Tag Archives: France

Francophile

October 9, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Half a century ago, while attending Mercy High School, Anne Marie Kenny cultivated a Francophile passion. At 21, she followed it to realize a dream of being a cabaret artist in France. She went from singing in Paris streets to headlining chic venues.

After that yearlong taste, she returned to Omaha hungry to maintain French ties. Her conduit became Alliance Française d’Omaha, a chapter of an international organization dedicated to promoting French language and culture. She departed again, this time a married woman, to study voice and ply her craft abroad.

Kenny and her husband settled in the south of France—commuting to their beloved Paris. They lived there for more than a decade, during which time she also became a successful entrepreneur in the Czech Republic.

Since returning home permanently, she’s served as an Alliance board member and president.

“It’s been my lifeline to French-going. I so missed the excitement of Paris—the language and all that,” she says, adding that when members of the local organization asked her to serve, “I felt I owed it something because it gave so much to me.”

As the current president, she has overseen preparations for the Omaha chapter’s centennial celebration in 2017. Alliance marked the milestone with the August launch of its illustrated history book, along with an upcoming centennial gala at KANEKO on Sept. 9.

Alliance events often feature French food, wine, and music. But the centennial bash is going to exquisite extremes with an elegant feast of authentic cuisine and entertainment. French dignitaries will be among the special guests. Kenny will emcee and lead the attendees in singing France’s national anthem, La Marseillaise.

The events also honor the legacy of the late Sam Mercer, who divided his time between Paris and Omaha. Mercer opened the French Café and helped reactivate the city’s historic Old Market district (inspired by his exposure to French urban planning). Mark (his son) and Vera Mercer, along with Nicholas (his nephew) and Jane Bonham-Carter are the gala’s honorary chairs.

Kenny emphasizes that the party is “a community event.”

Under her two terms as president, the group has increased membership and French language class offerings.

She appreciates what French fluency gives her.

“Exploring the poetry of a language is an optimal way to not only learn how to speak the language but to understand its nuances,” she says. “It’s a new way of thinking and seeing.”

Learning the French language came naturally to her.

Her fascination changed the course of her life when she followed her muse abroad. “I wanted to use French and apply it to who I was,” Kenny says, adding that she values the “global mindset” gained from the experience.

Alliance members share a vision of having their own cultural center after a century of borrowed spaces.

“We’re not able to offer as many classes as I know the community would like,” Kenny says.

She says the lack of a dedicated home hasn’t prevented the Omaha branch from sponsoring “a very successful scholarship program” for students studying French.

Community service is at the core of the Omaha group, which she described as “one of the older” American Alliance Française chapters.

“We’re very active. After 100 years, we know we’ve got staying power,” she says. “I’m humbled and proud to be part of this lineup of figures in our city who brought French culture to the fore.”

Guiding the organization through its centennial, she says, has “been a wonderful labor of love.”

Visit afomaha.org for more information.

This article appears in the September/October 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Interview a Veteran

May 29, 2017 by

The Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project of the American Folklife Center collects, preserves, and makes accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans so future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war.

In the summer of 2015, while pursuing a master’s degree in public administration, I had the privilege of interviewing 14 veterans from World War II and the Vietnam War as part of an internship with Rep. Brad Ashford’s office. The experience opened my eyes to a different generation of soldiers (I work primarily with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans at UNO’s Office of Military and Veteran Services).

My first interview was with Darrald Harsh, a pilot who served in Europe and was captured by the Germans after parachuting from his plane. Harsh talked about his time in the POW camp, which was liberated by Gen. George Patton’s army.

Each interview followed a basic formula, starting with an overview of their lives before enlistment.

Helen Shadle, an Army nurse who served in Japan during World War II, discussed growing up as the youngest sibling in a large family, living on a farm, hitchhiking to school, and enlisting in the Army the first chance she got. She said the military offered her the opportunity to advance in an era when such opportunities for people like her were few and far between.

Many of the veterans held back the worst details of their war experiences. For some, mundane details were among their most cherished memories of deployment.

Jack Hetterich, who served in Europe, described the harrowing conditions of the march from France to Germany in the middle of winter. He recalled how his favorite care packages were filled with hand-knitted socks and treats that could be shared with fellow soldiers.

Bob Alden, who served in the Navy during World War II, said if you have the opportunity, enlist. “You learn a lot about other places and other people—what their lives are like,” he said, adding, “You survive if you make the right decisions.”

According to George Ostermiller, who served in Japan and assisted with the post-atomic bomb cleanup of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, “There’s nothing good about a war. It made me realize how fortunate we were at the time.”

Ostermiller said the military taught him about “patience, honesty, and integrity.” A feeling shared by many of the veterans, including Alden. “You’re responsible for all your decisions, every day,” Alden said. “All through military life, you have decisions you have to make on your own.”

All the interviews ended with the same question: “What would you like future generations to know about your experiences?” Harsh and many of the veterans expressed a similar response to that question: “Love your country, stay good. Do what they tell you, and don’t hold a grudge,” he said.

The Veterans History Project offers an excellent way to give back to your community. Contributing interviewers have ranged from Eagle Scouts to nursing-home volunteers.

Each interview takes 60 to 90 minutes, and the experience can be life changing. To get started, visit the Library of Congress website. If you are interested in helping, reach out to your local places of worship and retirement homes. Connect with your senators and representatives for assistance in recording these interviews with the Library of Congress.

Visit loc.gov/vets for more information and to download an interview packet.

