to get some. When Barry finally agreed to bring chickens to their yard in Millard Park, he did so on the condition that they could live in her playhouse, but it wouldn’t be hers anymore—it would be theirs. He wanted her to understand that decisions like this mean sacrifice.

It was an important lesson for her to learn. Josie, who turns 15 on Sept. 15, has isodicentric chromosome 15 syndrome, or idic(15). This means she has an extra 15th chromosome, which leads to challenges in comprehension and focus. The chickens were one way for her to learn consequences, which helps her focus.

Josie’s mom Patti says it’s like having a teenager and a kindergartner in one. “But really, I have the same concerns as any parent,” Patti says. “I want her to have friends and be happy.”

Josie Donscheski

Josie Donscheski

Friends are easy for Josie to find. She is fascinated by bugs—she’ll catch them, talk to them, and sometimes feed them to the chickens.

The sacrifice soon became a passion. The chickens are great playmates for Josie. In 2016, Barry’s father Don, and son Kaylor, helped Barry build the custom chicken coop, complete with a flower box. Inside is a roosting bar where Josie plays school with the chickens. She often “teaches” the chickens songs or letters.

About every three months, she’ll talk her parents into having one of the chickens in the house for a sleepover. Patti’s rule is that the selected chicken gets a bath before coming in. Then Barry will help Josie paint the chicken’s “toenails,” and Josie will play a movie on a tablet and tuck in the chicken.

Barry, a landscape designer by trade, has learned patience from his energetic, loquacious daughter. The chickens have also helped. He spends at least an hour a day tending to them and the yard—six to eight hours on weekends.

Barry Donscheski

Barry Donscheski

“First and foremost, it’s a job,” Barry says. “Your commitment is…daily. Clean up, food, water, and health needs.”

The Donscheskis’ chickens are set up on an automatic watering system Barry created. When the sprinkler system kicks on, it fills a PVC tube that holds five gallons.

“You’ll need to get a permit from the city to have them,” Barry says. “Your coop will have to be the appropriate size to house the number of chickens you intend on acquiring. Rule of thumb is 4 square feet per bird in the run.”

He also advises that owners be conscious of your neighbors. Roosters aren’t allowed within city limits because of their noisiness, but even hens can make a lot of noise when laying. “I try and [give] my neighbors eggs and talk to them about the coop,” Barry says. “If anything negative is mentioned, even in jest, it is taken care of immediately. Flies, smell, and noise are the main concerns.”

The chickens have been a nice addition to this family’s life. Barry and Patti sit and chat while Josie uses her butterfly net to meet new friends. The chickens scatter around the yard. 


This article was printed in the September 2019 edition of OmahaHome. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Doncheski chickens

Bringing Back the Glory Days

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Omaha has a bit of Chicago flair and New York taste in one midtown location. That location is built of steel, covered in brick, and features terra cotta details.

The Blackstone Hotel was the design of Francis W. Fitzpatrick, assistant to Henry Ives Cobb when he designed Chicago Federal Building. Fitzpatrick came to Omaha in 1917 to work for the Bankers Realty Investment Co. as head of the architectural department. He designed the Blackstone Hotel, the Hotel Yancey in Grand Island, and several other projects before moving in 1919 to Evanston, Illinois.

The Hotel Yancey and the Blackstone Hotel were both created in the Renaissance Revival Style. Early 20th-century architecture often relied on “revival” styles, many of which can be seen in the Blackstone area, from the Jacobethan Revival at 3708 Farnam St. to the Georgian Revival home at 507 38th St. and more.

Renaissance Revival, however, tended to be a catchall phrase. Because there was a Renaissance in Italy, in France, and many other places in Europe, the Renaissance Revival takes elements from many styles. The Blackstone featured popular revival characteristics such as a grand staircase—marble in this case—crown moldings, and several archways, including heavy beamed archways prominent throughout the eighth-floor ballroom. E-shaped in structure, the hotel’s formal design invokes a sense of stability and security.

The investment company intended the hotel to be a family hotel, which was rented by the year rather than the day and included hotel services. Thus many of the rentable units contained multiple rooms for living as well as sleeping.

