Tag Archives: University of Nebraska at Omaha

Omaha to Oman

September 26, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

I’ve been enamored of traveling for a long time, I just didn’t start until I was fairly old,” says University of Nebraska at Omaha journalism professor Chris Allen.

He first travelled overseas to Russia for a reporting job in his 30s, but his job at UNO has enabled him to further his passion. The Middle East, where he has spent much time teaching and developing academic relationships, is a particularly favorite region. Allen travelled to Afghanistan in 2010, and has returned several times. He has been working with universities there to help expand their journalism programs.

“Chris was the leading force behind our work with the Afghan professors,” says UNO School of Communication Director Hugh Reilly. “He oversaw the curriculum and made sure all the details were covered. At the completion of our program, the University of Kabul and Balkh University will be the first two universities in all of Asia that offer a major in communication studies.” Reilly says that many Asian universities offer degrees in journalism, but these two universities will be the first to offer degrees in communication studies.

While Allen enjoys traveling and working in Afghanistan, he particularly enjoyed a trip to the Middle East during the 2011-2012 school year. He traveled on a Fulbright scholarship to teach a journalism class in a country most people know little about, Oman. Allen has a friend who lives in Oman, and decided to apply for the scholarship there after hearing his friend’s glowing reviews of the country. Once Allen learned that his application was accepted, his friend give him books to read about the country, and described it as open and friendly.

He taught at Sultan Qaboos University for nine and a half months. His wife, Elaine, traveled to the exotic locale with him.

“The great thing about going someplace…for that amount of time is that you have to become part of the society,” Allen says. “You have to do grocery shopping, you have to buy clothes, you have to get your hair cut. You have to do things in the Omani society, which is Arabic and Muslim. You have to learn how to live.”

Although the Omani society was different from American society, Allen says he felt as though he belonged there from the beginning.

While in Oman, Allen taught two graduate courses in journalism and mass communication, as well as an undergraduate course in radio and television. His favorite part of teaching there was the students’ sense of humor, but their drive and ambition did not fall short.

“They were so hungry for knowledge,” Allen says, noting that the women, in particular, were eager to learn. “They had opinions on things, they were always prepared, they spoke up, they were really fun people to have in classes.”

One challenge for Allen was coaching the students to be better writers. As the students he taught were nonnative English speakers, it was difficult for them to write academic papers in English.

“One of the battles I fought was plagiarism,” Allen says. “The funny thing is, it’s very obvious. Their English is not very good, you know. They would be writing these substandard paragraphs and all of a sudden it was absolutely pristine, perfect, academic English with no quote marks around it. I would warn them that they would have to change those passages. And in fact, one student did flunk my class because he just did not change the passages. I was heartbroken about that.”

Despite failing one student, he enjoyed nearly every experience in Oman.

“I learned to eat with my hands,” Allen says. “The guys in the room asked me if I wanted a spoon to eat with, and I had only been there about a week or so. I smiled and said ‘no, I will eat with my fingers, but you can’t laugh at me.’ And of course I did spill some, but I was watching how they ate and I learned how to do it.”

Allen now uses his own experiences through traveling in the classroom with his students in Omaha.

“The content that I can bring back into the classroom has been dramatic,” Allen says. “The way that things are done differently in some countries—censorship, there are examples of innovations, there are examples of good media and bad media…There is more than one way to do things, and not all of the other ways to do them are bad.”

His adventure to Oman quickly became a passion. Allen has now taken two groups of students to see the country. He believes that traveling in one’s youth can instill a lifetime love of exploring the world.

“All the students I take say ‘that changed my life,’” Allen says.

Allen explains that the press can be inaccurate about Muslim and Arab cultures, as they often cover the violent aspect of these groups. He describes Oman as a “wonderfully peaceful, tolerant, open country,” with warm and accepting people.

“We were walking back to the car [one day] and this young man steps out from his compound and he had three children with him,” Allen says. ‘He looked at us and he said ‘Hello, where are you from?’ I said ‘We’re from America,’ and he said ‘Oh America, please come in for some coffee.’ And when you go in for coffee (and we did) you get coffee, and water, and dates, and oranges, and apples, and grapes, and nuts, and juices, and I mean it’s just on and on and on. People were so kind. It changes your life, it changes your whole outlook on all of those things.”

In fact, Allen loves Oman so much, he says if he could live anywhere in the world it would be there. He describes the country as being beautiful and modern, with internet, cellphones, highways, and grocery stores.

Allen plans to travel to Pakistan in November. He also takes a group of students to London each year, and hopes to spend time in Australia at some point. The wish list of travels continues.

“I dread the day when I can’t travel,” Allen says. “I just dread that day, when my body gives up on me, or when my mind gives up on me.”

In the meantime, Allen plans to continue taking an interest and fascination in seeing new things and experiencing new places.

“I haven’t done nearly enough,” Allen says. “I wish I had started sooner. It’s just so important to me to learn other cultures, to hear other languages, to eat other food.”

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

Professor Chris Allen of UNO

Innovating in Science

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Emma Carlson sips her blackberry lemonade and tucks a stray strawberry blonde strand behind her ear. A smattering of freckles dust her nose, making her appear more like a freshman in high school than a student heading to college.  

