Tag Archives: featured

March/April 2019 Between the Lines

February 25, 2019 by

Omaha Magazine's Kendra Hill standing in white kitchen Kendra Hill —Accounting Associate

New to the accounting department at Omaha Magazine, Kendra Hill brings with her 23 years of bookkeeping experience—all gained while working alongside her husband in their family-owned bicycle business. It was early in her entrepreneurial experience that she found a love for numbers and developed an appreciation for the impact of small business in the local community. Organization is one of her passions, which has been key in balancing the work she enjoys while homeschooling her three boys. Since her oldest recently graduated, she has a little more time to read, play board games with her boys, and dream of those “someday” travel destinations.

Marisa Miakonda Cummings in traditional style dressMarisa Miakonda Cummings—Contributing Writer

Marisa Miakonda Cummings has a Bachelor of Arts in American Studies from the University of Iowa with a Certificate in American Indian/Native Studies. She is currently pursuing a master’s in tribal administration and governance at the University of Minnesota Duluth. She has worked in higher education for over 12 years and is dedicated to indigenous traditional models of governance, education, food systems, ceremonies, and sovereignty. In the September/October 2016 edition of Omaha Magazine, she contributed an essay on the importance of the Umoⁿhoⁿ language and traditional Omaha ways that she strives to teach to her children (the essay, “Speaking to the Future, Honoring the Past” was part of a multi-part story package that won multiple awards at the 2017 Great Plains Journalism Awards).

Mike Brewer of Omaha Magazine wearing Nebraska hat, Omaha Magazine jacket Mike Brewer—Distribution Manager

Mike Brewer joined Omaha Magazine in 2010. As distribution manager, he can often be spotted about town in the Omaha Magazine van, delivering to Omaha-area schools, businesses, and venues. A graduate of Omaha Bryan High School, Brewer is a “proud South Omaha boy and crazy sports fan” who supports the Nebraska Huskers, Chicago Cubs, and Kansas City Chiefs. He also enjoys playing softball and bowling, volunteering with the men’s club at Holy Ghost, and coaching youth baseball. He is also a proud cheer dad. His family includes wife Stephanie and his children (Camden, Dylan, Christopher, and Anna).

Sean McCarthy with his Weimaraner, Jade, in parkSean McCarthy—Contributing Writer

Sean McCarthy has worked as a freelance writer for Omaha Magazine for the past three years. Since graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a degree in news-editorial journalism in 2002, McCarthy has written for The Reader, Paste, and PopMatters. His articles have been referenced in Newsweek and the New York Times Magazine. However, since getting cited in publications rarely translates into practical things like mortgage payments and paying off student debt, he works as a user experience designer for a speech recognition company. In addition to loving all things old-school journalism, McCarthy is an avid music geek who still uses an iPod. Pictured with the writer is Jade, his beloved (since departed) Weimaraner.

Hip Czech Not Too Cool for School

February 14, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Hockey has taken Lukas Buchta a long way from home. The Czech Republic native is wrapping up his final season as a Mavericks defenseman.

Buchta, 24, takes seriously his student-athlete status. The University of Nebraska-Omaha senior is studying business with a concentration in financing, banking, and portfolio management. The honors student works hard in the classroom and at the rink. He came to America because it afforded an opportunity his home country did not in terms of playing hockey and seeking higher education.

“In my country, you can’t play hockey and go to school at the same time,” he says. “You are either a pro athlete or you go to university.”

With his mother’s career in teaching, education was always a priority. But Buchta suspects he would have discontinued studies back home in order to develop in hockey. Here, he pursued both passions.

“I would make some good money playing hockey, but I wouldn’t find what I’m doing now,” he says. “It’s really fun. I mean, obviously, it’s really tough studying in a second language—everything takes me more time to learn. But I like studying. I like the business program here. I’ve met many great students from all over the world and I have many great professors.”

Aware of how short an athlete’s career can be, he sees enormous value in the degree he will earn in May.

“I know how education is so important nowadays, especially if you’re an athlete and you get injured,” he says. “You never know what can happen. But if you have a degree, it opens so many opportunities. The hockey sector is just so tiny compared to the business sector.”

