Tuesday, November 27, 2012

My Books

My first book is a collection of photos I took on the East Campus of the University of Nebraska, a scenic spot in the heart of the city.  In addition, I've included ten original poems.  It's a great coffee table type book.

Click the photo to see the book on Amazon.

 Buy my fiction books on Kindle. For girls age 9-12

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Iditablog Posts

In 2011 and 2012 I was a guest blogger for Iditablog, a blog about the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.  You can read my posts here.

Personal Blogs

I maintain a personal blog at: http://marciasmusingsonline.blogspot.com/

I've also started a blog about my journey to Orthodox Christianity at http://exploringorthodoxy.blogspot.com/

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Suite101 Articles

I have written several articles and published them at Suite101.

See my articles here.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Latest Housing Boom: Downtown Living

Published in Parade of Homes, a special section of the Lincoln Journal-Star, October 4, 2008
Copyright 2008 by the Lincoln Journal-Star. Used with permission.
This is my original, unedited version

Fourteen years ago Judith Andre was ready for a change. With her sons grown, she no longer needed her four-bedroom home on an acreage. So she sold her acreage and bought the old city mission building in downtown Lincoln.

A glass artist, Andre remodeled the main floor into an art studio space, converted the second story into two apartments, and moved into one herself. She’s never looked back. “I like to walk, and within a few blocks I can walk to a big variety of places,” she said. “We’ve got the restaurants, the movies, the university campus and Lied Center. And I like the people downtown.”

Jane Morrison worked as an accountant with BKD, often putting in long hours. Moving to the University Towers eliminated her commute and gave her more hours in the day. Now retired, she can’t imagine living anywhere else. She doesn’t even need a locker at the YMCA, because it’s only two blocks from her house. “My home is my locker,” she jokes. She parks in a parking garage on the same level as her apartment and uses a cart to carry in groceries. She often gathers with her neighbors in the building’s rooftop garden.

“They deliver my cleaning to my door, and the trash disappears at 8 every morning. I feel pampered and special,” she said.

Andre and Morrison are part of a growing population—most of them young professionals, those without children, or empty nesters—discovering the advantages of downtown living.

In the past 15 years, housing has exploded in downtown areas nationwide, said Terry Uland, president of the Downtown Lincoln Association (DLA). More than 3000 people now call downtown Lincoln home. The DLA sees constant interest in their online Downtown Living Guide, which refers people to realtors and leasing agents for downtown apartments and condos. Available places fill quickly and many have waiting lists.

“Downtown living isn’t for everyone, but there’s a growing segment of the market who wants the convenience of downtown, who wants the proximity to cultural venues and restaurants and to like-minded people,” said Uland.

“There’s a different energy downtown,” said Todd Ogden, DLA’s marketing director. “You always feel there are people around you, and there’s a lot going on. It’s a lot more vibrant.”

Randy Hawthorne, who has lived in an apartment above a business at 14th and P for ten years, loves the energy, the festivals, and the excitement of football Saturdays, as well as the fact that he can walk to work. Although he misses the green space, he makes up for it by walking on campus, what he calls his “front yard.” He parks in a garage across the street from the building.

The downtown could benefit from a grocery store in the area, Hawthorne said. Convenience items can often be picked up at Walgreens or the new Rojo’s Goods Haymarket Bodega. For larger grocery runs, he often combines shopping with other errands or social visits. But lugging groceries up the stairs “can get a little old,” he admits.

Mark and Erin Willen had always liked the idea of living downtown. When they recently moved here from Rockford, Illinois, they were pleased to find that Lincoln offered affordable apartments for rent in the downtown area. Their 1200-square-foot unit in the Continental Commons at 11th and O has exposed brick and high ceilings, like many of the downtown apartments (commonly referred to as lofts or loft-style apartments).

Like many residents, they appreciate the accessibility to the Haymarket, restaurants and the YMCA. “We drive the least now than we ever have,” Mark Willen said. He parks in a garage on 10th and P Streets, which can be a “frustrating” walk during the coldest weather, when he does drive. And it can be difficult for friends to find parking places when they come to visit.

Richard and Julia Noyes own the Noyes Art Gallery on 9th and O Streets and live in an apartment above the gallery. Richard Noyes, who is the president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, a volunteer community organization, hears from more and more residents who are choosing to live downtown because they want to get rid of their cars. “They live, work and play downtown,” he said.

Noyes is amazed at how often he sees people out walking and talking. “I’ve never had a problem downtown, and I’ve been able to strike up a conversation with anybody almost all the time,” he said.

Developers are starting to take note of the popularity of downtown living, and they’re banking on increased interest in moving to the city center. Concorde Management and Development is in the process of remodeling the Bank of the West building on 13th and O Streets into “Lincoln Flats,” consisting of 30 new condos on the second through fifth floors. Each unit will average around 1150 square feet and sell for around $200,000.

Steve Schmidt, president of Concorde Management and Development, said that judging from the trends in other cities, Lincoln is just scratching the surface when it comes to downtown living. “I think there will be a lot more of this movement back here from the suburbs. I think people are going to realize that they may not want the drive time. They may want to save gasoline. They may realize they’re just not utilizing their house in the suburbs very well, and they may not like mowing and upkeep.”

The Option, a new row house complex in the Haymarket, capitalizes on the advantages of downtown living while minimizing the drawbacks. The 13 four-story condos each have individual garages as part of the unit, making it easy to carry in groceries in all kinds of weather. To help satisfy the desire for green space, each unit includes a rooftop deck and a small gated yard.

These condos are designed especially for entertaining, said Fernando Pages, president of Brighton Construction Company, which is developing the property in partnership with Hampton Development. The first floor can be used as either a commercial space or entertainment area and is perfect for tailgate parties or receptions. The living room and dining room offer more intimate entertaining on the second floor, and bedrooms are on the third floor. The fourth floor penthouse offers a different kind of entertaining space and opens onto the rooftop deck.

As baby boomers age, the housing trend is moving more toward urban living, Pages said. Baby boomers would rather go to dinner and have a drink than go to the park and throw a baseball.

“The market for downtown living is stymied only by one thing,” Pages said. “And that is that the people who want to live downtown have to sell a house in the suburbs to do it. The desire to live downtown is very strong. There is no lack of people who would rather live downtown than in the suburbs right now.”

Rancher Honored as Outstanding Older Worker

Published in Prime Time, a special section of the Lincoln Journal-Star, December 2, 2008
Copyright 2008 by the Lincoln Journal-Star. Used with permission.
This is my original, unedited copy.

There’s no such thing as a typical day for J. Blaine Runner. Hard work that changes from day to day is a way of life for the 80-year-old rancher, who has lived and worked for 37 years in land well suited for cattle, but often not an easy place for the people who care for them.

Runner was named the 2008 Outstanding Older Worker for Nebraska by Experience Works, the nation’s largest provider of training and employment services for older workers. Runner’s daughter, Ruth Fleecs, nominated her father because of his many years of hard work and persistence, as well as his good stewardship practices and desire to keep learning and growing.

In September Blaine and his wife Betty attended a proclamation ceremony in Lincoln and also traveled to Washington, D.C., where they were honored at the Prime Time Awards Banquet, along with representatives from each state. Mildred Heath, a 100-year-old journalist from Overton, Nebr., was also honored at the banquet, receiving the award for America’s Oldest Worker for 2008.

The Runners live in southern Cherry County, Nebr., where Blaine, his brother Robert Runner and two ranch hands raise Angus cattle on an 18,000-acre ranch, now bordered by one of Ted Turner’s bison ranches. Blaine and Betty’s earth sheltered home is 43 miles from the nearest town (Hyannis, population 235). Mail only comes three times per week in their part of the sandhills, and if a vehicle drives down the road, someone’s either lost or coming to visit. But Runner loves being a rancher, an all-encompassing way of life where work and pleasure blend together.

“Things that a lot of people do for recreation, we do as a business,” he said. The ATVs that some people use for recreational four-wheeling are vital for getting around quickly on a ranch, while horses are invaluable for crossing water and riding over the rugged sandhills. He had a pilot’s license for 59 years and used an aircraft for quick trips to town, checking on water tanks and cattle, and searching for stray cattle. It also allowed him to range further from home and return the same day before inclement weather arrived.

“Ranch work changes from season to season,” Runner said. “In the spring it’s calving time and taking care of young cattle. In summertime it’s putting up hay, and in the fall it’s processing and selling cattle and doing extra work and repairs. In the winter it’s fighting snow and business as usual when the weather’s okay.”

Challenges come from the wild animals that share the land. Pocket gophers make mounds of sand that get into the mowers while he’s cutting hay. About a hundred mule deer graze in the cedar trees, and elk are becoming more common in western Nebraska. When dogs have a run-in with a porcupine, it sometimes results in a visit to the vet to remove the quills.

Because services are distant and more expensive, ranchers learn to be creative with mechanical work. Some do their own cesarean operations on cows, and removing personal medical sutures is common. Home schooling for early grades is increasing.

“Where we live induces a ‘do it yourself response,’” Runner explained. “The more skills a person has, the better it is for the business.”

Lifelong Nebraskans, the Runners moved to Cherry County in 1971, after spending nine years in Hooker County and 30 years before that near North Platte. Blaine Runner comes from a long line of pioneers. His ancestors were some of the first settlers in Kentucky after the Revolutionary War. His grandparents came to Nebraska in the 1880s as homesteaders, and his parents lived in Canada for one year before returning to Nebraska.

Good stewardship of the land is important to Runner, who has written articles about conservation practices and grassland management. He has maintained a policy of allowing employees to accumulate ownership of cattle, which has been a boost to them economically. He enjoys reading in his spare time and is always seeking to grow and learn more about the world around him.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Active Centenarian Sally Gordon Shows No Signs of Slowing Down

Published in Lincoln 55 Plus, Summer 2009
Copyright 2009 by Lincoln 55 Plus. http://www.lincoln55plus.com/ Used with permission
This is my original, unedited version.