The teenager cocks her head to the side, thoughtfully weighing each question before answering it. Behind that quiet demeanor, a loud intellectual curiosity has driven Carlson to explore an innovative and ambitious major at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Her chosen field of study, bioinformatics, combines her love of biology and computers. Decades ago, these two wouldn’t even be considered as an interdisciplinary major. Now that technology has advanced, so have the opportunities for college students like Carlson.

Bioinformatics analyzes, interprets, and collects data, using algorithms to enhance biological research. Simply put, data science can help solve problems in biology such as diving into deeper issues like cancer or genetics. For example, these technological tools could identify a disease and treat it.

If it sounds complicated, bioinformatics is that. When Carlson tells people her major, most have never heard of it. It doesn’t deter Carlson, who hopes to someday make the world better through her career choice.

“I want to be able to see how it directly helps people, that human aspect,” she explains.

Carlson’s interest in all things computer-related emerged in middle school when she stepped into Kristeen Shabram’s business and technology class at Westside Middle School. Along with her parents, Carlson credits her teacher’s mentorship into pushing her each step of the way—even throughout high school. Shabram noticed her quiet student’s talent in eighth grade during a lesson on solving a problem in society. Carlson picked human trafficking, developing an informational platform app to help victims.

The app mentioned the dangers of human trafficking and resources people could contact, which would help victims of human trafficking. Although this app never came to production, it showed Shabram Carlson’s potential in STEM.

“It blew me away as a teacher. From then on, I knew she was going to do great things,” Shabram says. “She is one of those silent, but deadly, people, so when she talks and gives her ideas they are impactful.”

Shabram, the 2016 AIM Tech Educator of the Year, encouraged her to attend the UNO College of Information Science and Technology CodeCrush Immersion Experience. It is an exclusively all-female series, iSTEM dive into a hands-on experience in the Information Technology world such as robotics, cybersecurity, and bioinformatics. Carlson believed it felt “more secure if it’s girls only” when navigating male-dominated waters.

“A lot of people are trying to figure out how to include girls in tech,” she says.

Carlson stayed on campus with other eighth- and ninth-grade students for three days, learning about such topics as genomics. She came out motivated to pursue more technology-related courses at Westside High School. Although many times the only female in the class, Carlson was never intimidated to try AP computer science, welding, and programming. Along the way, she picked up some computer language skills in JAVA, HTML, and Python. Carlson also challenged herself further by taking AP biology.

Carlson teamed up for the annual UNO IT Innovation Cup. Her team came in third her junior year, winning a cash prize, for their creative solution. Carlson continued, individually winning the NCWIT Aspirations in Computing and the AIM’s K-12 Tech Student awards in 2017. On top of that, she furthered her goals by doing an internship with the UNO bioinformatics lab her sophomore year and had three stints applying her technological skills at Gallop’s GET HIP.

Shabram watched Carlson grow into an “inspiring and powerful” young lady who came back to Westside Middle School to mentor future technology students.

“You can see they are like, ‘if Emma did it, I can do it, too. I can make a difference and do these competitions, too.’ Emma has paved the way for them,” Shabram adds.

Carlson, like others, is preparing for college by purchasing dorm room supplies. But unlike some, Carlson is a Scott Scholar for the College of Information and Technology. It means having a free ride, living with other scholars, and taking leadership classes.

She has some advice for other girls interested in computers.

“Find your interest first, then find out how to use technology with it. Sometimes it gets missed how broad it is,” Carlson says.

Visit unomaha.edu for more information.

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

Emma Carlson

Emma Carlson at PKI

Calling Games, Calling to Kids

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

You matter.

Permanent words in permanent ink.

Thousands of miles, and hundreds of microphones, and those three syllables have yet to fade for Kyler Erickson, the 26-year-old UNO graduate who has taken those indelible words and tattooed them on more than just his body.

He wears them on his shirt when he’s speaking in Gretna, Nebraska, or clambering on a bus during a 36-state tour. He lives them when he’s sitting in a booth calling basketball games for ESPN.

“I don’t think I was there by accident that day,” he said, while on his way back from his latest speaking gig in San Diego, California. “I think that we change the world through telling our stories.”

He’s talking about his own personal trauma; a bleak and terrifying fork that was suddenly jammed into his road, when all he was trying to do was ice down a sore ankle from the previous night’s basketball game at Millard South.

He was in the nurse’s office in January 2011 when he heard the sounds of a gun going off, one room away. One administrator was dead, one severely wounded. Shot by a student the now-bleeding administrators had recently disciplined.

On that day, he witnessed things that have hummed with a kind of dark reverberation in his mind since.

The star athlete suddenly found himself struggling. His grades dropped. His eyes weren’t locked onto the 90 feet of hardwood that had always felt like a second home.

“For about a year, I denied that I needed help,” Erickson said. “I was worried about the stigma.”

He was hospitalized twice, suffering from kidney stones, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The PTSD wrecked me the most,” he said. “I was replaying the shooting in my head, every single night. I knew I needed help. I took the summer completely off from school and from basketball to get treatment.”

Erickson began undergoing Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing treatment, a psychotherapy designed to reprogram past traumas with a series of lights, movement, and repetition.

It was rigorous. Tough. But it worked.

Somewhere along the way, his eyes locked onto the blinking lights, Erickson began to see his future.

“It was honestly the hardest four months of my life,” he said. “After the therapy, do I still think about the shooting? Yes. But I’m not crippled by it anymore. I don’t curl up into a ball. I don’t hide in the corner.”

