Tag Archives: Westside High School

School Colors Shining Through

September 26, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Chloe McClellan has always been timid.

She’s a quiet 17-year-old who likes to be alone and prefers to observe activities. So joining the Sparkles cheerleading squad at Westside High School was a bit out of character—but in a good way, mom Kathy McClellan said.

Getting in front of a crowd of people and performing strikes fear in many people’s hearts, but Chloe says cheering in front of others is one of the best feelings she’s ever felt in her life.

“I love shaking the pom-poms,” she says in a soft voice that is almost whisper.

Chloe has Down syndrome, a genetic disorder associated with intellectual and physical delay, and low muscle tone.

Being apart of the Sparkles, Kathy says, “helps her.”

The Sparkles squad, in its ninth year at Westside High School, is part of a nationwide program. The first Sparkles squad formed in 2008 in Bettendorf, Iowa, to include cheerleaders who were “differently abled.” The next year, the nonprofit Sparkle Effect was formed to further give students with disabilities an opportunity to cheer on inclusive teams.

There are more than 150 inclusive cheer and dance teams in 30 states. Westside is among others in Omaha, such as Millard North and Burke, who have hosted such programs.

A Sparkles squad, according to The Sparkle Effect’s regulations, must have a minimum of four students with disabilities and a minimum of six students without disabilities, and all students must be equal team members.

Once a school expresses interest in having a Sparkles squad, the Sparkle Effect sends a trainer to work with the team, and selects two captains to lead the squad.

Now that Chloe is a junior and one of the oldest Sparkle members, she’s excited to help others learn the ropes and expectations within the cheer team, even though she is not a captain this year.

“She puts on her Sparkles uniform with great pride,” Kathy says. “She was extremely nervous at first but now she understands how much of a big deal it is.”

According to the Sparkle Effect’s website, more than 5 million students with disabilities attend public schools in the United States.

“It’s just that the exposure and inclusiveness is so important,” Kathy says.

Kathy remembers the systemic exclusion of students with disabilities from activities and access to classrooms in her years at middle and high school. These classmates weren’t so much bullied as they were ignored, she explains.

“Of course, these students at the same high school should be able to experience what everyone else experiences,” Kathy says. “They should be able to have the same opportunities.”

The word “inclusive” appears often in conversations at Westside, Millard, and Burke, and rightfully so. A Sparkles squad is a team that purposely mixes kids of all abilities and talents. All members of the squad cheer on the sidelines during football games. During games played in the gym, the Sparkles members sit and cheer in the stands and come together with the other squad members to perform a halftime dance routine. (Regulations restrict the number of cheerleaders on the sidelines in a gymnasium.)

The Sparkles cheer team opens the idea to have students with disabilities in drama club and choir, on the newspaper staff, and participating in other school activities. It’s a visible display of acceptance.

Chloe lights up when other Sparkles cheerleaders greet her in the school hallways.

“It makes her feel so special,” mom said, “It makes her day.”

The squad practices during the school day as any squad would. The Sparkles have a peer-to-peer partnership system, which means each girl has a partner on the cheer team. “They keep each other accountable and striving to be better not just in cheer, but in life,” says Katie Healey, the school’s Sparkles director.

Katie-Healey Westside Community Schools Sparkles Coach

Katie Healey Westside Community Schools Sparkles Coach

Donna Sommerer’s daughter Regan, who graduated from Westside in spring 2019, was also a Sparkles cheerleader through all four years of high school.

“The program’s mentors are what keeps the program thriving,” Donna explains. “The cheer and dance mentors are great during practices and games.”

Each year, the program has improved and gotten more organized Donna says. She anticipates that with active involvement by parents, mentors, and sponsors, the program will continue to grow. One of the team’s biggest highlights is when the Sparkles cheer with the Nebraska Cornhusker cheerleaders at the spring game in April.

“Our daughter enjoyed cheering at the games,” Donna says. “I think future Sparkles will really enjoy their time being involved in football, volleyball, and basketball games, and pep rallies. It’s not about making these few stand out, it’s about just letting them be involved with their high school, and have fun creating and cherishing moments like their peers.”

Kathy McClellan echoed those sentiments.

“I realized Chloe is becoming more independent,” she said. “She doesn’t need me at her side for assurance. She’s come out of her shell. I just can’t begin to tell you what it’s like to see your daughter…the one you had doubts about…on the track with other girls shaking pom-poms at a Westside football game.”

Nervous. Shy. Timid.

Nonetheless, there Chloe stands in her red, white, and blue Sparkles uniform ready to shake her pom-poms and showcase her dance routine.