“God didn’t give us a rewind. He just gave us a pause and a fast-forward.”

That’s one of Sally Gordon’s favorite original sayings, and it pretty much characterizes her life. Although she just celebrated her 100th birthday in March, she shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Every day of the Nebraska legislative session, she walks six blocks to the state capitol building and puts in a full-day as the assistant sergeant of arms to the Nebraska State Legislature.

What’s her secret of good health? “I do a lot of walking,” she said. “I haven’t had a car since 1969. When my husband was dying, he asked me to sell our car, because I wasn’t the world’s best driver.”

Until a few years ago, she used to walk five miles from her house to Gateway. She recalls the time she got tired on the way back and stopped at Roper and Sons to rest. “They took me home—not in a hearse,” she said. Another time she got dehydrated and lay down to rest. The next thing she knew, the ambulance and fire truck had come. “They thought I had died.”
Her secret to keeping her trim figure? Eating with chopsticks forces her to eat slowly, which keeps her from overeating. It’s an idiosyncrasy she’s proud of. Her sense of humor and positive attitude pervade everything she does.

“People call me the ‘Queen of Gush” because if I like the way someone looks I tell them,” she said. “You get a compliment and it kind of pumps you up.”

Born in Chicago to Russian immigrant parents, Sally remembers the first time she saw a telephone. She was three years old and she had to stand on a chair in her landlady’s apartment to talk on the newfangled machine. She remembers that day in 1918 when World War I ended. “My father walked across the street and said, ‘Peace on Earth,’” she recalls.

In the 1920s she called herself a flapper, because she wore her hose rolled down, knew how to do the Charleston and the Black Bottom dance, and she had a long cigarette holder. “But I didn’t inhale,” she’s always quick to add.

The 1930s brought the Depression and Dust Bowl. She remembers making her own soap during those difficult years. One summer it got so hot that Lincolnites slept on the lawn of the capitol. “They were doing that all summer long,” she said.

Sally’s never been afraid of hard work. When she was 22 years old, she moved to Lincoln to look for work. She’d won 23 awards for her secretarial skills, including the state championship in shorthand. She walked into the door of Home Savings and Loan in the Sharp Building and asked if they needed a secretary. They hired her on the spot. From then on, even though she married and raised four children, she was always employed. She served as secretary for both Governor Ralph Brooks and Governor Frank Morrison, was the administrative assistant of UNL’s Centennial Education Program, and for the past 26 years has worked as the assistant sergeant of arms for the Nebraska State Legislature. She assists the senators, greets the public and helps maintain order.

Her various positions have given her opportunities many would only dream of. She’s met several celebrities, including Shirley MacLaine, Jack Benny, Gene Kelly and Rock Hudson. She visited Mari Sandoz in her New York City apartment. She stood on the steps of Air Force One and shook hands with President Lyndon Johnson. “He looked right into my eyes like I was the only person in the world,” she recalls.

“I used to work for Mrs. Morrison, and one time I had a message to deliver to her. I went to the mansion, and Charlton Heston was standing in front of the door and I said, “Excuse me.” I thought later, I meet Moses, and what do I do?”

When she was 56 years old, she went to a governors’ conference, where someone took a flattering picture of her. She sent the photo to Hovland-Swanson, a local store specializing in fashion clothing. “I told them, ‘Not all your models have to be young and gorgeous,’” she said. The store hired her as a model five months later. She continued as a model at various places until two years ago.

When she was 92, she decided to go to Europe. On September 10, 2001, she left to join her tour group. If she had left one day later, on September 11, her trip would have been cancelled. While in Europe, she saw the pope, met the associate editor of the National Enquirer (“He was the nicest guy”), and made many friends whom she still corresponds with. (She received 137 birthday cards from all over the world.)

“If I ever go to Europe again, I’d go where the people are and not to the touristy spots,” she said.
In spite of all her adventures, it’s her family that has given her the greatest joy. Her husband, Merle Gordon, was a good man, and she’s proud of her four children, seven granddaughters and six great-grandchildren. Daughter Connie, who died in 2006, was the first woman advertising director for Seagrams and wrote two books; daughter Janet was a Fulbright Scholar and is an artist; son Jim was a candidate for Rhodes Scholar and is a Lincoln attorney; daughter Sandy studied French and Russian. One of her granddaughters has written three books on chess; two are university professors; and one is a doctor.

One of the things she’s learned over the years is to listen to people. “Everyone has a story to tell, and I’ve been amazed at the things I’ve learned.”

Her advice to other seniors? “Keep active. Don’t think that just because you’re over the hill that you’re outdated. After all, to get to the top of the hill, you have to make an effort.”

Carving Creations

Published in L Magazine, June 2009
Copyright 2009 by L Magazine, used with permission
(This is my original, unedited copy)

While driving along Vine Street by Wyuka Cemetery, it’s hard to miss Mark Rexinger’s home. The first thing you notice is a bald eagle high in a nest, so realistic it’s fooled people. Turn the corner onto 38th Street and you’ll spot other birds of prey, whimsical faces, bears, Native American figures and welcome signs, all carved out of discarded pieces of wood. His carving tool? An ordinary chainsaw.

Rexinger first got the idea to try chainsaw carving while he and his family were vacationing at his mother-in-law’s cabin in Park Rapids, Minnesota. He stopped to watch chainsaw carver Scott Henderschot on the corner of the highway. For the rest of the vacation Rexinger spent as much time with Henderschot as he could.

“I hung around there and moved logs around for him,” he said. “I just asked him not to spin around real fast because I was going to be right behind him watching.”

About a week after he got home, a storm destroyed about a hundred trees in Wyuka Cemetery. Rexinger pulled his truck up to the sign marked “Free Firewood” and loaded it up. He took out the eagle he’d bought from Henderschot and set to work trying to copy it.

His only previous experience with carving was making a small dog out of pine in seventh grade art class (he got an A) and creating larger-than-life snowmen with his daughter. But he bought a few books on chainsaw carving and began experimenting with his new hobby. Like most artists, he threw away the first pieces he made, but after a while, he finished some carvings that he was comfortable displaying, and his outdoor gallery began to grow.

One day a woman drove by his place, circled around the block and finally stopped.
“Is this eagle for sale?” she asked. He told her he wanted $250 for it. “Can you load it up right now?” she responded.

Since then he’s sold a few hundred pieces for as little as $5 or as much as $750. He doesn’t advertise, but instead relies on word-of-mouth, business cards, and his high visibility location. He rarely accepts commissioned work; he prefers to create something he likes and hope someone will appreciate it enough to buy it. He especially enjoys carving eagles and other birds of prey, but many people prefer the ever-popular bear.

“At first I didn’t want to carve bears, because everybody does it,” he said. “But other carvers told me, ‘You gotta carve bears. You’re losing half your income.’”

He gets his wood from local tree services and has carved nearly every kind of wood. His favorite wood to carve is cedar because the red heartwood creates unique patterns. He’s used the same chainsaw for seven years and usually starts with a regular bar and moves to a tapered bar for finer detail , then finishes the piece with a sander. Sometimes he uses a blowtorch to add a burned look; other pieces are left plain; and occasionally he paints a carving. He gives every piece a thin coat of varnish for protection against the elements, since most of his work is displayed on people’s yards or decks.

His bald eagles are painted to make them look realistic. He anchors the eagles in an upside-down tree, using the roots to depict the nest (a technique he learned from Henderschot, whom he visits every year.) Once a wildlife conservation officer knocked on his door and said a friend had told him to check out the bald eagle out on 38th and Vine. They both had a good laugh over that one.

The main expenses are the gas he uses to get the wood and the cost of replacement chains. Nails in the wood are his “biggest enemy” because they can easily destroy a chain. He’s considered getting a metal detector to inspect the wood before beginning a carving.

He does most of his work in the yard of the duplex he and his family share with his mother-in-law. The neighbors have never complained about the noise. He makes sure not to start before 8:00 a.m. and he puts the chainsaw away at sunset. To give his wife, Bobbi, and daughter, Brandi, a break, he sometimes carves at friends’ houses.

Rexinger loves the feeling of taking an old tree limb or weathered board and creating something new out of it. “It’s like giving it a new life,” he said.

He’s demonstrated at a few public festivals. He and Rick Burgess, a North Platte carver who’s become a good friend, demonstrated at the steel chainsaw booth at Grand Island’s Husker Harvest Days. Rexinger was a guest carver at a contest in Hackensack, Minnesota, and competed in the “Whittle the Wood Rendezvous” in Craig, Colorado.

So far he’s kept his “day job” as a bricklayer, but his goal is to carve full-time, traveling, doing demonstrations and competing in shows. “That’s what chainsaw carving is about—drawing a crowd,” he said. “It’s a performance art.”

"I Am a Man"

Published in L Magazine, March 2009
Copyright 2009 by L Magazine, used with permission
(This is my original, unedited copy)

Joe Starita, a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska, is surprised at how few people know the story of Chief Standing Bear. It’s something he’s hoping to remedy with his new book, I am a Man, recently published by St. Martin’s Press.

“It’s such a powerful, compelling, magnificent story,” he said. “And it’s really surprising to me how relatively few people know the story of what happened to a middle-aged father when he set off to bury his only son by walking 600 miles on a bitterly cold January morning. I want to expand that audience.”