As the sounds of his own horror began to fade, he filled the silence with another kind of noise: his own voice.

Vulnerable. Not without a tremble, on occasion, but there nonetheless. Speaking to friends and family. Speaking to teammates at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He became a
professional speaker.

As his message and confidence grew so, too, did the opportunities.

He began connecting with more and more people, including people at news stations and media companies, all of them relating in some capacity with his message of hope and fearless optimism until once again he found himself at a fork in the road.

ESPN reached out. They needed someone to fill in during a UNO home game.

“I had never done broadcasting before. I didn’t know the rules. I mainly didn’t want to say something dumb, to be honest,” he laughed.

Never one to let a diem go un-carpe’d, he leapt at the opportunity, and has been a contributor to the network ever since.

“Life is very hard and often times we need help to get through it,” Erickson said. “But, we’ve got one life. One chance to do this. If you get the help you need, it frees you up to go and chase your dreams.”

Two words.

One life.

Above all else, Kyler Erickson wants people to know: you matter.

Visit kylererickson.com for more information.

This article was printed in the October 2019 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Kyler-Erickson vertical

Art of the Book

June 21, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In addition to being an acclaimed and accomplished artist in the Omaha art scene, Bonnie O’Connell has been a professor of book arts at the University of Nebraska at Omaha for over 30 years.

Her “passionate” love affair with books began in her childhood, when she discovered how much she loved to read. “As a young girl, I was often happiest when I was reading,” O’Connell recalls. “One of my favorite places to go was the library.”

Bonnie O’Connell says she has always been drawn to the intricacies of language and the way her imagination could be engaged by a great writer.

“Also, I loved the physicality of books…the way they had their own beauty and tradition,” she says. “I became fascinated by letter forms and calligraphy and the way books were designed and presented.”

It was in college in the late ’60s that her appreciation for books eventually led her to consider the possibility of making them. So she switched her major from journalism to art, with a focus on design.

Today, this field of study is known collectively as “book arts,” and includes letterpress printing, typography, book design, bookbinding, and papermaking. At the time, her classes included lettering—which would be called calligraphy today—and letterpress printing.

“Once I started taking those classes, I was pretty much hooked,” O’Connell recalls. “I had decided this was what I wanted to do. I just wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to do it.” 

After graduating in 1969 and paying off student loans (which she says you could actually do in those days), Bonnie O’Connell moved to Chicago and went into advertising, where she did prep work for commercial printing. “Back then you didn’t design everything on the computer, so I worked with drafting tables and T-squares. I learned a lot,” she says, “but I was not very happy doing it.” 

typography sample charts

In 1971, at 25, O’Connell got married and the couple moved  to Illinois. It was there that O’Connell met a University of Illinois professor who published poetry. “He offered me an apprenticeship with him,” she says. “Since I didn’t have a job and was newly relocated where I didn’t know anyone, it was a real stroke of good fortune.”

When her husband was accepted into the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the couple moved to Iowa City in 1972. “We bought a big farmhouse, which had plenty of room for a studio,” she says. “So I bought a press (it was relatively cheap, as letterpress printing was becoming obsolete) and some paper and started my own printing business.” 

Over the next 12 years, Bonnie O’Connell published 23 collections of contemporary American poetry (about 150-200 copies per collection), doing all the typesetting and printing herself. “I couldn’t afford to pay employees,” she says.

“This type of printing is known as small press printing,” she explains. “It was small compared to commercial literary productions but big for press done by hand.” She also says that small press was the major way for poetry to get published in those days, unlike today when writers have multiple online publishing choices.

“Printing a writer’s poetry was a mutually beneficial arrangement,” O’Connell says. “The poet’s work would get published and circulated, and I was able to receive grants from organizations that supported the publication of contemporary poets.”

Eventually, O’Connell began tackling bigger print jobs, but when she started teaching at UNO in 1985, she phased back. “I couldn’t keep up that type of production, and I was also becoming more interested in other aspects of books, such as making paper,” she says. “I love the tactile qualities of paper, even though it’s incredibly difficult to make uniform sheets refined enough for small
press printing.” 

O’Connell, who retired last May from her long and illustrious teaching career, says she is looking forward to having more time to devote to her own works of art. Her eclectic creations—which fill her office from floor to ceiling in an overwhelming display—include assemblages, collages, relief prints, and other unique art forms.

“I’m always searching for evocative materials to use in my work,” she says. “I’ve tapped the natural world as well as flea markets for all sorts of printed journals, postcards, talismanic objects, framing devices, and other unique and interesting items.” Recently, O’Connell’s work has become more “activist” in theme, stemming from her desire to make a statement. She also produces art for what’s known as portfolio exchanges, where printmakers collectively produce a grouping of work that becomes the basis for an exhibition.

For now, O’Connell is facing the daunting challenge of moving her many years of accumulated materials, prints, 2,000-plus books, supplies, etc. into a home studio that is being renovated to hold it all. She says the next year will be one of transition after teaching for so long, but she will continue to create and exhibit the art that has been so much a part of her life.

“I happen to be in that small group in the art world who finds their passion for artistic expression through making a book, versus perhaps making a painting or a sculpture,” she says. “That’s my passion…that’s my art.”

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

Hip Czech Not Too Cool for School

February 14, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UNO came calling during the season.

Lukas Buchta in UNO hockey gear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit omavs.com for more information.