The author of this article, Leah Meyer, is the director of the Office of Military and Veteran Services at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. This article appears in the May/June edition of Sixty-Plus, a periodical within Omaha Magazine.

The Making of the May/June 2017 Cover

April 27, 2017 by

About the cover:

The U.S. D-Day landing at Normandy’s Omaha Beach has been called “Bloody Omaha.” Omaha Magazine created a replica of the June 6, 1944, Omaha Beach landing for the current cover.

Surrounding the diorama are Joyce Winfield and Ben Drickey, featured in this issue, who have documented stories of Nebraska’s “Greatest Generation.”

The magazine’s creative team (Bill Sitzmann, Matt Wieczorek, Derek Joy, and Mady Besch) used smoke machines, firecrackers, fires, and Photoshop over their hand-made diorama to create the May/June 2017 cover.

High on Jesus

October 12, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit covenantheights.org for more information.

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Sam Mercer

April 25, 2013 by
Photography by Vera Mercer

Continental bon vivant Samuel Mercer, who passed away in early February, was not a typical Nebraskan. Though he grew up to become the Old Market’s undisputed godfather, he started life as the son of prominent Omaha physician and landowner Nelson Mercer. Young Sam was born and raised in privileged circumstances in London, England, and educated at Oxford and Yale. After living in Washington, D.C., he based his law practice in Paris, where he mostly lived the rest of his life, holding dual citizenship.

In Paris, Mercer cultivated relationships with avant garde artists. A watercolorist himself, he made artist Eva Aeppli his second wife. On his handful of trips to Omaha each year, Mercer cut an indelible figure with his shoulder-length gray hair, his trans-Atlantic accent, and his waxing on far-ranging subjects. He spoke perfect French.

“He projected an aura of unpretentious aristocracy…I liked him immediately and enormously,” says designer Roger duRand, who with Percy Roche opened the Old Market’s first business, The Farthest Outpost.

With the death of his father in 1963, Mercer took charge of the Mercer Management company here. He appreciated the century-old brick warehouses—some Mercer-owned—comprising the wholesale produce market just southeast of downtown. But it was designer Cedric Hartman who first advocated doing something with those buildings, which by the mid-1960s were largely abandoned and in disrepair.

Hartman, an acclaimed designer of lighting and furniture pieces made at his Marcy Street factory, recalls the genesis of the Old Market. He and Judy Wigton were partners in a high-end gift shop. Like Mercer, they admired the dying produce district’s buildings and in 1964, began meeting with him about these structures as potential sites for exciting, new ventures, such as fine shops, galleries, and restaurants.

“He projected an aura of unpretentious aristocracy.” – Roger duRand

“We were quite surprised to find such a person,” says Hartman. “He was a very smart, very worldly, and sophisticated character with great personal charm. We were both wowed by him, and in his way he was with us.”

Wigton says, “He certainly had a great appreciation for old buildings and also a need to fill the empty places with new tenants.”

“He did respond to us in a great way,” Hartman notes. “We were a couple of really artsy kids, and he was really artsy, so it couldn’t have been a better association. He was a kindred spirit in so many ways.”

Those early encounters formulated the vision for what became the Old Market.

“I remember we walked around the streets trying to imagine what could be done. I’d say, ‘Now look at this building; we could do this with it,’ and he’d just respond right in kind,” says Hartman. “I couldn’t have done that with anybody else. He hooked into all this stuff really fast.”

By 1968, Mercer moved strategically to gain control of a collection of buildings in what is now the Old Market. “Sam did not want anything said about the project until he could acquire options on enough other properties in the area to ensure the success of the redevelopment,” says Wigton.

It was Mercer’s idea to make the groundfloor space of the former Gilinsky Fruit Company into a French restaurant. There, Hartman designed the Old Market’s signature spot, the French Café, as well as apartments above it. Ree Kaneko, a fellow Old Market pioneer, says the restaurant, opened in 1969, was “very important” in helping solidify and legitimize the Market.

“He certainly had a great appreciation for old buildings and also a need to fill the empty places with new tenants.” – Judy Wigton

“It was a risky thing for him to do,” Hartman says. “Who knew if that would work? However, it was a great success.”

More anchor attractions followed—Homer’s, M’s Pub, Mr. Toad, Spaghetti Works, Nouvelle Eve, the Firehouse Dinner Theater, the Bemis. Designers duRand and Hartman advised Mercer and his son Mark, daughter-in-law Vera, and nephew Nicholas Bonham-Carter on this never-planned but organically developed area. The Mercers created one of the Market’s most distinct features, The Passageway, and later opened their own distinguished enterprises—V Mertz, La Buvette, and The Boiler Room.

“We worked to shape the Old Market neighborhood in the most authentic and benign ways possible, gently guiding new tenants away from the clichéd and vulgar, and to more thoughtful and honest approaches to development of the beautiful old structures,” says duRand. “Even though Sam lived and worked in Paris, his presence was in every decision of significance in nurturing the Market. He made frequent visits to Omaha in the early days and was instrumental in bringing the city fathers around to acceptance, then eventual approval, and finally enthusiasm for the preservation and rebirth of our neighborhood. His passing leaves a permanent and poignant void.”

Sam Mercer viewed the Market as an evolving social experiment and art project aligned with his own desires. Mark says the family has continued that philosophy by encouraging unique ventures that “fit our tastes and interests.” He and Vera say creating new things is their passion. They vow to retain the vibrant charm of this historic neighborhood that Mercer lovingly made happen.

Samuel Mercer passed away Feb. 5 at his home in Honfleur, France. He was 92. Services were held at Trinity Episcopal Church in Omaha.

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