Chief Standing Bear was a leader of the small, peace-loving Ponca tribe who lived in the northeast corner of Nebraska, at the confluence of the Missouri and Niobrara Rivers. In 1877 the U.S. military forced the Ponca to relocate to “Indian Territory” in present-day Oklahoma, a 600-mile journey of hardship, disaster and death. After two difficult years in an unforgiving land, Standing Bear’s son, Bear Shield, was near death. He asked his father to bury him in the ancestral burial ground overlooking the Niobrara River. Upon Bear Shield’s death, Standing Bear and 29 other Ponca loaded Bear Shield’s body onto a rickety buckboard wagon and set out in a blizzard to keep the chief’s promise. When they reached northeast Nebraska, they were arrested and ordered to return to Indian Territory.

In what Starita calls an “improbable sequence of events,” General George Crook, the brigadier general who was ordered to arrest the Ponca, realized he did not have the heart to send these exhausted people back. Instead he rode by horseback under the cover of night to tell the story to Thomas Henry Tibbles, the assistant editor of the Omaha newspaper. Tibbles took up Standing Bear’s cause, and for the first time in our nation’s history, a federal judge declared that an American Indian is a person within the meaning of the law.

“For one moment in 1879 you had white ranchers and white farmers and white judges and white brigadier generals of the United States Army and white newspaper reporters and white Episcopal bishops and white clergymen and white wealthy citizens and governors and senators and congressmen—all rallying around the Standing Bear flagpole to do everything they could to make sure that this man was accorded the kind of justice that Americans were supposed to believe in. That’s not a story?”

It’s also the story of all three branches of the U.S. government working exactly as our Founding Fathers had planned, Starita explained. The court system did its job, in the form of Judge Dundy weighing the evidence and ruling in Standing Bear’s favor. The legislative branch conducted days of hearings and concluded that Standing Bear had been wronged. The executive branch of government, in the form of President Rutherford B. Hayes, dispatched a commission to interview the Ponca and agreed that the chief had been wronged. Furthermore, it’s an example of the press doing its job of informing the public.

I am a Man is not a “musty old relic packed away in mothballs,” Starita said. “One of the things I like very much about this book is the great variety of themes and the great variety of questions that it raises,” he said. “Some of those themes and questions resonate as loudly in the opening years of the 21st century as they did in the waning years of the 19th century. If you look at the relationship between the government and the native people of this country, you can see that it was one that was fraught with problems from day one, and those problems are still going on. One of the things that I think is important to take away from this is the notion that it simply may not be possible to impose American style democracy on tribal based societies.”

Starita’s interest in Native Americans began as a young boy growing up in Lincoln. Because of what he calls his “obsessive personality,” that interest continued into his adult years. “It’s something that clicked with me at an early age and it never stopped clicking,” he said.
His first book, The Dull Knifes of Pine Ridge, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and has been translated into seven languages. It chronicles the changes that occurred in five generations of a single Lakota-Northern Cheyenne family on the Pine Ridge Reservation. This powerful story of struggle and survival is the result of three years of research and writing. Starita would throw a tent, a fishing pole and a couple of pairs of jeans in the back of his car and drive 500 miles to the Pine Ridge Reservation. There he would set up his tent on the ancestral homeland above Red Water Creek, where for two weeks he would spend 18-20 hours a day with the Dull Knife family. After six months, the family came to trust him and began telling him “rich, wonderful, textured stories that sank really deep into their family roots.”

He approached the story of Standing Bear with the same “Captain Ahab-like” determination. With the help of Kyle Wyatt, a graduate student majoring in history, he studied every article published about Standing Bear. He spent numerous hours in the traditional Ponca homeland in northeast Nebraska, talking with every Ponca he could find. Then he’d get in the car and drive to Oklahoma and talk to the key Ponca figures there. He also spent many hours exploring the land along the Niobrara River.

“You cannot write one word of the story unless you understand how sacrosanct the land was to the Ponca people,” he said. “So you have to go up there and you have to see it. You have to understand how the whole ecosystem works, what kinds of plants there are, how the rivers flow into one another, what kind of wildlife is there, what kind of fish, what kind of food can be grown there, how rich the valley was. You can’t write this story unless you spend a lot of time on the land so you understand why they would walk 600 miles to get back to this piece of property along the Niobrara River.”

The result is a book drawn from extensive historical research as well as rich oral history from real people, written in a well-structured, yet fast-paced, easy-to-read format. Starita wrote the book so each chapter stands on its own, at the same time forming a mosaic that fits together to tell a powerful story. It’s already generated positive reviews, including what Starita calls an “embarrassingly good review” in the Pequot Times, a newspaper produced by an influential New England Tribe.

What’s next for Starita? “What is really starting to get me excited is the story of Susan LaFlesche Picotte,” he said. “The more I hear about this story, the more I can feel the obsessive genes kicking in. It’s just a marvelous story.” Picotte was born on an Omaha Indian reservation and became the first Native American woman to receive a medical degree.

He’s also excited about a year-long class entitled “Native Daughters” he’s co-teaching at the University of Nebraska. Through a grant from the Carnegie/Knight Foundation, the University is bringing in some of the most impressive Native American Women in our country. Out of this year-long process of looking at the role of American Indian women in U.S. society, students will produce a 100-page full-color magazine, a one-hour documentary, a major website and several blogs.

For Starita, what started as a childhood interest has become a lifelong passion. He plans to continue researching, writing about and teaching about Native Americans and their place in our country.

Civil War Voices

Published in L Magazine, February 2009
Copyright 2009 by L Magazine, used with permission
This is my original, unedited version.

A new musical written by Lincoln attorney Jim Harris looks at the Civil War through the eyes of five individuals, one of whom was related to the author. But don’t expect the program to be a dry history lesson. “Civil War Voices,” to be performed at the Lied Center on February 13 as part of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Celebration, is entertaining, humorous, passionate and thought-provoking, and tells a timeless story in a fresh way.

The process of writing the musical evolved over a number of years, Harris said. It started when he discovered a diary kept by his great-great uncle, Joseph Henry Harris, who lived in Oak Bowery, Alabama, and fought for the Southern Militia during the Civil War. Although he had serious doubts about the wisdom of secession, Joseph Henry Harris (affectionately referred to as “Uncle Joe”) still wanted to be supportive of the South, and this internal conflict is brought out in the diary.

Harris began giving talks based on the diary, what he calls his “Uncle Joe Talk,” ending with the final entry—a prayer for reconciliation and forgiveness. About the fifth or sixth time he gave the talk, he added a mournful rendition of Dixie to the final prayer.

“I heard noises in the audience, and I looked out and a number of people were in tears,” he recalled. “Before I had added music, they were just simply saying, ‘My, what an interesting diary.’ But when you add in the music, it adds a different quality to that story.”

A while later, Harris went with his brothers on a business trip to Georgia. While they were driving from Atlanta to Savannah, it occurred to Harris that they were taking roughly the same path that General Sherman took on his famous March to the Sea. All of a sudden Civil War songs started running through his head, and an idea came to him. If he could find other interesting stories and combine it with songs from the period, it would make a great musical.

He discovered fascinating first-hand accounts of four other individuals: Elizabeth Keckley, who was born a slave, bought her freedom, and worked first for Jefferson Davis and then as Mary Todd Lincoln’s personal dressmaker; Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a Union Soldier and the hero at the Battle of Gettysburg; and Theo and Harriet Perry, a married couple who wrote love letters to each other while Theo fought for the Confederacy. Harris decided to base the musical on the writings of these four people, as well as his great-great uncle’s diary.

Harris, who had never written much of anything except legal briefs, enlisted the help of Senator David Landis, who had written a one-act play based on the life of George Norris. In addition, Robin McKercher, who is currently the head of Doane College’s theater department, helped build structure into the play and serves as the director of the show.

Choosing the songs was the easiest part of the process, Harris said. Because he was familiar with the music of the period, specific songs would jump out at him as he wrote the story. The pieces are what Director Robin McKercher calls “The Greatest Hits of the Civil War” and include familiar pieces such as “Battle Cry of Freedom,” “Goober Peas,” “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” and several traditional spirituals.

When it came time to find an arranger, Harris went to Dietze Music Store and asked for every songbook with music from the Civil War period. One composer stood out far above the rest: Mark Hayes of Kansas City, known world-wide for his arrangements of spirituals, hymns and folk songs. His unique take on the traditional songs will surprise the audience, Harris said.
“I did not want people falling asleep in an 1860’s parlor,” Harris said. “I wanted it to be new. It’s certainly respectful of the original genre, but it’s surprising and there are moments when it sort of blows the roof off the house.”

Director Robin McKircher said Harris was “very lucky” to land this collaborative relationship with Mark Hayes. “The two of them have really honed a very meaningful, very emotionally heartfelt show that’s filled with great pathos and humor.”

Robin McKircher, who served as the artistic director of the Lincoln Community for almost eight years, first met Harris when Harris acted in a play called, ironically, “The Civil War.” Last spring Harris asked McKircher to direct what was to be the premiere showing of the play, a fundraiser for an Alabama museum. McKircher suggested they perform it at Doane College first, where it caught the notice of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Committee.

“Civil War Voices” incorporates Elizabeth Keckley’s often quirky and unusual recollections of life in the Lincoln household. She recalls the pet goats that Lincoln loved, much to the consternation of his wife. Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln make an appearance in the musical as well.

The show is a tribute to Harris’s parents, both of whom loved music and history. Harris’s mother was a pianist and violinist, and his father appreciated all kinds of good music. Harris grew up surrounded by music and participated in musical theater throughout high school and college. Harris’s wife, Vicki, is also a violinist and pianist and has her own studio.

Harris’s father was from Opelika, Alabama, and his mother was from McCook, Nebraska, so the family commuted between the two states, spending the school year in McCook, where his father worked at his grandfather’s store, and summers in Opelika, where his father had a farm.