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

Buchta in hockey gear, no helmet

Elmwood Park Paved for a Parking Lot

February 13, 2019 by
Photography by provided

Elmwood Park is an oasis of green in the heart of Omaha. It is a place for pick-up baseball and ultimate frisbee, picnics, barbecues, and 18 holes of golf. There’s a grotto and historic pavilion available to rent near a public swimming pool, playground, and more. The park is a favorite for family reunions, was the longtime home of a Swedish folk festival, and has hosted annual productions of Shakespeare on the Green since 1987.

Elmwood Park was named the “Best City Park” in Omaha by public voting in the 2019 Best of Omaha contest. Looking back in history, the park could have easily met a different fate—paved for a parking lot—as in the famous 1970s environmental anthem by Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi.”

The “delightful shady retreat” was officially christened Elmwood in June 1890 as the name for the “new park on West Leavenworth,” reported the Omaha Daily Bee on June 25, 1890. According to the book Omaha and Omaha Men by John T. Bell, the park began with 55 acres of donated land. Bell, Henry M. Hurlbut, and Henry B. Wiley gave 20 acres, while Lyman Richardson, Leopold Doll, and William Snyder combined in offering “35 acres as I remember it,” Bell wrote.

Within three years of opening, Elmwood grew to 215 acres. It was Omaha’s largest park, planned as “the principal park of the system.” The Elmwood Park pavilion was built in 1909 and is now 110 years old. In 1895, the Nebraska State Fair grounds opened under the auspices of the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben just south of the park. The illustrious and backward (in spelling) Nebraskans only added to Elmwood’s prominence.

The tremendous growth of automobile traffic flowing across the country during the 1920s brought about a “tourist camp” located at Sunset Point in Elmwood Park. The new facilities were designed by the Omaha Automobile Club with plans for “telephones, laundry service, benches, gas, and electric lights and attendants.”

For three years, between 1933 and 1936, Elmwood was home to several rhesus macaques enclosed on “monkey island.” Escaped primates and lackluster maintenance made the short-lived monkey island a source of ridicule for city officials. 

Elmwood got a new neighbor in 1936 after the University of Omaha purchased 20 acres from John Potter Webster to relocate its campus. By 1952, a brief notation in the university’s Tomahawk annual referenced the notorious lack of parking and how cars from campus “overflow into Elmwood Park.” That situation only worsened with the university’s growing enrollment as a parking permit came to be seen as more of a hunting license (rather than a guarantee of a parking spot).

The future of Elmwood Park came into question during the effort to integrate Omaha’s municipal university into the larger Nebraska system in the late 1960s. Nebraska Gov. Frank Morrison suggested Elmwood as a possible place to expand in 1967, but he quickly backpedaled by claiming it was his own idea and had never been brought up by the university or the University Merger Committee. In November 1967, the Friends of the Parks committee agreed to support the merger as committee co-chairman Rachel Gallagher claimed the park’s preservation for public use was “assured” by a 1951 ruling of the Nebraska Supreme Court. 

The University of Omaha would be no more, having become the University of Nebraska-Omaha—but the parking problem and prospect of campus expansion remained. Omaha City Councilman Lynn Carey proposed in May 1969 that the city should buy Ak-Sar-Ben “for park use as part of a chain reaction to replace Elmwood.” Another effort to deal with the university’s growth was presented in September 1969 by Omaha City Planning Director Alden Aust. This plan was formulated by three architectural students who had interned at the planning department and called for the “construction of four, four-level parking buildings in the Elmwood Park ravine” with space for 1,120 vehicles at a cost estimated at $2.24 million. There were approximately 12,000-12,500 students that year, and the first day of classes found police issuing “more than 250 tickets for illegal parking” in just three hours, mostly for parking in the grass at Elmwood Park. A parking pass cost $12 a semester but “many students complained” they still couldn’t find a place to park on campus.

The simmering parking controversy corresponded with protests against the Vietnam War. On Oct. 15, 1969, UNO students and Omaha citizens gathered at Elmwood Park and marched north to Memorial Park for the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam (a nationwide event involving protests at college campuses).  The rally at Elmwood was originally canceled due to weather, but the Omaha-World Herald estimated the turnout at Memorial to be 300-400.

Then came the protests after Omaha instituted a curfew in Memorial Park just across Dodge Street. Drug use and complaints by neighbors led to the curfew, protests, and a few arrests in August 1970. The next year, in July 1971, those protests grew violent and spread onto the university campus and into Elmwood Park. That summer there was taunting, truncheons, and tear gas after fireworks were thrown onto Dodge Street. Two policemen and a photographer were injured while one police car was pushed down the ravine adjacent to campus. More than 100 were arrested or treated at hospitals due to confrontations between Tuesday, July 6, and Friday, July 9. Free rock concerts were organized in Elmwood as an attempt to calm youths angry about the Memorial curfew.

In February 1971, park advocate Rachel Gallagher filed suit against the city and the Nebraska Board of Regents over their plans for parking at Elmwood Park. That lawsuit reached all the way to the Nebraska Supreme Court, which ruled in February 1973 that the joint-use agreement between the university and the city failed to meet the standards to change the park’s specific use. Instead of finding parking, university students that fall would find in Elmwood a six-hour rock concert featuring Luigi Waites, Eclipse, and Froggy Beaver. Instead of Elmwood Park, the university would turn to the stately neighborhood west of campus to find additional parking. 

