Tag Archives: Lisa Lukecart

A Literary Prescription for Success

December 19, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Dr. Lydia Kang glanced at her ringing phone. It was her literary agent (who typically emailed). The unexpected phone call delivered some shocking news.

“We have a preemptive offer from Penguin,” the agent said.

Kang jumped up and down, silently screaming. “Yes, I’ll take the deal,” the physician recalls answering. Her writing career launched that day, Sept. 7, 2011, from her office at the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Wittson Hall.

Her first young adult science fiction novel, Control, landed on bookstore shelves nearly two years after that pivotal phone call. The sequel, Catalyst, followed two years later.

Then…nothing. A three-year drought between book contracts. Kang tracked her queries, near misses, and request rates. Her diagnosis after dissecting the evidence? Wow. That’s a lot of rejection.

It was not the first setback in Kang’s literary career. She had sent other manuscripts to agents that were never picked up. She knew the harsh realities of the business. Like the title of her first book, authors can’t control what pitch will work.

“I don’t do well with sitting and doing nothing,” says Kang, a mother of three who writes in between her parenting obligations and her jobs as an internal medicine specialist and assistant professor at UNMC.

Luckily, Kang is a prolific researcher and fast writer. It wasn’t long before her author bylines continued to grow. Her next book was A Beautiful Poison (published in August 2017).

Kang also paired up with freelance journalist Nate Pedersen to try her hand at nonfiction with Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything. The book, released in October 2017, plunges into the darker history of medicine.

Need a cure for drowning? A smoke enema will do the trick to save someone from the brink of death. Ever hear the phrase, “blowing smoke up your ass?” Now you know it came from 18th-century medicine. Human blood was used for all sorts of ailments, such as fevers or hair loss. Readers can find a yummy blood jam recipe from 1679. Have achy joints? How about a little human fat harvested from a corpse?

Evident in many of Kang’s books, her medical background comes in handy when characters are injured or near death. “My writing life can take these characters to an exciting critical level because no lives are at stake,” she says.

She steered away from the macabre with November Girl, a work of literary fantasy, published a month after Quackery. It won the 2018 Nebraska Book Award for Best Young Adult Fiction.

Many of her ideas spring from falling down a Wiki rabbit hole searching for random information, sometimes on morbid topics like grave robbing. Medical schools needed fresh corpses to perform autopsies in the 1800s. Body snatchers, known as “resurrectionists,” received lucrative sums of money to dig up the remains of the recently departed. 

Kang’s next book resurrected these gruesome fascinations in print. The work of historical fiction, The Impossible Girl, was published in fall 2018.

Protagonist Cora Lee sneaks into funerals during the day while stealing bodies of those with peculiar anomalies at night. The young lady has her own secret. She was born with two hearts and must keep one step ahead of those who want to murder her. The medical parts in the book, including Cora’s birth, are described as only a doctor could pen. Grisly details such as “the pool of bloody birth water staining the sheets” and “ignoring the black, muddy stool already staining the fabric” are realistic and vivid. 

“You have to have a strong stomach for some things,” Kang admits.

She returned to her science fiction roots in Toxic, which came out in November. The protagonist, Hana, was secretly genetically engineered on a sentient biological spaceship. When the entire crew disappears, and as the ship dies, Hana must confront a team of mercenaries and her own blossoming romance.

Although busy with so many books, Kang has learned to balance her time. She still loves seeing patients at the Durham Outpatient Center. And writing is an artistic complement to the medical side of her life.

“[It] brings me so much incandescent happiness when I bring books to life. There is nothing like that,” she says.

Kang, 47, is currently piecing together a large map of 1899 Manhattan as research for her next book. Having attended Columbia University and the New York School of Medicine, she sets many of her stories in the city.

Her uncredited writing partner in all these projects is a black and white shih-poo named Piper, who loves laying down on her research materials. Kang hopes the dog doesn’t discover the maps.

This next book project was born from her research from Quackery. It is a dark tale about a drug-addicted heiress who unearths some vampire-like corpses. Tentatively titled Opium and Absinthe, the book is slated for 2020 publication.

Visit lydiakang.com for more information.

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

Head shot Dr. Lydia Kang in lab coat with stethoscope

Seeking Darkness in the Woods

October 31, 2018 by and
Photography by Durham Museum (provided)
Illustration by Derek Joy

Touring Hummel Park with Midwest Paranormal History Tours

story by Lisa Lukecart

Jamie Nestroyl walks up the short stone steps in the middle of the “Devil’s Punchbowl” at Hummel Park. The wind rips through the bowl one way, then rapidly switches directions. It feels like someone is watching, somewhere off in the covert corners of the woods. Tree roots sever the worn path, reaching skeletal fingers across the dirt. The hushed silence of the dense foliage seems an eerie reminder of rumored satanic rituals. 

The thick, humid air suffocates Nestroyl as the sun descends into twilight. Along with friend Kacie Ransome, they step from the stairs onto a road curving off into sinister shadows.

“Ohhhhhh…that’s scary. Take a picture of it,” Nestroyl says. 

She is dressed comfortably for the hike in a white Midwest Paranormal History Tours t-shirt, blue jeans, and tennis shoes. As Ransome takes out her phone, Nestroyl turns around. 

Her blue eyes widen…widen…widen…as the primordial urge to flee tickles her spine.

Someone, no, something is standing in the middle of the road. It appears human in form with legs, arms, and a torso. Her boyfriend is 6 foot, 4 inches tall, but this thing is at least eight feet and more massive than any mortal man. Sure, it could be a tall person…but not with yellow glowing eyes. Oh no, it definitely wasn’t human.