His summers in Alabama gave the Nebraska boy a strong connection with the South. He grew up during the “tail end of segregation,” and remembers when he couldn’t go with an African-American friend to the theater because his friend had to sit in the balcony.

“It bothered me, but it also really interested me to learn more about what this was this all about,” Harris said. “My dad had a very innate, natural grasp of what America was about; he was very perceptive. He knew a lot about the history of the South and so I learned from him.”
Harris’s father founded the Museum of East Alabama in Opelika, which sponsored the showing of “Civil War Voices” last spring. His mother, who is still living at age 96, founded the High Plains Museum in McCook. The musical will be performed in McCook on February 21, as a fundraiser for the Fox Theatre.

The cast includes some of the Lincoln and Omaha’s best performers. Harris himself will play the part of Uncle Joe. Although the costumes are from the Civil War Period, the show has a contemporary rather than a “dusty, antiquated feel,” said McKercher.

“It’s timeless in its message,” McKercher said. “The stories Jim has concentrated on are stories of individuals who find beauty and joy. The solemnity of some of these occasions and the heart that these characters have all sewn up in the cataclysm of what they faced at that time is really quite inspirational.”

All tickets for “Civil War Voices” are general admission and are available at the Lied Center Box Office by calling 472-4747. Cost is only $15 for adults and $10 for students.

Elvis Lives

Published in L Magazine, January 2009
Copyright 2009 by L Magazine, used with permission
This is my original, unedited version

Joseph Hall is still getting used to being famous. After finishing in the top ten on the national TV program “America’s Got Talent,” the 24-year-old Elvis Tribute Artist can’t seem to go anywhere without being recognized. While pumping gas or shopping for groceries, strangers congratulate him and tell him they voted for him. It’s still a little overwhelming, considering that around two years ago he was working in his father’s restaurant and had never performed on stage.

His road to fame started in October of 2006, when his family threw an employee Halloween party and opened it up to the public. Hall went as Elvis and sang a few songs. Afterwards one of the guests approached him and asked him to perform at her bar. That led to another show, which led to another show. Six months later, Hall placed in the top ten in an Elvis tribute contest and was asked to headline the first ever Elvis Presley cruise. Because of his success, he decided to quit his job and become a full-time entertainer.

He traveled to Chicago in February of 2008 to do a screen test for “America’s Got Talent.” Two days later he got a call saying he was on the show. He describes his time on “America’s Got Talent” as a “crazy ride” full of long days spent in rehearsals, meeting with tech teams, and a lot of “hurry up and wait.” His top ten finish earned him a spot in a Vegas show before 5,000 screaming fans.

“I enjoyed every minute of it, and I wouldn’t take back anything from the show,” he said. “It was the best time of my life.”

Since returning to Lincoln, his schedule has been packed. His father, Kyle Hall (who serves as his manager) and the rest of his support team are kept busy with booking, production and merchandise sales. Hall had about 30 shows from October through December, and a tour of U.S. cities is planned for the new year. In February he will be performing at the Astrodome with two other contestants from “America’s Got Talent”—Queen Emily and Nuttin’ But Stringz.

“In the beginning our team would go out and push the show, but now we don’t have time for that. We just book a show and then 500 people show up,” Hall said. “What ‘America’s Got Talent’ has done is it’s made me as a known entertainer, so basically the country is ours. Now that we’ve been in the living rooms of America, we want to be in their lives. It’s time to take advantage of the name that I’ve established.”

With over 700 Elvis songs to choose from, Hall will never run out of material. “The King” performed everything from rock and rhythm & blues to Gospel and country. Because Hall was born seven years after Elvis passed away, he never had the opportunity to see his idol in person. All he has are videos, records, CDs and photographs, which he studies to create “Joseph Hall’s translation” of Elvis.

“What I do on stage is pay tribute to Elvis, but at the same time I don’t try to become Elvis. People see Elvis and they see me at the same time. There are over 50,000 Elvis Tribute Artists out there, and everybody does their own show, so it’s just a translation.”

Though he sings a wide variety of Elvis songs, Hall personally prefers the later Elvis music, spanning from 1969 to 1977. His favorite Elvis tune, “Suspicious Minds,” earned high praise from all three judges on “America’s Got Talent.” Piers Morgan, often the more critical of the three, declared “Elvis is back in the building!” after the song, which Hall performed in the classic jeweled white jumpsuit.

Hall finds that most of his audiences prefer the younger look of Elvis, but like the later music. At the same time, they go nuts over the white jumpsuit, which Elvis wore in the later years.
“All my costumes are replicas of what Elvis wore,” he said. “I’ll do the 50’s replica—the gold lame’ jacket--and you get a couple of smiles here and there and people like it. Then when you come out in the ’68 black leather, you get a little bit more reaction. But when you come out with the white jumpsuit—the iconic white suit—people go nuts, because that’s the superhero look.”
After more than 230 shows, Hall no longer gets nervous before a gig. In fact, he finds that the bigger the crowd, the more comfortable he feels. As often happens with performers and actors, he loses himself in the music and the audience and, in his case, the character of Elvis.

What’s it like to entertain so many people? “I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do. It’s the greatest feeling to bring smiles to so many people’s faces. A 60-year-old woman comes up and she’s got tears in her eyes and she says, ‘Thank you for making me feel like I was 20 years old again.’ It’s a great compliment. And then you see 11 and 12-year-olds in the audience screaming and dancing and they come up to you after the show wanting you to sign their T-shirt. I’ve never seen anything like it, where there’s an act that’s brought every age group together.”

Lost in a book and so much more

Published in L Magazine, November 2008
Copyright 2008 by L Magazine, used with permission
This is my original, unedited version.

When Pat Leach first began working at Lincoln City Libraries in 1979, things were a lot different. Patrons checked out materials by writing their names on a card. Lincolnites looked at the library primarily as a place to check out books.

Now technology has streamlined the checkout process and vastly increased the libraries’ services. And patrons look to the libraries for much more than just checking out books. As Leach begins as library director, she wants Lincolnites to realize everything the city’s libraries have to offer.

“Technology is not just making us do our work better, it’s giving opportunities for people to share information and be part of the whole process,” she explained. “For instance, customers can put book reviews into our on-line catalog.”

This past year the total circulation of Lincoln City Libraries was just over three million, but much of that included materials other than books. Library staff, which number over 120 at the eight branch libraries, are paying attention to what people are asking for, and selections are based on those requests. Some of the newer offerings include current movies and TV programs, downloadable audiobooks, and on-line electronic databases on practical subjects like genealogy, health, car repair and test preparation.

“Our website is well worth looking at, even if a person chooses not to come into our library building,” Leach said. “We kind of think of it as a small branch library.”

Many people aren’t aware of the services libraries offer, she said. For instance, you can have an item sent to any branch for no extra charge, and you may return library materials to any branch. There is no longer a charge for placing items on hold. Interlibrary loan, another free service, allows you to check out books from other libraries if something is not available in Lincoln City Libraries. Outreach programs mail library materials to shut-ins and take the bookmobile to smaller towns in Lancaster County. Other “best kept secrets” are the Polley Music Library and the Heritage Room for Nebraska Authors, two specialized libraries located within Bennett Martin.

Lincoln’s library system compares favorably with that of other similar cities. The 2008 Hennen’s American Public Library Rating Index, which ranks public libraries according to circulation, staffing, materials, reference service and funding levels, ranked Lincoln City Libraries sixth in its population category. “There’s always room to grow, but I think overall our library system is pretty strong, both in terms of our facilities and the kinds of materials that we offer,” Leach said.
Pat Leach took the position of library director on September 22, replacing Carol Connor, who retired after 30 years of service. Connor’s example, coupled with her own varied positions of service with the library system, have given Leach confidence in taking on this new challenge.
Growing up in Aurora, Nebraska, Leach spent a lot of time at the town’s library and got to know the librarians well. Her mother served on the local library board. Influential teachers furthered her love of reading. She began working part time at Lincoln City Libraries while attending the University of Nebraska and has worked in technical processing, the reference department and as director of the South Branch Library.

Most recently, Leach worked for 13 years as director of Youth Services, purchasing materials and planning children’s programs for all Lincoln libraries and collaborating with other organizations, such as the Lincoln Children’s Museum and Lincoln Public Schools, to provide services for children and youth. While in that position, two new branches opened, Eiseley and Walt, both well-known for their inviting children’s sections. She started the Kindergarten Kickoff program, a celebration of the start of school, which this year drew over 4000 participants. In collaboration with the Nebraska Humanities Council, she helped initiate Prime Time, a national program of storytelling and discussion, which encourages at risk families to read aloud at home and talk about books in a meaningful way.

Programs such as these demonstrate another recent change in libraries, in that people are looking at libraries as a community space, a place to come and spend time. Leach is looking at ways to increase that involvement, such as providing developmental toys for children to play with while at the library and encouraging parents who come for story time to interact with each other. “It’s sort of the community’s living room, where people are welcome to just spend time and meet each other in an atmosphere of books and learning,” she said.

Leach would like Lincolnites to take ownership of their libraries. Her goal is not just that people use the libraries, but that they consider their branch library their own, think of it as “their place.”

Libraries exist because of democracies, because we live in a country where we believe that all people should have access to information, Leach said. “A lot of people buy their own books, and the truth is, we’ve probably bought that book for you already and you could use it. We have things that address all interests.”

For more information on Lincoln City Libraries, see their website: http://www.lcl.lib.ne.us/

A childhood dream Fulfilled

Published in L Magazine, October 2008
Copyright 2008 by L Magazine, used with permission
This is my original, unedited version

Mary Elizabeth Anderson remembers the first time she knew she wanted to be a writer. Like many little girls, she loved to read. One day, when she was about 9 or 10 years old, she looked down at the stack of books in her arms and realized that nothing in the world would be more exciting than to see her name on the cover of a book.