“Even though they’re all watching,” she says. “It makes me feel special.”

Visit thesparkleeffect.org for more information.

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

True to This, Not New to This

December 21, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Sitting down for a tarot reading across from Shaun Laveau, the 21-year-old spiritual worker conveys the presence of someone more ancient.

A conversation begins with cards sliding out of his favorite deck. Once he begins to read, it is clear that Laveau has more than a gift for empathy and intuition.

“I’m true to this, I’m not new to this,” he says, claiming lineage descent from a line of Christian prophets.

Although raised Christian, Laveau says that African traditional spiritual systems have always been an important part of his daily life. Many of these practices took the form of strict family superstitions: “You know, we don’t split poles when we go to the grocery store. We don’t sweep over each other’s feet. We won’t eat peanuts inside of the house. Every New Year, everybody has to have a spoon of black-eyed peas,” he explains.

His ambitious final-year project at Westside High School—an encyclopedia of spiritual practices  rooted in West African heritage— spurred his exploration of these family traditions.

The project expanded Laveau’s understanding of Hoodoo and its amalgamation of West African spiritual practices passed on by African slaves in the Americas. Many vestiges of Hoodoo, he learned, have remained in the daily lives of many African-Americans without their tacit acknowledgment of the traditions’ root origins.

The superstitions he took lightly as a child tell more than a story of his own upbringing—they are in many ways echoes of American imperialism. “Whenever we talk about [African traditional spiritual systems], we always have to remember that their root is African, but they’re about Africa in the New World,” Laveau explains.

He describes how enslaved people had to develop new, subtle ways to continue their spiritual protection practices. “When we get down to the root of it, a lot of it was protection from a slave master, protection while fleeing north, protection from families being separated and sold,” he says.

One powerful example of the dynamic nature of African traditional spiritual systems is the prominent superstition warning against “splitting poles” when walking with loved ones. The idea is that the streetlight or telephone pole could split the positive connection between two friends or family members who fail to walk on the same side of it together.

Laveau recalls being a child scolded for splitting poles while playing in the grocery store, but later learned that this tradition comes from a very meaningful place: “You’re not wanting to lose somebody in your life— especially keeping that mentality of slavery, families would be cut up and divided every day, for no reason. Just for the matter of gain and profit. So if I didn’t want to lose my family member, of course, I wouldn’t cross a tree. We would have to walk on the same side of the tree together.”

Laveau and his family have always known he was spiritually gifted. He describes leading his first demonic exorcism at just 14 years old. With support from family and guidance from his spiritual godmother, he was able to turn his gift into a profession to serve his community. He now offers a wide variety of Hoodoo, rootwork, divination, cleansing, and other spiritual services to clients from across the country.

His business has been steadily growing in the four years he has been practicing professionally. Though Laveau says there is no “typical” appointment, he attributes his popularity simply to “the realness” of his gift.

This includes a consistent format for appointments—only after a consultation about the nature of the concern and discussion of resolutions does Laveau begin his spiritual work. He says many clients come to him when it’s already too late. “When they have nowhere else to turn, when they have nobody else to get answers from, that’s when they usually turn to a rootworker or a spiritual worker.”

The best time to turn to him is the moment a concern or an inkling becomes prevalent, rather than after the fact. “A pinch of prevention is better than a pound of resolution,” he says.

He adds that people are becoming more open to traditional African spiritual practices, largely because of the influence of pop culture. Shows such as Charmed and American Horror Story inspired people to embrace magic and African traditional spiritual systems. Overall this new exploration is positive, but Laveau warns against equating his lifestyle with a character on television. “There’s a difference between me fasting for seven days, abstaining from sex for 21 days, me waiting until the moon is in the perfect sign for me to make a manifestation…there’s a difference between these things and the things you saw on TV.”

Laveau also sees the increase in New Age shops popping up around town as a positive development, but he is critical of the lack of diversity in the popular magical community. He says most shops don’t cater to the needs of spiritual practitioners of color and finds that they tend to encourage people to practice European Wicca instead of traditional Hoodoo, Santeria, and other non-European religions. Hispanic and Gypsy practitioners also tend to experience prejudice in some magical communities.

He sees Omaha as a special place for magical communities to thrive. “Omaha has the ability to be a Salem or a New Orleans of the Midwest.” This is due to our city’s uncommon position on three major ley-lines, or magnetic lines that run across the Earth and connect to the South and North poles. Laveau reports that Omaha’s magical energy is also affected by the deep history of trauma and violence against Native Americans and African-Americans in the area, of which spiritual practitioners should be mindful.