The creature stares at them. The shadowy figure reveals no other discernible details. No clothes, no face, no hair. It reminds her of a grainy old photograph. And yet, the fading sunlight doesn’t penetrate its bleak blackness. 

It’s darker than the dark, Nestroyl realizes. 

Nestroyl’s limbs freeze and her chest feels heavy, as if weighed down by a cinder block. She swats at Ransome. When her friend turns around and catches a glimpse of those crazy gleaming eyes, Ransome bolts, screaming as she retreats. Nestroyl doesn’t stick around, either. She follows her hysterical companion, sneakers slapping down the stairs.  

 A dozen fellow hikers in their group rush over to discover the cause of commotion. The ghost hunt was on, but Nestroyl (the founder of Midwest Paranormal History Tour) knows the “Shadow Man” is gone. For now. 

This isn’t Nestroyl’s first brush with the unknown. She has seen full apparitions and really alarming things since she was a child. Now, as a side job, Nestroyl takes folks on supernatural tours to cemeteries, forts, and hikes all around Omaha for an apt-priced $13. Hummel Park is one of her destinations.

Hummel has a wicked history of freaking people out. Hell, even the entrance sign looks like a gravestone. The old pavilion, since torn down, once issued a written warning to “abandon hope all who enter.” Reports of inverted pentagrams, swastikas, and other graffiti have littered the walls. The Devil’s Punchbowl was rumored to be a place of satanic rituals, including animal sacrifices in a smoky fire pit. Most are unsubstantiated rumors, but the urban legends and myths have blackened the beauty of the unmanicured wild pathways. Several are rooted in evil reality while others are just tales told around campfires. 

The legends are tangled and distorted since most have been passed down by word of mouth. One of the urban legends suggests that cannibalistic albino people live in the trees at Hummel, ready to sink their sharp teeth into exposed flesh. Another version of the story claims that they perform the satanic rituals and live in a remote cabin somewhere in the woods. 

Some people claim to have seen the ghost of Jacob Clatanoff, an actual German immigrant who once lived there in the 1900s. His wife supposedly murdered him and then ran off with her lover. Or take the old hermit. He’s missing a nose in some cases, fingers in another. Either way, he’s out to get wanderers. Or try the Devil’s Staircase (also called the Staircase to Hell, or Morphing Stairs). Count the steps up. Then down. Get the same number? Probably not. The stairs are cracked and broken so getting the correct answer isn’t likely. Oh, if the count is the same, feel free to ask the devil for a wish. The price? Your soul. 

People have allegedly killed themselves in Hummel Park, plunging to their demise on the steep eastern side of a natural cliff called the Devil’s Slide. The Omaha Police Department reports most suicides are initially documented as simply a death report, which makes it difficult to search for an exact number at Hummel. 

It has been said that the trees bend and bow in terror because of all the lynchings during the Red Summer of 1919. Even though many of these crimes went unreported or undocumented, it is highly unlikely any happened at Hummel, and there is no historical evidence to support the theory.

After witnessing the shadowy figure on the road, Nestroyl still insists that “there is no way these 202 acres aren’t cursed.” 

Lisa Reda, who has been a member of the UNO Paranormal Society since 2014 and has her own group, Paranormal Energy, has not seen any evidence of supernatural activity in the park. After a meeting four years ago, members decided to do a short investigation of Hummel on a bright sunny afternoon. Spirits have no concept of day and night. Most of the infrared and ultraviolet equipment, though, is optimal after the sun has set. And nighttime provides less noise contamination. Most of what the group found could be explained. For example, any meter readings probably came from power lines. 

“Just because we didn’t get any evidence, doesn’t mean nothing is there. Anytime there is a slightest natural explanation, you have to go with the natural explanation first,” Reda explains. “But if you were going to kill someone and ditch a body, this is the place to do it. Paranormal aside, it is just a creepy place.”

Aside from the urban legends, Hummel Park also has a long and unfortunate history of real-life horror: petty crimes, stolen vehicles, assaults, rape, and murder. Nevertheless, teenagers continue to sneak in for spine-tingling fun, attempting to call up spirits with Ouija boards and violating the park curfew in the process.

Two years ago Greg Sokolik III, along with four friends, went to Hummel near midnight (it closes at 9 p.m., earlier than most parks) for just that kind of an adventure. The 20-year-old says he left right after he was approached by a woman in a tight mini-skirt and tube top who asked if he wanted a “missus for the night.”

“Pick up a prostitute. Dump a dead body. That’s Hummel Park,” says Sokolik, referring to the infamous murder of Laura LaPointe. The victimized sex worker’s nude and bloody body was left in a ditch near the park. An empty brandy bottle and a six-foot-long tree limb were close by her corpse. Four other prostitutes beat her to death for money, a sum of $25 in total. 

Victims of crimes at Hummel have included innocent children. The heavily wooded area made headlines again with the tragic murder of 12-year-old Amber Harris. She was found in a shallow grave at the park in 2006, nearly six months after her disappearance. A cross necklace clung to her remains. Roy Ellis was convicted of killing her and sentenced to death. Ellis allegedly liked to intimidate women, and his former girlfriend told investigators that Ellis drove her to Hummel, dug a grave, and threatened to put her in it.

Ransome lived a block and a half from Harris at the time of her murder. 

“It’s more real to me now than just high school ghost stories,” Ransome recalls. 

Tracy Stratman, the recreation manager for the City of Omaha Parks, has been fighting Hummel’s gory reputation for years. Hummel has been cleaned up to make it a positive experience for visitors. The day camp is focused on nature-rich activities such as hiking, camp games, and even a chicken coop. Camp counselors no longer tell ghost stories or urban legends.

“We see Hummel as a hidden gem for the city of Omaha,” Stratman says. “Our goal is not to scare participants off, but to have an experience they love and to embrace the park.”