It took nearly 50 years for that dream to become a reality. Mary and her husband, Don, raised three children. Don worked as an executive in construction and manufacturing management. Mary taught school in Iowa, where the couple lived for 12 years, and then did substitute teaching and volunteer work in Grand Island, where they lived for 30 years. She wrote a few stories, but didn’t know how to market them. Then, in 1991, when she was 51 years old, she noticed an ad for a class entitled “Freelance Writing for Profit and Pleasure” at the local community college. Following that class, she took an advanced class, and then started writing articles for magazines. Rural Heritage published her first article, which was about draft horses.

“I was so excited that I really did get my first article published,” Anderson recalled. “I thought, This is going to be easy. Well, then I found out it wasn’t so easy. I had to learn how to gear my material to the market.”

She began collecting magazines from friends and neighbors. She’d ask doctors’ offices for magazines they didn’t want anymore. She studied the kinds of articles each magazine published, sometimes dissecting an article word by word, counting paragraphs and active words. Figuring out exactly what kinds of stories and articles each magazine wanted helped her become successful. Her articles and stories have been published in over 100 magazines, and she has given writing seminars at community colleges throughout Nebraska.

But Anderson still had not seen her name on the cover of a book. Then a friend told her about the Lincoln Highway Association, an organization seeking to preserve the pre-interstate road that stretches across the U.S. Intrigued, she began researching the history of the highway, which follows approximately the same route as I-80. The result was a hardcover picture book for grade schoolers entitled Link Across America: A Story of the Historic Lincoln Highway, published by Rayve Publications in 1997.

Since then, Anderson has written and published four more children’s books: Taking Cerebral Palsy to School, It’s Me Again, God, All About Manners, and her latest, Gracie Gannon: Middle School Zero, which she describes as a book about bullying, belonging and dealing with insecurities. A multicultural picture book entitled Why Did They Build a Fence? will be published in 2009.

Fiction stories for children are fun to write, Anderson said, because she loves developing the characters and story line. “I feel like Gracie Gannon is just a living, breathing character that lives with me,” she said. “It’s so fun to get to that part, to develop the story line and get the plot going and get the people interacting. I can sit down in the morning and before I know it, the day is over and I’ve spent the whole day writing.”

The most frustrating part about writing? Waiting to hear from publishers and promoting your work once it’s written. Small to medium-sized publishing houses, like the ones she’s published with, do not have large budgets for promotion, and the authors need to do much of it themselves. Anderson has done media interviews, sent out press releases, and given books away. She’s constantly on the lookout for opportunities to promote her work.

When Don retired four years ago, the couple moved to Lincoln to be near their children and grandchildren. Being with her six grandchildren gives Mary lots of ideas for children’s stories, she said. “They’re a wealth of information. I start writing down things they said, and that would just start a story.”

To further improve her writing, she reads lots of children’s books. Some of her favorite children’s authors are Katherine Paterson, Eve Bunting, and Dandi Dalely Mackall, who has written over 450 books and is a personal friend and mentor.

You’re never too old to pursue a dream, Anderson said. “I know more people who have said, ‘I’d like to write a book someday.’ They need to jump into it, start going to workshops, taking classes and networking. Keep reading and writing daily.”

For more information about Mary Elizabeth Anderson, see her website: http://www.meanderson.com/

More than a Thrift Store

Published in L Magazine, October 2008
Copyright 2008 by L Magazine, used with permission
This is my original, unedited version

It seems the Junior League Thrift Store has always been a part of Lincoln. For most of its 56-year existence, the store occupied the corner of 18th and O, drawing Lincolnites from all over town: people who needed the low cost clothing and household items, as well as those just looking for a bargain or an unusual find.

The store was known for high-quality clothing and household goods, said Melissa Dirr, president of the Junior League of Lincoln, which opened the thrift shop in 1952 at 215 North 9th Street. Other locations have included the Alamo Center and University Place, a spot it occupied from 2005 until May of this year, when declining profits led the League to close the store.

Lavore Amgwert bought nearly her entire wardrobe there, including professional clothing, formalwear and casual outfits. “I was able to wear designer clothes for a very nominal amount,” she recalled. “You’d be surprised at how many people thought I had a lot of money.”

She and a friend used to go out for breakfast every Wednesday morning at a restaurant located next door to the shop, poised and ready to check out the new merchandise put out weekly. Some of her favorite finds were a 25-cent purse with a $20 bill tucked inside and a $5 bracelet with 14-karat gold charms, a treasure she still wears often. Her home is decorated with accessories she purchased at a fraction of the cost of new items, from lamps to candlesticks, to a living room desk and even Heisey crystal.

For Lavore’s 70th birthday, her daughter-in-law Susie Diers, who works as an administrative assistant for the Junior League of Lincoln, surprised her by throwing a party—where else? The Junior League Thrift Store. Lavore thought she was going out to dinner at the Old Country Buffet with her son. “There’s something in the thrift store window I want you to look at,” he commented. Then : “It looks like the store is open!” Inside were about 35 of her friends and relatives, some from out of town. After enjoying cake and sandwiches, some even stayed to shop.

Local poet and former US Poet Laureate Ted Kooser was a regular shopper at the Junior League Thrift Shop and even mentions one of his finds--a plaid flannel shirt--in his book, Local Wonders. Twenty years after buying it, he still has that shirt, along with countless other treasures. He recalls buying a painting for $20 and later discovering the artist was quite a noted painter. He bought a couple of suits purposely too large and then had them tailored to fit.

“The quality of clothes was really quite marvelous,” he said. “It was not unusual to find a suit from someplace like Hickey Freeman, a suit that today would cost $1200, but I’d pick it up for $25.”

Although the thrift store is now closed, the Junior League of Lincoln continues to impact the community through its programs and contributions. The local organization, which started in 1921, played a part in establishing and improving many Lincoln institutions, such as the Child Guidance Center, Folsom Children’s Zoo, Fairview, the Junior Golf Course, Hyde Memorial Observatory, and the Lincoln Symphony. Significant projects have included developing the docent program at Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and helping with funding and construction of the new Friendship Home.

The Association for Junior Leagues International (AJLI) was founded in New York City in 1901 by Mary Harriman, a 19-year-old debutante who saw the need to help the new immigrant community. She mobilized a group of young women (hence the name “Junior”) to work toward improving health, nutrition and literacy among immigrant families. Its mission soon expanded to include all aspects of community improvement, especially as it relates to women and children.
The Junior League of Lincoln recently received the $10,000 “Fund For the Future” award from AJLI to develop “Dream Designs,” a program that hearkens back to the organization’s original purpose of helping immigrant families.

“Lincoln is a huge resettlement area for many communities, especially Sudanese and Middle Eastern,” Melissa Dirr explained. “Some of these families come separated—children without parents, one spouse without the other. When they first arrive, they are flooded with resources through many of the community organizations, but we’ve found that after three or four months, these things are seriously lacking.”

The goal of Dream Designs is to help Sudanese women use their traditional skills to earn money. Using the Entrepreneurship Investigation curriculum developed by UNL Extension, League members are partnering with Lincoln Literacy to help these women develop business plans and market handmade items such as traditional clothing, embroidery or crochet.

Well organized projects such as Dream Design give League members an opportunity to help local women and children through hands-on volunteering, said Dirr. “It’s a great way to be a part of something, to have that support of other women and also to give back to the community. And we’re fun.” The Junior League also provides leadership opportunities and a supportive environment.

Dirr joined the League about ten years ago, when she realized that everything she was involved in outside of the home was work related. “I wanted to focus on things that were completely outside of work, and I wanted to introduce myself to a new group of women, and I wanted it to be through a volunteer experience.”

At the new member open house, she was impressed with the women from different backgrounds and walks of life who were dedicated to the same mission. Serving with the Junior League helped expose her to different parts of Lincoln. The training she received has been invaluable in developing her leadership skills.

Dott Hoff, age 94, is one of the oldest members of the League, as well as the group’s most enthusiastic recruiter. She joined the organization in 1996, when the upper age limit restriction was lifted. Since then, she has served at the thrift store, helped with holiday parties and assisted with hospitality at social events. In 2004 she won the Distinguished Sustainer Award for the Junior League of Lincoln.

She rarely attends a League meeting alone; she nearly always brings along a young woman she has invited to come find out more about the organization. “It’s a wonderful way to meet women who have the same interests as you do,” she said. Once you get established in the organization, you can choose which projects you want to get involved in, she said. She’s always looking for potential members. “I ask them to a meeting, and from then on, it’s easy.”

The Junior League of Lincoln is looking for new members. They welcome any woman who is at least 21 years of age and a resident of the greater Lincoln area. For more information, call the League office at 464-2050 or visit their webpage at http://www.jll.org/

Challenge and Confidence

Published in L Magazine, August 2008
Copyright 2008 by L Magazine, used with permission
This is my original, unedited version

“I am honored and humbled to be given such an extraordinary opportunity.”

That’s how Ann Chang-Barnes describes her thoughts on her new position as interim director of the Lied Center. What gave her the confidence to accept the appointment?

What gets me through those moments when I question whether or not I can do something like this is the experience I had with Meadowlark Music Festival,” she said.

Dr. Chang-Barnes founded the highly successful classical music festival in 2001 and served as executive and artistic director for five years, a position that included everything from planning the season to fundraising, administration and event coordinating. She describes the experience as the most difficult thing she has ever done.

“It’s created out of nothing, and it’s hard for people to support something that doesn’t exist. You have to work harder to communicate your vision. I was very fortunate that the community came and embraced the idea after the first season. I learned so much, and that is one of the reasons I felt that I had the nerve to accept this appointment.”

