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As Second-Nature as Swallowing

January 2, 2020 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Mention the term plastic or reconstructive surgery, and images of Cher, Botox injections, and liposuction to combat that extra 20 pounds that can’t be worked off come to mind. The procedure tends to be thought of as a luxury-ticket item. But in the field of otolaryngology (commonly known as ear, nose, and throat), plastic and reconstructive surgery has been used to give back basic functions such as swallowing or speaking. 

“There’s been a lot of negativity in regard to plastic surgery, but plastic surgery has tremendous effects on the patient’s overall psyche, and when it comes to head and neck-related plastic surgery, we can actually restore a patient’s livelihood,” Dr. Oleg Militsakh said.

Militsakh is an otolaryngology surgeon at Methodist Health Systems. He’s also an associate professor of surgery in the department of surgery at Creighton Medical Center. He performs surgeries on cancerous and noncancerous tumors in the head and neck areas, and sometimes handles reconstructive surgeries that are needed because of such invasive operations. The challenges of his field, such as navigating through complex, dense areas of nerves within a small area, were a key reason why Militsakh chose this specialty.

“One single nerve can stop movement of your vocal cord, or tongue, or some other important vital structure,” Militsakh says.

Militsakh was born in the former Soviet Union in Minsk, the capital of what is now Belarus. He emigrated to the United States with his family in 1993 when he was 17. His parents were engineers in the Soviet Union. His mother’s focus was economics, his father’s was chemical engineering. In the United States, his parents first ended up taking minimum wage jobs. His family moved to Louisville, Kentucky, because other family members already lived there.

“There’s only one thing I knew about Kentucky: Jim Beam. I didn’t know about the Kentucky Derby. I didn’t know about bluegrass,” Militsakh says.

Militsakh studied at the University of Louisville and earned his undergraduate degree in chemistry and pre-med. He completed his medical degree at the University of Lexington in Kentucky. After graduating with his M.D., he studied otolaryngology, and head and neck surgery, at University of Kansas City Medical Center for five years.

He still was not done training. He spent one year in Charleston, South Carolina, where he studied microvascular and advanced head and neck reconstructive surgery under the direction of Dr. Terry Day, later the president of the American Head and Neck Society. The combination gave him a dual skill set that put him in demand. Offers for jobs came from North Carolina, Missouri, Kentucky, and other states, including Nebraska.

Methodist was one of the hospitals that Militsakh visited in 2007. During the visit, he struck a rapport with doctors William and Daniel Lydiatt. Militsakh found the brothers and medical professionals to be knowledgeable, trustworthy, and dedicated to their patients.

“What made the Omaha position different is that there were these extremely personable surgeons that have concentrated their efforts on very specific populations and by doing this without diluting their area of expertise, they became super experts in their field of practice and that resonated well with what I wanted to accomplish,” Militsakh said via email. “[I] wanted to continue to promote excellence in the field.”

Another reason for choosing Methodist was because the hospital’s signature blue matched the color of his beloved Kentucky Wildcats, Militsakh joked.

“That is the perfect blue,” Militsakh said.

Militsakh has performed thousands of thyroid and parathyroid surgeries. His focus also includes microvascular surgery, which involves transplanting tissues from other parts of the body to a patient’s head and neck areas. In one pediatric case, Militsakh used part of the bone of a boy’s fibula (the lower leg bone) to reconstruct his mandible (lower jaw).

Some surgical reconstructions wouldn’t have been possible 20 years ago. One of Militsakh’s favorite modern tools is an ultrasonic bone knife. The knife’s vibrations are so rapid that it enables surgeons to cut specific designs out of a person’s bone, almost like a jigsaw.

“It vibrates so when you touch the bone, it will cut the bone like a butter knife,” Militsakh says.

Before being referred to Dr. Militsakh, Sherry Shapiro lived with a tumor in her throat for almost 30 years. She guesses the most likely cause for her tumor was that when she was young, doctors radiated her tonsils to shrink them. In 1989, she met with Dr. Trent Quinlan, also from Methodist. For more than two decades, Shapiro underwent surgeries to debulk, or “cut away” the tumor. However, in 2016, after Quinlan performed yet another surgery, he determined he could no longer go down that path of care. Shapiro needed a total laryngectomy, surgical removal of her larynx.

The removal of Shapiro’s vocal cords wasn’t the only thing that concerned her: this surgery would be done by another physician (Militsakh). After such a long relationship with Quinlan, Shapiro was nervous about meeting her new physician. After her first meeting with Militsakh, she felt reassured.

“I just felt at peace. I knew he was going to take care of me,” Shapiro said. She noted that he was kind, “but he doesn’t sugarcoat the situation,” and she didn’t feel rushed when she was talking to him.

The surgery took more than seven hours. During the surgery, Militsakh used tissue from Shapiro’s thigh to “rebuild” her larynx. She was hospitalized for seven days with a feeding tube. After her release, she was on a liquid diet for a few weeks.

This March marks the third anniversary of her surgery. Today, she only sees Militsakh for an annual follow-up. Every three months, she goes in for a 15-minute procedure where her speaking valve is replaced.

“My voice sounds better now than before the surgery,” Shapiro said.

The time that would have been spent on additional surgeries is now spent working out (she exercises six days a week) and spending time with her grandchildren. Shortly after her surgery, Militsakh told her that they had successfully removed the tumor, and she was cancer free. After explaining the results to Shapiro, Militsakh spent a few minutes talking about the procedure to her grandson.

“I later asked him about that [conversation], he was such a busy man. [Militsakh] said ‘that could be a future doctor,’” Shapiro said.


Visit bestcare.org for more information.

This article was printed in the January/February 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Downtown Disruptor

December 31, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Michael Johnson sat in an abstract, red and white bird costume as an audience gathered around. Blue and pink streamers and an “It’s A Boy” banner hung in confident festivity. Johnson revealed a needle; this was the day they began hormone replacement therapy.

Johnson is a transgender artist who splits their time between Omaha and Des Moines—and is a self-proclaimed expert in “goofy gay s—.”