The early 20th century was a booming time in Omaha, and construction of the Blackstone Hotel coincided with construction taking place in still-popular areas such as Gold Coast, eventually expanding to Dundee and Benson. It has been speculated that the amount of apartment and housing construction happening during this time frame means that the hotel did not receive the business hoped for by the investment company. Bankers Realty sold the hotel to Charles Schimmel in 1920.

Schimmel converted it into a luxury hotel, featuring its own stable of Pierce Arrow limousines and an in-house publication called The Blackstonian. Celebrities and dignitaries visited, including Jack Benny, Ronald Reagan, and Eleanor Roosevelt. John F. and Jackie Kennedy celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary there in 1958, and nine years later Richard Nixon told reporters he planned to run for president in 1968 at the hotel. The Blackstone is credited with inventing the Rueben sandwich and Butter Brickle ice cream.

Although New Yorkers may dispute the origins of the Rueben sandwich, there is no denying the restaurants at the Blackstone were top-quality ones. With high ceilings, mirrored columns, plush dining chairs, and corned-beef sandwiches, the Orleans room made Holiday Magazine’s dining awards list for 16 years. Although that magazine sold in 1989 to Reader’s Digest, Holiday Magazine (later Travel Holiday) at its height boasted 1 million subscribers and the award is today known as the The Distinguished Restaurants of North America Award of Excellence.

The Blackstone was sold by the Schimmel family to Radisson in 1968. Radisson tried to renovate the building, but was unsuccessful, and the hotel closed in 1976. It became an Omaha Landmark in 1983, was turned into an office building in 1984, and officially became listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.

Today the hotel is returning to its former glory. The building is being run by the Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants brand—the first of its brand in Omaha—and is being renovated by the combined forces of Clarity Development and GreenSlate Development. The plan is for the hotel to open by April 2020.

Tom McLeay, the president of Clarity Development, said the goal is to build nothing short of “Omaha’s hotel.”

Doing justice to the history of the building, McLeay says, is a major priority.

“If we don’t do this right…and respect the history of what it is, we’ve blown it. We have not done our job.”

The development team is recreating as accurately as possible the Cottonwood Room, down to a faux cottonwood tree similar to the one in the original room. The Grand Ballroom on the top floor is being restored, and the lobby will feature the original, mosaic-tile floor from the Orleans Room as well as the original marble staircase.

Some of the modern amenities will include a resort-style pool, about 11,000 square feet of meeting space, a restaurant with “a little bit more of a French flair”—in another homage to the Orleans Room—and a new steakhouse. The hotel will have 205 guest rooms.

“Our hope is that it’s going to feel like it is the hotel from the ’30s, but it’s met modern times,” McLeay says. “The bones of the history are still here, but we are going to bring it into today.”

Of course, a hotel depends on out-of-towners for its success. McLeay says the energy the Omaha community will bring to the hotel is one thing that will make it a destination for travelers. The restaurants and bars of the revived Blackstone District will attract guests, and the hotel will add to that bustle, offering a steakhouse and lobby bar, as well as people going to meetings and attending wedding rehearsal dinners and other events.

“There’s this excitement about the place,” McLeay says. “That’s what people respond to.” 


This article was printed in the September 2019 edition of OmahaHome. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Blackstone Hotel

How Intervention Lead to Invention

August 20, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Lying on the floor in a fetal position, Robert Wilson thought this was the final conversation of his life.

“I’m going to die like my mother,” Wilson said to himself. “Drunk and alone. Is that [what] I want…yes.”

A sense of calmness overtook him. Passing out, he didn’t know if he’d wake again. Then, something happened. “It was divine intervention,” Wilson says. “It had to be the Great Spirit.”

Wilson woke his roommate and asked for help. They arranged for him to be admitted to the Campus for Hope detoxification center. After detox, he stayed at the Stephen Center, where he eventually became the head chef.

The road to sobriety took roughly 30 years and included several potholes along the way. As the child of an alcoholic mother and a drug addict father who served time in prison for drug running, Wilson says life was stacked against him. Suffering sexual abuse at the hands of two men in his South Omaha neighborhood, Wilson tried alcohol and marijuana for the first time at age 13. He says he enjoyed self-medicating.