And yet, people are still drawn in by the macabre. Nestroyl, along with a few others on her tour, claim to have seen the shadowy figure two other times. 

As the tour concludes, 37-year-old Dustin Sims, his girlfriend, and daughter are counting the steps. He is here for the legends. 

Once, Sims recalls, he visited the outskirts of the park on a late wintry night. He could hear a young child violently screaming inside. 

Did he help or call the police?

“No!” Sims responds, incredulous. 

Why not?

“Because it’s Hummel Park,” he says.

Visit mphtours.com for more information or to book a tour with Midwest Paranormal History Tours.

Historical photos courtesy of the Durham Museum’s Bostwick-Frohardt collection

The History and Mystery of Hummel Park

story by Ryan Roenfeld

Hummel Park’s murky forest conceals tales of dark lore in the loess hills, rising from the Missouri River floodplain on the northern outskirts of Omaha. Behind the dense foliage, there is Satan’s slide and stairs that supposedly change steps with every climb. There are also groves of old oaks, a disc golf course, and folklore aplenty.

The family of N.P. Dodge donated the 202-acre park to the city in 1930. Hummel Park took its name from the amiable Joe Hummel, Omaha’s long-time city park commissioner from 1912-1939 (excepting two terms). It was Hummel, a reliable cog in Tom Dennison’s political machine, who was lauded as “father of Omaha Parks” upon his death at age 79 in 1942.

A few centuries earlier, almost 220 years ago, Manuel Lisa first established the fur-trade post (dubbed Fort Lisa near the park). European demand for furs and fashionable beaver hats drove much of the area’s exploration and economic exploitation. From 1812 until 1823, Fort Lisa was considered the “most important post on the Missouri River” by historian Hiram Chittenden. This was where expeditions north and west were outfitted and launched into the mountains and where the Omaha, Pawnee, and Ioway traded furs for goods. From 1814 until his 1817 resignation, Lisa served as the government Indian Agent as the fur trade and American policy then went hand-in-hand. After Lisa’s 1820 death, the post was taken over by Joshua Pilcher, who abandoned Fort Lisa for Bellevue.

The exact location of Fort Lisa has been lost to time, unlike Cabanne’s Post (also located in the neighborhood and overseen by Jean Pierre Cabanne) established by Bernard Pratte’s “French Company” in 1823. It was from this post that 116 men left in 1824 for Taos (still part of Mexico at the time). By 1825, Cabanne’s Post had become part of the Western Department of Astor’s sprawling American Fur Company, which set about establishing a monopoly on the Missouri. 

Cabanne’s Post was where Peter Sarpy first apprenticed into life along the river, and in 1831, “Ioway Jim” killed a member of the Omaha Nation near Cabanne’s Post, the first recorded murder in an area known today for Hummel Park. It would not be the last. Like Fort Lisa, in 1833, Cabanne’s Post was abandoned in favor of Bellevue.    

A monument to both posts was dedicated by the Daughters of the American Revolution in October 1928. It was rededicated in 2008 and then, within a week, “pretty well demolished” by vandals. Vandalism would plague the park, as would the dumping of trash. In April 2006, volunteers picked up 200 bags of garbage there, including tires, boards, barrels, and furniture, and they discovered the remains of a “1956 or 1957 Chevy” abandoned in a ravine. 

One of Hummel Park’s oldest legends—that it was the site of a colony of albinos—may be explained by the 1934 organization of a 250-acre camp adjacent to the park by Nebraska nudists. All those pale bodies must have looked awfully white, but that history seems to have been covered up. 

Hummel Park history is filled with picnics, egg hunts, nature hikes, and a beloved summer day camp dating from 1949. There is also a very real history of sexual assault, death, and murder. Some incidents took place in the park itself. Others occurred in the rural area nearby but close enough to leave a lingering reputation.

A Timeline of Dark History at Hummel Park

Disturbing Crimes Reported by Local Media

December 1933: 19-year-old Rose Engel was killed in the park when the car she was riding in overturned on a curve.

October 1947: A 19-year-old admitted to drinking heavily before his car smashed into a hayrack filled with University of Omaha students at the park; 20-year-old Freddie Freelin was killed.

January 1949: Two motorcyclists discovered George Rux’s frozen corpse on the outskirts of the park.

October 1950: Two men armed with a hatchet and hammer attacked two soldiers and their dates at the park and then forced the two women, one 15 and the other 21, to leave with them. Both were reportedly raped and then released on a random Omaha street corner.

August 1954: A reported sexual assault of three women at Hummel Park.   

February 1960: The “frozen body” of a woman was discovered near the park.

November 1970: 15-year-old Lori Jones was found dead, shot three times, after her companions claimed they’d left her sleeping inside a car at Hummel Park.

April 1973: A 20-year-old woman was carjacked in Omaha and forced to drive to Hummel Park, where she was raped and then driven back to the city where her assailant fled.

April 1983: The brutal softball-bat murder of 18-year-old prostitute Laura LaPointe happened southwest of the park. Her body was discovered “nude in a ditch” and four other prostitutes were later convicted.

May 1984: Two men were arrested for sexually assaulting a 25-year-old woman at knife-point in Hummel Park.

July 1984: Police had no suspects in the death of 21-year-old Michelle Lamere, who was intentionally run over and left to die north of the park. 

September 1985: A 36-year-old woman reported she was sexually assaulted at Hummel Park.

June 1986: A 34-year-old man was charged with the sexual assault of a 17-year-old Omaha woman at the park.

June 1992: Central High School sophomore Jeremy Drake was killed at the park over stolen car stereo speakers. Drake’s body was discovered by a woman walking her dog.