Although directing the Lied Center presents a much bigger challenge, Ann’s confidence has been further boosted by the capable staff who are dedicated to the concept of the Lied Center as a vital organization in our community.

Born in Seoul, Korea, Ann emigrated to the U.S. with her family when she was nine years old, settling in Chicago. Music has always been an important part of her life. Strauss waltzes and Beethoven’s symphonies on the record player were staples in their home. Ann started playing piano at age five and never stopped, going on to earn her doctorate in piano performance from Indiana University in 1993. It was there that she met and married Paul Barnes and the two started their family, which now includes Sarah, 16, Hannah, 15, and Peter, 11.

Ann was a piano instructor at De Pauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, before moving to Lincoln in 1995, when Paul took the position of co-chair of UNL’s piano department and Ann was appointed senior lecturer in the department. She is taking a leave of absence from her most recent position of artist in residence, but plans to honor her performance commitments, including an August 18 concert at the Chicago Cultural Center, and a September 9 faculty recital in Kimball Hall in Lincoln. In addition, as part of her recent Fulbright Scholar appointment, Ann will be performing and doing research with the Royal Conservatory of Music in Brussels in the summer of 2009.

“It’s important to keep that part of my identity intact,” she said. “Because that’s who I am—a musician. Being a musician will help me in this job because so much of it is about artistic creativity. I will try to keep on performing, because that’s what keeps me centered.”

Dr. Chang-Barnes got her first taste of presenting while serving on the board of Lincoln Friends of Chamber Music in the late 1990s. While curating her first season for the organization, she discovered how much she enjoyed finding talented musicians and putting together a season for the patrons. She tries to develop a season around a theme, though not always obviously identifiable.

“I see a season as a complete, sort of rounded whole,” she said. “With Lincoln Friends I had to program five concerts throughout the year, and so I tried to be diverse in who I brought in, but also keep the same kind of standard and direction.”

In addition to her work with Meadowlark Music Festival and Lincoln Friends of Chamber Music, Ann has served on the Lied Advisory Board, the Geske Lecture Series Board, the UNL International Programs Advisory Council and as Vice Chair of Woods Charitable Fund. Her three years in the latter position were life-changing, she said.

“Being a part of Woods Charitable fund has opened my eyes to philanthropy and the needs of the community and how ordinary people are out there serving the needs of the community of Lincoln. I see how big of an impact foundations like the Woods Charitable Fund can have by providing funding for this kind of work that is being done well and quietly around the city.”

Lincoln is an extremely sophisticated city, Ann said, stemming from university’s presence as well as a young, family centered population who recognizes quality performances. Her goal for the Lied Center is to continue to provide a high standard of performing arts, not only for Lincoln, but for the entire state of Nebraska.

“We take that position very seriously, and it’s a much more challenging goal than just going out and finding patrons,” she said. “We have to educate the patrons and bring performing arts to people who don’t even know they’re missing it.”

When the Lied staff create a season, they choose several artists with an affinity for community outreach and arrange a tour of smaller communities throughout the state, bringing the arts into the schools and to patrons who are not able to make it to Lincoln.

The 2008-2009 Lied Center season, which she inherited from previous director Charles Bethea, provides a diverse line-up, with holiday events such as a Celtic Christmas and Holiday with the Canadian Brass, a bit of nostalgia with the Beatles Experience, celebrities like Ruben Studdard in “Ain’t Misbehavin,” recognizable names such as Frankie Avalon, and timely humor by Capitol Steps.

For the 2009-2010 season, which Ann and her staff are currently putting together, she is seeking to generate interest from a wider range of patrons by providing artists with national recognition, increasing the diversity of the events, and “pushing the edges a little bit.”

There’s a lot of “wiggle room” within the standard genres of children’s programming, classical music, jazz, theater and dance, she explained. Some jazz artists push the genre more into rock, attracting an audience that may not normally choose to come to the Lied Center.

“With classical music, we will continue to present the first-rate talented classical musicians that the hard-core classical patrons would love, but at the same time engage a slightly younger audience by presenting a younger talent,” she said.

Though Lied Center ticket prices are below the national prime for acts of this caliber, the events do not come cheap. “If we’re presenting something of this quality you don’t want it to be cheap, because it’s not the experience that you’re going to get,” Ann said. “Our hope is that the audience will begin to see a Lied Center event as an entire experience that is worth that amount of money. We have to earn it, and there’s a lot of work, a lot of planning that goes behind putting on an event. Our job is to make sure that you get your money’s worth.”

With the difficulties of today’s economic times, it may be easy for some to consider the arts as superfluous, but Ann’s hope is that people won’t lose sight of the importance of the arts to one’s quality of life. “It’s what makes us human beings, and it’s what makes us alive and interesting, connected and engaged with the rest of the world,” she said.

If humanity had to leave something behind to show whoever came after us exactly how creative, complex and elevated we were as civilized beings, Ann believes it wouldn’t be a computer program or a machine, as complicated as those things might be. It would be a work of art. For her it would be a great musical piece such as Bach’s Goldberg Variations, while others might choose visual arts or literature.

“Just the fact that we think this way tells you how important art is to us,” she concludes. “Even if we don’t know it, even if we spend days, weeks or months never hearing a piece of music, never seeing a piece of beautiful art, we just know it; it’s part of our DNA to gravitate towards it. Sometimes the things that are the least visible are most important.”

Union Plaza

Published in L Magazine, April 2008
copyright 2008 by L Magazine, used with permission
This is my original, unedited version

When completed in 2010, Lincoln’s new Union Plaza will unite the entire city. Patterned after other urban parks, such as Millennium Park in Chicago and Discovery Park in Houston, the six-acre high amenity park is designed to appeal to all segments of the community and generate investment in the area.

“This park is about three things: discovery, gathering and celebration,” said Lynn Johnson, Lincoln Parks and Recreation Director. “The intent is to give the community a place where it can come together and celebrate in a park setting.”

Union Plaza, the centerpiece of the Antelope Valley Project, will extend from O to R streets between 21st and 22nd streets, connecting to the existing Trago Park. While the two will be seen as essentially one linear park, Trago Park’s focus is the immediate neighborhood, while Union Plaza will be designed for the entire community and region.

The area between O and P streets will include a fountain at channel level, a cascading fountain and a water wall fountain. The next block will feature an amphitheater and pedestrian plaza designed for outdoor festivals. Families will especially enjoy the area between Q and R Street, with its pond and huge slides built into a sloped area. The adjoining Trago Park, which already has a children’s playground, will add a motion-activated sprayground, where all ages can go to cool off on hot summer afternoons.

Plans for Union Plaza also include an art piece celebrating unity and a raised overlook area with ornamental plantings of native and introduced species. At the activity center park visitors will be able to grab a sandwich, rent in-line skates, fix a bike tire, learn about upcoming park activities, or attend a club in the indoor meeting room.

Walking trails will wind in and out of shady areas following the newly channeled Antelope Creek. The area also will serve as a hub for five city bike trails, including the new 1.4 mile Antelope Creek Valley Trail.

“Communities are recognizing the economic, health and social benefits of providing some green space in these densely populated areas,” said Susan Larson Rodenburg, the park’s fundraising campaign organizer.

Patty Pansing Brooks, campaign co-chair, is excited about the opportunity for discovery in the new park. Lincoln Parks and Recreation is collaborating with Arbor Day and the Groundwater Foundation to develop educational components in Union Plaza, such as landscaping that celebrates urban trees, a working model of a water pump and various opportunities to interact with water.

“We’ve got water running through the middle of the park, and this is a good way for people to start learning about one of our greatest assets in Nebraska, which is groundwater,” she said.

Union Plaza will likely be named one of the first Groundwater Guardian Green Sites by the Groundwater Foundation, a national program recognizing highly-managed green spaces that implement groundwater-friendly design principles and landscape management practices. Planners are looking at solar cells and wind turbines to help generate electricity, demonstrating sustainable management.

The park is unique in Lincoln, said Brooks, because it is designed as a downtown gathering place for city-wide entertainment, education and festivals. “Whereas we have a lot of things going on downtown, a lot of it’s held on the streets. This is going to be an exciting, awesome way to gather people in a beautiful spot. It allows us all to come together and connect with one another. I think that it also promotes a lot of collaboration and community connections among various groups, individuals and organizations within our community.”

T. J. McDowell, Executive Director of the Clyde Malone Community Center, who also co-chairs the campaign committee, grew up close to the park location, in one of the most diverse neighborhoods of the city, with a rich history and heritage. The green space will become a beacon to the families of the area as well as the university students nearby and will be used for programs sponsored by the nearby Malone Center and Hispanic Center.

McDowell envisions a wide variety of ethnic festivals in the new park, such as Juneteenth, an African-American celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation, which the Malone Center has hosted for the past 28 years. “I think this is truly going to be a jewel of the city,” he said.

When key Lincoln business and civic leaders met in 2006, the group--now known as the 2015 Vision Group--identified 10 Pillars to Lincoln’s Future, one of which was a new urban park. Union Plaza will mark the first completed 2015 Pillar and will remain one that all residents will have access to.

The new park will also serve as a catalyst for economic redevelopment, said Johnson. Antelope Valley is about more than eliminating potential floods and relieving traffic congestion, he explained. “It’s really about community revitalization. This is the piece that’s going to help foster and encourage that revitalization.”

Roger Larson, the third co-chair for the fundraising campaign, served on the Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Commission for many years. He sees Union Plaza as a keystone project for improving the quality of life in Lincoln, thus attracting businesses and individuals to the city. Along with good schools and opportunities for arts and entertainment, those seeking to relocate look for a good park system and lots of green space.