Then, in more recent years, the university’s south campus developed parking, student housing, and buildings over the site of Ak-Sar-Ben Race Track and Coliseum on the former state fairgrounds. Even into the 21st century, university-linked parking problems linger in Elmwood Park. In November 2017, the city announced it would make efforts to enforce parking regulations at Elmwood, mostly aimed at university students.

Visit bestofomaha.com for the full list of winners in the 2019 Best of Omaha contest, including “Best City Park.”

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

Elmwood Park historic scene of protest

In May, 1969, children protested plans to pave Elmwood Park. The photo by Robert Paskach belongs to the Omaha World-Herald’s Paskach Collection at the Durham Museum Photo Archive.

Brenton Gomez

December 19, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Derek Joy

Local rapper Brenton Gomez—aka Conny Franko, Conchance, The Wooz, Daddy Woozbuckz, Conny Chrondracula, Chronny, or Econnyome depending on time, place, and project—is a wiry and reflective man of letters with deep roots in South O.

Gomez needs many names to represent the many aspects of his artistic identity. A 31-year-old with world-weary eyes, he carries himself with the quiet energy of stillness before the storm, like a flyweight boxer prior to a fight. Gomez’s best punches are thrown conversationally, philosophically, and intellectually. He can lay down a freestyle critique of commodified American culture and the individual’s role in it that would make C. Wright Mills glad he didn’t go into insurance.

His first real job came at age 10, shining shoes after prom for $5.25 an hour (off-the-books in a tuxedo shop). This character-building experience informed his worldview, education, and artistic messages by awakening his sense of working-class consciousness.

The Millard West and Metropolitan Community College alumnus graduated with honors from UNO with a bachelor’s degree in international studies and a focus on Latin America and business. While business now seems a less-than-perfect fit given his ideology, his side excursions into the social sciences and philosophy seem to have paid off in wise dividends. Art, after all, requires experience, knowledge, culture, and community to thrive.

“If you don’t have something to say, you’re just pissing in the wind,” says Gomez about what makes art meaningful. “If you don’t have a historical context for how things developed and how things were colonized or industrialized then you really don’t have a f***ing clue about what’s going on now.”

A skilled rapper whose heart lies with the DIY community, Gomez thinks of himself principally as a writer with multiple projects going at any one time: zines, chapbooks, poetry, and essays as well as rap. Music has provided an outlet for his American experience since 2000. In 2007, he played the Slowdown.

“The first rap artist to play there was Redman, and then it was me. It just shows that I’ve been kicking rocks around in this city for a long time,” he says of his ascension in the Omaha music scene. “Sometimes people identify with what you’re doing—and sometimes you get stepped on—but I do art because I need to be doing it, not to get some kind of social capital from it, you know what I’m saying? The portfolio of your lifetime is your work.”

Gomez is glad to play any stage, as M34N STR33T (his group with Adam Robert Haug, aka Haunted Gauntlet) or rapping solo alongside local producers Keith “DJ Kethro” Rodger or Juan Manuel Chaparro, aka “DJ Dojorok.” Getting paid is its own reward, of course, but it is not the only reward, especially for a grounded artist like Gomez and his passel of identities.For the sake of his art, he returns to the DIY community to recharge on the culture that motivates his work. Making art and speaking for his community as best he can are personal as well as professional priorities.

“I’m glad to see people be successful, but I also like to see communities respected,” says Gomez of the changing face of neighborhoods like Benson and Blackstone. “It’s always nice to get a check. Money is a variable. I need to get it because I’m in a capitalistic society, so I might as well. But at the same time, there are other things that are important, too.”

For the most part, Gomez says he would rather play the DIY circuit. It is by and for the community (and the kids who consume the music), which in turn fosters the local music scene.

“You do it for the culture rather than for looks and likes and analytics. A lot of times, I just want to make noise about my community and about myself and do it with integrity to art rather than, you know, with some hype,” Gomez says. “I’d rather have something that makes people just listen to it and gain something from it. Sometimes that’s movement, sometimes that’s knowledge and perspective. It’s where I’m seeing my music career going.”

Gomez’s albums with M34N STR33T are available on digital platforms and sold locally at Homer’s and Almost Music. The group’s third and latest album, Don Quixote’s Lance, was released in April 2018.

Visit m34nstr33t.com and soundcloud.com/connyfranko for more information.

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

Play Ball!

September 18, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Mancuso: a name revered in the Omaha area for their family’s event planning business, Mid-America Expositions. 

From hosting grand events in Omaha’s late Civic Auditorium to formulating events like “Taste of Omaha,” the Mancusos’ impact has been felt in the Omaha area for more than 50 years. It is their passion for sports, however, that has held the family together. 

Youngest son Mike says his father, Bob Sr., grew up in Omaha with a heavy interest in sports thanks to Mike’s grandfather, Joe, being in charge of the city parks. Mike also says because his father grew up in a time without television and video games, sports were something he could easily focus on.

Bob Sr. took his passions to Kansas State University on a wrestling scholarship and later qualified to wrestle at the 1956 Olympic trials. However, before the trials started, Joe fell sick and passed away; Bob Sr. needed to move back to the area. Bob Sr. took a job coaching wrestling at Bellevue High School (now Bellevue East). He led the team to their first state championship, and within a few years, the University of Nebraska offered him a job coaching wrestling in Lincoln.