December 1999: Scott Addison was lured to Hummel Park to sell a stereo where he was beaten and stabbed. His two assailants left him for dead and Addison wrote their names in his own blood on the trunk of his car before he walked a quarter mile to find help.

June 2005: Jose Lucio survived being shot in the back in the park by a member of the notorious Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) gang.

May 2006: Someone “ghost hunting” in Hummel Park discovered the shallow grave of 12-year-old Amber Harris. Roy Ellis was convicted of rape and murder and was sentenced to death.

February 2008: 16-year-old David Murillo lost control of his Honda in the park and died after he was ejected when his car went into a ravine.

December 2013: Washington County deputies found the body of an unknown man north of the park whose death was considered “suspicious.”

This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Have you Herd of the Goat Yoga Craze?

October 24, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Megan Roth sits cross-legged on her mat in black shorts, a white tank, and a blue baseball hat with the words “Live Simply” etched into the front.

“We know why you are here and it’s not because of me,” Roth announces, a certified yoga instructor with Simplicity Wellness Yoga + More. 

Roth begins with gentle neck circles, side stretches, and cat-cow poses. 

One participant, Roca, is ignoring all the commands. Instead of downward dog, he unzips a lady’s jacket, pulls it back up, and zips it down again. Up. Down. Roca loses interest and mischievously jumps on someone planking. His bewhiskered mother, Almond, would not approve of the kid’s behavior. 

Welcome to yoga with goats and sheep, where four-leggeds and two-leggeds find inner peace together. Or something like that. 

Roca’s sister, Joy, seems more concerned with sucking shoelaces, hair, and fingers than nailing a perfect seated twist. Two lambs, Cottontail and Toast, snuggle next to human yoga participants. Freckles begs for some chin scratches. Another little goat lays across someone’s neck like a soft scarf. 

Instead of deep breathing, goats bleat and sheep baa from the al fresco “studio,” scented by pine trees and fresh farm air. It’s not a traditional yoga studio. It’s actually the lush pasture at Doe’s & Diva’s Dairy in Honey Creek, Iowa.

Yoga has been touted for its mental, physical, and emotional health benefits. Throw in some farm animals and it is a shot to the endorphins.

“Like triple the endorphins,” Roth says. 

This could be why goat yoga is the hottest trend sweeping the nation. Starting in 2016, the format is the brainchild of Oregon’s Lainey Morse, who believed goats turned her depression around. Goat yoga isn’t about sweating it out and going all hardcore, but rather a cuddly mood lifter. 

Roth has seen even the most cynical man melt at the sight of the brown, white, and black baby goats looking for a little attention. 

“I love seeing how everyone lights up like 5-year-olds at Disney World,” Roth adds.

On a whim, Janna Feldman posted a photo with two baby goats on the Facebook page for Doe’s & Diva’s Dairy in January: “Thinking of offering baby lamb and baby goat yoga sessions.” The online feedback was encouraging, so she began looking into making it a reality.

When Feldman reached out to discuss a collaboration, Roth felt it was a win-win. Feldman wanted to socialize her kids and ewes, who tended to be leery of humans. Although bottle fed, they still weren’t used to leaping on a stand for milking. Curiosity almost always takes over the little ones in a pasture with colorful mats and yogis. It’s an easy way to get them accustomed to being handled and touched.

The dairy’s sheep and goat yoga classes began in spring 2018. Independent of the classes at Doe’s & Diva’s, a neighboring dairy in Honey Creek (Honey Creek Creamery) also offered goat yoga classes with five different yoga instructors during the initial spring 2018 season.

Rebekah Lowe, 35, joined a class at Doe’s & Diva’s to get centered in the midst of cuddly baby barnyard animals. But her shy lamb kept escaping back to the owner. 

“Half the time I tried to get selfies [with the goats], and the other half I did some yoga,” Lowe says. 

The 70-year-old dairy owner, Feldman, believes another benefit is just being outside the city limits. Doe’s & Diva’s is located roughly 20 minutes north of Omaha in western Iowa.

Feldman realized this potential on a stressful day when she just sat in the middle of her pasture. The does (another word for a female goat), her divas (the nickname Feldman uses for the ewes), dog, and cats came up to her one by one to offer comfort. Even though it was only 10 minutes, she felt ready to take on the world again. 

“It’s restorative. It’s peaceful. It’s beautiful,” Feldman says. 

The slow-moving rural life fits with mindful workouts like yoga. Feldman hasn’t joined a session yet due to a hip injury, but she stays plenty busy running around making cheese from “her girls.” People can taste the tangy samples once the class is finished (or they can sign up to take a cheese-making class). 

Feldman started the dairy farm in 2005 with her husband when they discovered their daughter was lactose intolerant. Now she milks 30 sheep and 18 goats twice a day. 

“The cheese is so good. I was very surprised,” Lowe says. Goat and sheep milk contains lactose but is easier for humans to digest than cows’ milk.

The real stars of the hour show are the goats, with their big personalities, and the sweet lambs. People laugh while doing some gentle yoga, close to the ground. Goats do like to stand on some people, but only weigh about 5-10 pounds, so it feels more like a Swedish massage on the back. And they love to chew on just about anything, but have no top teeth. Sure, some do occasionally urinate on a mat, but it’s all about the experience. 

It isn’t for everyone. Classes in April and May coincide with kidding season. Weather could range anywhere from bitterly cold to steamy hot or somewhere in the middle. The cost is $20 for one session at Doe’s & Diva’s. 

Chanell Jaramillo, the owner of Transpersonal Health and Simplicity Wellness Yoga + More, grew up around goats on her aunt’s farm. As a child, she saw ornery, older adult goats butting heads. When the idea came up, Jaramillo “wasn’t super-psyched,” but she had no qualms with the proposed collaboration so long as Roth led the classes. 