When not studying, he is busy with hockey. That is a learning experience as well. He enjoys being on a team with players from the U.S., Canada, Finland, Sweden, and Slovakia. “It’s great learning about different cultures. Everyone sees the world differently,” Buchta says.

A long line of players from outside the U.S. have played in Omaha. While Canada is a perennial feeder for junior and college teams, Europe offers a rich pipeline as well.

When Buchta got good enough in his homeland to consider a future in hockey, he was advised by the father of former UNO player Andrej Sustr (a fellow Czech Republic native). Living with a host American family while going to school and playing top-level junior hockey that might net a full-ride scholarship sounded appealing.

After a 2012-2013 stint with the Omaha Lancers, Buchta played for the Sioux Falls Stampede in 2014-2015.

“I feel like it made me stronger because I was living on my own,” he says. “I was forced to communicate in English on a daily basis. The biggest adjustment was the weather. It was totally different in South Dakota than what I was used to.”

The Stampede enjoyed a special season that got him noticed. “From a hockey perspective, it was awesome,” says Buchta, who helped the team to the Clark Cup championship of the United States Hockey League.

“We had such a good team. A couple of the guys have already made the NHL. It was a good experience,” he says.

UNO came calling during the season.

“I was talking to many schools because I was actually doing really well. I didn’t know UNO was watching me,” he says. “I remember after a game my coach told me, ‘UNO was here and they liked you,’ and within a week they offered.”

As a freshman, he was part of the team that ushered in UNO’s Baxter Arena. Buchta fondly recalls the home-opener against Air Force. “It was so much fun,” he says. “When I got to the rink, there were 5,000 fans already there…two-and-a-half hours before game time. I will never forget that moment. It was pretty special.”

“When you don’t play the sport for money but only for a spot, the competition is so strong,” he says. “My freshman year, it was such a highly competitive environment from a D-man’s perspective.”

Buchta played his first two seasons at UNO under then-head coach Dean Blais. Mavericks defensive coach Mike Gabinet stepped into the leadership role after Blais retired. Buchta says it was a smooth transition, and he credits Gabinet for helping him become a better player. In turn, Gabinet praises Buchta’s mature work ethic as an example to other players.

“I feel I’m way stronger than when I got here,” Buchta says. “I feel like my skating got a lot better. I’m a person that likes to be pushed. It doesn’t matter if it’s hockey or school—I want to just somehow get better in order to separate myself from my video game-playing generation. I try to do everything at 100 percent. When I’m 40 or 50 years old and I look back, I’m not going to be disappointed because I’ll know I did everything I could to be successful.”

He has no regrets coming to America and describes his years abroad as “probably the best decision of my life.” But Buchta is also very close to his parents.

They have traveled to see him play in the U.S. Devoted Maverick fans may have noticed the player’s father with a Czech flag wrapped around his shoulders during games at Baxter Arena.

Buchta went home to see his family over the holidays. Whatever professional hockey or business prospects arise for him in the U.S., he expects to return to the Czech Republic at some point.

“I’m three hours from one of the nicest places in the world, the Swiss Alps,” he says of his family’s home. “The nature is unbelievable, the people are friendly, the economy’s extremely strong. As a business major, I just see so many opportunities over there.”

Visit omavs.com for more information.

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

Strawberry-Blue Olive’s Excellent Adventure

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Strawberry-Blue Olive believes in the power of “ideas worth spreading. This heartfelt belief in the TED tagline—plus her love of innovation, creativity, and community—made her an apt fit to carry the mantle of TEDxOmaha when original license holder Brian Smith stepped away after 2017. 

If you’ve never “met” TED, it’s a nonprofit aiming to spread knowledge and ideas, most notably in the form of TED talks (mini-lectures clocking in at 18 minutes or less) and conferences. TED began as a 1984 conference co-mingling topics of technology, entertainment, and design, but it has evolved into a sprawling network of projects and communities worldwide. The TED mission is ambitious yet simple: to build “a clearinghouse of free knowledge from the world’s most inspired thinkers—and a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other.” TEDx events, which launched in 2009, are held locally in communities worldwide.     

“Giving a TED speech is unlike anything else. It’s not a motivational talk, not a conference speech, not a keynote speech. It’s something very different. It’s very prestigious and life-changing for people who deliver them,” says Olive, the executive producer and license-holder for TEDxOmaha. “[The aim] is to elevate what’s great within the community, because the [speakers] will inspire the audience to go and do great things themselves or to reach back to us and with their own idea worth spreading.”