Essentially, this means Johnson creates artwork—painting, drawing, design, performance, and more—to highlight queer and transgender identities, as well as arts accessibility. The aforementioned baby shower was a show called Pluck at Petshop gallery in Benson in June 2019.

In terms of identity, Johnson is upfront and knowledgeable, but seemingly most sure of themselves through the lens of the Wiggle Bird, an autobiographical fictional character born in 2016. It first appeared as drawings and paintings, and is now a performance art costume.

“The Wiggle Bird pretty much functions for me like a little bit of a diary,” Johnson said. “It’s been a really powerful tool of self-reflection, and a way to admit what I am really feeling to myself. The Wiggle Bird has been really instrumental in me coming to terms with my identity and eventually making the decision to start hormone replacement therapy—which I ended up kind of memorializing through Pluck.”

Johnson said the response to Pluck was “phenomenal.” The performer was pleased with the turnout at the gallery, moved by the support of the art community, and felt safe in a climate of openness and acceptance.

However, Johnson’s art doesn’t hinge on a single personal celebration or communal bonding, but rather, through constant disruption.

“The idea of art sometimes scares people because it’s seen as this very fancy thing that you need a degree to make and understand, and a disruption is just, like, walking around a mall with a traffic cone on your head,” Johnson said. “I love art that doesn’t take itself seriously, that is silly, that involves other people, that calls people out of the routine that they walk through every day.”

Johnson decided to start hormones while building the Wiggle Bird costume. They started walking around downtown Omaha in the seven-foot-tall bird suit that “kind of looks like a dolphin” to some.

Exploring transhumanism through soft sculpture was incredibly freeing, Johnson said, adding an explanation in a follow-up email.

“Transhumanism is the idea that humans can physically transform, alter, or otherwise better themselves through science and technology. For me as a trans person, transhumanism means using hormones and surgery to change my body in ways that make me feel happier and more at home in my own skin. It means taking initiative and ownership of the way I exist in the world.” As an artist, Johnson extends the concept to costumes, using the wearable, soft sculpture to change body shape, abilities, and perception.

As a trans person, passing as one’s identified gender is stressful—including during simple acts such as walking around in public.

“So, it’s a really radical act to build this bird costume and say ‘OK, this is my new body,’” Johnson said. “In the same way that I may be freaked out walking around downtown and not knowing how I am being perceived by others, now all of a sudden, these people whose gazes might otherwise scare me—now they’re freaked out.”

While personally bold and inventive, Johnson produces subtle and routine daily work as a graphic designer for Hatchlings in Des Moines, Iowa. The artist also creates a monthly zine for their Patreon patrons, a loving flock called the Wiggle Bird Mailing Club.

“My entire life, I have always enjoyed making little comics, and I learned that if I called them zines, people would look at my little comics,” Johnson said. “So zines have been really great to just keep me making. And they’re not just a creative outlet, they’ve also helped me meet so many amazing people.”

The income generated from this project goes directly towards Johnson’s top surgery, which is planned for late 2020. For Johnson, top surgery will be more than simple breast removal, because in addition to removing breast tissue, the surgeon will also sculpt the chest to create a masculine shape.

Many people—in their different, glorious, confusing forms—are sure to see the message in Johnson’s work.

“I do make art about my identity, and I don’t necessarily try to make really positive work, but I think that’s mostly how I feel about myself, and that is what I feel compelled to make,” Johnson said. “It’s deeply, impossibly gratifying when people see being trans as a casual, positive, sexy thing.”

Johnson would like to know more trans/masculine performance artists and role models in the community, adding that “A support group would be nice.” Seeing those representations earlier in life could have brought Johnson more peace and understanding a lot more quickly.

“I don’t see the things that I make and I don’t see the things I feel or experience represented in art nearly as much as I’d like to,” Johnson said. “That is a driving force about why I am so upfront about things that are so personal. I want to challenge people, and even here in the Midwest, people are really starting to wake up.”

The baby shower, bird costume, portraits, zines, and beyond are simply extensions of Johnson’s wingspan, reaching as far as possible.

“It’s cliché, but we’re all human,” Johnson said. “We should all be building bird costumes, you know? I think everybody should build a new body for themselves. Try it out.”


Visit artstoragejohnson.wixsite.com/portfolio for more information.

This article was printed in the January/February 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Michael Johnson photographed at Petshop

Michael Johnson is photographed at Petshop art gallery

Losing Weight, Gaining Perspective

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Fibromyalgia. Fatty liver disease. Seizures. Depression. Raynaud syndrome. Walking pneumonia. These ailments plagued Michelle Kaiser day in and day out for a decade. Even her resting hours were disrupted by back spasms. It was enough to make her wish she were dead.

“I was in so much pain I thought, ‘I’m not going to make it anymore,’” Kaiser said. “I refused to live like that. So, I planned it. Dec. 31 was going to be my last day on Earth.” Suicide, however, wasn’t the answer. Her cure wasn’t some magic pill or get-better-quick scheme. Multiple doctors had failed to help her and use of prescription medication wasn’t much more successful. It was time to take matters into her own hands

Since July 2018, Kaiser has lost an astonishing 100 pounds. The Omaha woman who once donned a size 24 now wears a size 12. Her shoe size dropped. By following the keto diet, Kaiser found her solution—weight loss.

The prevalence of obesity affects more than 90 million U.S. adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These rates continue to rise and so do the number of Americans looking to reverse their weight gain, especially around the beginning of each year.

What separates the resolutioners from the success stories is rarely the same. There’s Atkins, South Beach, Jenny Craig, Paleo, Weight Watchers—and that’s just dieting. Shedding the pounds is a numbers game, but there’s no math formula to follow. Everyone is different. The secret to weight loss? There isn’t one.

Four people in the Metro reveal there is no one right way to trim down. Trial and error, sweat (a lot of it), counting calories, and regimented schedules don’t even unite them. The only commonality is they’re all losing it and loving it.

Michelle Kaiser  

“I’m finally free of all the pain, the illnesses, and the confinements of who I want to be,” Kaiser said.