Jaramillo opened her studio in January, only a few months before Doe’s and Diva’s inquired about goat yoga. Then, after the success of the dairy sessions, the Florence Home Healthcare Center reached out to discuss a fundraiser for launching an adaptive yoga program at the senior facility.

Jaramillo, who has a Ph.D. in psychology (her dissertation examined yoga as a healing modality for individuals with autoimmune diseases), noticed no one in town was offering adaptive yoga. She started by partnering with Quality Living Inc. to help rehabilitation patients recover from spinal injuries
in 2014. 

Repetitive motions and rhythms allow those with brain injuries or those confined to small spaces to be present in the moment, to expand and breathe. She figured that such an adaptive program would help upgrade services at the Florence Home for seniors who had cardio and pulmonary issues, dementia, or limited mobility. 

Incorporating the goats into a fundraiser yoga session at the Florence Home helped provide the financing to get the center’s new yoga program up and running. 

Roth, the goat yoga instructor/advocate on Jaramillo’s team, was out of town the day of the fundraiser (May 23). So Jaramillo had to take on herding duties.

With help from Priscilla Russell, another yoga instructor, Jaramillo took two baby goats and a lamb over to the Florence Home in dog crates on a hot and humid day. About 60 people came out with mats or towels for two 30-minute sessions, raising about $500. Since then, adaptive yoga has become part of the Florence Home’s regular schedule for one hour every week, helping participants with anxiety and mood.

Goats were just there for the initial fundraiser to generate public interest; however, Jaramillo says they will be bringing baby goats back to the facility in April 2019 when the kids are still tiny.

She is passionate about teaching anyone yoga, but she sees something special in nuzzle-friendly goat yoga classes.

“The reaction is always the same,” Jaramillo says. “Pure joy.”

Visit doesanddivas.com for more information about the Iowa dairy hosting goat yoga in the spring. 

Visit omahaseniorcare.org/florence-home-healthcare-center for more information about the Florence Home.

Gary Pettit’s Wild Kingdom

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Gary Pettit rolled toward New Orleans with one pressing concern on his mind. The cats. 

The hurricane had made landfall weeks prior, but New Orleans remained devastated with access restrictions in place. Extinguished city lights plunged the once-bright metropolis into eerie darkness. 

Pettit knew it would be difficult getting in and out of the city. But he had to evacuate the big cats from the Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center.

He stopped at a blockade on the outskirts of town. “Where’s your permit?” a police officer asked in a heavy Brooklyn accent.

Pettit knew it would take months to get a permit. The cats didn’t have a month. 

After a whole lot of convincing, the cop acquiesced, “Go ahead. Get out of my sight.” 

The Nebraskan convoy to rescue African cats trudged onward. Pettit led with a heavy-duty animal transport vehicle following. They relied on GPS as the storm had wiped out street signs. They drove past a sign warning, “We shoot looters,” boats on the interstate, and destroyed buildings. 

Finally, Pettit and his crew of two other men arrived at the Audubon Center. With forecasts of another storm on the horizon, they needed to act quickly. He sedated the African wildcats and lions, performed physicals, and crated them. 

Loaded down with exotic wildlife, their vehicles departed the decimated city at a snail’s pace. Meanwhile, caravans of military and emergency vehicles barreled past. 

“I never got flipped off more,” Pettit recalls with a laugh. 

In the end, it paid off. The lions had a new home at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, while the wildcats roamed at the Wildlife Safari Park in Ashland.  

 “Working with animals is always an adventure,” says Pettit, superintendent of the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park and Wildlife Safari (located in Ashland). He has overseen the 440-acre enclosure since it first opened in 1998.  

Gary Pettit holds a screech owl in a restricted-access portion of the Wildlife Safari Park.

Pettit, 53, landed his first job at the Omaha Zoo right out of college in 1988. He earned his bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology, but his plan of becoming a game warden with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service changed after applying at the zoo. He found his passion. Pettit even fell in love on the job, meeting his now-wife, Linda. (She still works at the zoo, too, as supervisor of the dietary kitchen for feeding animals.)

Pettit worked as a keeper specializing in birds, cats, ferrets, and bears. He learned animals can be unpredictable. How do keepers have the courage to work with lions who weigh between 265 and 420 pounds? 

“We don’t,” Pettit says, chuckling. 

It is always wise to keep a close eye out for any giraffes who might be in the mood to play a little joke, he adds. Pettit has firsthand knowledge of this after one snuck up behind him to kick him into a pool of water while he was giving a talk in front of hundreds of people. 

Ten years later, the zoo planned to open the Ashland conservation and safari park. Pettit jumped at the chance to be involved since he understood land management from his previous work with the Nebraska Forest Service. 

The park formed under his rough callused hands—with help from a small crew of colleagues, “his rocks.” Pettit built roads, cut down trees, and bulldozed. He continued working part-time with the bird crew at the zoo until he earned a permanent spot as the safari park’s superintendent.

At first, the Ashland acreage was not meant to be open to the public. It was for research, conservation, and breeding—a quiet spot with little human contact, conducive for resident animals trying to get busy. 

The scene might be familiar to human users of dating apps like Tinder. A male will walk down “lover’s lane” to meet a female, Pettit says. She gets to decide to swipe right (by purring or rolling on her back) or left (with defensive body language). This way, cheetahs have a lot of options in the dating pool. Plus, it doesn’t waste an entire year of breeding season. The formula has proven successful, with the rural Nebraskan park producing 90 percent of the cheetahs in North America. Construction has already started for on-site tiger breeding, which should be finished by the end of 2018. 

The Wildlife Safari Park’s Cheetah Breeding Center is closed to the general public.