Olive, who has a background in business, organizational leadership, and education, hails from the United Kingdom and spent 11 years working in Germany prior to moving to Omaha five years ago with her husband, Al Cagle, when his role in the U.S. Air Force transitioned to an Omaha-based job. The pair originally met at a Harley-Davidson rally in Norway. 

Olive says because she’d attended TED events elsewhere, she immediately looked into TED’s Omaha presence as a way to tap into the community. She later joined the effort as a volunteer. When Smith announced his departure, she stepped in to ensure TEDxOmaha would continue.

“I said to the team, ‘We cannot let Brian’s legacy go. We owe it to the community to continue this,’” says Olive, whose first order of business after securing the license was reaching out to all past volunteers and partners to gauge their needs, glean their knowledge, and understand how/if they’d like to be engaged in the future. “That’s something that’s never scared me—taking things over and setting up from scratch. As I’ve moved countries and changed careers, each time I’ve been thrown into an area I’m unfamiliar with, I have had to hit the ground running at top speed. So, that’s never phased me.”

While there are thousands of TEDx events around the globe, Olive says the Omaha area is particularly rich with them. 

“We have TEDxLincoln, TEDxOmaha, TEDxUNO, and TEDxCreighton,” she says. “A lot of communities don’t have the richness and diversity of ideas within their own community [to support multiple TEDx events]. We do.”

In addition to the main TEDx events, Olive says Omaha also has TEDxSalons and TEDxAdventures throughout the year to help “keep the momentum, ideas, and engagement going” year-round. Salons are held the third Monday monthly at KANEKO and Adventures occur throughout the community—everywhere from Kugler Vision to Joslyn Castle.   

One important challenge that Olive strives to address is achieving inclusivity. To her, that means creating community-wide awareness of TEDx events and ensuring a multitude of perspectives are at the table.

“Our vision is to promote positive interaction through the sharing of ideas,” Olive says. “Beyond providing events, our focus is to be of the community—to engage with others, participate, and collaborate within our community. So, if we are truly of the community, then we must work to be inclusive.”

Informed by her interest in education, and in an effort to include young people, TED-Ed is another program Olive would like to bring to Omaha in the coming years. TED-Ed is TED’s youth and education initiative, which brings the TED model into schools.

But for now, Olive and her “fabulous” team of volunteer leaders are busy planning TEDxOmaha’s 10th anniversary in 2019, which ultimately means choosing a theme and format, auditioning and coaching speakers, marketing the event, coordinating with partners, tackling logistics, and more.

Olive says they want to create “something special” to honor the decade milestone. Her other hope for TEDxOmaha’s future is to see the conversations sparked at the main event gain traction and create change within the community.

“We want to use the talks as a platform to start more conversations. I’m hoping we can build momentum around these conversations so they can take on a life of their own,” Olive says. “We have to explore where the synergy is in the community and how we can facilitate conversations to help the speakers elevate their ideas and bring in others to further discuss and move these ideas forward. And it doesn’t have to belong to [TEDxOmaha] all the way through, but if we can be the catalyst to start these conversations, that’s fantastic.”

Visit tedxomaha.com for more information.

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

Cake and Destroy’s Elise Fertwagner

February 13, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Elise Fertwagner is a bit of a disrupter in the world of artistic baking, particularly in the Omaha area where she is an active member of the pop-up cuisine community (which seems to be rising in popularity faster than dough left to proof overnight). Her baked creations showcase her creativity, ingenuity, and love of nostalgia.

“My favorite thing about baking is—when you get everything right—you can invoke a memory,” Fertwagner says. Nostalgia has a lot to do with her love of baking since she has memories of cooking and baking with her family. “My earliest memory is of getting into the fridge and eating the sticks of butter,” she says, laughing.

Fertwagner is well-known as a baker who makes stunning creations, but also as a pastry chef who can make the most decadent indulgences a little more nutritionally dense and void of potential allergens. She has a knack for taking baked goods that people know and love and manipulating the ingredients and preparation to present goodies with a healthier twist.