“The first time I tried alcohol I got full-blown drunk,” Wilson says. “It was never a social thing for me. I always drank to get drunk. Then I added drugs at an early age.”

As an adult, he worked as a dishwasher at Original Caniglia’s Italian Steakhouse. His cooking career took off one night when he stepped in to replace the pasta chef, who didn’t show up for work. He eventually worked at some of Omaha’s finest restaurants, including Indian Oven and the French Café in the Old Market. As a sous chef at the French Café, Wilson realized he could make the culinary industry a career. But his addictions were never far away.

In 1995, Wilson’s father persuaded him to move to California. He landed a job at a Wolfgang Puck’s Kitchen in Costa Mesa. The self-taught chef thought his future looked bright. Then he learned his father managed an operation delivering drugs and guns to Nebraska.

“[A] whole trailer was full of weapons,” he says. “It was something out of the movies. I’d never seen so much drugs and money in my life.”

Though the younger Wilson never sold drugs, he says he served time in prison for possession.

Following a couple of years living on the street, Wilson moved back to Nebraska. After getting his job back at the French Café, life was good again. However, his demons kept attacking. He lost the job less than a year after his return.

Then came the night of divine intervention, and Wilson became sober at 45. An opportunity to work in the kitchen at Stephen Center proved to be just what he needed.

Today, nearly seven years after his epiphany, Wilson appreciates giving back to the place that helped save his life. While serving roughly 150 meals per daily lunch and dinner service, Wilson seeks to provide a special experience.

Working with donations from local grocers such as Hy-Vee, Trader Joe’s, Fareway, and Whole Foods, Wilson says, “Sometimes, you have to be creative with the food they send you because of the expiration date.” But creating menus is a challenge he loves.

“I like to treat people like they’re enjoying a meal at a restaurant and not an institution,” Wilson says. “I like to do food you won’t see at other [centers].” He also likes to take “plate pictures” of the food, which he posts on Facebook.

Life is good for the 52-year-old Omaha tribal member—with a fiancée, new house, and Harley Davidsons to ride—but Wilson never forgets where he came from.

“The Stephen Center is part of me,” he says. “The new me serves the Stephen Center. I couldn’t do what I like without them.”


Visit stephencenter.org for more information.

This article was printed in the September 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Chef Robert Wilson of Stephen Center

Chef Robert Wilson at the Stephen Center

Resistance, Reflection, and Retaining One’s Religion

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The Rev. Debra McKnight’s journey to the altar hasn’t been without obstacles. The freedom to live out her calling as a pastor came on the heels of immense testing, resistance to conformity, persistent theological reflection, and the pursuit of God’s will.

McKnight, a 42-year-old mother, is the founding pastor of Urban Abbey in the Old Market, which started as a satellite of the First United Methodist Church but became independent nearly four years ago. With the motto “coffee, cause, communion,” Urban Abbey will celebrate its eight-year anniversary in November.

McKnight describes Urban Abbey as a coffee shop, bookstore, and church. They sell fair-trade coffee, books, jewelry, and other gifts, and the shop area is cleared for Sunday church services. She says Urban Abbey’s uniqueness often creates atypical opportunities such as her own.

McKnight was reared in Plattsmouth by God-fearing Methodist parents who served in their community in a variety of ways, from Rotary Club to Plattsmouth Community Schools’ board of education. Debra was in seventh grade when she was struck with the idea of becoming a pastor. “Faith is more than just church,” she explains. “Church was a nurturing place for me.”

Ministering was an idea that came to her in stages. As a teenager, McKnight’s passion was the environment, and she started an ecology club at the Methodist church in Plattsmouth to encourage parishioners to think green. Environmentalism was such a passion, in fact, that she went to college with the idea of majoring in the subject.

She also took women’s studies and American history courses at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the late 1990s, which she says “opened her to seeing the larger fabric” of society and social inequality.