“Bob Devaney was just hired as the head football coach in 1962 and Frank Sevigne was the track coach, so he was just really enjoying the new environment and coaching at the time, as were us kids,” Mike says.   

Since their days in Lincoln, the Mancuso family has owned tickets to every season of Nebraska football.

“When my dad started coaching at Nebraska in the ’60s, he got a couple of seats for every football game,” Mike says. “We’ve kept those seats every year since it’s a tradition of ours to attend every game, through the good and the bad.”

Mike says he best remembers Saturdays at Memorial Stadium with his dad.

One October 1994 game in Lincoln has remained apparent in his mind.  

“It was a huge Big 8 matchup with Colorado, and Brook Berringer got the call at quarterback because Bobby Newcombe wasn’t feeling too good,” Mike says.  “We had the tunnel walk and HuskerVision for the first time, and [then] Colorado came out before we [Nebraska] came out onto the field. And because of that, I can just remember the stadium…going absolutely nuts.” 

For most games, the Mancusos have traveled to Memorial Stadium from Omaha. The family’s residence in Lincoln was cut short, in part due to Mike entreating his father to move home.

“1964 is when our family decided to move back to Omaha, since coaching, at the time, wasn’t paid in a substantial amount like it is today,” Mike says with a laugh. “I inspired our dad to start [Mid-America Expositions] and come to Omaha to start managing events.”

Mike and his older brothers, Bob Jr. and Joe, took their Cornhusker pride and athletic passion to the ball diamonds and courts of Omaha. Bob Sr. was also a prominent figure in the Omaha sports community.

“We grew up around Omaha sports, playing in a variety of different leagues,” Mike says. “Like his dad, my dad also coached a lot, mainly because he loved teaching. He also was very involved in the Greater Omaha Sports Committee, originated by my uncle Charlie, and continued by my dad after Charlie’s death.”

Mike says his dad’s involvement in the Greater Omaha Sports Committee created many surreal experiences as a child, where he and his brothers worked as bat, and ball, boys for Major League Baseball and National Basketball Association exhibition games.

“I remember one time I was a ball boy underneath the hoop and Sam Lacey was the big center and ‘Tiny’  Nate Archibald was the little guard,” Mike says, speaking of two Kansas City Kings players. “During the game, Lacey went after a ball and tumbled into the stands, causing everyone to [launch] their pops, creating a mess. I had to get my towel out and clean it up in front of everybody.”  

At the core of the Greater Omaha Sports Committee, and the city, was the College World Series. Bob Sr. and fellow committee members often held a welcome luncheon for all the participating teams, hoping to provide unforgettable experiences in Omaha.

The Mancusos’ contribution and involvement in college baseball’s grand series carried on throughout the tournament as Mike and his brothers helped to enhance the experience in any way possible. 

“We would run the dugouts, trying to clean them up between each game,” Mike says. “We worked the fields, and if we had time, would run up and clean the press box. Up there we took care of the press by giving them something to eat and plenty of water to drink at the games. We’ll just say I made a lot of Zesto runs.”

A newspaper clipping from Wilmer Mizell’s appearance in Omaha

One time his father even gave up their family’s premier seats to former Saint Louis Cardinals pitcher and U.S. congressman Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell.

“Ben Mizell came in for breakfast one morning before the games to speak in front of some of the players who were involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes,” Mike says.  “After the speech, my dad generously told him to take our seats, kicking my brothers and I out.  Luckily, there were spots up top in the GA [general admission] section, and at that age we liked to run around anyway.”

Like Bob Sr., his three boys also played college sports. Mike inherited his father’s passion for wrestling, taking his talents to Iowa State University. Bob Jr. also took the Mancuso name to Ames, though for baseball, while Joe played baseball at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

Although the brothers now longer watch sports with their dad, who passed away in 2015, in many ways, sports act as a microcosm in demonstrating the core aspects of family, which is why the Mancuso brothers’ passion in athletics ceases to fade.

Visit showofficeonline.com for more information.

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

A souvenier given to CWS teams

A Window To The World

April 27, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This cozy residence in Omaha’s historic Dundee neighborhood might seem an unlikely place to find one of the world’s leading experts on Afghan geopolitics.

Yet it is here that Tom Gouttierre (and wife Marylu) have made their home for almost 44 years.

A sign of the homeowners’ international lifestyle hangs overhead in their entryway. The sign once hung outside their former home in Kabul, Afghanistan. It reads Sulhistan: Khaaneh Gouttierre in Persian script, which translates to “A Place of Peace: The House of Gouttierre.” (Tragically, their friend who scrawled the calligraphy was killed during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979.)

The Gouttierres’ residence is a showcase of their world travels, influenced heavily by their years in Afghanistan. Intricate, hand-woven rugs of all sizes cover the floors; there are more than two dozen on the first floor (with more than 50 throughout the house).

“Here is one carpet we always like to show off,” Gouttierre says, pointing to one red beauty on the floor of the solarium adjacent to their main living room. “This is probably a couple hundred years old. The thinner, the more valuable because they are so tightly woven—they will never wear out.”

Each rug holds a special memory. Smaller rugs were purchased when the newlyweds were poor Peace Corps teachers (1965-1967) and Gouttierre was a Fulbright scholar in Afghanistan (1969-1970). The larger and more expensive rugs came during Gouttierre’s tenure managing the Fulbright Program in Afghanistan (1971-1974).