Even after refocusing her life to the gospel that is the ketogenic diet, Kaiser still has to stare down cake, brownies, and other delectable desserts all day every day. She is the gourmet maker behind every delicious morsel at The Omaha Bakery.

As the owner and founder of her own confectionery, Kaiser evolved her business to satisfy her keto cravings. Shoppers can still purchase the sweet eats they’ve come to know and love, but now there are approximately 40 other goodies offered that are low in carbs and sugar free.

“I’ve been told, ‘Your business is going to close because this is just a fad,’” Kaiser said. “Nope. We’ve grown 40 percent since I embraced this lifestyle with seven out of 10 customers looking for keto.”

Kaiser’s love for the low-carb, high-fat diet began when she started following it in July 2018. Two months prior, she suffered a seizure in her bakery as a side effect to medication treating her fibromyalgia. An autoimmune specialist and neurologist were at a loss for how to further treat her. She felt hopeless, until she heard about keto from a speaker at her networking group. 

She then joined a Facebook group about the keto diet, on which other users shared their stories. As she discovered the way ketogenic works, she made sure to follow the diet to the letter. 

Almost immediately, she faced her first challenge—her husband. While she altered her nutrition and even began intermediate fasting, allowing herself only a four-hour window every day in which to eat, he sat on the sofa with ice cream in hand. When he saw her frustration, he joined her on the journey and lost 60 pounds in less than six months.

“You can feel like you’re going without. It sucks,” Kaiser said. “Everyone else is eating fries with ketchup, or burgers with buns. Having my family on board really made a difference.”

Now she’s dedicated to making a difference in others’ lives. Beyond whipping up keto-friendly treats to sell, she speaks to small groups about the benefits and is writing a book that’ll be part autobiography, part recipes.

“I just want to inspire others to believe in themselves,” Kaiser said. “Anybody can lose weight—that’s not the key. I’ve been a bakery owner for 30 years. The hard part was changing everything I learned. I embraced a lifestyle, then turned my business into a profit.”

MarQ Manner

MarQ Manner is at Benson’s Krug Park with a drink in hand. It’s straight from the tap, super smooth, and—most importantly—super comforting. This is not typical of someone who stopped drinking almost two years ago.

“Nitro coffee on tap is my go-to now,” Manner said. “It comes out in a real glass, looks and tastes good, plus nobody is eyeing you. I get to still look like a real adult.”

Manner is a regular of the Omaha bar and music scenes. From downtown and Benson to neighborhood haunts and holes in the wall, he’s not picky. However, you won’t see him pounding shots or getting blitzed—anymore.

“I was a heavy drinker, and I was very adamant about it,” Manner said. “At the very end of my drinking, it became a chore to maintain that alcoholism or whatever it is. It was no longer fun.”

When he put down the bottle, he expected improved energy or a happier liver. A trimmer figure was never in the plan. But tighten and trim he did. To the tune of 75 pounds to be exact.

The music columnist and manager of Homer’s was inspired to trade cocktails for coffee by a Christmas photo with his nephews and nieces. After seeing the picture, he felt embarrassed and wanted to quit drinking to do better by himself.

So, he quit. Cold turkey. No AA, no relapses, no looking back. Living next to a mix of bars in Benson didn’t even prove a challenge.

He quit drinking soda at the same time, as his favorite way to drink it was mixed with alcohol. Six months later he quit smoking—bye-bye to three packs a day.

“I became a lump on the bar stool. I felt like crap all the time.”

No longer drinking away his most recent hangover, Manner soon had the energy and time to start walking as exercise. One block became two, two became a mile, a mile soon became eight or nine. He started biking too, and in winter he walks around the mall.

“With my age, it’s my chance to do things differently,” said the 46-year-old Manner. “It’s exciting and fun. I still go out a lot, but I don’t go all out. The money is adding up, too. I can spend on dinners, presents, different things.”

And these days, those Christmas photos look even better. 

Patti Peterson

Little ones in Patti Peterson’s life gave her the push she needed.

“As the grandmother of three, I found myself spending a lot time on the floor, putting together puzzles, building towers, and laying train tracks,” Peterson said. “Getting down on the floor was easy. Getting up? Not a particularly pretty picture.”

When her own two sons left home and started families of their own, life changed for Peterson and her husband. They began eating out more often, with calories becoming an afterthought. At age 64, she decided enough was enough. That’s when her internist recommended the New Direction System, a weight control program through the Nebraska Medical Center.

The purpose of New Direction is twofold: weight loss and education. The belief is only by instilling permanent changes in nutrition and exercise through weekly classes can a healthier lifestyle be maintained.

As with other weight-loss programs, this one is not for everyone. In fact, this one is only for those who meet the medical requirements, which include having a body-mass index of 30 (or 27 with certain conditions such as high cholesterol).

In summer 2018, Peterson went all in. She followed a very low-calorie diet that places the body in ketosis, which is a fancy way of saying her body burned fat as a source of energy due to restricted intake of calories. A medical team helped guide her through each of the program’s phases, and eight months later, she had lost 75 pounds. Phase one, reducing, required consuming four high quality, high protein, low carbohydrate meal replacements per day—and nothing else except water. The meal replacements are purchased through the Medical Center. Many of the meal replacements are soups and shakes, meaning the satisfaction of chewing food is gone. This phase lasts up to 16 weeks and is followed by an adapting phase where Peterson was able to buy normal food at the grocery store.

“Hooray! I made it to my goal weight. Although, really the journey continues,” Peterson said. “I attend meetings twice a month, continue to use some products, and eat regular, generally healthy meals.”

As a practicing attorney and partner at Kutak Rock LLP, Peterson is no stranger to hard work and discipline. No alcohol or coffee? Done. Consuming 800 calories a day? Check. Gallons of water? Bring it on.

“I am an official water drinker now,” Peterson said. “I have my little Camelback that I go nowhere without.”

Like anybody, she’s not perfect. Peterson’s philosophy is to not deny herself everything and to cheat only when the cheating is good. Ted & Wally’s ice cream is still a vice, but potato chips aren’t worth the calories.