Her faith aligned with her blossoming ideals. The Methodist church has always been concerned with social justice—early Methodists expressed their opposition to societal ills such as slavery, smuggling, inhumane prison conditions, alcohol abuse, and child labor. The church gave her a platform to help others, and she tried to broaden conservative views on gender roles, race relations, and other non-normative lifestyles. Along the way, she developed a strong desire to participate in church leadership, but she was met with opposition when she expressed interest in becoming a female pastor.

“I don’t think I encountered a sense that women weren’t equal until I decided to pursue being a pastor,” McKnight says.

The Methodist church has seen women in the clergy since 1761, but to this day, 70 to 75 percent of clergy people are men. There is still a stigma being a female pastor, says the Rev. Jill Sander-Chali of College Hill United Methodist Church in Wichita, Kansas. McKnight met this longtime friend at Perkins School of Theology. “I went into the seminary not as aware of obstacles that women in the ministry faced,” Sander-Chali says.

Women experience rejection when they seek out a pulpit. Yet, McKnight realized the gravitational pull to pursue ministry service was something she could not ignore.

Before seminary, McKnight earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in English. She lived and worked in Germany as an education counselor for active-duty military personnel. In 2008, she graduated from Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, a place where she discovered a love of liturgy, explored diverse theological perspectives, pushed boundaries on the church’s traditional structures, and experimented with preaching in a rigorous academic community.

“Debra is an amazing teacher,” Sander-Chali says. “She has an amazing, powerful presence in the most nonthreatening way to help people see things differently than they had before.”

Sander-Chali says McKnight has had that gift for a long time, explaining:

“She would debate things in class and challenge our classmates. She always had a way of reframing and renaming things to people. Sometimes people wouldn’t realize that she was challenging them. When in fact, Debra just took over that conversation. Doing it in a way that people would follow. She’s just so good with words.”

Sander-Chali says the two reverends are taught and trained in the art of loving people the way they are and helping them grow. But they need the opportunity to talk, as women and as pastors. “By your hospital bed and in your pulpit, we’re just showing up and being,” she says. “Physical presence communicates a lot. My gender, that becomes powerful and it leads to spiritual healing and awareness.”

In 2010, McKnight was ordained in the United Methodist Church, and she has thrived in her role as pastor. She has a wonderful ability to influence people in positive and healthy ways. McKnight owns a clergy collar for parades and protests because her work focuses on social justice, liturgics, and building community. While in Omaha, she has lead her faith community in starting a pub church, called Wesley Pub, though she doesn’t drink beer, and then a coffee shop (Urban Abbey), though she prefers tea.

“I admire her,” Sander-Chali says. “She indeed has a lot of resilience and tenacity to go into those [male-dominated] spaces and be who she is—herself. She created this amazing Urban Abbey and has an entrepreneurial mind to create a church from the ground up,” adding “It’s a doorway to a relationship with the sacred for those would not normally connect in a traditional church.”


Visit urbanabbeyomaha.com for more information.

Rev. Jill Sander-Chali was formerly at Chapel Hill United Methodist Church but is now at College Hill United Methodist Church in Wichita, Kansas. The online version of this story has been changed to reflect that. 

This article was printed in the September 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe

Rev. Deb McKnight at Urban Abbey.

Rev. Deb McKnight at Urban Abbey.

Jan Riggenbach

August 2, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Watch out for Jan Riggenbach’s green thumb. Gardening has been her passion since age 7.

She started writing a gardening column in 1974. That column, which she still writes weekly, is now syndicated in 12 newspapers, including the Omaha World-Herald, Chicago Daily Herald, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She also wrote a gardening column for Midwest Living magazine for 22 years.

Her husband, writer Don Riggenbach, talked her into writing the newspaper column in the early 1970s. “He worked for Northwestern Bell public relations and came home with garden questions from people he worked with,” she says.

She writes books. Her most recent from the University of Nebraska Press is Your Midwest Garden: An Owner’s Manual. She has collaborated on various books and as a plant writer for HGTV Landscape books, too.

Riggenbach also has helped people with horticultural therapy.

With what?

Horticultural therapy is just what it sounds like. “Just about any gardener will tell you gardening is therapeutic. No matter what’s bothering you, working the soil helps,” she says. “It was a new field when I got into it.”

