Tag Archives: Princeton

Tharein Potuhera

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Jacopever. The exotic fish with bulging eyes and reddish color sank Tharein Potuhera’s hopes at the 2016 Scripps National Spelling Bee. But the 14-year-old Potuhera did not let the obscure misspelling dissuade his academic and literary ambitions.

“When I was at the bee, I really wanted to make Omaha and Nebraska proud. I still do, actually,” he says.

The local prodigy advanced from the St. Wenceslaus School spelling bee, to the Archdiocese bee, to his second appearance at regionals, then onward to the national contest in National Harbor, Maryland. He joined 285 elite spellers, culled from the countless nationwide contests last spring.

Potuhera was among the 45 finalists who made it to the finals of the National Spelling Bee, broadcast live on ESPN. Upon correctly spelling “propinquity,” the Omaha teen made national headlines with his dab, (a bow with one arm bent, one arm outstretched) imitating NFL quarterback Cam Newton’s popular touchdown celebration.

After missing Jacopever—the slippery lettered fish of Dutch/Afrikaans origin—Potuhera and his family made a circuitous journey back home to Omaha.

Tharein-Potuhera1“On the way back, we went to Princeton, Yale, Cornell, and also did a tour at Harvard,” says his father, Asthika Potuhera. “After the Harvard tour was done, the director of admissions came and sat down with Tharein away from everyone else and had a chat for about an hour and a half. We were in awe.”

The Harvard administrator was impressed by the young Potuhera’s resume. After all, the Omaha teen published his first book at the age of 12.

His book, Tome Riders: Mr. Custo’s Book, is a historical novel with heavy doses of time travel. Potuhera says he wants to challenge kids to learn history, and improve their vocabularies, while encouraging reading as a leisure pastime.

The family’s homeward trip provided an opportunity for sightseeing at important American history sites that Potuhera mentioned in Tome Riders (but had never himself visited).

With attention freed from spelling bee preparation, Potuhera dove headlong into writing his next book.

“It’s going pretty well; it’s almost done,” Potuhera says. “Both books have the same message to readers, but the second is more concerned with teachers than kids. It’s hard to say if the second book is a prequel or the sequel (because of all the time travel). It’s the teacher as a kid, so technically it’s a prequel.”

The trip home from the National Spelling Bee also featured a stop in Connecticut. Asthika and his wife, Durga, migrated to the U.S. from Sri Lanka in 1998 to study at Eastern Connecticut State University. They came to Omaha seeking a better life. Tharein and his younger brother have always lived here.

Potuhera enjoys the camaraderie of new friends gained from spelling bees. He also maintains social media correspondence with fellow spelling phenoms selected by Kindle for a promotional advertisement last spring.

His experience befriending other top students nationwide has inspired him to foster academic camaraderie among Omaha’s gifted students. In fact, he began working on such a project to obtain his Eagle Scout badge.

“I want to make a club for people who are gifted, and then help them get even better, to help them realize what they want to do, whether it’s a spelling bee, geography bee, or something else,” he says. FamilyGuide

Charles Gifford and Michele van Deventer

October 20, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The story of the Gifford family legacy in Omaha has added a new chapter. The return of Charles Gifford to the city of his birth after nearly a lifetime spent in the Northeast ensures a continuation of the narrative that dates back to the 1880s.

How and why the Boston University graduate and Harvard-trained architect picked up the thread to his lineage reveals a deep familial respect. Omaha, in turn, is reaping the benefits of what Gifford and his wife, urban designer and landscape architect Michele van Deventer, bring to the table: over three decades working at top architectural firms in New York City and designing on both national and world stages. Both have a keen sense of what makes a city thrive. They feel they have something to offer Omaha.

“My feeling was this is my only shot at Plan B. I’ve got to do it now.” – Charles Gifford

“My [ancestors are] all buried out at Forest Lawn…a place where you see all these great Omaha names that have become meaningless over time,” says Gifford, whose family donated land that became Gifford Park in Omaha, Gifford Farm, and Fontenelle Forest in Bellevue. “My feeling was this is my only shot at Plan B. I’ve got to do it now.”

Mission accomplished for Plan B. Two years ago this fall, Gifford and van Deventer combined their considerable talents and business acumen and opened the Bath and Tile Corporation in Omaha’s historic Flatiron building—a venture prohibitively expensive in New York. The smart, chic, and brightly lit storefront boutique brings a touch of SoHo to 17th and Howard streets—until now, a no man’s land when it comes to retail.

“Many people will come to the [Flatiron] Café for dinner and they’ll say, ‘What’s that?’ And they’ll call us the next day,” says Gifford.

Word traveled fast, from the contemporary condos at Midtown Crossing to the traditional Dundee homes—and for good reason. With its subheading “architecture for the bath,” B + T offers one-of-a-kind, top-of-the-line fixtures you won’t find in boxy warehouse stores: the Neorest 600 paperless toilet for over $6,000; dual flush, cyclonic flush, skirted, tall, wall hung, and traditional toilets, much more moderately priced; sinks of all shapes, depths, and sizes; bathtubs made of real cast iron with feet; plain tiles, decorative tiles, or tiles with a slightly raised design. Want beige? Customers can choose from what seems like 50 shades of the same color.

“It’s a huge amount of work that Charlie does. He fetches and delivers and follows up and finds things, all unpaid. He’s remarkable. It’s part of the service of making the project come out.” – Michele van Deventer

Though sales are their main focus, Gifford and van Deventer often slip into the role of architect if a customer runs into spatial or functional problems.

“It’s a huge amount of work that Charlie does,” says van Deventer, a native of South Africa with a graduate degree from Princeton. “He fetches and delivers and follows up and finds things, all unpaid. He’s remarkable. It’s part of the service of making the project come out.”

As a couple in life and in business, Gifford and van Deventer fit. “Whatever it was that went into the making of us, we got dollops of the same thing,” he said, returning the admiration.

Though he comes from a long line of prominent ophthalmologists, Gifford seems to have received the biggest dollop from his mother, Emmy.

“My mother was a deft drawer and went to art school in New York. She wanted to stay there. But she lived in a culture that wouldn’t have her as an artist,” explains Gifford.

Emmy Gifford became a wife and mother but fed her creative gene by establishing Omaha’s first children’s theater in 1948, now known as The Rose Theater. In many ways, Gifford has fulfilled his mother’s dream—on his own terms. Now, he’d like nothing better than to see young adults fulfill their dreams right here in his hometown.