“I don’t do it to be politically correct and for people to see me and say, ‘Wow, he’s really embracing his heritage,’” Laveau says. “I just do it because I embrace my heritage, and it’s a major part of who I am.”

Ultimately, he feels called to develop opportunities for spiritual practitioners from all backgrounds. “The end goal for my practice is to have a store, so people can come in, sit down, and be heard authentically and openly.”

Visit @shaunlaveaupsychic on Facebook for more information.

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

Andrew Easton

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Andrew Easton taught students how to create projects from wood. His son, Andrew W. Easton, taught students how to properly create a balance sheet and how to use their left pinkie fingers to type the letter “q.”

Andrew D. Easton, the third teacher in line to carry the family name, had no problem choosing a career.

“My dad and grandfather were inspirations to me,” he says. “Just seeing them being willing to serve other people, and being there for students and to help them with their pursuits.”

The current pedagogue answering to the name Mr. Easton educates young minds in ways vastly different from his forefathers.

While teaching English at Gardner Edgerton High School in Gardner, Kansas, he realized his pupils needed stimulation and motivation. He began teaching from the school library, where they processed essays on computers or read books from the comfort of couches. Easton walked around the room and answered questions.


“About three weeks in, some kids were done,” Easton says. “I asked those kids to get together and discuss the book (Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes). We had a competition in front of the principal. It made for a better use of their time.”

Those students who had not finished reading the book continued reading.

“That type of learning is called a flex model,” Easton says. “I didn’t know it at the time. I appreciated that we could get a lot of personal attention and one-on-one feedback.”

AndrewEaston1Four years ago, Easton and his wife moved to Omaha. Andrew found a job with Westside High School and expanded on his flex model. He arranged the classroom furniture to assemble different areas for group study or individual study, and created a goal sheet for his students. Then he experimented with videos to give students another choice of instruction.

Easton became like a high school student again, in order to create better videos.

“Matt Rasgorshek (a fellow Westside teacher) said he’d be happy to have me in his intro to video class,” Easton says. In order to learn, he forsook lunch for lectures, sitting alongside some of his English students.

“He wanted to know everything about video production,” says Rasgorshek, Westside’s former broadcast adviser now teaching at Creighton Prep. “Whenever he had an open period he would come in, take notes, ask questions. He’d come into my office and bounce ideas off of me.”

Easton had discovered a new passion, and by the end of the year, he made 40 videos to work into his teachings.

Some students desire a traditional learning format, however. When a student asked if he would lecture to her, Easton began lecturing to a small group while the others worked individually.

“The kids, he instantly hooked them,” says Rasgorshek. “All of them were engaged all the time. It was pretty cool to watch. Even in my classroom, the kids took to him.” FamilyGuide

Neil Griess

May 13, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Neil Griess felt like an alien. He immersed himself so deeply into his art that coming out of it felt unnatural. This feeling of being otherworldly, detached and yet painting reality, lasted for about three years. Later, driving home from the Union for Contemporary Art after opening night, he broke down in tears.

“It was a big sigh,” Griess says.

His exhibit, “Pleated Field,” came together with the help of his entire family, who “took over the Union” back on November 14, 2015, when his exhibit began in the Wanda D. Ewing Gallery.


Griess, 27, learned he won Best Solo Exhibition at the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards in January. But he doesn’t paint for the awards.

He wasn’t always serious about his art, as his late uncle, award-winning realist painter Kent Bellows, often reminded him. Griess found being in his shadow difficult.

“He was the ultimate cool uncle, but I was intimidated by him growing up,” Griess admits. “I wanted his acceptance and affirmation.”

While Griess was a student at Westside High School, his uncle passed away in his sleep. It was a trigger for Griess, who felt like he had something to prove; perhaps to make up for the grief and loss of Bellows in his life.

As Griess says, natural talent doesn’t mean anything without hard work. Soon, he developed a portfolio of acrylic on wood. Griess’ realism is so evident, his father Jim jokes he should take the painting of him into his doctor’s office because even the vein popping out on his leg is shown with such great detail.

Griess’ art led to a Gold Medal by Scholastic Art, a $10,000 prize, and a visit to Carnegie Hall in New York City when he was only 18.

“He’s just wonderful,” says his mother, Robin, prompting Griess to run out of the room in his worn black socks. Always the shy son, Greiss clearly becomes uncomfortable when his mother discusses him.

His mother is an artist, like his grandfather and uncle. Griess’ brothers are also creative. One is a game developer while the other is a sculptor. Jim laughs, saying he brings the frugality, common sense, and work ethic.