She has consulted on horticultural therapy for the senior population and helped several nursing homes build wheelchair-accessible garden beds.

Until three years ago, Jan and Don lived on 30 acres near Glenwood, Iowa. Their land was home to 700 varieties of trees. She says the trees and gardens became a draw for visitors who didn’t always understand what they were looking at.

“As visitors stood on the deck overlooking the wooded ravine on our Iowa acreage, now and then someone would point to a dead tree. ‘Do you know you have a dead tree?’ he or she would ask. We welcomed the chance to explain the value of leaving a few dead trees standing as long as they pose no danger to humans. Dead trees provide homes for many kinds of birds and other wildlife.”

JanRiggenbach2

When planting trees, the Riggenbachs often spaced saplings only 10 or 12 feet apart to mimic the forests of nature.

“People more accustomed to parks and golf courses than to woodlands asked, ‘Don’t you know you’re planting your trees way too close together?’” Jan laughs.

The 30 acres made a perfect home for the family. Don’s passion is trees. Jan had room on the acreage for her gardens. Their three children had room to play. The two writers worked out of a separate building they called The Word Barn.

The couple moved to Omaha three years ago to make life easier for Don, who has Parkinson’s disease. They had lived on the land in Iowa located between Council Bluffs and Glenwood for 35 years.

In southwest Omaha, a scaled-down version of her garden continues to produce flowers, vegetables, dwarf trees, shrubs, berries, and herbs. Downsizing for the Riggenbachs means one acre to work instead of 30, still not everybody’s idea of retirement.

“I do all my vegetables on raised beds, an easier way to garden,” says Jan. “There’s less bending and with the raised beds, I don’t have to worry about soil contamination, and drainage is good.” 

Some of their three children and eight grandchildren share the passion that Jan and Don, who have been together for 53 years, have for gardening.

“My son, David, is bitten bad. There’s no grass in his yard and it’s packed with every possible plant he can find,” Jan says.

Also into gardening are grandsons Nate, who is now a junior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Jackson, who at age 13 has his own garden.

Jan became an organic gardener before most people knew what that was.

“Organic then was looked at like there was something wrong with you. So I never said, ‘This is organic.’  Today I give programs about organic gardening.” 

She says readers’ questions help her as a writer to understand how a novice gardener may not understand gardening jargon. Examples: “How do you pinch a plant and where do you pinch it?” and “What does deadheading mean?”

As Jan kept writing, her garden’s reputation grew. People lined up to visit, primarily from garden clubs and local schools. She grew almost everything on the Iowa acreage, from fruits and vegetables to flower gardens. 

Jan remembers a fellow hiker who showed her a smartphone photo of the columbines he found blooming in his new yard: “He said, ‘I thought they were really pretty, but if they’re wildflowers, I’ll have to pull them out.’ 

Although most gardeners welcome native plants in their gardens, some newcomers still equate wildflowers with weeds.” 

Jan says she harvested a story every time visitors came to the sprawling acreage they once owned in Iowa.

“While conducting a tour for children, my husband Don pointed out an American hophornbeam tree. ‘Now this is a hop tree,’ he began. One little girl’s eyes got really big. ‘How far does it hop?’ she asked.”

JanRiggenbach1

OJs Enchilada

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ground beef and cottage cheese on an enchilada. The combination sounds strange, but it tastes amazing.

Creamy, melted cottage cheese oozes over hearty meat and shredded lettuce, tucked into a flour tortilla. Douse the whole plate with ladles of finely chopped hot salsa (made fresh every day), and dig in.

The menu warns in all-caps: “GUARANTEED A GUT-BUSTER!” It stretches across the plate like a log, coated with a blanket of cheddar and sprinkled with black olive slices. Twin mounds of rice and refried beans huddle beside the delicious monstrosity.

OJs1Ever since I learned of cottage cheese enchiladas, OJ’s Cafe on the edge of the Missouri River has called to me like a siren song for fat kids.

Mexican food is fairly common in the Midwest nowadays, but OJ’s Cafe was a trendsetter. Located next to the Florence Mill, just south of I-680’s 30th Street exit near the Mormon Bridge, OJ’s wood-paneled facade harkens back to the days of the Wild West.

