Tom Kronen was an Omaha artist who enjoyed spending time with people. The social, affable man was known to many in mid-Omaha, where he enjoyed visiting the bars.
“He was here at least once a day for at least a year,” said Jon Schaeffer, part-owner and bartender of Countryside Village’s Inkwell. “He kind of went and did his rounds, and we were a fixture on that tour.”
The rounds included Inkwell, VIP Lounge on 90th Street, and the Holiday and Jams on 78th Street. He was always ready to have a drink with friends and strangers, and he always had a story to tell.
“I knew he was going to monopolize your time if you were engaged with him,” Schaeffer said. “I’ve never really seen him finish a drink. I think it was more the social element.”
As an artist, Kronen specialized in realistic paintings of Native Americans. “My father was a member of the Lakota Sioux tribe,” Kronen was fond of telling people, adding, “it’s in my blood.”
Kronen said he never knew his birth father, who died before he was born. Kronen and his two sisters were forced to live on the streets of Omaha when he was 7 years old. “We were throwaway kids,” he said,“living in abandoned houses or whatever shelter we could find, and stealing blankets off clotheslines to keep warm.”
Living near Carter Lake, Kronen said he and his sisters, aged 5 and 9, survived on frogs, fish, or “whatever we could find,” which he cooked on campfires.
It was during those desperate days that Kronen said he discovered his artistic talent. “We had to make money somehow,” he said, “so I began drawing pictures with charcoal or a piece of burnt wood, which I’d try to sell to people in nearby shops or bars.” Eventually, police caught the trio and they were sent to a local orphanage. “It was hell,” he stated, “We were always trying to escape.”
After almost a year, Kronen said he was adopted. He attended Washington Elementary School, about a year behind others his age, in the Benson area where the family lived. Those were happy years, he said. One vivid memory centered around a role he landed in a movie when he was 10 years old.
“It was easy,” he boasted, “the producers just asked for the name of the wildest kid around.”
Though he doesn’t recall the name of the movie, Kronen said it was like The Little Rascals. [The film Men of Boys Town was filmed in Omaha in 1941, when Kronen would have been 8. There is, however, no credit for Kronen, as extras were not then credited.]
In high school Kronen became more serious about his art. He remembered taking lessons from Augustus Dunbier, a Nebraska impressionist artist best known for his landscapes. ”Gus took our class out to the woods,” he recalled, “and that sparked my interest in painting nature and wildlife as well as Native Americans.” He also attended the Omaha Art School, a two-year course which “I wound up teaching the second year,” he reminisced.
At age 19, Kronen joined the Marine Corps and became a Combat Illustrator for the Marine Corps Gazette Magazine. Kronen signed up for two hitches. He said he has lived “all over the world.”
He said he was also a professional diver, one of the first to teach scuba diving in Omaha, and added that he worked for three years at the art department of the Navy Oceanographic Office, taking underwater photos of the ocean, bringing back samples, and illustrating them.
His number one passion, however, was his art. He said he designed several stamps in the late 1960s and early 1970s while working for the U.S. Bureau of Printing and Engraving. During this time, he recalled assisting with stamps depicting Tom Sawyer, Benjamin Franklin, Santa Claus, and Old Faithful. He also worked on the postcard illustration of John Hanson, President of the Continental Congress. While working for the Bureau, he also did the artistic etching of President Ulysses Grant on the $100,000 U.S. Treasury Bond. Much like his inability to stay at one bar for a length of time, he left the Bureau in 1972 and went to Akron, Ohio. In a report by the Akron Beacon Journal, he mentioned that working for the Bureau felt like going to jail—the employees were locked inside the building every day.
Kronen was also recognized for his murals, some painted where shoppers could watch him create his art. For example, he painted his mural, “Story of Omaha, from Pre-Settlement Days to the Present,” on the second floor of Westroads Mall over a four-month period in 1980. The mural, which is 17.5’ long and 5.5’ high, was a gift to the city and still hangs today in the Omaha City-County Building. Another of Kronen’s most-publicized creations was a 17’x5.9’ mural depicting the history of the Santee Sioux Indians, which hangs in an elementary school on the tribal reservation of Santee, Nebraska.
Kronen used acrylic paints to create his artwork, which were designed for reproduction. “You sell the chicks,” he explained, “you never sell the hen.” An example of a piece of art made for reproduction was his painting of an American bald eagle, with a billowing flag in the background. Some 550,000 copies of the painting were distributed by a Boston-based food chain as a promotional program, Kronen recalled.
Considering himself more of an illustrator than anything else, Kronen tried to study his subjects in their natural habitats whenever possible. His painstakingly detailed illustrations that have a photographic quality were created with an ultra-thin brush to paint “one hair at a time, and even the pores on a human face.” One of his favorite portraits was of the late Nebraska Poet Laureate John G. Neihardt, whom he painted in 1978 in hopes of it someday being made into a national postage stamp. His illustrations have appeared in various national magazines, including Field & Stream and National Wildlife. He also used his talent to support political candidates, designing murals to hang in both city and national offices.
Someone with first-hand knowledge of that support is former Congressman and former Omaha Mayor Hal Daub. “I worked side-by-side with Tom for nearly 50 years,” Daub said, “He was tireless as a volunteer in many of my efforts to seek public service office. His work and leadership for Vietnam veterans deserves special note and his Native American roots are eloquently displayed in his impressive paintings.”
However, Kronen’s eyesight, which started failing him in 1968. The condition defied a medical solution, and led the artist to paint part of his “Story of Omaha” mural in Braille. “It’s not like braille in books,” he explained, “but some elements, like a rattlesnake’s scales, are raised so that blind people can “see” my art.”
In addition to all his commercial applications, Kronen explained that he often used his talents for worthy causes. He painted two snow leopards, for example, which were sold to raise money for Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo cat complex. He also said he set up programs to help fund Native American students who want to attend art schools.
Kronen was married five times (one marriage lasting more than 40 years), has five biological children, several stepchildren, and has “helped raise countless other children.” Several years ago, he was also able to reunite with his mother and sisters.
All storytellers periodically “blow smoke,” but in this story, it truly happened. In the late 2010s, Kronen’s house, and belongings, burned in a fire. Among those belongings were several years’ worth of artwork and memorabilia. Daub and other friends helped him resettle into an apartment.
Kronen painted to the end, racing against time to complete his projects before his eyesight failed completely. “I can still see enough to do murals and rough portraits,” he said, “just not with as fine a detail as before.” At age 86, the “street smarts” he relied on in his youth were still evident as he spoke with Omaha Magazine in December 2019. When asked if he had developed a life strategy over the years to help him survive, he responded: “I always just try to keep two hops ahead of whoever is chasing me.”
That included the Omaha Magazine staff, who enjoyed listening to the life story of a community member and neighbor even when the evidence fell short. Kronen passed away in January 2020. As of presstime, there had been no funeral notice.
This article was printed in the March/April 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Editor’s note: The Omaha Magazine staff learned on March 12, 2020, that Kronen passed away on Dec. 27, 2019 at Methodist Hospital.