While he was pursing his Bachelor of Arts in the fall of 2011, Griess began developing his solo project. He thought about the potential of spaces and how people could alter them on their own terms rather than the norm. Griess combined different objects he saw, then put them into believable spaces. It was an “exploration of possibility.”

Griess designed miniatures of models, construction scenes. Sometimes, he would take the model out and experiment with different lighting like at dusk.  After taking photographs, Griess used acrylic to paint on wood panels.

Griess now divides his time between being a guard at the Joslyn Art Museum and tutoring children at the Kent Bellows Mentoring Center.

Will he do another exhibit?

Griess thoughtfully looks to the side, weighing his answer, slouching all in black on his mother’s white couch. Art is a challenge, a sacrifice.

“I’m playing, that’s all I will say,” Griess says with a sly smile. Encounter

Visit neilgriess.com for more info.


Sitting Down, Slowing Down

October 15, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The vibe of Market House restaurant hits customers in the face upon walking in the door—almost literally. The dark interior doors of former tenant Vivace have become a lime hue that projects the type of restaurant diners are about to experience—fresh, green, and interesting.

Such is the same with the chefs at the helm. Executive Chef Matt Moser, formerly of Plank, and Chef de Cuisine Ben Maides, formerly of Avoli Osteria, take pride in crafting their own menu, and restaurant, from start to finish.

The pair, however, originally turned down the gig.

“Nick (Bartholomew) originally approached me to be the chef,” Maides says. “I had no intention of leaving Avoli.”

“And I had an opportunity elsewhere,” Moser adds. “But that didn’t pan out.”

The pair eventually ended up recognizing they wanted to run a restaurant.

“We hadn’t not known each other very long,” Moser says. “I met Ben through a mutual friend when they came into Plank.”

They discovered they share a similar approach to cooking, eating, and running a restaurant.

Moser graduated in 2002 from Millard North, and in 2005 from Le Cordon Blue in Portland, Oregon. He came back to Omaha to work at the French Cafe, then traveled to California, where he cooked in Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach. He bounced back to Omaha to V. Mertz, and spent five years with Flagship restaurant group, helping to open Blue Sushi Sake Grills in Denver and Fort Worth.

“For the first time in my career, it’s modern American cuisine,” he said of Market House. “We can do whatever we want.”

While Moser discovered the fresh, local approach to eating so prevalent in his casual-contemporary gig on the West Coast, Maides’ slow-down method of cooking and eating comes from international travel. He was born in Switzerland and moved to Omaha at age 9. He graduated in 2004 from Westside and in 2006 from Metropolitan Community College. Among his passport stamps is San Cascino in Northern Italy, where he worked at a five-star restaurant and learned the style of cooking owner and executive chef Dario Schicke sought for Avoli.

The third note in the triad is Sous Chef Chase Thomsen, who, unlike Maides, Moser knew well.

“I’ve known him since middle school,” Moser says. “He came to Plank and worked for me then moved on to Taxi’s. When I came here I knew he was looking. I know his work ethic, I know his talent, we’re lucky to have him here.”

Moser and Maides agree, and collaborate, on cooking methods and ingredients. They love to cook in their off-hours—Moser with his wife, Cathryn; Maides with his girlfriend. They own dogs. They also like to eat at restaurants in similar ways.

Moser says, “We discovered we both like to order three or four things and just pass them around the table.”

“Let’s stop, let’s sit down, and let’s eat,” Maides says. “We’re going from surviving
to enjoying.”

That idea of not just eating, but communal dining, inspired Market House. The seasonal menu contains eight passable small plates and five shared sides, along with soups, a salad, and six larger entree-sized plates.

“We like to go to the starter menu, the smaller plates,” Moser reiterates.

The chefs want their customers to experience their love of food in the same way.

“Ben and I get excited when we see Nancy (Crews) of Swallows Nest come through the door with new vegetables,” says Moser, who himself gardens avidly. “That excitement extends to the front of the house and out to the guests.”

The staff at Market House don’t just tell you that roasted grapes with chèvre is on the menu, they tell you where the grapes and the goat cheese came from. They tell you the story of why they love the farmer who makes the cheese. The process of ordering at Market House, like the process of eating, causes patrons to ease their pace.

Slowing down doesn’t mean the restaurant isn’t busy. Several people occupy tables at 2 p.m. on a Monday, lingering over plates of food, and, in a couple of cases, glasses of wine. That makes Moser and Maides happy.

“We’re cooking food we love, and we hope everyone else does, too,” Maides says.

“Yes, we work long hours, but my favorite part of the day is when we get to sit down and talk about what we did, and what we can do better,” Moser adds.