“I hosted a tailgate this fall and had a chip for the first time in a year and a half,” she said. “it didn’t even taste good anymore.”

With more energy, exercise for Peterson today looks like the occasional bike ride, planting flowers, scooping snow, and maintaining her home. Then, there’s keeping up with the grandkids. That’s a workout regimen in and of itself.

“They are a year older, a year more active, and they love to be outside,” Peterson said. “I used to not be the first one to put on my sneakers. Now, I’m laced up and ready to go.”

Becky Grey

“Lifting is a mind f—.”

This coming from a woman who can leg press 1,000 pounds and bench 160 pounds. Becky Grey is a hairstylist, wife, mother, and super woman. She has transformed herself, losing 140 pounds and beating the boys at an activity the boys claim to do best.

“My highest record weight was 298 pounds. I was unhappy about that number,” Grey said. “Now I’m lifting weight that’s heavier. It makes me feel accomplished, strong, happy.”

Don’t get it twisted, though. She’s always felt confident. Grey never tied her self-worth to her physical appearance, but knew she could be healthier. So, she tried it all. A Weight Watchers here, a Jenny Craig there. Nothing worked—until gastric bypass surgery in 2014.

“I kept quiet about it for a while because there’s a stigma that people think it’s cheating.” Grey said. “Regardless if I have a smaller stomach or not, I still have to make the smart choices. The salads, proteins…I make that choice, nobody else does it for me.”

Grey credits gastric for giving her a fighting chance, losing a pound a day. Then she, too, joined the keto craze. The medical team behind her gastric bypass surgery advised that she jump on keto right after getting the procedure done. They told her if she didn’t stay way from carbs and sugar, and adopt a high protein diet, then gastric would not be successful. Thus, she started following keto almost immediately after the operation. Like Kaiser, she doesn’t subscribe to any one author.

Grey calls it dirty keto, as she still eats beans and corn sparingly. Kaiser may even have some competition as Grey bakes her own healthy treats, albeit on a much smaller scale.

It was Todd Smith Fitness that then took Grey from a woman with a fighting chance to being a fighter.

“When I first went in, I was legit skin and bones,” she said. “I had no shape to me whatsoever. Now, I’ve put on 20 pounds of muscle.”

Before working with Smith and his team of trainers, Grey solely focused on cardio. Now a typical workout still starts on the treadmill, but it doesn’t end there. There’s the 20-minute warmup, followed by an hour lifting to tone either upper or lower body, then a half hour of jabs, and 30 more minutes of cardio on the stepper. She’s basically #beastmode incarnate.

Though she’s been pumping iron with Smith for four years, she said her muscles are constantly tender due to routines regularly switching. The best workouts make her want to use a walker the next day.

Grey believes results are about more than the amount she can lift above her head or what she sees in the mirror. It’s those everyday victories that matter most.  She can cross her legs, go to a movie theater and not worry about getting stuck in the seat, or ride a roller coaster with her son.

“I put myself in a prison,” Grey said. “I didn’t realize it until I was out.”

It’s a crisp October afternoon, and Grey is getting her afternoon pick-me-up in the form of a Starbucks cold brew. The teenage cashier gushes over her brilliant purple hair.

“I just really, really love your look.”

What a look it is. There’s the satiny button-up shirt almost in the same hue as her hair, the widely flared jeans, and nails bedazzled and blinged-out in celebration of her birthday week.

“It’s a lot. I get it,” Grey said. “As a plus-size person, I always stuck out a little more. Now I feel better. I still want to stick out. Just differently.”

Looking good (and feeling good) is one small motivator for her. It’s true, weight loss is as simple as waging war against the scale. For many—including some of the people mentioned in this article—it goes beyond numbers. It’s deeply personal.

“You don’t love yourself enough to change? That’s fine. Find someone you love enough to do it for,” Grey said. “My driving force is my kid. I can’t let him down. You have to find out who, not what, is your why.”


This article was printed in the January/February 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Michelle Kaiser, MarQ Manner, Becky Grey

From left: Michelle Kaiser, MarQ Manner, and Becky Grey

Celebrating Family, Football and the Farm

December 19, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Nick and Jessica Wegener love to entertain on football game days, so when they built their 1½ story home in The Hamptons in Gretna, they decided to create the ideal hangout space for friends and family. The home’s lower level, which has been a work in process since moving into the residence in December 2018, offers a relaxed, fun atmosphere with personal and sports memorabilia, and nods to Nebraska’s rural life scattered throughout.

“We’re constantly having family over, maybe too much,” Nick Wegener said with a chuckle. “And we’re all big Nebraska football fans, so if we’re not [in Lincoln] at the games, we’re down in the basement watching.”

wall leading into Husker basement bar

Wegener built a wall to accommodate three large-screen TVs in the home’s movie room to allow for prime game day viewing. “We watch a lot of games, actually. We call it our pseudo college football room.”

Nick grew up in rural Nebraska and has been a loyal Cornhusker fan all his life, while Jessica joined Husker Nation a bit later. “She’s from Minnesota and attended UNL on a gymnastics scholarship,” he explained. Jessica’s University of Nebraska letter jacket hangs on display as part of the basement’s sports décor.

Nick attended Creighton University and said he enjoys watching CU sports as well. “I’m very much a Jayster.”

Concert posters from the Wegeners’ favorite country music artists are featured throughout the space, as are mementos from the couple’s years together. Among them, a champagne bottle from when the two got engaged, an engraved bottle from an Eric Church concert they attended together, and another from a vacation the extended family took to the Dominican Republic a few years ago. The bottles are displayed on custom-made riveted steel shelving hanging behind the bar.

Wegener added a rustic Nebraska feel to the basement by creating an accent wall made of reclaimed barnwood harvested from a farm a couple miles from his own family’s farm near Hebron.