She has worked as a pastry chef and decorator at a variety of places around Omaha, including bakeries and corporate settings. “When you’re making food for a bunch of people, you have to present it a different way,” she says, adding that not everyone is looking for a fancy, thought-provoking dessert to accompany their quick lunch at work.

“I’ve learned about creating a baseline,” she says. With a mischievous grin, she admits that she doesn’t always tell people that a pastry is vegan until after they’ve tasted it and already love it.

Surprisingly, her artistic creations from the oven don’t point toward additional artistic endeavors. “If you give me a baked good, I can do it,” she says. “But give me a paintbrush and a canvas, and I can’t do it.”

Her artistic process is fairly simple: baking involves blasting music and dancing around the kitchen, but decorating requires quiet concentration.

Though she attended the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu Institute in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, she doesn’t necessarily think culinary school is for everyone. “I’ve learned more from other people and from falling flat on my face.” She credits local chef Matt Parks as one of the most positive influences in her pastry chef career in Omaha. “He encouraged me, he believed in me, he challenged me, but also made me feel comfortable.”

A graduate of Marian High School, Fertwagner brings a lot to the table of her hometown’s culinary scene. She is the mother of two girls and hopes to someday open her own permanent bakery location. A firm believer in doing things at the right time, she turned down an opportunity to appear on a show on The Food Network because “the timing wasn’t right.”

“Everything hasn’t aligned yet to have a location,” she says. “With the right investors, the right space, and at the right time, it will happen.” Until then, keep a lookout for pop-up manifestations of her unique bakery brand—Cake and Destroy (an homage to the “Skate and Destroy” tagline of the skateboarding magazine Thrasher).

Visit @cakeanddestroy on Instagram and Facebook for more information.

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

Growing the Big O

January 22, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Daniel Schwarzbach knows Omaha is a great destination.

Schwarzbach first visited years ago for a business meeting when the downtown convention center was still called the Qwest Center Omaha.

The president and CEO of the Airborne Public Safety Association in Frederick, Maryland, plans to bring around 1,500 people to Omaha this summer for his organization’s 49th annual convention. He is confident they will enjoy the “great little area” around the CHI Health Center Omaha (NoDo), nearby hotels, and the Old Market. Schwarzbach picked Omaha because of these amenities, and the proximity of Eppley Airfield.

“We’re excited to come to Omaha,” Schwarzbach says.

Conferences and other large events play a vital role in Omaha’s economy, bringing tourists and creating opportunities to grow the city’s reputation—with the ultimate goal of attracting new residents and businesses to the region.

Keith Backsen, executive director of the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau, says the short-term value of bringing people to Omaha is money. Visitors who attend events at the CHI Health Center Omaha frequent Old Market shops and restaurants, helping keep that business district vibrant. The infusion of cash supports businesses and jobs in the community.

Tourism annually brings about 12.3 million visitors, who spend $1.2 billion per year in the city, according to the bureau. Those visitors sustain 17,280 jobs—about 1 in 17 jobs overall—and save Douglas County households each an average of $730 a year in taxes.

On a longer-term basis, conventions and other events help bring people to Omaha to see what the city has to offer. When relocating, people consider places they know or about which there are positive associations—adding economic value to Omaha’s tally of best-in-the-nation accolades.

The convention bureau works with the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce to target events that match industries where Omaha wants to attract talent and new businesses. David Brown, president and chief executive of the Greater Omaha Chamber, says the organizations brought defense contractors to Omaha for an annual convention on the space industry for several years, around the time that U.S. Space Command was integrated into U.S. Strategic Command, which is housed at Offutt Air Force Base.

Brown also says bringing Omaha to the front of people’s minds is a key for future success. Conventions and other events help introduce people to everything the city has to offer.

“It is not unusual for people to come here for a convention and it to be the first time they have ever been here,” Brown says. “But it is also not unlikely that those people will find another reason to come back.”

Many of those conventions fly under the radar, says Kayti Manley, director of special events at the Greater Omaha Chamber. The chamber works a few hundred events annually, including many targeting specific industries or interest groups that don’t receive publicity. Smaller events might be held outside of downtown venues, too, such as the La Vista Embassy Suites.

“They have a great impact on our community,” Manley says.