Sitting down, slowing down—a typical day at Market House.


You Know You’ve Lived in Omaha A Long Time

  1. Johnny Carson hosting a show on WOW-TV in 1950 called The Squirrel’s Nest. The Omaha show was the television debut for the Nebraska native who went on to national stardom as a late-night TV host.  Remember when Carson took a microphone onto the ledge of the county courthouse to interview the pigeons?  He wanted to give their side of the controversy surrounding pigeon’s loitering on the ledges.
  2. You followed your nose to South Omaha. The neighborhood was malodorous because of nearby stockyards. Some neighbors referred to it as “the smell of money.”  Nicknamed “The Magic City” in the 1890s, South Omaha is an historical and culturally diverse area with eclectic neighborhoods like Little Italy and Little Bohemia.  Each year Cinco De Mayo adds fun and music to the streets.
  3. The Omar Baking Company near 43rd and Nicholas streets filled the neighborhood with sniff-worthy aroma by delivering bread door to door. You may remember the jingle:  “I’m the Omar man, (tap, tap, tap). Knocking at your door (rappa tap tap). When you taste my bread (mmmm boy!), you’re gonna want more (rappa tap tap).” The building is now used for offices and events.
  4. Perhaps your brush with fame was graduating from Westside High School in 1959 with actor Nick Nolte, eventually named People Magazine’s 1992 Sexiest Man Alive. Or living nearby when Jane and Peter Fonda resided with their aunt on Izard Street. You may have gone to UNO with Peter or cruised Dodge Street with Jane.
  5. You might have tasted the world’s first TV dinner (98 cents each) in the 1950s, introduced by Omaha brothers Gilbert and W. Clarke Swanson. The package was designed to look like a TV set at a time when only 20 percent of American homes had a television.  The TV dinner’s aluminum tray ended up in the Smithsonian Institute in 1986 as an American cultural milestone.The Swanson name lives on in Omaha on W. Clarke Swanson Public Library, Swanson Elementary School, Creighton’s W. Clarke Swanson Hall, and Durham Museum’s Swanson Gallery.
  6. The Orpheum, a movie theater built in 1927 as a burlesque theater, closed in 1971. Maybe you were there in January 17, 1975, for the renovated theater’s grand reopening. We know you weren’t there in 1971 for the last movie shown; the theater was empty.
  7. The Indian Hills movie theater built in 1961 near 84th and Dodge streets was called “the hat box” because of its shape. Perhaps you were among the people who tried to save the wide-screen Super-Cinerama theater building before it was torn down in 2001.
  8. The Cooper theater near 15th and Douglas streets, a former “bastion of bump” (burlesque) when its name was The Moon, was a place to see movies until it was demolished in 1975.



Meet the Hughes

June 22, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article was published in the June 2015 issue of Her Family.

Chris Hughes is a father of three who spends most Monday and Wednesday evenings toiling away in his upstairs workshop on Farnam Street. It is a curious space filled with antiquities and tools akin to his trade—custom leather bags.

He fulfills orders from across the world, assembling packages containing his hand-constructed waterproof tote bags, briefcases, and artisanal aprons crafted with quality materials.

“I wanted the items that I designed and sold to have a timeless quality to them. I wanted someone to look at them years in the future and say ‘look at this artifact,’” Hughes says. Hence, you have the evolution of the name of his business, Artifact Bag Co., a thriving online business that Hughes started more than four years ago

Hughes says that being an entrepreneur is a constantly evolving process of new experiences. “The minute I get comfortable with something, I take on a new challenge. I’m always throwing myself into the fire so that I’m never comfortable. When you come home from days of that, you really just feel like your legs are rubber bands. You feel like you could just collapse.”

Hughes2In a flip-the-switch moment, Hughes dons his daddy hat before stepping in the door at home. “The minute I cross that threshold into my house, I’ve got two boys and a girl that are jumping up onto me. I have to kick in the afterburners. I just have to be present because for them they’re fresh and they want to see their dad,” he says. His children are Kit, 6, Levi, 4, and Jane, 2.

Hughes’ schedule has him spending weekdays at his shop, surrounded by a small team of craftsmen and craftswomen who assist him as business demands. He also works until almost 11 p.m. a few nights of the week and at least one weekend day.

He says his demanding schedule sometimes frustrates his children. “It pulls me away from them so often.” But they do enjoy visiting their dad’s cool space. “They’re fascinated by the workspace because of all of the machines and all of the materials.”