“I bet we toured 120 houses, which is where we got the idea for using reclaimed wood,” Wegener said. “Then we learned about a barn on a neighboring farm dismantled in a windstorm. A guy I went to high school with was currently farming the land there, and we approached him about using the wood for our basement.” Wegener estimated the barn was about 80 years old.

When the farm’s owner agreed, Wegener and friends set about cutting a large span of wood directly out of the barn wall. After letting the wood dry for months, the panel was transferred to the basement wall to hang just as it had hung outside for decades. “I wanted it to look like a true barn, so we hung it with the wood vertical. It really does look like a barn wall, weathered paint and all.”

Wegener also harvested several items from his own family’s farmstead near Hebron, which remains owned by his father. Doors from the house and barn were reclaimed, then stripped, restained and sealed with a clear coat (for protection from lead paint), and used for doors for the Wegeners’ movie room, laundry room, and a cedar room.

Nick and Jen Wegener's Husker basement

Wegener says the homestead relics not only offer the rustic look he and Jessica desired, but also serve as nostalgic reminders of his youth.

“[The barnwood and doors] are a unique way to get some of that history in the house and hold onto my rural roots, which I love,” Wegener said. “And it creates the custom feel we were looking for. This is our last build. Our plan is to never move.”


This article was printed in the January/February 2020 edition of OmahaHome. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

The Wegener's basement Husker bar

Winterfest in the Amana Colonies

December 16, 2019 by

Complaining about winter can be an advanced sport in Omaha. Bemoaning shoveling snow, potholes lying in wait under salted roads, or long drives to ski country can be a comforting bond between Midwesterners just trying to get through the weather.

Fortunately, adventure is not about getting through, and neither is Winterfest in the Amana Colonies, located about 20 miles east of Iowa City.

“Yeah, it’s winter in Iowa,” said David Rettig, executive director of Amana Colonies Convention and Visitors Bureau, “but you need to embrace it, and you can have fun in the cold and snow.”

Winterfest’s tongue-in-cheek atmosphere belies a successful free festival nearing its 10th year. Adventurers can test their mettle against popular Winterfest games such as the Winter Wreath Toss, Great Amana Ham Put, Nagelhauen, Pork Chop Slap Shot, Log Sawing Competition, Ice Cube Launch, or Best Beard Competition.

Best Beard Contestants at Winterfest

“It’s unbelievable to see some of these beards,” Rettig said. “Some are so thick and some so long.”

Competitive participants can heed Rettig’s advice to loosen one’s arm before throwing a five-pound ham and watch teams in the log sawing to gain understanding of the technique.

The logs are collected by members of the Amana Forestry Department, who carefully notch each log for consistent depth. A traditional two-person crosscut saw is provided and requires teamwork over brawn for speed. The winners are celebrated by an appropriate wooden trophy.

Log-Sawing-Competitors at Winterfest

“Come with the attitude that you are going to have fun, because you are going to have fun,” Rettig said.

Athletes can participate in the Amana Freezer 5K run/walk, which loops from Amana to neighboring East Amana and back.

“Some people take it very serious and are out like a shot,” Rettig said, “and some people are out for the run.”

In years past, 300 runners have registered and run the 5K, which is organized by the Amana Trail Association. Contributing funds support the race costs, shirts, and maintenance and expansion of the Amana Bike Trail.

For snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, the Amana Nature Trail, known as the Kolonieweg, is a 3.2 mile loop around Lily Pond and is open year-round. It is dog-friendly and one can expect winter conditions.

Winterfest has another popular walk, which, according to Rettig, “has nothing to do with athletics.” An inexpensive punch card ($2 in past years) can be redeemed at local wineries and Millstream Brewing Co. for seasonal tasters during the Wine and Beer Walk. Dating back to 1884, Millstream is one of the region’s oldest breweries and boasts award-winning European-style beers.

Ice sculptor at Winterfest

With something for the athletes and the foodies, Winterfest rounds out its offerings with family-friendly activities. Ice or wood sculpture demonstrations, ornament and cookie decoration, an “ice fishing” game with a guaranteed catch, scavenger hunt, and nine-hole mini golf course have been offered by businesses and the festival board for free or nominal fees.

If this active schedule has worked up one’s appetite, the Amana firemen offer open-fire chili with proceeds going towards the Amana Fire Department. Local restaurants offer plenty of options. Popular places include Chocolate Haus Dessert and Coffee Cafe, Hahn Hearth Oven Bakery, Ox Yoke Inn, Ronneburg Restaurant, and Millstream Brau Haus.

“Just regular Amana fair,” Rettig said. “Everything is Amana.”

Rettig can trace his family tree to the original German settlers who immigrated to the Buffalo, New York, area in 1842, and then to Amana in 1885 as their community grew. From the late 1800s to the early 1930s, the Amana colonies housed a communal society that offered its members education, health care, and shared essentials, including food and shelter. The modern villages have adapted to changing economies and modern sensibilities while valuing a more insulated past.

“We are Americans, but we have the unique community,” Rettig said.

This community can be seen in the local Amana residents found volunteering or working throughout the festival. With a schedule that typically starts at 11 a.m. and ends late at night with the snowball dance, the games alone can fill someone’s day. There are weather-dependent activities such as the “mush” sledding races, but the festival has never been put off by the weather, even with below freezing temperatures.

“It is Winterfest, so you just never know what you are going to get, but you adapt to it,” Rettig said.


Visit amanacolonies.com for more information.

This letter was printed in the January/February 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Contest Winners at Winterfest

40,000 Voices, One Vote

November 21, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Sara Howard made state history in 2012 when she was elected to represent District 9 in the Nebraska Legislature. Her mother, Gwen Howard, had just served two terms in the same seat and was ineligible to run again because of the state’s term limits law.

“It was the first time a daughter had replaced her mother,” Sara said.

Sara’s involvement in politics started in 2004 when she helped manage her mother’s campaign. Gwen, a widow, was a social worker and adoption specialist before she ran for office. Sara learned about the day-to-day responsibilities of public service as she accompanied her mother to community events.

“She didn’t have a lot of support from the traditional establishment, but she had a lot of support from me and my sister, Carrie,” Sara said. The women knocked on doors, shook hands, and engaged in conversations with thousands of constituents during the campaign. The strategy worked.