Another portion of the safari park off-limits to the general public is reserved for veterinary care for raptors. No, not the dinosaur variety—hawks, owls, and bald eagles. 

Most of the animals are trained to walk next to the fence into a tube so it is easier to administer shots—which is much easier on them than knocking them out. 

The safari park’s conservation mission is part retirement home as well. Two female cheetahs hang out together in one cage. Tearmark, the oldest cheetah in North America at 17, paces the floor (a mixture of compost so it is easier on the joints). She flashes her teeth and shows off her tawny, black-spotted coat. Her companion, 13-year-old Sukari, observes with her amber eyes from the shadows during a hot summer day. 

Slumbering in another part of the park is a 500-pound black bear named Starsky. He grew up on garbage and was confiscated from a private individual who had him illegally in eastern Nebraska. Because of illness, he is blind.

After opening, half of the park transformed into a North American drive-thru where people could see wolves, bears, and bison roaming the tall grasses of the prairie. 

It became apparent the zoo would need someone at the growing park 24/7. Pettit would get calls in the middle of the night to check out an “elk” hit by the side of the road, only to learn it was a deer. Or someone needed to bottle-feed the babies. 

So, Pettit built his house right in the safari park with support from his wife. Their three kids grew up playing ball in the parking lot. Pettit drinks his morning coffee while watching wild elk at sunrise. His “backyard” is full of critters. 

“I don’t have a typical day,” Pettit explains. 

Pettit builds fences or assists his employees with the animals. During a drive around the park, he waves to visitors. When Pettit stops to chat, he shares stories about the animals as if they were members of his family. After all, they are.

White pelicans (who love to block traffic) are a recurring nemesis for the keepers of the safari park. As soon as the flock hears the four-wheeler coming, they waddle over to the side. Pettit then points out some freeloading geese who stopped by to enjoy the wetlands. 

He has to watch for animals who try to sneak into the park. Amorous bachelor elk traveling down the Platte River Valley are not welcome rivals for the resident males. Neither are unexpected human visitors. 

At night, along with his trusty terrier sidekick, Cooper, Pettit rides his four-wheeler to ensure everything is running smoothly.

On such a frosty winter morning years ago, Pettit took his spotlight out to check out the animals. He could hear someone faintly calling out from a remote part of the park. Pettit flashed the light on a man who was hanging upside down, pants down, with no shoes on. The man, obviously on drugs, told Pettit he had been sleeping with the ostriches. Although it keeps him on his toes, Pettit wouldn’t change his “ranch-style” life.

“This fits me. The wide open space, sharing it with my family, it’s a wonderful place,” Pettit says. 

After a long day out in his wild office, Pettit loves to sit around the fire pit with his wife at night. Wolves howl, cranes call, and elks bugle in the distance. Cooper paces back and forth. He barks back, reminding them all who the real superintendent of the park is. 

Visit wildlifesafaripark.com for more information.

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

Ridin’ the Rails

September 10, 2018 by
Photography by Contributed

Robert Owen sipped a drink, smoked a cigar, and enjoyed the view from the back end of his “yacht on the tracks.” He didn’t have a care in the world. The rush of catching a plane, loading luggage, or dealing with the airport crowds faded in favor of the looming Rocky Mountains. The train chugged along at a leisurely pace after it left the station in Chicago. The pressures of being CEO of Owen Industries, a metal fabrication business, drifted away with the chugging of his 1928 vintage train car. The slick silver, red, and blue Pullman gleamed at the rear of Amtrak’s westbound No. 5 California Zephyr. He, along with other members of the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners (AAPRCO), headed to Napa Valley along the sturdy steel of the rail tracks just as their ancestors may have done in the late 1800s. The countryside, unhindered by automobiles or highways, seemed so primitive one could almost imagine an outlaw waiting in the wings for an old-fashioned train robbery.  

The inside exuded the same plushness as the outside. The lounge’s soft blue chairs, creamy leather sofa, and refinished woodwork is the picture of refined elegance. The dining room is a throwback to the original Pullman. A long table is covered with a white tablecloth and linen napkins. Dinner was prepared by a chef and guests could partake of caviar, a filet, or champagne. Photos of the Boston Red Sox’s Ted Williams sit on a table, showcasing the history of its famous passenger. 

It’s a timeless travel adventure. Owen, 75, has taken 10 trips across the rails to different states in his very own private car. In his youth, taking a train was a popular way to travel. The rooms were fancier and bigger back then, but it allowed time for the family to bond and enjoy the countryside.  

“Riding a train was a real treat,” Owen recalls. 

Owen and his grandfather would hitch a ride on the Burlington Zephyr, a stainless steel speed demon. The diesel-powered and electrically controlled locomotive blew Owen’s mind. He thought it would be cool to own his own railcar. The thought never really left him, even after air travel boomed in popularity. 

In 2011, Owen turned his boyhood dreams into reality. Owen contacted Warren Lucas, who worked at Union Pacific at the time, to purchase the executive car of a former railroad tycoon president, who affectionately named it Suitsme. A private rail car can cost anywhere from $300,000 to $800,000. That’s why Terry Peterson, president of Omaha Track, jumped on board to become co-owner of the former Bangor and Aroostook railcar. 

But the cost of owning a railcar doesn’t stop with the initial price. Many of these antiques require refurbishment and restorations. Peterson laughs, saying he has sunk anywhere between $100,000 to half-a-million into this car. Owen says his particular railcar needed updating “on and under the frame.” Peterson elaborated that this meant new wheels, axles, suspension, brakes, and more. The railcar also needed a new HVAC system, water and holding tanks, a new electrical system, and plumbing fixes. An outside company from New Jersey that repairs passenger cars did most of the work.