His wife is Beth Hughes, who works as a speech-language pathologist at the RiteCare Speech and Language Clinic located in the Munroe-Meyer Institute at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. The couple went to school together at Westside High School, but didn’t actually date until years later when the two crossed paths again while Beth was in graduate school.

Beth says that having an Internet-based business can make finding the right balance between family and work challenging. “The Internet never stops. So it’s not like Chris can just walk away at 5 p.m. and say, ‘Oh, the shop’s closed for the day.’ There are always more things to do in terms of emails to respond to and social media stuff to post and promote and things to research for projects that he has coming up,” she says.Hughes3

But knowing that the family sets aside evenings for sit-down meals and plans one day out of each weekend to spend together provides a home base for sanity. “Getting some sort of schedule just so that we all know what to expect has been helpful,” she says.

As a mother, Beth says she feels privileged to help her children grow and develop into the people that they’re meant to be. “I like to help foster their interests and teach them things and to see things through their eyes. It’s just fascinating.”

She finds strength in her support system of mommy friends. “I’m learning every day and I make mistakes every day. I’m very fortunate to have a great group of friends who’ve been on this parenting road a little bit longer than I have that I can learn from,” Hughes says.

The kids keep active with swim lessons, fishing, tee-ball, and riding bikes. Some Sunday mornings, one might find the Hughes family over at the Bagel Bin—a family favorite. They also love going
to the zoo.

Friday nights are family movie nights. “I’ll make popcorn on the stove,” Chris says. “They love watching Star Wars over and over again. They like that good versus evil kind of stuff.”

Hughes is inspired by his children’s creativity. “All of the sudden a card table becomes a fort to drape blankets over, or a stick becomes a rifle. They’re just constantly interpreting their environment in very imaginative ways.”

“They haven’t really been taught that they are not artists or those other things that happen in life when people dash people’s dreams and hopes. They are still very optimistic,” he says.

“In many ways, I never lost sight of that either, so on some level, I relate with them.”



Alone, Together

October 22, 2014 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke and Elizabeth Tape

Insect repellant? Check. Sleeping bag? Check. Top hat and cane? Check and check.

The packing list for youth groups attending retreats at Camp Kitaki near Louisville can get a little odd—especially if the group in question is Westside High School’s Amazing Technicolor Show Choir.

That’s where HerFamily found senior Patrick Sawyer, the son of Sandi and Adam Sawyer, on a recent Saturday morning.

Sawyer was part of a select group of choir members who recently returned from a European tour that included a gig at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and a performance of “God Bless America” at the Normandy American Cemetery overlooking the acres of white crosses that dot the scene of the D-Day invasion in 1944.

Sure, those performances and more in Europe sent a chill down the spine of the student who will study architecture next year in college, but his most memorable moment was a free-spirited, slice-of-life scene found where he least expected it.

“We were eating ice cream cones wandering through the town square in Nice (France),” Sawyer explains, when he and a friend stumbled upon a particularly entertaining street performer. Soon the choir members were dancing away in the street, egged on by the busker and the gathering crowd. And the dance they chose that day? “It was one of our ATSC bits of choreography, naturally!”

Sawyer’s favorite number this year is shaping up to be a jazzed-up version of “Ive Gotta Be Me” from the 1968 Broadway musical Golden Rainbow. That’s the tune that had the 50 members of the choir decked out in top hats and canes at Camp Kataki. The group is also supported by a 14-member band.

The vaunted choir competes locally, regionally, and nationally. They’ve won three national championships from various sanctioning organizations. Notable alums include Tim Halperin, the Omaha native who found fame on American Idol in 2011.

But show choir hasn’t always been this way.

“Picture 16 kids in matching dresses from J.C. Penney,” says vocal director Doran Johnson in describing the formula of days gone. The world of show choir was once a decidedly static affair involving all but motionless kids on risers trying to get a rise out an audience. “Today it’s grown to include choreography, sets, props, multiple costume changes…What we do is the equivalent of performing mini Broadway musicals.”

All the razzmatazz aside, Sawyer finds the same kind of camaraderie in show choir that his other friends find in sports.

“When I’m out there performing with the people I love…well, it’s a pretty special feeling,” Sawyer says. “We’re all together—succeeding together—but it’s also very personal. I’m just in my own little world when I’m singing. When I’m on stage, nothing else matters.”



Mark Hasebroock

August 26, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Despite Mark Hasebroock’s success as an entrepreneur—he was a co-founder of prosperous e-commerce businesses Hayneedle and GiftCertificates.com, in addition to having experience as a small business owner and working in investment and commercial banking—he says he still wishes he’d had less time-consuming, back-and-forth discussion and more expedient, hands-on guidance when he was on the launching pad.