After the election, Sara left for law school in Chicago. She specialized in child and family law, as well as tax law, and after earning her degree began working as a staff attorney for the Illinois Maternal and Child Health Coalition.

In March 2009, one month into her new job, Sara received the news that her sister had died. Following the advice of a grief counselor not to make any big decisions for at least a year, she remained in Chicago.

That devastating event has helped shape her platform as a legislator as well as continue the work Gwen started.

Their work is a direct reflection of daughter and sister Carrie Howard’s struggle with opioid addiction. In the early 2000s, she suffered a car crash and was given prescription painkillers post-surgery. Her addiction to the painkillers took over, and she was 33 in 2009 when she died from an overdose.

“When she met Oxycontin, there was no going back. She was immediately addicted,” Sara said. “I view substance use disorder as an illness. Carrie was very sick. She would get better. She would get worse. She would get better. She would get worse…Within that last five months she was given almost 1,000 pills every month from Nebraska physicians and Nebraska pharmacies.”

Gwen championed legislation that created a prescription painkiller monitoring program in 2011. Sara continued the fight, and due to these efforts, the legislature passed LB 471 in February 2016. LB 471 requires pharmacies to report when prescriptions are filled, and allows pharmacists to check records of past prescriptions to avoid abuse.

That passion, combined with Sara’s experience in child and family law, serves her well as chairperson for the Nebraska Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. “The most effective legislators are those who carve out an area of expertise,” she said.

“Right now, in terms of the Legislature, my goal is to make sure that the committee provides appropriate oversight to the Department of Health and Human Services. There is a lot going on there. We have Medicaid expansion. We have an issue where kids are losing their coverage on the disabilities waiver. We have a crisis in our youth rehabilitation and treatment centers. We have a very real and genuine challenge for the committee,” Sara said. “I would say this is probably one of the most challenging cycles for the HHS committee that we’ve seen in a long time.”

And as she places an emphasis on her passion for drug monitoring, her efforts are helping to prevent similar heartbreak for other families. “Nebraska is one of the hardest places for someone with a substance use disorder to try to get medication,” she explained. “Nebraska now has the lowest rate of reported opioid overdose deaths in the country.”

She also tries to remember the fact that everything she votes for or approves is for the people, not her.

“I approach this work as though I have 40,000 bosses, and they don’t always agree all the time but they do have an expectation that I will listen to them and I will hear them even when we’re not on the same page on an issue,” Sara said. “I’m not meant to be a mirror of any one individual in my district; I’m meant to reflect our values as a whole.”


This article was printed in the December 2019/January 2020 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Sara Howard at the Capitol Building

Sara Howard at the Capitol Building

Matthew Hansen and Sarah Baker Hansen

August 1, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

All memorable stories, written or otherwise, are filled with turning points. Moments when the next step becomes unmistakably clear. Moments when life’s twists and turns, wins and losses, hopes and heartbreaks, serve up the next chapter.

A few moments for Sarah Baker Hansen and Matthew Hansen defined not only their life together, but also their life’s work. Today, they are a literary power couple, both writing prominent columns for the Omaha World-Herald.

Their pivotal moment together took a while, more than five years after their first date. The couple met in 2000 while working at The Daily Nebraskan, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s student newspaper. Although they acted friendly to each other, a relationship was far from their minds.   

Their first official date wouldn’t happen for another year. It was 2001. Sarah had since graduated from college and was living back home in Omaha following an internship at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Matthew was finishing up his studies at UNL. A 100-year reunion for The Daily Nebraskan was near, which meant Matthew might see Sarah soon.

“A fellow DN staffer said Sarah had a crush on me years earlier, so then I started emailing her,” Matthew recalls with a smile.

Emails were exchanged, and a little bit of flirting even took place. Sarah missed the reunion, but Matthew eventually asked her out.

Sarah chose the French Café, one of her favorite Old Market eateries. It would become the same spot where Matthew would propose to Sarah, and a venue that would emphasize their vastly different backgrounds.

“I was a dorky, small town sports guy,” says Matthew, a native of Red Cloud.

Matthew found Sarah’s Omaha roots, her affinity for food, and her love of art and culture attractive. But such interest was also met with some trepidation that evening. On their first date, Matthew recalls having a “very quiet, very polite panic attack around the idea of ordering a drink. We sat at the French Café bar. I never had a cocktail that was fancier than Jack and Coke.”

Sarah had already developed an adventurous palate: “I grew up with parents who were foodies before that was a thing. They had these really elaborate dinner parties in the 1980s, and it was a real treat for me to stay up and eat the pâté, watch my dad make the chocolate mousse. And the Cornish hens. And the bone-in pork rib roast with the booties.”

Sarah and Matthew’s first date at the French Café lumbered on somewhat awkwardly. A few days later, Matthew phoned Sarah for a second date. She passed, suggesting that the two remain just friends.

Fast forward five years. Sarah and her sister were in Lincoln at Duffy’s Tavern for a concert. She went for the live music—and to meet a new guy.

Matthew got there first.

The two chatted, catching up over the past five years. The new guy eventually showed up…with another girl in tow. Matthew, Sarah, and their mutual friends made their way to O’Rourke’s Tavern. They talked the whole night.

It was then that Sarah trusted her gut: she offered Matthew her phone number. “That night in Lincoln, there was definitely a connection,” Sarah says.

The following week, the two were practically inseparable. About a year later, they were living together in Omaha.

“We were just entirely comfortable with each other from that day forward,” Sarah explains.

They were engaged in 2008 and married in 2009. This fall marks 10 years since that fateful second date.

Matthew worked previously at the Lincoln Journal Star, while Sarah held public relations posts at the Nebraska Tourism Commission and the Sheldon Museum of Art. Years of freelancing for The Reader and writing her first book, The Insider’s Guide to Omaha and Lincoln, laid the groundwork for her position at the Omaha World-Herald. And traveling Nebraska for her tourism work yielded something else entirely unexpected.