While conferences play a critical role, Omaha’s largest events can draw many more people to the area. The College World Series, for instance, averages more than 338,000 visitors a year and has hosted 9.9 million spectators in its 68 years in Omaha, according to the NCAA.

Keith Backsen

The Olympic swim trials are worth about eight conferences in terms of hotel bookings, Backsen says. While an average conference results in nearly 2,500 hotel rooms being used, the Olympic swim trials result in the use of around 20,000 hotel rooms. Those large events also draw media attention, bringing Omaha’s brand to a larger audience.

“Those are big image-building events that tell people that Omaha has got something going that other places don’t have,” Brown says. “In this world of tight unemployment and relatively slow population growth, being able to show people that we have the quality of life they may desire is a big deal.”

While it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how many people live in Omaha because of events and other tourism activity, or how many businesses are directly supported by them, it’s clear that they factor into such decisions.

A Californian, for example, might say they live there because of the proximity to the beaches, forests, or mountains—even if they don’t visit them often, Brown says. Omaha residents point to attractions like Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, and Joslyn Art Museum, and events like the College World Series, concerts at the CHI Health Center, college hockey games, and Broadway musicals at the Orpheum.

“It’s hard to point a finger at that individual or company that had moved here exclusively because of those great things that we do,” Brown says. “It’s rather the larger picture of us continuing to add to this collection of really good quality-of-life stuff that makes a difference.”

Brown asks people to imagine what Omaha would be like without amenities attracted by the convention center and other facility improvements in the community. He says surveys of young professionals suggest the city would be a lot less appealing as a place to live.

Millennials, specifically, want communities with sports, music, culture, arts, green space, and recreation—all those features that have blossomed in Omaha in recent years.

“What happens if we can’t check those boxes?” Brown asks. “What happens if the College World Series hasn’t been here in seven years and we now don’t have any direct correlation to that particular sport? What happens if we didn’t bend over backwards to figure out a way to have the swim trials call this home? What if we just said we are good enough? What would this place look like?”

Even if these events and attractions serve a sliver of the overall population, they contribute to the perception of what it is like to live, work, and play in Omaha.

“None of them have been built because we want to attract tourists,” Brown says. “That’s an ancillary benefit that comes along with it. It has all been built so that we have the opportunity to continue to grow this place—the place we all want to live and have our kids stay here.”

The chamber compares metrics on quality of life and other indicators with other cities viewed as peers and competitors. According to the Chamber, Omaha ranks just behind Austin in large part due to Omaha’s cultural opportunities, health care access, and short commute times. Being neck-and-neck with Austin is impressive, given that the Texas city remains one of the fastest-growing in the country.

Schwarzbach expects members of the Airborne Public Safety Association will be impressed when they visit Omaha this July. He says he has told vendors who ask him “Why Omaha” that there’s a reason why Warren Buffett chooses to live in Omaha, and why the city has a world-class zoo.

“There is a reason why these things are there,” he says. “Omaha is a really cool place.”

Visit omahachamber.org and visitomaha.com for more information.

This column was printed in the February/March 2019 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.


Norma Jene (Hill) Baker

December 27, 2018 by
Photography by Heather and Jameson Hooton

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

Norma Jene (Hill) Baker, 85

I am originally a Texan. I was born in Texas, although my family moved to Shreveport, Louisiana, just before my sixth birthday. I paid my own way through business school, earning an executive secretarial certificate in 1951. My first job was as a secretary to two orthopedic surgeons. I was later hired as secretary to the assistant chief engineer at United Gas Pipeline Co.

I met Billy Baker in 1956, and we were married the following December. Billy was working toward his doctorate in agriculture at LSU. Because of a United Gas policy on marriage, I was required to resign.

In 1966, we were transferred to Hong Kong, where Billy worked all of Southeast Asia for Eli Lily and Co. We lived in Hong Kong for three years. I raised three young children and attended Hong Kong University to study Spanish. (Yes, that’s right. There was no way I could tackle trying to speak Mandarin.) As a member of the International Women’s Association, I also learned to type in Braille, and translated books written in English into Braille. Living in Hong Kong was a fantastic experience. We had full-time live-in help, which spoiled me for life.

We returned to the U.S. in 1969, settling in Indianapolis, where I soon met a neighbor who taught art classes in her home. She invited me to join the group, which was the beginning of a nine-year friendship and art-learning experience. I preferred painting African animals and my versions of antique Asian paintings on silk—although I painted in watercolor.