All of the rugs are hand-woven treasures—some are now worth more than $10,0000—purchased for a fraction of their current value at neighborhood bazaars in the years preceding the Soviet occupation.

There are paintings of Kabul streetscapes on the wall that were gifts from Gouttierre’s Afghan students. Traditional wooden privacy screens hang on the white walls and provide additional decorative accents from the country.

Other mementos displayed throughout the house reference the scholar’s role in advising global political leaders: A bowl with the U.S. presidential seal hints at the time when Gouttierre advised the Reagan administration on American policy during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (and translated for visiting diplomats).

There is also a small collection of deep-blue lapis lazuli that came as gifts from the former king of Afghanistan and Hamid Karzai (the president of Afghanistan following the U.S. overthrow of Taliban rule until 2014). Karzai—Gouttierre’s friend from his years in Afghanistan—even stayed at their Omaha home when he made a special trip to Nebraska while visiting the U.S. on a diplomatic visit in 2005.

Then there is Marylu’s mortar and pestle collection displayed in the dining room and kitchen. Mortar and pestle utensils are common in cultures worldwide, and she sought them out during their frequent globetrotting excursions.

“When we went to Vietnam, I couldn’t speak Vietnamese, but I went [with her hand, she mimics the grinding of a mortar and pestle], and they go, “Aha!” and take me to find them,” she says, noting that her collection includes examples from remote Afghan villages, Iraq, Thailand, India, China, and beyond.

The couple came to Omaha in July 1974 straight from Afghanistan when Gouttierre was hired to initiate the Office of International Studies and assume leadership of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. He held the dual dean-director roles until his retirement in 2015.

“We looked at around 30 houses in three days,” Marylu says of their initial rush to find a home upon first arriving in Omaha. Gouttierre remembers being advised to find a house west of 72nd Street. But he dreaded driving into the sunrise every morning and returning home with the sunset blazing in his eyes.

Built in 1923, the clinker-brick home (a now-uncommon style of brick home that uses overcooked, misshapen, or refuse bricks from kilns) was perfect for their needs. Walking distance from UNO campus, the residence is situated on a winding street uphill from Elmwood Park. Gouttierre thought it would be an easy walk to work, he loved the solarium with tile fountain and koi pond, and knew the original plaster-and-lath archways inside would fit with their Afghan décor.

But it was a fixer-upper decades in the making. Gouttierre’s first project was removing the green-colored heavy drapes and shag carpet. A horrific paint job also had to go. Pea-green paint covered the walls and caked the functional wood-burning fireplace.

“Pea green was the fourth color at least,” Gouttierre says. “As I recall, the layers went: canary yellow, Alice blue, shocking pink or rose, and then the pea green.”

His next project was removing the wall of the master bedroom closet so that they could have expanded storage in the second-floor hallway. Other projects included renovating the kitchen and finishing the basement (complete with a Detroit Tigers baseball-themed bathroom, sitting area, storage room, and laundry room).

Since retiring from UNO, Gouttierre has devoted his boundless energy to continued home improvements. A new project is always hovering on the horizon. “This is what I enjoy doing in my retirement,” he says.

Windows have been Gouttierre’s obsession for the past few years. Lambrecht Glass replaced 92 panes of leaded glass in a group of three street-facing windows while Joe Harwood Woodwork restored the original woodwork. Mark Lambrecht of Lambrecht Glass also crafted a custom leaded-glass window with green on bottom (for grass), blue on top (for sky), red on the right (for sunset), and yellow on the left (for sunrise).

Meanwhile, Marvin Windows faithfully replicated the home’s 46 multi-pane windows with new, all-wood interior mullions separating new panes of double-glazed glass. The lower portions of the window frames are stationary, while the upper portions open with the crank of a lever (instead of the traditional double-hung windows that lift up or down). To finish off the window upgrade, an aluminum cladding perfectly matched the dark brickwork and protects the new windows. The window upgrade alone cost more than they originally paid for the home.

In early spring, they put the finishing touches on a new deck above the solarium (accessible from their bedroom). Steps to the deck feature hidden drawers to replace lost storage. The deck opens to a spectacular view of sunsets, UNO’s clocktower, Elmwood Park, and Memorial Park’s Fourth of July fireworks.

New projects on his to-do list: adding a fleur-de-lis to a crest on the fireplace, reworking the solarium fountain’s filtration system to keep fish indoors, and renovating the third floor with an updated bathroom and dormer that opens the home’s top level with more west-facing windows.

In the years since their three sons left home, there have been other changes. Despite Gouttierre’s strong personal connection to the sport of basketball—he had coached the Afghan national team during his stints overseas—the family basketball hoop disappeared from the driveway.

A few years before his retirement, the family’s grown children learned that their parents had put a downpayment on a townhouse near Westroads. “We just about had a revolution on our hands,” Marylu recalls with a laugh. “You can’t sell the house!” one of the boys protested over the phone, threatening to come back to Omaha to buy it. “Mom and Dad, have you really considered the pros and cons?” another son diplomatically questioned.

In the end, neither parent could part with their sentimental attachment to the home. It’s the sort of attachment shared by at least one of its previous residents.