“Working in PR at the state tourism office allowed me to understand Matthew a bit more,” Sarah says. “I didn’t know much about Nebraska. The first time I went to Red Cloud with Matthew was the first time I was ever on a farm. That changed me in a lot of ways.”

Matthew said he was changed not only by moving to Omaha, but by becoming immersed in local art and food alongside Sarah. He’s involved with Hear Nebraska, founded by Sarah’s UNL classmate Andrew Norman. And Red Cloud left its mark on Sarah; she now serves on the Willa Cather Foundation Board of Governors.

The couple can often be spotted at La Buvette, one of their most beloved Old Market establishments, talking about the newspaper industry, reality television, the Chicago Cubs, or their latest meal. As downtown Omaha residents for the past several years, they have found comfort in their urban neighborhood, walking to and from work together each day. They often explore of the greater metro area through restaurants that Sarah is assigned to cover. (Yes, in many cases, Matthew is her plus one.)

There was a time not too long ago when Matthew and Sarah found themselves at a bar in New York City. An opportunity presented itself that would have allowed the couple to pack their things, their roots, and their cat for new lives in the Big Apple.

“We could do this,” Sarah recalls, weighing their options. “We could do this and be happy and successful (in New York City). But we could do things that are meaningful in Omaha, that have a real impact.”

Together, they returned to Omaha. During the following year, Matthew was named an Omaha World-Herald columnist. Sarah was hired as the paper’s food critic.

“We said, let’s try to do something impactful to this place where we’re choosing to be, that we care so much about,” she says. “I feel that’s the path we chose to take.

Visit omaha.com to read their work.

HansensUSEweb

Bringing it Home

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Hordes of the nation’s top triathletes will descend on Carter Lake this summer. They will compete for a national title at the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships on Aug. 13-14.

Top finishers in the two-day event’s Olympic-Distance National Championship (Aug. 13) and the Sprint National Championship (Aug. 14) will be invited to join Team USA at the 2017 world championships in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

Although the running, biking, and swimming events will revolve around Carter Lake, Omaha was the force behind the successful bid to host the event for 2016 and 2017. Triathletes will be reminded of Omaha’s national sports hub status as the running course turns around inside TD Ameritrade Park, home of the College World Series.

Coordination and collaboration of services among the Mayor’s Office; Fire, Police, and Public Works Departments; and other city infrastructure players were vital in landing this event—USA Triathlon’s largest and longest-running national championships event—as well as other major sporting events throughout the past decade.

This triathlon is expected to bring roughly 10,000 people and an estimated $10-12 million in hotel and food sales to metro Omaha during the weekend.

Triathlon1Race Omaha, which pitched Omaha as a future host site more than two years ago (when the event was celebrating year two of its three years in Milwaukee), has been the major coordinating force behind Omaha’s bid since the beginning.

Because of past and current events, USA Triathlon—which sponsors the championship—knew the metro area could more than support an event of this caliber. Those events include the College World Series, Olympic Swimming Trials, NCAA basketball, NCAA volleyball, and the U.S. Figure
Skating Championships.

“Because we’ve successfully brought in and held big events in the past, there was no doubt we could handle an event like U.S. Age Group National Championships,” says former Race Omaha Race Director Kurt Beisch. “We have this event this year and next year, and then USA Triathlon will decide where to take it next. We just want everyone coming to town for this event to have a great experience and learn what a great community we have here.”

The cooperation of city services was only one of many incentives that lured the triathlon and other events to the metro over the past decade (or in the case of the College World Series, since 1950).

According to USA Triathlon National Events Senior Manager Brian D’Amico, there were multiple factors that went into choosing Omaha over several other cities: geographic location, accommodations, and the history of hosting successful national sporting events.

But in his and USA Triathlon’s expert opinions, there is one intangible that drew them to Omaha: the people.

“We love Omaha’s central location in the United States, which makes it easily accessible from both coasts as well as the entire country,” D’Amico says. “We love that Carter Lake (site of the event headquarters and venue for the swimming leg of the triathlon) is so close to the airport, and the city has worked so hard to welcome us.

“But what we really noticed during our site visit was how friendly and welcoming everyone in Omaha is. We love how supportive the community has always been of the College World Series, Swim Trials, and other events. They really enjoy having visitors in town, and they go out of their way to make them feel welcome. That’s something you can’t measure or control, so it’s a definite advantage.”

The two-day event is divided into two race distances—Olympic on Saturday and sprint on Sunday. These distances both feature the traditional legs of a triathlon: a swim (at Carter Lake), followed by biking, and finally, a run through Omaha’s city streets, culminating with a turn at TD Ameritrade Park before returning to Carter Lake.

The Olympic portion features a 1,500-meter open water swim, followed by a 40K bike ride with a 10K run. Sunday’s sprint version is half the distance of all three legs.

Race Omaha founder Alan Kohll says whether you have attended or participated in previous triathlons, many things will help keep spectators and fans engaged—including an expo near the event headquarters.

As a perk, Oriental Trading Co. will hand out cowbells and thunder sticks to spectators who will motivate the athletes as they traverse through the course by water, bike, and foot. There will also be 5k and 1k runs on Friday night for everyone not participating in the triathlons.

Kohll says the triathlon events will definitely carry an Omaha flavor.

“We’re not attempting to mimic what’s been done in Milwaukee or past cities that hosted this event,” Kohll says. He and Beisch are both competitive triathletes.

“We want people from other parts of the country to leave Omaha having learned more about what makes the community special—the zoo, Berkshire Hathaway, and Omaha Steaks, among many others. These are some things Omaha is known for, and we want to emphasize them.”

Visit raceomaha.com for more information.

Being True Blue to Friends Old and New

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

True Blue Goods and Gifts looks a bit like the popular web-based store Etsy set up a storefront in NoDo. True Blue is a retail store stocked with handcrafted goods from local and regional makers, as well as national vendors creating products not found elsewhere in Omaha. Jewelry, quirky handmade cards, vases, and baby onesies promoting “The Good Life” line shelves.