In 1979 we moved to Omaha, where Billy worked for Elanco. At this time our kids were a college freshman, a high school senior, and an eighth-grade student.

I opened Nebraska’s first sun-tanning salon. It became the largest tanning salon in the state, and we operated it for 20 years before selling it in 1999.

In 1987, I was diagnosed with Stage 3 ovarian cancer. I endured a year of surgeries, chemotherapy treatments, and 61 radiation treatments, but the cancer left. It returned in 1998. I received several more treatments and was under the care of fantastic doctors. I have been cancer-free now for nearly 20 years.

These days, we continue to travel between our residences in Omaha and Hilton Head, South Carolina, which is good for our physical and mental well-being.

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

Trust Issues

August 3, 2016 by

The data is overwhelming. Employee retention depends on one question: Do team members trust their team leader?

In a virtually full-employment market like Omaha, trust is obviously an issue worth discussing.

Trust doesn’t just determine success in recruiting and retention. Current research proves trust determines success with all popular business goals including engagement, culture, high-performance, etc.

Trust is the key to successful relationships between team leaders and team members. In truly high performance, fully-engaged business cultures, trust is also essential to relationships with all constituents: customers, community, investors, government, the media, etc.

Stephen Covey says it best, “trust is the highest form of human motivation It brings out the very best in people.”

No company can claim 100 percent trust in all relationships with all audiences. No. The highest performing companies with the most engaged employees (and communities, investors, etc.) are laser-focused on building, maintaining, and deepening trust.

As difficult as it may seem to define trust, let alone intentionally create it, there are mountains of research defining the conditions necessary for trust to be developed in business which can be distilled to two key principles:

1. Professional Competence

Professionally competent leaders aren’t necessarily the most knowledgeable or experienced individuals on their teams. However, team members are confident that these leaders know enough to consistently ask good questions, make good decisions, provide good direction, and recognize and address good (and bad) performance in real time.

2. Personal Character.

From a psychological perspective, personal character allows team members to trust that their leader will not allow them to be harmed, especially when they are vulnerable. Trusted leaders don’t allow gossip, and never engage in it. They “have the backs” of their teammates in all situations.

There are three specific components of personal character that team members must observe in their leaders before they can trust them:

a) Honesty

Honesty goes well beyond telling the truth. It means the intent to be transparent and “real” at all times—to communicate clearly and completely. Trusted leaders don’t hoard information. They are authentic, genuine, and are willing to have difficult conversations.                                   

b) Consistency

Consistent adherence to personal values allows team members to predict their leaders reactions and behaviors. Predictability is essential to trust. Fairness in decision-making is another key aspect of consistency. Trusted leaders don’t play favorites. Team members can count on them to put principles before personalities.

c) Concern

A concerned leader is not easily swayed by an emotional appeal or grants every wish to be popular. On the contrary, concerned leaders are willing to not only want what’s best for team members, but also hold them accountable to perform at the highest possible standard.

Scott Anderson is CEO of Doubledare, a coaching, consulting, and search firm.

Scott Anderson is CEO of Doubledare, a coaching, consulting, and search firm.

Dolphin Pose

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Dolphin pose strengthens the arms and shoulders, tones the abdomen, stretches the hamstrings, and reverses blood flow.

1. Begin on hands and knees. Place your knees directly below your hips, and your wrists directly under your shoulders.

2. Lower the forearms to the ground.

3. Press all four corners of your hands firmly into the ground, and move the shoulders out of the ears by pressing them down the back.

4. Pull the naval in towards the spine.

5. Curl your toes under and press up.

6. Press the floor away with your forearms, push the hips back, and straighten the legs while reaching the heels towards the ground (you may need to keep a micro bend in the knees if your hamstrings are tight).

7. Let your head hang freely and breathe deeply for 10 breaths.

8. Bring knees to the ground, let the big toes touch together, and press back into child’s pose, with the arms extended in front of the head, palms face down on the ground.

9. Breathe deeply for 10 breaths.

10. Repeat two to three times.


That’s Amore

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Leo Fascianella was a poor Italian teenager from Sicily when he left home in 1972. He arrived in the United States with no English skills, $50 in his pockets, and a love for cooking. He sought a better life with better opportunities, and that’s what he found in Omaha.