The recipe for cheese and beef enchiladas belonged to the owner’s mother. The owner, 70-year-old Olga Jane Martinez (whose married name is Vlcek) was born in Anaheim, California. She opened the cafe 40 years ago. Vlcek says they added the Western-style facade a few years after opening.

Mexican food was hard to find in Omaha back then. The restaurant was situated in the site of a former dairy that sold milk, eggs, ice cream, hamburger, and cheeseburgers. At first, Vlcek followed suit. She kept the menu and added a daily special. Mexican dishes were the Thursday and Friday special.

“Then customers started asking for more Mexican food,” Vlcek says. “I said, ‘You know what? I am going to try to make a business of this.’ So, I cut everything else (about a year after opening).”

OJ’s now offers a full menu with tacos, burritos, vegetarian options, nachos, and a wide range of Mexican fare. The kitchen will even switch out flour tortillas for corn upon request.

Walk inside OJ’s today and find heavy wooden lacquer tables and booths. Kitschy decorations abound. Ceramic suns cover one wall. Promotional mirrors for imported Mexican beer cover another. There’s a stained glass window with cacti and a sombrero, a crucifix, family photos, and lots of other trinkets contributing to the down-home atmosphere.

A waitress asks for our order. I know what I want, but ask her suggestion anyway. She recommends the cottage cheese and chicken enchilada. I pause for a moment. I didn’t know the meat choice could be switched. I take a risk. Chicken and cottage cheese it is.

When I order a plate of tortilla chips, I ask for a mix of corn and flour ($3.75) and a Pacifico on-tap ($3.75 glass) from an ample selection of Mexican beers. The beer arrives in a frosty mug. A margarita ($4) with salt on the rim follows with the entrée.

Word to the wise couple: Those with smaller appetites should consider splitting the enchilada ($10.25). After essentially chugging half of the dish, I slow to contemplate the merits of beef vs. chicken and cottage cheese. The chicken is fairly bland, aside from the rich cheesiness common to both. I still prefer the beef (which seems more savory, possibly cooked with more seasoning); however, I’m not disappointed. Being perfectly honest, I dump so much homemade salsa on my plate that it probably doesn’t matter what I’m eating.

OJs3To wrap up the meal, a sombrero ($5.50) arrives. Luckily, I’m eating with a dinner companion. We share the two heaping scoops of vanilla ice cream towering over a cinnamon and sugar-coated tortilla, all drizzled with Mexican caramel. 

Completely stuffed, I wonder about the origins of my favorite enchilada. Who better to ask than Olga Jane Vlcek herself. She still works at her namesake restaurant every day (OJ’s is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., with a mid-day break that closes the cafe from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.)

“That’s my signature enchilada,” Vlcek says of the beef and cottage cheese enchilada, which happens to be her favorite, too. The cottage cheese and beef enchilada was on the menu in the early days of OJ’s, but it wasn’t popular. “Ironically enough, I couldn’t sell them,” she says with a laugh. “People wouldn’t buy them, so I took it off the menu.” She made a commitment to herself that if her restaurant became established, she would bring back her mom’s enchilada recipe. And that’s exactly what she did. Omaha Magazine

Sam Parker

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Sam Parker wants to help his patrons find that feeling—the rush of emotion that happens when people lose themselves in a song.

A true-to-form millennial, Parker has pursued passion projects and labors of love from city to city. Originally a transplant from the Washington, D.C., area, he came to Omaha some years ago to study business marketing. He later left to work with Paper & Plastick Records in Florida and returned to find that Omaha’s creatives were ready to put his business savvy to good use.

If you are a musician or an artist in town, you have likely crossed paths with Parker. Though he sits at the helm of a couple major operations and has his hands in even more, he is quick to state that nothing he does is a solo effort: “I have a very solid group of people surrounding me in every project that I’m doing. I really couldn’t do any of this without them.”

SamParker1That collaborative vision is a thread weaving through all the enterprises Parker is involved with, from his role as co-founder of production company Perpetual Nerves, to his position as talent buyer for the music festival Lincoln Calling, to his work at Hi-Fi House, a vinyl record musicology lab/library (founded by Kate Dussault). Parker wants his ventures to foster connection and further the movement for social progress. His new music venue, Milk Run, is no exception.