“We got strung along so many times by different investors who just took forever to get to a conclusion. Having been on the other side of the desk starting companies of my own, it was frustrating looking first for the capital, and second: ‘Can anybody help me? How can I get from here to here? Where is this resource? If you were in my shoes, what would you do?’ type of stuff,” Hasebroock says. “At some point I thought, ‘There’s just got to be a better way to do it, and I want to someday start a fund of my own—and do it my way, and do it right.’”

In 2011, Hasebroock did just that, kicking off Dundee Venture Capital (DVC) with an objective to be responsive to, decisive with, and supportive of entrepreneurs, he explains. “When we get an inquiry, we should review it and either we get back to you and say it’s a fit, or we say, ‘It’s not a fit and here’s who you should talk to.’ And let’s do that in a 24- to 48-hour period. The standard is two to four weeks.”

With his team of Michael Wetta, Nick Engelbart, and Andrea Sandel, plus two interns (“They’re all rock stars; I’m notoriously bad at giving direction, so they have to be self-starters.”), DVC operates out of offices in the Mastercraft Building on North 13th Street on the edge of downtown. The Dundee in the company’s name, and in the logo based on a pre-1915 annexation postal stamp, reflects the company’s first offices, as well as Hasebroock’s home neighborhood.

“We started in Warren Buffett’s grandfather’s grocery store—that’s where Dundee Bank is today—and I was an investor in Dundee Bank, so it all kind of tied in together with some of the history with where capitalism sort of started in Omaha and the heart of Dundee,” Hasebroock explains.

“…when somebody comes in with ‘here’s my business, here’s what I’m doing, here’s the problem, here’s my solution, and here’s why my team’s going to win’…we usually know within the first five minutes if this is someone we’re going to back.”

He also likes both the Omaha and Nebraska associations with the Dundee name. Hasebroock grew up in Omaha (he was once a Peony Park lifeguard), graduating from Westside High School, and earning his undergraduate degree at University of Nebraska-Lincoln and his MBA from Creighton University. He and his wife, Jane, who met in their youth and married in 1984, chose to raise their four sons and four daughters in their shared hometown. “No twins and, yes, the same spouse,” Hasebroock likes to say, adding that the family calls the older four the “Varsity” team and the younger half, the “JV.” The collective teammates are now ages 11 to 27 and have kept the family involved in numerous school and community-related sports, clubs, and activities for years. And Hasebroock himself plays hockey with a local adult league, the BPHL (Beer-and-Pretzel Hockey League) on Team Gold, stressing their three-time defending champion status.

“I haven’t really strayed too far,” he says. And his ties to the Heartland continue through his investments. With a preference for Midwest-based endeavors, DVC invests anywhere from $50,000 to a half-million dollars in growth companies that focus on e-commerce and web services.

“The next criteria is super-passionate, driven founders, so when somebody comes in with ‘here’s my business, here’s what I’m doing, here’s the problem, here’s my solution, and here’s why my team’s going to win’…we usually know within the first five minutes if this is someone we’re going to back,” Hasebroock says.

DVC is already seeing its investees take off and even soar under the guidance of Hasebroock and his team. Hasebroock says it was through mentor Mike McCarthy (founding partner of McCarthy Capital) that he saw firsthand how the simple principle of “treat people like you want to be treated” breeds success, and he emulates that culture of respect at DVC. Plus, there’s a multigenerational—and even simpler—principle Hasebroock follows: “Like my grandfather used to say, there’s four secrets to success: W. O. R. K.”

“It’s empathetic because we understand. And yet there are demands on the capital. We certainly want it back. We’d like more than we put in.  But we also know that these founders are being pulled in two hundred different directions. And to the degree that we can help keep them on the rails a little bit and not just chase that next great shiny penny idea; that’s what we want to do.”

Hasebroock, who’s also now involved with a new Omaha-based accelerator for technology startups called Straight Shot, sees nothing but growth ahead for DVC.

“I think the next step is another fund that invests in startups. I don’t think the supply is going to slow down,” he says. “We’re continually seeing really creative ideas out of a lot of markets.”

Q&A: Rebecca Harding

December 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The Omaha native and a principal with TACK Architects shares her passion for design, the people who inspire her, and the reasons she’s excited about working in her hometown.

Q: Tell us a bit about TACK Architects. What makes the firm unique?