“This park is the opportunity to take advantage of something that was already in place with this Antelope Valley Project,” he said. “We were going to have a big ditch there, really, so why not make it something beautiful. Since it starts on O Street, it will be visible to everybody, practically, so it’s going to be sort of our front door and lead us to the proposed innovation park.”

The City of Lincoln is providing the initial $3.3 million to shape the land for the park, in conjunction with the U.S. Corps of Engineers’ work on the Antelope Valley Project. The Lincoln Parks Foundation, in partnership with the 2015 Vision Group, has begun fundraising for the remaining $4.6 million, which includes funding for the many park features and an endowment for continued care of the park. The Lincoln Parks Foundation, a 501C3 organization established in 1992, was a significant part of the recent renovation of Sunken Gardens and the current renovation of the rose gardens in Antelope Park. The Foundation is committed to developing Union Plaza and providing for its continued care, said current president, Christie Dionisopoulus.

“We are very committed to the endowment of this park, and we are also creating an endowment to take care of all of Lincoln’s parks, to continue that momentum after this campaign is completed,” she said.

A generous gift of $1.5 million has already been given by Union Bank and Trust Company. “Lincoln is the headquarters for Union Bank & Trust Company, and the vast majority of our associates live here. On behalf of the ownership and associates of Union Bank, we are very excited to present this gift for Union Plaza,” stated Angie Muhleisen, President & CEO of Union Bank & Trust Company.

“We have a strong desire to give back to the city that has allowed our bank to be so successful. Union Plaza is a unique opportunity to beautify our city and will be a gift to our city that all individuals and families will enjoy for generations to come,“ Muhleisen said.

The name, Union Plaza, not only honors the donor, but also addresses the purpose of the park, said Johnson. “This is a place of unity, a gathering place where the community comes together,” he explained.

The Lincoln Parks Foundation is offering Lincoln residents an opportunity to become involved in making this park a reality by joining the Friends of Lincoln’s Parks. Members of the Friends of Lincoln’s Parks donate their time and talents by doing volunteer work or their treasures by giving financially.

“This is going to be sort of a citizens’ park,” said Larson. “It’s something the citizens are doing themselves, and so it’s going to be quite unique. I hope that there develops a sense of ownership among all the people that this is going to be their park.”

For more information about Union Plaza and how you can become involved, see http://www.lincolnunionplaza.org/

Savannah Beats the Odds

Published in Lincoln Kids newspaper, Fall 2008

Little Savannah has beaten the odds, not once but twice.

Savannah was born with only ten percent of her brain. A doctor told her mother, Janine Stearns, that she would be lucky if her daughter lived three months, and he’d never seen a child with those difficulties live longer than six years.

On July 15 Savannah celebrated her tenth birthday.

Why did she beat the odds? “It’s because Savannah is who she is,” Janine said. “She’s got a huge will to live.” Several times a seizure or reaction to medication brought her near death, Janine said, but Savannah always pulled herself through. “She has really proved herself so many times that she can do it,” she said.

Though Savannah cannot walk or talk, and functions at the level of a nine-month old infant, she has her own personality. She loves to laugh, cuddle and tease. She adores music. She sings along with everything from Gwen Stefani to Elvis and Frank Sinatra, and she gets excited when she can turn on her CD player and musical toys (see photo). Two of her favorite TV shows are “American Idol” (she cheered for David Archuleta) and “So You Think You Can Dance.” She couldn’t get enough of the “It’s a Small World” ride during a recent trip to Disneyworld. The Make-A-Wish Foundation has made it possible for Savannah to take a special trip this September to see “The Little Mermaid” on Broadway.

It isn’t easy caring for a child with special needs, but Janine is thankful for the support she’s received from the Lincoln community, including Dr. Kurstin Friesen, Savannah’s pediatrician, who has cared for her faithfully; the West O Fire Station paramedics, who saved Savannah’s life when she had a seizure in the middle of the night; the nurses at St. Elizabeth Medical Center, who are all on first-name basis with Janine; and Savannah’s baby-sitter, Tara Graham, who lovingly cares for Savannah while Janine works as the administrator of the Havelock Haven Manor.

Janine recalls the first few weeks of Savannah’s life. She would spend nearly all her time at the hospital, when she wasn’t working as an LPN at Lancaster Manor. Her co-workers baked casseroles and made sure Janine’s husband and two sons had plenty to eat. Through the difficult times—complications from her gastric bypass surgery and her husband’s mental illness and suicide—Janine has relied on her faith in God and the support of her mother, who has always been “just a phone call away.”

Is caring for Savannah a burden? “I’ve never looked it as a burden,” Janine said. “She’s my daughter.” Savannah has brought so much to her life. “I think she makes me who I am today. She’s made me a lot stronger. She has definitely given me a whole new spin on what courage means, and she shows me every day.”

Though there have been a few rude comments, Janine said she is amazed at the way most people have accepted Savannah. Her baby-sitter’s two girls used to ask Savannah to spend the night with them. “They would paint her fingernails and toenails,” she said. “She’d be princess for the night.”

If you see someone in the store with a disability, it’s okay to be curious, Janine said. It’s okay to ask questions. Instead of asking, “What’s wrong with her?” ask something like, “Why is she in a wheelchair?” or “What is her disability?”

Janine never questions why she has a handicapped child or why she went through difficult experiences. “I think God gives me life experiences and there’s something He’s trying to teach me. I think that I need to share my story with other people.”

You can see more pictures of Savannah and read her story at www.geocities.com/heartland/cottage/6131

Stuck in the Snow

published in Pockets on-line, December 2008

“I’m sure glad the barn’s heated,” I muttered as I pulled the heavy door shut against the snowy blast. I like snow on Christmas Eve, but this was more than I wanted. In the corner, I pulled out two “flakes” of hay from the top bale. After feeding all four quarter horses, I turned on the hose to fill their water pails.

I love living on a ranch–most of the time. I love our horses and the wide open feel of the land. I love gazing at the night sky and hunting with Dad–even though some people think it’s strange for a girl to enjoy hunting so much. But sometimes it gets lonely. I’m an only child, and my school friends live too far away to get together much.

At least my cousins were coming for Christmas. Becca is a year older than me, and Morgan is a year younger, and we like a lot of the same things. I even like playing hide and seek with little Briana, although her sisters call her a pest. I couldn’t wait to see them again.

I finished feeding the horses, wrapped my wool scarf a bit tighter and braced myself for the cold walk back to the house. When I opened the door, Mom was standing in the kitchen, talking on the phone.

“I’m glad you’re safe. You take care in the snow, okay? And Merry Christmas.”

I hung up my coat and headed for the counter. Mmmm. Freshly baked snickerdoodles. I loved the little round cookies covered with cinnamon-sugar.

“I’m sorry, Emma.” Mom said, the cordless phone still in her hand. “That was Aunt Karen. They aren’t coming.”


“The interstate is closed because of the snow. There’s nothing they can do.”

I put down the warm snickerdoodle. I didn’t feel like eating anymore. Without saying anything, I turned and ran to the family room.

The cozy room had become by favorite place ever since we had it built last summer. It was even more special this time of the year. Dad and I had brought in a sweet smelling cedar tree we’d found by the creek. I ‘d decorated it with ornaments Becca and Morgan and I had made. Every Christmas Eve we would each make a couple of new ornaments together. Last summer I had found some ceramic ornaments and special paints at a garage sale in town, and I’d saved them for tonight for us to paint together. But it wouldn’t be any fun to paint them by myself.

Under the tree were piled tons of presents. I picked up the little packages I had wrapped yesterday. I’d made bead necklaces for Becca and Morgan, and I’d even bought a little doll for Briana. It was going to be so much fun to give them their special presents. Now what would I do with the gifts? It was going to be a lousy Christmas.

I sat there for a long time, ignoring the smells coming from the kitchen and the Christmas music playing on the CD player. I even ignored Dad when I heard him come in from outside.

Was that the doorbell? Maybe the cousins were coming after all. Or maybe it was one of our friends paying a surprise visit.

I ran to the door and opened it wide. Two strangers stood there–a young woman and a small girl about Briana’s age. The woman’s jacket was covered with snow, and her hair was damp. Why wasn’t she wearing a cap? And the little girl’s coat was a couple of sizes too big and way out of style. Who were these people?

“I’m sorry to bother you,” the young woman said. “My name is Missy and this is my daughter, Chloe. My car got stuck in the snow, and it’s too snowy to go any farther.”

Mom sprang into action. “Let me take your coats and things,” she insisted. “You must be freezing.”

“Oh, thank you.” The young woman sighed as she dropped a duffle bag and snowy backpack on our freshly mopped entryway floor and took off her coat.

“Please sit down in the living room. I’ve got coffee ready, and I can start some hot chocolate for Chloe.” Mom said, then turned to me. “Emma, hang up their coats and bring their bags to the guest room.”

But I followed Mom to the kitchen instead. “What are you doing?” I demanded in a hoarse whisper. “We don’t even know these people.”

Mom gave me a sharp look as she poured milk into a mug. “I believe I asked you to put their things away.”

“But Mom, are we going to let them stay in the guest room? Why can’t they just stay in the barn?”

“Emma! That’s not why we had the barn heated.”

I stomped to the closet with the coats, hung them up, then picked up the backpack and duffle bag – which I noticed was held together with two big safety pins – and headed upstairs to the guest room.

The room still smelled of furniture polish and air freshener. I’d helped Mom clean it that morning. Aunt Karen and Uncle Ray were going to stay there with little Briana. Morgan and Becca were going to stay in my room. Now these strangers would be here instead. I threw the bags on the floor and pounded down the stairs in my stocking feet. Maybe I could talk to Dad about letting the visitors stay in the barn.

But Dad was sitting in the living room with Mom and Missy, talking like they were old friends.