Milk Run, which opened last fall, defines itself as an all-ages community space. Primarily hosting concerts, the site is on Leavenworth Street, tucked between Shucks and Club Vibe. On the front door is a yellow sign which reads “Safe Space,” signifying an inclusive ideology that welcomes all.

Stepping into Milk Run feels a bit like visiting your cool grandma’s house, with black and white walls and a string of lights behind the performance area. It is intimate, modest, and entirely unpretentious. The space invites you to be yourself.

Milk Run was founded on Parker’s desire, and that of his colleagues, to help grow Omaha’s music scene; he says they “wanted to see more bands come to town, including artists who are under the radar.” When asked whether he thinks Omaha is ready to support eccentric creators, his stance is confident: “There are a lot of people who want change.”

As with all of Parker’s projects, Milk Run does more than promote musicians. They also provide organizations like Omaha Zine Fest and Feminist Book Club with a space to meet when needed. “We get so many different kinds of people walking through these doors, I feel like I’m constantly learning.”

Ultimately, that’s what he cultivates: opportunities for folks to experience something new and to connect over live music. “It’s cool to see people come together. Omaha is an evolving city, and I want to be a part of that.” It is clear that Parker has already begun to influence our city’s evolution, pointing us toward a more dynamic future, one great show at a time. 

Visit facebook.com/milkrunomaha or @milkrunomaha on Twitter, for more information. Encounter

Junk Bonds

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It doesn’t take long to discover some dirty business in Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov’s past—and that’s a good thing.

More than a century ago, Polikov’s paternal grandfather, Benjamin, left a small village outside Kiev, Ukraine, and came to the United States. A peddler in his native land, he did similar work here, earning enough to bring his wife and three children to the United States as well.

Eventually, Benjamin began Aksarben Junk Co. at 13th and Webster streets. His son Abraham—Lee’s father—joined the business.

Lee remembers accompanying him on the half-Saturdays his father would work. “We’d sit and watch the scale,” he says. Mostly, though, his father wanted him to “stay out of the way.”

Abraham wanted something different for his son: “Get an education, assimilate, adapt, and grow,” Polikov says.

Polikov has done that and more, establishing a career peddling justice rather than junk.

Lee-Polikov1He’s done so as Sarpy County’s attorney since 1999. He was first appointed to the position but has since earned re-election four times.

“I’ve had a fortunate career, both in law enforcement and prosecution as the chief law enforcement officer,” he says. “It gives me a lot of satisfaction.”

Even if it’s not the career he  initially envisioned.

A 1966 Omaha Westside graduate, Polikov earned a business degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a commission as first lieutenant with the U.S. Army while serving in ROTC. Next came a degree from UNL College of Law.

“My goal, my ambition, was to do federal law enforcement,” he says.

But the feds, he recalls, were under a hiring freeze then. Instead, Polikov made his way to Sarpy County, where Pat Thomas had taken over the sheriff’s office. Polikov joined him as an administrative assistant, but with an agreement that he’d be there just a year until he started looking again for a federal gig.

“That just never happened,” says Polikov, who eventually became chief deputy and counsel in the office.

Pat Thomas remained Sarpy County Sheriff for 32 years. Polikov stayed with him until he was appointed to his current post. Today, he manages a staff that includes 23 attorneys and 75 support staff. “Which is really a rather large law firm,” he says. “I’ve got a great team. We feel we’ve been able to provide a good, safe community for people.”

Polikov is 67 now and has been Sarpy County’s attorney for 17 years. A great time, perhaps, to call it quits and spend days of leisure with his wife of nearly 40 years, longtime Mannheim Steamroller director of communications Terry Calek?

Polikov says he has no plans to retire.

“It’s a great job. I enjoy it immensely,” he says. “I like the association with the staff and what we do, and those successes go beyond putting people in prison or setting people up to go to prison. It’s helping people that need help.”

Visit sarpy.com/attorney for more information. Sixty-Plus in Omaha