“The original person who built this was named Bill [the architect] and Queenie Drake. They built it and went bankrupt. Never having lived in it, they sold to a family by the name of Summers. We met the Summers’ daughter and her sons on her 80th birthday in 1998. All she wanted to do was to come back and see her house where she lived from 1924 to ’44.”

After three subsequent homeowners with varying durations of occupancy, the property came to the Gouttierres.

“When we first got here, If you had asked me if we would have stayed in Omaha so long, the answer would have been, ‘No.’ But I loved my job and Omaha has just gotten better, ” he says.

Gouttierre could have easily missed his life’s international calling had he followed in his family bakery business in Maumee, Ohio. He had even gained master baker credentials by age 18—before the travel bug bit and he joined the Peace Corps.

In his Omaha home, family heirlooms tucked throughout the foreign mementos make it seem like generations of the Gouttierre family have lived in this place. There’s the chair from his Belgian-immigrant grandfather (also a baker). There are the fireplace tools and the mantle mirror that belonged to his parents, and more surprises in every nook and cranny.

“We’ve had no designers in here,” Gouttierre says. “Everything in here is a reflection of something we did, something that was given to us, or someplace we’ve been.”

This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of OmahaHome.


Eliminating The Impossible

March 28, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Zhomontee Watson first took the stage when she was a sophomore in high school. Completely new to the world of acting, her first director chose her to play the lead in The Princess and the Pea. As a college senior, Watson found herself nominated for Best Actress in a musical in the 12th annual Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards.

Watson netted the nomination (and a win)* in this year’s OEAAs with her performance as the lead character in Sister Act at Omaha Community Playhouse. She says she’s grateful, but it did catch her off guard. Her portrayal of Deloris Van Cartier was in September 2016—just before the cut-off date for OEAA qualifications.

“I did not expect this. Since it was over a year ago, I didn’t expect it to be part of the awards,” Watson says.

Sister Act, the musical comedy based on the 1992 film by the same name, follows Deloris Van Cartier on her journey into the Witness Protection Program after she sees a murder that she shouldn’t have. For her own safety, Deloris is sent to live in a holy convent. She struggles as she learns to adapt to her new life among the nuns.

“In this role I really had to connect to the words. There was no way you could sing those songs without connecting something to it,” Watson says.

Watson notes that most of her previous roles have been characters in established positions of power—such as a principal or mother figure—but Deloris Van Cartier was a different challenge for Watson to tackle. Completely removed from the security of her old life, Deloris must put her trust and safety into other people’s hands.

“I also got to have a sensitive and tender moment in the show where I had to connect with people who I love and who love me,” Watson says.

Sister Act displays a family-like bond between the nuns and Deloris, and Watson says that bond didn’t end when the curtain dropped. She says that her real-life connection to her fellow cast members helped bring her performance to life.

Director Kimberly Faith Hickman remembers Watson for her strong stage presence and work ethic. “She takes on the challenge and always accomplishes what you asked her to do, no matter how difficult it may be,” Hickman says. “You should never miss out on an opportunity to collaborate with Zhomontee.”

Acting has always been a passion for Watson. She doesn’t get compensated for her hours of devotion to the theater, but she does find acting to be an important outlet in her life.

“Acting definitely gave me a home away from home,” Watson says.

As someone who experienced some instability while growing up, acting was a way for Watson to find a support system and consistent group of people. Additionally, she’s found that acting puts her mind at ease.

“I can be myself with not being myself,” Watson says. “I get to dive into another character and leave my life at the door.”

In March, Watson is appearing in the Omaha Community Playhouse’s production of James and the Giant Peach. Like Sister Act, it is a musical directed by Hickman.

Watson plays the Earthworm in this beloved children’s story. Despite the role originally being intended for a man, she has taken on the challenge of portraying the character.

“She’s a risk-taker. I don’t know if she describes herself that way, but as someone who directs her I see her as a risk-taker,” Hickman says. “She asked if she could sing a part that wasn’t written for her gender and she was fantastic.”

Even through all her positive experiences in Omaha’s theater community, Watson does believe there’s room for improvement. Now, more than ever, she believes that conversations about inclusivity and diversity should be taking place.

While the OEAAs are taking steps to be more inclusive—such as changing their awards to be gender inclusive—there are other organizations that are failing to hit the mark.

“In our theater community now, it’s very important to know that inclusion is a thing and that it needs to remain a thing. It needs to become more a part of the narrative than it currently is,” Watson says.

She hopes that more theaters become proactive in finding diversity for their performances. There’s plenty of talent in Omaha’s minority communities, but theaters must create an inviting space. Watson says that they can’t just expect their theaters to develop a perfect cast—they have to actively seek and promote.

Additionally, she encourages those in the community to be accepting and understanding of newcomers. She believes that theaters can get stuck in a “comfort zone” that includes only casting a handful of frequent actors and actresses. By taking time to teach new thespians, Watson believes that Omaha’s already-impressive theater community can soar to new heights.

Her educational goals don’t stop with the stage. Her final year of undergraduate studies has taken up plenty of Watson’s free time, but she’s still managing to put the hours in for rehearsal and performance. Her current plan is to graduate in May and apply for UNO’s graduate counseling program.

“Grad school is a whole different ball game, so I’ll see how time management factors in, but I definitely don’t plan on stopping,” Watson says. “If I can squeeze in a show or two then I will.”

*Article updated after the OEAA winner announcements. 

This article appears in the March/April 2018 edition of Encounter.