A: We are an Omaha-based architectural studio founded in 2011 by Jeff Dolezal, Chris Houston, and myself. We’re a fairly young but tested firm, combining 45 years of experience between us. In that time, we’ve created thoughtful, unique projects, integrating our passion for detail and design. We work with a wide range of clients across the nation, providing works of architecture and interior design in the form of high-end residential, commercial, and cultural projects. TACK references a course of action, or method, in order to achieve a goal, especially one adopted through rigor and critical thinking. This is especially true of our work, where good design is a process that vets out and tests ideas. Our design philosophy explores notions or craft, tectonic expression, sustainability, and contextual specificity, while working hard to understand our client’s objectives, budget, expectations, culture, and mission.

Q: Where does the name “TACK” originate from?

A: We wanted to differentiate ourselves with something meaningful that referenced our work and disposition; something people would remember. Within the context of sailing, to “tack” means to change the direction of movement of the sail in order to maximize the benefit from the wind. We felt the term evoked a sense of freedom and determination. Leaving our comfortable corporate careers behind was scary, but exhilarating at the same time. The three of us have been friends and collaborators working on several projects together for over 10 years. We trusted each other’s talents and passion to build a company together at a pivotal time in all our lives.

Q: Why did you decide to pursue your career in Omaha?

A: Returning to Omaha in 1994, after receiving my Bachelor of Architecture from Cornell University and traveling abroad over a six-year period, was a choice I made for several reasons. Omaha was at the inception of major architectural developments and making its mark as a changing and dynamic Midwestern city. The opportunity to begin my career with well-established architects was ripe and I was ready to reconnect with my roots. My time away from Nebraska and having the opportunity to study in places like Italy, Russia, and Scandinavia provided me with priceless educational experiences in different cultures and the ability to view works of art and architecture that have influenced me over the years. I returned to Omaha with an appreciation beyond my expectations. Omaha is a very special place where people are passionate and hardworking, with ethical beliefs in line with my own. As the city is in the process of expanding new redevelopment efforts, such as the Riverfront, Aksarben, and Downtown and North Omaha, I have the unique opportunity as an architect to help shape the future physical environments in and around Omaha that the next generations will enjoy for years to come.

From left: Ryan Henrickson, Rebecca Harding, Jeff Dolezal, and Chris Houston.

From left: Ryan Henrickson, Rebecca Harding, Jeff Dolezal, and Chris Houston.

Q: Any mentors that have influenced you? Other influences on your design tastes, methods?

A: My father is an oral surgeon and an amazing artist. As children, he used to show my sister and me some pretty gruesome slides of some of his surgeries. I was fascinated by how he could turn a mangled face back into something beautiful again. The precision with which he manipulated bone, muscle, and cartilage while controlling proportion and angles was magical. The combination of science and artistry was a concept I have been obsessed with since I can remember. The practice of architecture is very similar (although a life is not on the line). Other influences include Bauhaus architect, Le Corbusier, for his pure and streamlined designs in architecture and furniture; and Modernist architect, Sverre Fehn, for his sensitivity to context and beauty. Both of these elements can yield very diverse design solutions, but to me, they are very important to the foundations of architecture. It’s true that beauty is somewhat subjective, but beauty can be universal elements like proportion, scale, rhythm, etc. For me, it manifests itself in everything from a field of corn in the middle of summer (viewed from any elevation or angle), to the reflection of the sky in a puddle of water in the driveway.

Q: What are some trends you’re seeing in residential and/or commercial architectural design in Omaha?

A: When I first started practicing in Omaha 16 years ago, it was difficult to get clients to stretch out of their comfort zones. Reputation and trust comes from past projects and what you’re able to physically show the client that’s real. Most people have a hard time understanding abstract concepts or unusual materials until they see them, or can touch them. However, architecture isn’t just about design in the physical sense. We work with many clients on strategic facilities planning; where we help them make decisions on how much space they really need or can grow into. I think this type of service is what makes us really valuable, not just that we’re good designers but we also help people plan their projects and make good decisions at the beginning of the process. This planning works for most project types: residential, commercial, retail, corporate offices, etc. We definitely are seeing an upswing in the market right now.

Q: Tell us a bit about you personally. What do you enjoy in your leisure time?

A: I was born and raised in Omaha and attended Westside High School. I was a competitive figure skater up to about the age of 12. When I retired the skates, I took up many other sports and have continued to be active in my adult life. I enjoy running…Not only is it great exercise, it’s great therapy. The stresses of life and work seem to melt away with every step on the pavement. I hope to sign up for another marathon in 2013. I have been married to Brinker Harding for 13 years and have two daughters, Elizabeth (10) and Grace (7). I am truly blessed by them! They remind me what is really important in life—family, humility, love, joy.