TrueBlue3It is beyond Etsy, though. Not even a year old, the store one-ups the online site with a gallery of rotating shows and regular classes offered for adults and children. Owned by Omahans Melissa Williams, Jessica Mogis, and Jodie McGill, the store is set up to showcase local artisans, providing them with a brick and mortar outlet in which to sell their wares that eliminated shipping costs.

A stack of soy candles by The Wild Woodsmen are made by a 12-year-old boy named Nic. Nearby lays jewelry by Heather Kita. Kita’s jewelry is one of the most popular items in the store. “She’s become a good friend,” says Williams.

Friendship’s a theme that carries throughout the store. “We had a lot of help from people—friends and family,” says Mogis. They sell bags made by Cody Medina, a friend who also built their display tables. The hanging pots in the front window are by their pal Andrew Bauer. The owners convinced Bauer to sell his goods at their store after seeing one of his handmade gifts.

The three women are first time entrepreneurs—Mogis was a teacher and Williams worked in hospice. McGill continues her law practice. “We wanted a change,” says Mogis.

TrueBlue2

The setting, located in the Saddlecreek Records complex, fits their needs and personalities. The shop’s loft doubles as inventory storage and a holding corral to entertain the owners’ children while their moms manage the shop downstairs.

The storeowners started out selling goods from their friends—who happened to be talented artists—and creatives they encountered at different markets. Artists now approach True Blue with their wares.

TrueBlue4Williams, Mogis, and McGill curate their store with the eyes and minds of art gallery owners, intentionally maintaining the vibe of a boutique from the coasts. A rotating gallery of fine art fills one wall of the store. Each showing is kicked off with an opening night event.

Like artwork, many items sold at the store have “Meet Your Maker” signage explaining the artists’ backgrounds. The ladies behind the counter will fill in the missing details as you shop, explaining how the collage-maker from Ashland used pages from an old dictionary found at Bud Olson’s Bar, or how the store’s popular Brucie Bags are handmade by Williams’ dad.

The jovial relationships the storeowners have forged with their vendors also extends to customers. On a recent afternoon, a woman walked into the store and Williams cheerfully greeted her like an old friend. There’s no long history between the two—she’s a regular customer who’s been folded into the family that is True Blue.

Visit truebluegoodsandgifts.com for more information.

l-r, Jodie McGill, Melissa Williams, Jessica Mogis

l-r, Jodie McGill, Melissa Williams, Jessica Mogis

Villa Springs

July 29, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Drive about three miles south of Springfield, Nebraska, and you’ll find Villa Springs on the north shore of the Platte River, a private neighborhood more or less enclosed by a ring of cottonwood trees. If you drive around the neighborhood, you’ll find all manner of houses in an eclectic mix of colors, styles, and designs.

Many of the houses do feature one thing in common: boats in the driveways.

That is because Villa Springs is a lake community, sitting on the banks of a sandpit lake.

“It’s about a 40-acre lake, good for skiing, swimming, fishing,” says Gary Partusch, 50, president of the Villa Springs Homeowners Association.

Villa-Springs1

Partusch, who is married with four kids and works for a dairy company in Omaha, has lived in the neighborhood since 2001. The property lots, ranging in size from about a half acre to two acres in size, are spread out, making Villa Springs unique for a lake community.

“It makes it very nice to be spread out [and] have room,” he says. “More yard to mow, more stuff like that.”

The average house in the neighborhood costs about $300,000-$500,000. There are 90 homeowners on the lake, Partusch says, and they are a mixed group. Some are older people who are retired and spend their winters in warmer climates, while others are younger.

“People are very friendly, very nice,” he says. “[You] take walks and boat rides and see people on the lake and talk. It’s a good living community.”

The neighborhood has an annual picnic as well as a Christmas party. There’s also a spring cleanup in which all the neighbors pitch in to help keep the lake beautiful. Many people enjoy fishing, and last year, the community held a fishing tournament. The lake contains a great deal of fish, including large-mouth bass, bluegill, walleye, and catfish.

“We stock it with fish,” Partusch says, most of which are catch-and-release. “We take pride in having a good fishing lake.”

One can also find a great many birds in the neighborhood—turkeys, ducks, bald eagles, and migrating pelicans. A few families of geese with new babies are making their home there currently. There’s also some deer and a beaver in the lake. 

I got three walnut trees,” Partusch says. “I see lots of squirrels.”

In many ways, though, Partusch says, Villa Springs is a regular sort of neighborhood.

“People have difference of opinions,” he says. “It’s hard to have 85…people, different families, agree on everything.

“I think that’s with any community.”

Like any other community, it has its share of garden-variety neighborly disputes; though, true to character, some of the neighborhood’s disputes revolve around how to make the best use of the lake.

“There’s a group of people who…couldn’t care less about fishing,” Partusch says. “And there’s a group of people who love to fish. And then there’s also people [who]…want to waterski or swim or tube or whatever. And there’s some other people that don’t even own a boat.”

The lake adds value to the community, and at the same time, each homeowner feels some personal ownership in regard to it. However, he says, the neighborhood mostly manages to accommodate everyone’s wishes.

“I think we have a pretty good balance.”

The most surprising thing about living here, Partusch says, is how quiet and peaceful it is.

“The quietness of being out of the city,” he says. “You can sit there on a Sunday afternoon and just sit out on the lake.”

Villa-Springs2

Indeed, that is the big impression one gets when driving down Cottonwood Lane, the blacktop road that circles the lake. There are people out and about on a Saturday afternoon, but generally the area is pretty quiet. More than anything, drivers want to appreciate just how nice everything looks. The neighborhood boasts a robust number of cottonwood, elm, and ash trees due to its proximity to the river, making the scene shine with green and gold, especially when the sun peaks out. There are several spots along the road where people can stop, look to one side, and catch a view of the Platte River through the tree line. On the other side is the lake, the wind rippling on its surface.

“I really think it’s a really great place to live,” Partusch says. “I really have no intentions of going anywhere.”

Visit villaspringslake.com for more information.