After 14 years working in various roles at local restaurants, he opened his own business, Pasta Amore e Fantasia. The popular Rockbrook Village restaurant celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. “I thought it might last 10 years,” Fascianella says. “I never imagined 30 years.”

His culinary passion kicked in when he was about 5 or 6 years old. Every time his mom left the house, he’d hightail it into the kitchen. As a boy, he helped out in his grandparents’ small restaurant in Italy.

“I was always in and out of kitchens,” Fascianella says. And he’s still there, with no plans to leave anytime soon. “I love my job. I love it—the creativity of it.”

The chef and restaurateur takes satisfaction in seeing his guests enjoy the food that comes out of his kitchen, whether it is a plate of eggplant parmigiana, lasagna, cannelloni, tortellini, or another dish. In the restaurant’s early days, pasta and salads made up the bulk of the menu, but the offerings have grown over the years to include daily specials and several beef, chicken, and fish entrees.

LeoFascianella1Seafood dishes are among his favorites to prepare. At Pasta Amore, the seafood options include a lightly breaded calamari steak with a caper-lemon cream sauce, and linguine amore—mussels, clams, white fish, and shrimp over angel hair pasta with an herbed tomato broth, artichoke hearts, and spinach.

Many of the fresh herbs and vegetables that find their way into the restaurant’s menu items are grown by Fascianella and his wife, Pat. They plant basil, rosemary, oregano, sage, thyme, mint, and parsley at their Omaha home and at the restaurant. The couple also tend a vegetable garden at their family farm along the Elkhorn River.

Incorporating fresh, local produce and other ingredients whenever possible is important to Fascianella, whose cuisine combines a seasonal approach with traditional Italian flavors. He also strives to use the finest ingredients, whether it’s high-quality tomatoes, imported olive oil, or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

In addition to cooking and gardening, Fascianella enjoys fishing and spending time with his family. He and Pat married in 1989. They have an adult daughter and two adult sons. Pat helps run the restaurant, and the children have all worked there at one time or another.

Fascianella says he treasures moments such as gathering around the table with his wife and children to share Sunday meals. “My family makes me happy,” he says.

Traveling to his native Sicily at least once a year is another source of joy. The trips take him back to his roots and allow him to reconnect with relatives and immerse himself in the region’s world-famous food and wine. The annual trips also help spark new ideas for dishes to introduce at Pasta Amore.

In 2009, Fascianella was inducted into the Omaha Restaurant Association’s Hospitality Hall of Fame. What he enjoys most about working in the restaurant business is that it changes all the time. “If you want to innovate in business, you have to change.”

Omaha’s culinary scene is a lot different now than it was when Fascianella opened Pasta Amore three decades ago. Attitudes toward food have also changed. “People are more aware of food. There are lots of cooking shows. People are more interested in food and trying new things, not just your average spaghetti-and-meatballs,” he says.

For Fascianella, a willingness to adapt to changing consumer tastes and maintain an active role in the kitchen have been key to his restaurant’s success. “I’m in the kitchen. I cook my lunches and dinners, and the food is good.”

And he’s also proud of the fact that in his 30 years at Pasta Amore, he has never taken a sick day. The secret to staying healthy, he says, is good food and happiness. “You have to be happy in what you do.”

Now that’s amore.

Visit pastaamore.com for more information.

John Hargiss

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Master craftsman and stringed instrument maker John Hargiss learned the luthier skills he plies at his North Omaha shop from his late father, Verl. In the hardscrabble DIY culture coming from their roots in the southern Missouri hills and river bottoms, people made things by hand.

“I think the lower on the food chain you are, the more creative you become. I think you have to,” Hargiss says.

He observed his late father fashion tables and ax handles with ancestral tools and convert station wagons into El Caminos with nothing more than a lawnmower blade and a glue pot. Father and son once forged a guitar from a tree they felled, cut, and shaped together.

These days, the son’s hands are sure and nimble enough to earn him a tidy living at his own business, Hargiss Stringed Instruments. His shop is filled with precision tools—jigs, clamps—many of vintage variety.

JohnHargiss2Some specialized tools are similar to what dentists use. “I do almost the same thing—polish, grind, fill, recreate, redesign, restructure.”