To those who can afford it, however, the luxury of traveling in a private railcar is worth any cost.

“It’s like owning a private jet or like being in a five-star hotel,” Peterson says. “The goal is for the food to be special, the service, everything.”

The first trip aboard Suitsme took Owen and friends down to Chattanooga, Tennessee, followed by others to Washington, D.C.; Seattle; and wine country in California. Members of the AAPRCO will sometimes attach their cars to the same engine for trips, which increases the chances for comradery or a party on wheels. 

“It’s a fabulous way of seeing America. It spoils you. It is the very essence of enjoying the journey,” says Julie King, executive director of AAPRCO. 

AAPRCO hosts excursions that include tours, museums, and sights, sometimes of historical railroad spots. The membership fee of $90 a year includes a subscription to their magazine and an invitation to an annual convention.

Additionally, there are costs for fuel and parking. Amtrak rates for trips have risen to $3.26 a mile to pull the private railcar plus $155 or more for overnight parking.  That doesn’t take into account the cost of the crew, which includes a cook, steward, and mechanic. 

Yet, the cost doesn’t stop Owen’s love for his hobby. He purchased a second railcar with co-owner Mike Margrave, a 1953 golden beauty called Promontory Point. It is named for the site of the completion of the first Transcontinental Railroad, when the Union Pacific and Central Pacific rails were reportedly joined by a golden spike in 1869. 

“They [my family] all thought I was crazy, and I probably am,” Owen says with a laugh. “I always wanted to have one, and now I have two.” 

The added benefit of two cars is a more spacious voyage, with more bedrooms and bathrooms. Since then, Owen’s son and daughter, along with his seven grandchildren, have made use of them. Some will say railcar travel is a disease, an obsession, that hooks owners from every walk of life once he/she takes the first step back in time. Sure, some things have changed. Cigars are no longer allowed, but Owen still enjoys waving to people as the train disembarks for unknown adventures. 

Visit aaprco.com for more information.

This article was printed in the August/September 2018 edition of B2B.

From left: Ron Shaw, Bob Owen, and Dave Henegar with Bob’s Pullman car in 2013.


September 5, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This state capital on the Pearl River was named after a president of the United States. What is the city and state? 

Most people could not answer this questions without going through an internet search. But Brendan Pennington, 15, wouldn’t hesitate to answer. 

“It’s as if he’s faster than Google,” insists Kristen Job, a secondary Excellence in Youth coordinator at Westside’s middle and high schools. 

Pennington’s brain is filled with facts about countless coastlines, odd flags, and endless tough terrains. Maps, globes, and atlases are a breeze for him to analyze. At 3 years old, Pennington pointed at cellphone towers and told his mom they looked like the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

“He has a real world perspective,” his father, Paul, says.

That is one reason why, when Brendan competed in the 2014 Nebraska’s National Geographic State Bee, he won.

Then, he won the next year. And two years after that.

Job believes it’s unlikely someone else will be able to capture a three-peat. 

Students in schools all around the state are required to take a geography test from fourth to eighth grades, then the top-scorers compete in their own geography bees. Each school champion then takes an online test to be eligible to compete in the Top 100 at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Competing in this event is optional, although Pennington believes the opportunity is worth it, as it helps the knowledge “stick” and creates opportunities for critical thinking.

Pennington prepared by poring over samples and researching facts before the competition.   

“When my parents asked me questions, I was like ‘ugh, it’s like an assignment,’” Pennington says. “But I liked looking at the atlas because it was fun.” 

He scored top honors in 2014, 2015, and 2017—but he almost lost the last time. The contest went to a tie-breaker. Pennington won by correctly naming the Tigris as the river that runs through Baghdad.

With prizes of $100 in his pocket and new atlases in his hands, Pennington headed to Washington, D.C., three times for the televised National Geographic Bee Championship.

Unfortunately, Nebraskans never saw this local boy on television. Last year, they almost did. Pennington got one question away from making it to the Top 10, the portion that is televised. He can’t recall the question that eliminated his chance on the small screen, but he doesn’t let it bother him. 

“I just thought…it would be great if I won, but if I lost, it wouldn’t change my life,” Pennington says. 

But the experience has done just that. Each time Pennington went to Washington, D.C., he met other students from different states and countries. Pennington still treasures these connections.

The state champion’s prize includes an all-expenses-paid trip for the student (and one adult, either a parent or a teacher, depending on the year), including tours of the capitol, meals, airfare, and hotel costs. Pennington had the opportunity to cruise the Potomac and enrich himself with history. He met Jill Biden, the wife of then-Vice President Joe Biden, during an ice cream social at her house. She complimented his red Husker polo shirt.

For now, Pennington has to set aside his dreams of winning a national championship, since it isn’t open to high school students. Instead, he joined Westside’s Quiz Bowl and French Club. He also started cooking international foods and playing tennis.

Oh, and if you still don’t know the state capital on the Pearl River, it is
Jackson, Mississippi.

Secrets of a Three-Peat Geography Champion 

“If you are doing something you don’t enjoy, it will feel more like homework and you won’t get much out of it,” Pennington says. “But if you are passionate, you will learn a lot more from it.”

  • Study It. Pennington watched videos, read books, and studied maps for half an hour or so each day. Study patterns should reflect how a student learns best. One student  might need to look at an atlas, while flashcards might work better for another. “Study hard, but study right,” Pennington advises. 
  • Take a Chance. Pennington lost the state geography bee in the fourth and seventh grades. Pennington moved on and put more effort into the following years. “Even if you don’t win one year, you shouldn’t get discouraged. There will always be another chance,” Pennington believes. 
  • Stay Calm. During the competition, “take a chill pill.” Pennington believes if he looks calm on the outside, he will remain calm on the inside. “Just put yourself in the mindset that you are just getting asked questions. If you don’t win, it’s not the end of the world,” Pennington says. 
  • Do Your Best. Hard work and effort do pay off in the end. “If you don’t understand another country or culture, it will be hard to critically think about what is going on in the world,” Pennington says. “And when you see things on the news, you will be able to understand it and make sense of it…there is a lot more out there than just Omaha.”

