Roast Beef With a Side of Humor
Apr 13, 2020 03:34PM
By Kara Schweiss
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Founded in 1955, the Omaha Press Club has made its home since 1971 on the 22nd floor of the First National Center at 16th and Dodge streets. The same year its namesake restaurant and meeting space was created, the organization introduced its first “Face on the Barroom Floor,” an honor that’s now been bestowed to 164 newsmakers. The loosely defined honor has been given to locals such as Rob McCartney or Connie Spellman, and Omahans who are known beyond the community like Johnny Carson, Cathy Hughes, and many others.
“Isn’t the name great? ‘Face on the Barroom Floor,’” said Roger Humphries, a longtime Omaha Press Club member and the new chair of the associated committee. “And how many plaques and certificates do you have in your office—but do you have a ‘Face’?
Artist Jim Horan crafted a caricature portrait for 160 of the 163 honorees. His last, of CNN reporter Jeff Zeleny, was unveiled in September 2019. In 1971, Horan was an artist for the Omaha World-Herald and known for drawing Harry Husker cartoons that would predict a winning score. Omaha Press Club representatives thought he’d be the perfect choice to create the first Face, Omaha Mayor Gene Leahy.
“I had been doing caricatures and illustrations for a long time and I figured it was an 8-by-10 or something like that. But holy moly, it was a big picture!” Horan said. “And I just kept doing them. They’ve always been fun to do.”
One early Face may have been less fun than the others, he said wryly.
“The one I was most afraid of was (professional boxer) Ron Stander,” Horan said. Fortunately, upon seeing his caricature, “The Bluffs Butcher” responded with laughter.
Collectively, the 163 portraits not only enhance the club’s panoramic view of the city, they tell a story of Omaha over the last 50 years.
“It’s like a museum as you walk around here,” Tom O’Connor said. “It’s history.”
O’Connor, who retired in January 2020 from a nearly five-decade communications career, has been a member of the Omaha Press Club for 44 years. He oversaw the Face committee for nearly 20 years. He’s seen Face on the Barroom Floor go from a small gathering of family and friends to a major event complete with a roast of the honoree, or honorees in the case of the many pairs and one foursome who’ve shared the spotlight. The dinners frequently sell out the OPC at 250 guests, and in one instance, (the April 2014 roast of Creighton basketball's Doug and Greg McDermott), the event needed to be held off-site.
Some of the earlier Faces were honored in absentia, such as former President Gerald Ford (1975), who was in office at the time, or State Senator Ernie Chambers (also 1975), who didn’t show up to his Face unveiling. Television legend Johnny Carson was honored posthumously in 2005 as part of the 50th anniversary of OPC. Roasters will sometimes submit video if they can’t attend in person, but in recent years the committee has strived to create an event with the honoree and roasters in attendance.
Todd Murphy of Universal Information Services has served on past Face committees and was honored with his father Jim Murphy in November 2019. He said OPC’s Face committee keeps a running wish list of obvious and willing Face choices for which the logistics of an event haven’t worked—yet.
“(Actor/comedian) Adam Devine and (rock band) 311 are at the top of the list of notable former Omahans we’d like to see as a Face on the Barroom Floor. If it’s someone who’s no longer in the market, it takes more coordination and timing to make it work,”
Faces committee members often reach out to potential Faces’ Omaha family members to make connections. Alexander Payne’s parents “were really key to the whole thing,” O’Connor said of Payne’s 2013 roast and induction featuring actor and comedian Will Forte, who starred in Payne’s “Nebraska” and is largely considered by the committee to be the funniest host and roaster in the event’s history. Reaching out to Devine’s parents has been promising, O’Connor said.
“Call it ‘Devine’ intervention; it’s meant to be and we’re going to get this guy before we’re done,”
He also knows the father of 311’s Nick Hexum and has opened a door through that link, but finding a time when all five band members can be in town at once has been elusive. The committee has not given up, he said.
“Probably the biggest one ever done at the Press Club was before I was there. That was Warren Buffett, he was number 30 in May of 1985,” O’Connor said. “That was a nice catch there.”
Some of the biggest ‘gets’ during his committee tenure, besides Payne, O’Connor said, were comedian Dan Whitney (Larry the Cable Guy) in 2007; famed athletes Bob Gibson and Gayle Sayers, both in 2004; and former Microsoft president and philanthropist Jeff Raikes in 2012. Joe Ricketts brought in a big group including most of his family for his 2012 Face unveiling, and the McDermotts roast moved to the Omar to accommodate the 600 guests.
The Face committee tries to recognize a diverse group including members of the media; public officeholders; business, community, and nonprofit leaders; entertainers; sports figures; and other notables.
As the new committee chair, Humphries has discovered his name on a list of potential Face candidates. “I’d say there are people more deserving,” he said. But if the time comes, he can think of a few people who’d love to roast him, or “bust my chops,’” as he said. He’s already had a taste of the honor, in a sense; when his children were too young to read, they were convinced the 1989 portrait of Mannheim Steamroller founder Chip Davis was Humphries.
Humphries chuckled. “My son learned to read and said ‘Daddy, that’s not you!’ And the jig was up.”
Horan’s successor is local artist Wayne Sealy, who drew the cariacature of the Murphys in November. The latest Face was Othello Meadows, president and CEO of Seventy Five North Revitalization Corp. and owner of The Meadows Group, who was honored March 21.
“This is Jim’s museum, so to speak,” O’Connor said. “But (Sealy) will put his own flavor on it.”
As long as the Omaha Press Club endures, so will Face on the Barroom Floor.
“I hope that this is a tradition that will last forever. It’s a gift to the community,” O'Connor said. “It is a true honor to be a face on the barroom floor, and I think people understand that. It shows that you’ve done something for the community, that you’ve made a difference.”
For more information about Omaha Press Club, visit omahapressclub.com.
This article was printed in the April/May 2020 issue of B2B Magazine.