“We were on our way to my mother’s house, “ Missy was saying. “Chloe will be upset that she can’t see her grandma on Christmas. I couldn’t afford to buy her any gifts this year, but I think

Mom has something for her.”

Mom looked up. “Oh, Emma, the hot chocolate is probably ready. Could you take it to Chloe? She’s in the family room.”

I shuffled to the kitchen, opened the microwave and picked up the mug. I knew I shut the microwave door a bit too hard, but I didn’t care. In the family room, I half-expected to find Chloe tearing through the gifts under the tree.

But she wasn’t. She was standing in front of the coffee table, staring at the nativity set. Quickly I set the mug down next to one of the angels and turned to go, but Chloe tugged on my arm and looked at me with wide, brown eyes.

“Why is that baby there in the hay place? Why are there animals around him?” she asked.

“Oh, you don’t know about Baby Jesus?” She looked even more confused.

“Baby Jesus is the reason we even have Christmas,” I explained. “He is God’s Son, and He came to the world on the first Christmas. But there was no room at the inn.”

“What’s an inn?”

“Kind of like a hotel. So the innkeeper–the owner of the hotel--let them stay in the barn out back.”

“Hmmm,” Chloe, then carefully picked up the baby figure. “If I was that guy, I’d let them stay in my house, not the barn. Just like you.” She turned to me with a big smile.

“Just like us. . . Yeah.” But I’d wanted them to stay in the barn. Would I have done the same with Jesus if He had needed a place to stay? I swallowed hard and looked at the floor. Didn’t Jesus say that when we did something for the “least of these” that we did it for Him?

“Um . . . I have an idea,” I said, finally smiling at Chloe. “Would you like to help me paint some ornaments for the tree? We even have one of Baby Jesus.”

“Okay,” she said, placing the baby back in the manger. Then she turned to look at the presents under the tree. I thought of the gifts I’d wrapped for my cousins. Chloe’s mom said she couldn’t afford to buy her anything this year. It would be pretty easy to make new gift tags that said, “To Chloe.” She would like that doll and the bead necklaces.

“You know what?” I told her. “I think tomorrow there might be some surprises for you
under the tree.”

It looked like it would be a good Christmas after all.

Dietze upbeat about future; The store's south location is doing well with music lessons, repairs

Published in Directions 2009, a special section of the Lincoln Journal-Star, February 22, 2009
Copyright 2009 Lincoln Journal Star. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission

Visit the Dietze Music House at 56th Street and Old Cheney Road, and you'll almost always hear music.

The store's 11 studio rooms, convenient parking and hours of operation have made it the premiere store for lessons out of the four Dietze locations (including downtown, Omaha and Bellevue).

The highest demand is for guitar lessons, Manager Mike Pardee said. Dietze also offers lessons in bass, drums, saxophone, trumpet, percussion, flute, piano and violin.

"We have focused on music as an activity rather than just selling an instrument," Pardee said. "We provide service. We have a repair shop for both band instruments and guitars. We offer lessons. It's not like this is the end of the relationship."

Ever since August Dietze opened the first store downtown in 1927, the business has been about serving musicians and empowering the community for music creation and music enjoyment, said Ted Eschliman, coowner of Dietze Music.

Although the business climate has changed, the community continues to show a healthy interest in music, and Eschliman doesn't see that changing much -- even with the economy.
The Internet has changed everything in the retail world, Eschliman said.

"We do have the edge in that music is a sensory experience," he said. "You cannot have an organic experience with an instrument unless it's in your hands. We try to exploit that and do everything we can to give people the opportunity to experience music in real time and real dimension."

Those opportunities include "instrument petting zoos" -- where children can play instruments -- free music workshops and supporting the Lincoln Symphony's Young People's Concerts.

With the current recession, Dietze is cautious about certain product areas. For instance, the store is focusing more on inexpensive keyboards rather than grand pianos. But Eschliman is optimistic the arts will remain strong even through a recession.

"There are still people that want that comfort. They want enjoyment. Maybe they're not going to do a trip to Acapulco or buy an RV, but maybe they'll sit on their front porch with a guitar or banjo and enjoy themselves."

And parents will always value their kids.

That's why their rental program and lessons have remained strong, Eschliman said. "We've seen health there, and that will continue to be healthy for us. It's a matter of priority. People will spend money on their kids."

Wagey Drug a pharmacy fixture for decades

Published in Directions 2009, a special section of the Lincoln Journal-Star, February 22, 2009
Copyright 2009 Lincoln Journal Star. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.

When H.C. Wagey opened Wagey Drug at 27th and Vine streets in 1924, the pharmacy had a hitching post and a trolley line in front.

Boys played football in the grass across the cobblestone street. In the '40s, '50s and '60s,the store's soda fountain was a favorite hangout for students from nearby Whittier Junior High School.In the 1980s, there were six Wagey Drugs in Lincoln,and ownership had transferred to H.C. Wagey's son,H.P.Wagey.

The other stores are now closed, and Gary Rihanek bought the 27th Street store from the Wagey family in 1991. The neighborhood is now one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the city, and the oldest independent pharmacy in town now competes with Walgreens, which moved in across the street in 2001.

Rihanek admits his first reaction was panic when he heard Walgreens was coming. Then he realized the chain's purpose was not to put independent pharmacies out of business, but to attract more customers, in the same way gas stations or fast food places are often next to each other.

"People know that there is a Wagey Drug and there is a Walgreens, and if one doesn't have it, the other will," Rihanek said.

Still, he responded by installing awnings and remodeling the store to fit in with the revamped neighborhood. He also competes by providing competitive prices, personal attention and extra services. A total of 37 staff members serves customers, including a fulltime receptionist and three office personnel to handle paperwork.

Pharmacists and technicians speak Spanish, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese.

Like many pharmacies, Wagey Drug provides free delivery, but its services go a step further. At no extra charge, staff will set up a week's worth of prescriptions for a customer, making it easy to get the right dose each time. For blind customers, he provides Script Talk, which verbalizes prescription information.

Wagey Drug also has been chosen to provide prescription services for several residential homes, drug treatment facilities and low-income programs, such as the Lancaster County General Assistance Program and the Peoples Health Center.

"I have similar values to what they're wanting to do," Rihanek said. "And that's to take care of people, to treat them with respect, not punish them because they're having a rough time in life."

Drivers help seniors keep independence

Published in Prime Time, a special section of the Lincoln Journal-Star, January 27, 2009
Copyright 2009 Lincoln Journal Star. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.

Several years ago, when Lorrayne Livingston was forced to give up driving because of macular degeneration, it was the independence she missed the most. Her friends were willing to take her shopping, but she always felt rushed.

"It seems like nobody can do anything leisurely nowadays," she said. "I used to go to the stores and just kind of mill around."

When Livingston, now 81, heard about the Lincoln Seniors Transportation Program a few months ago, one of the first places she wanted to go was Westfield Gateway. She'd been there on quick errands, but she didn't really know her way around the remodeled mall. She arranged for a volunteer to drop her off, and she spent several hours exploring by herself and even had lunch before the volunteer returned to pick her up.

Next, she asked for a ride to the Hy-Vee at 84th and Holdrege streets. She lived near another grocery store but wanted to see someplace new. Now she goes there on a regular basis, spending up to six hours in the store. She takes her time looking at things and often eats both breakfast and lunch in the deli.

"I don't go anyplace unless there's food," she said. "You cook for yourself so long; it's always nice to eat out."

Once a month, volunteers also take her to a reading group at her church.

She's made a list of places she'd like to go in the future, such as a Native powwow, a Cinco de Mayo celebration and a Gospel music concert. She'd also like to spend some time at the University of Nebraska, reminiscing about her student days there and exploring the large-print section of Love Library.

"You always know you can get a ride, and they're always comfortable," she said. "They're always good drivers."

The Lincoln Seniors Transportation Program, a collaborative effort of the Lincoln Seniors Foundation and the Lincoln Area Agency on Aging, was started in January 2008 to provide transportation to Lincoln seniors.

Several years ago, the foundation surveyed area seniors about their most pressing needs.
"Overwhelmingly, the respondents said that maintaining their independence and ability to get around was extremely important," said Alice Skultety, foundation president. Their survey found that 15 percent of Lincoln seniors had given up driving completely and 50 percent limited their driving or had eliminated nighttime driving.

National statistics indicate that, on average, men live six years after they quit driving; women live 11 years, said June Pederson, director of the Lincoln Area Agency on Aging.
"That's a long time to depend on taxis, friends and children for rides," she said.

The Lincoln Seniors Transportation Program was modeled after a successful program in Austin, Texas. Participation is open to anyone age 65 or older living in Lincoln. Riders are picked up at the curb of their home and taken anywhere within the city limits except medical appointments or the airport.

Coordinator Deb Hynek said the program has about 100 riders and 20 volunteer drivers. Riders need to be ambulatory. Many use walkers or canes, but the program is not able to take someone using a wheelchair.

Participants may request up to two rides per week, but at least one must be an essential trip, such as to the grocery store, beauty salon, bank, legal or professional appointment, or religious service. Non-essential trips include social events, entertainment, eating out or clothes shopping. The suggested donation is $8 for a round-trip.

Volunteers must provide their own vehicles and are given background checks and a 30-minute driving evaluation. Drivers may volunteer as little as two hours per month, but most enjoy the experience so much they give rides at least weekly.

Mark Richardson, a first-year law student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has been volunteering since the program started. It's been a rewarding experience for him.

"People are very grateful, and they have much more life experience than I have myself," he said. "So the conversations that we have are something that I always look forward to whenever I'm getting ready to give a ride. I know it's not a big thing, but it still makes you feel really good to have done a little something to make the community a little better."