Assorted wood, metal, and found objects are destined for repurposing.

“I have an incredible way of looking at something and going, ‘I can use that.’ Everything you see will be sold or used one way or the other.”

In addition to instrument-making, he’s a silversmith, leather-worker, and welder. A travel guitar he designed, the Minstrel, has sold to renowned artists, yet he still views himself an apprentice indebted to his father.

“He was a craftsman. Everything I know how to create probably came from him. Everything I watched him do, I thought, ‘My hands were designed to do exactly what he’s doing.’ On his tombstone I had put, ‘A man who lived life through his hands.'”

Hargiss also absorbed rich musical influences.

“(I was) constantly around what we don’t see in the Midwest—banjo players, violin players, ukulele players, dulcimer players. There are a lot of musicians in that part of the world down there. Bluegrass. Rockabilly. Folkabilly. That would be our entertainment in the evenings—music, family, friends. Neighbors would show up with instruments and start playing. Growing up, that was our recreation.”

He feels a deep kinship to that music, and his father had a hand in his musical development.

“My daddy was a good musician, and he taught me to play music when I was about 9. By 11, I was already playing in little country and bluegrass bands. I can play a mandolin, a guitar, a banjo, a ukulele, but I’m pretty much a guitar player. And I sing and write music.”

Hargiss once made his livelihood performing. “I like playing music so much. It’s dangerous business because it will completely overpower you. I knew I needed to make a living, raise my children, and have a life, so playing music became my hobby. I worked corporate jobs, but I kept being pulled back. It didn’t matter how hard I tried. I’d no more get the tie and suit off than I’d be out in the garage making something else.”

JohnHargiss1It turned into his business.

Hargiss directly traces what he does to his father.

“I watched him repair a guitar he bought me at a yard sale. The strings were probably three inches off the finger board. I remember my daddy taking a cup of hot coffee and pouring it in the joint of that neck and him wobbling that neck off, and the next I knew he’d restrung that guitar. I think that’s when I knew that’s what I’m going to do.”

The memory of them making a guitar is still clear.

“The first guitar I built, me and my daddy cut a walnut tree, chopped it up, and we carved us a dreadnought—a traditional Martin-style guitar. I gave that to him and he played that up to the day he died.”

Aesthetics hold great appeal for Hargiss.

“I’m fascinated by architectural design in what I create and in what I make. I study it.”

He called on every ounce of his heritage to lovingly restore a vaudeville-house-turned-movie theater. It came attached to the North Omaha buildings off Hamilton and 40th streets that he purchased five years ago. The theater lay dormant and unseen for 65 years, like a time capsule, obscured by walls and ceilings added by property owners, before he and his girlfriend, Mary Thorsteinson, rediscovered it largely intact. The pair, who share an apartment behind the auditorium, restored the
building themselves.

Preservation is nothing new to Hargiss, who reclaimed historic buildings in Benson, where his business was previously located. He was delighted to find the theater at the North O site, but knew it meant major work.

“I’ve always had this passion for old things. When we found the theater, I remember saying, ‘This is going to be a big one.’”

Motivating the by-hand, labor-of-love project was the space’s “potential to be anything you want it to be.” He’s reopened the 40th Street Theatre as a live performance spot.

Hargiss is perpetually busy between instrument repairs and builds—he has a new commission to make a harp guitar—and keeping up his properties. Someone’s always coming in wanting to know how to do something, and he’s eager to pay forward what was passed on to him.

The thought of working for someone else is unthinkable.

“I get one hundred percent control of my creativity. I’m not stuck. I’m not governed by, ‘Well, you can’t do it this way.’ Of course I can because the sound this is going to produce is mine. When you get to control it, then you’re the CEO, the boss, the luthier, the repairman, the refinisher, the construction, the engineer, the architect. You’re all of these things at one time.”

Besides, he can’t help making things. “There’s a drive down in me someplace. Whatever I’m working on, I first of all have to see myself doing it. Then I go through this whole crazy second-guessing. And then the next thing I know it’s been created. Days later I’ll see it and go, ‘When did I do that?’ because it takes over me, and it completely consumes every thought I have. I just let everything else go.” Encounter

Visit hargissstrings.com for more information.