This article was printed in the Fall 2018 edition of Family Guide.

A Culinary Master in the Making

July 4, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The metal crank wouldn’t work. Witney Stanley had to think of a solution fast. The pressure heated up the kitchen at the Pinnacle Bank Expo Center in Grand Island. The clock ticked tauntingly.

Thirty minutes remaining. 

The SkillsUSA Culinary Arts Championship was on the line. Each participant had to present judges with an entrée from a fabricated whole chicken, a sauce, a vegetable, and a starch. Judges would be expecting a composed salad as well. Only items in the kitchen’s pantry were allowed to be used to create the dishes, and the dinner needed to be cooked in two hours and 30 minutes. Think Top Chef with high school students. 

But the crank was being…well…cranky. 

Witney, a senior at Omaha Central, wanted to win it all. Her competitive drive wouldn’t allow faulty equipment to squash her chances at a medal. After a frustrating five minutes, she grabbed a rolling pin instead to smooth out the dough for her tortellini. She cut it and filled it with spinach, garlic, tomato, and olive. 

Witney inserted the thin thermometer into her roasted chicken thighs. 

155 degrees. 

She rushed to the pantry for oil. The pastor’s daughter took a long deep breath and said a short prayer. Showtime. Only seven minutes, not nearly enough time to cook it completely in the oven. She finished off the chicken on the stovetop with a pan-fried sear. 

The white wine sauce created a challenge as well. Since Witney was only 18 and not legally old enough to drink, she needed to be creative. The young cook substituted white vinegar, onion, and homemade chicken stock. 

She sliced the (finally) cooked chicken, a technique she mastered in between school and tennis. She added Tuscan vegetables and tourné cut potatoes. 


At the April 2018 competition, Witney came away with a bronze medal and a passion for competing. 

But her love of all things savory and sweet is deeply rooted in family heritage. When she was only 4 years old, as her sisters prepped for monthly church outreach banquets alongside their mother, Witney would stand on a stool washing cabbage or setting tables for guests. 

“My mom is a genius in the kitchen,” Witney explains. “She doesn’t trust anyone in there except her daughters.”

Her mother, Alyssa, enrolled all six of her children into cake-decorating classes at Michael’s. Witney, 10 years old at the time, started baking cakes whenever she could for birthdays or other special occasions. After a recommendation from a neighbor, the girls decided to sell their homemade yellow and devil’s food cupcakes with buttercream frosting at the Gifford Park Neighborhood Market. 

“I was hesitant at first,” Witney recalls. “Then I thought, what’s the worst that could happen? I could end up with a tray of cupcakes, and I could eat them.”

The money, though, wasn’t to buy more supplies, candy, or even toys. Instead, the sisters saved it for someone special. It took an entire year, and the older girls had to get side jobs, but it all went to purchase a bedroom set their mother had her eye on for a while. 

“From that point on, they were known for those cupcakes,” Alyssa says. “All just to surprise me with a Mother’s Day gift.” 

It turned into a business, Stanley Southern Sweeties. Each sister plays a role—whether creating roses, borders, or letters. 

Their mother saw something special in Witney and pushed her to cook for the family. She started experimenting even if it meant getting dinner to the table later than usual. 

In order to play tennis, Witney made the move from home-school to Central High School. Introverted and painfully shy, the teenager couldn’t fathom it all. So her sister Justine, who was taking online classes at Metropolitan Community College, went to every single class to watch out for Witney that first year. After taking the No. 1 spot in tennis, Witney soon made friends and discovered culinary classes. Entering her senior year, she started taking classes at the Omaha Public Schools Career Center for college credit. She continued practicing in the kitchen at every opportunity, soaking up knowledge like a sponge cake.

“She’s an example of what we should be seeing in every student,” says chef Perthedia Berry, a culinary instructor at Metro. 

Berry, sometimes referred to as the “female Gordon Ramsay,” can intimidate students. Witney prefers the tough love as it reminds her of her own upbringing. 

“I love the intensity. She [Berry] wants her students to do well. She’s preparing me for the future. If you can get through her, you can get through anything,” Witney says. 

The main issue for the aspiring cook is speaking up. Berry yells at her to stop worrying about offending people. Chefs should be concerned with getting dinner to hungry guests; save the politeness for later. 

With each class, Witney gained confidence. She earned the Best Beef Award at her first invitational (the Metropolitan Community College Institute for Culinary Arts High School Invitational in February 2017). In another competition, two teammates dropped out, but Witney took it upon herself to take all the responsibility. 

“Witney pushes forward, and she’ll be someone you know in this community,” Berry says. 

Her mother, originally from New Orleans, was a mentor for last year’s Metro invitational. So Witney simmered a New Orleans gumbo on the stove and, along with Omaha North’s Ajana Jones, took home the silver medal. 

Witney plans to open a restaurant or a bakery someday, maybe with her sisters. After she takes the accelerated Culinary Arts program at Metro, she plans to enroll at Creighton University for a business degree. The pitfalls are well-known, but that doesn’t stop her. 

“She’s fearless,” her mother says. 

For now, Witney is carefully measuring each step, weighing the consequences, and stirring in a pinch of prayer that her dream will become a reality.

Visit ccenter.ops.org for more information about culinary classes at the OPS Career Center and mccneb.edu for details on Metropolitan Community College’s Institute for the Culinary Arts.

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.