A Servant’s Heart: Mark Kresl Creates Pictures & MusiciansFeb 25, 2021 10:22AM ● By Robert Fraass
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
The life change began simply enough—Mark Kresl decided about 15 years ago to start a new hobby of photography.
“Like I typically do, I got way into it,” he recalled.
He peppers his description of what followed as a “chain of events” emblematic of his “charmed life” that led him from a career as a big city sales and marketing executive who rubbed elbows with sports celebrities to a leading figure in Omaha’s nonprofit, arts, and charitable-giving communities.
To understand how he got here, it helps to understand what associates call his selfless empathy and outgoing passion for helping others—along with that time he persuaded a movie director to let him shoot photos on his Omaha set.
With camera in hand, Kresl saw young people gathered one Saturday morning at the cemetery near his home. Curious and suspicious, with camera in hand, he approached the group, who told him they were shooting a movie called Imitation Life. Soon, they were asking him to photograph most scenes, and Kresl was given official credit as the still photographer for the movie.
Through his involvement with the local film scene, he met Omahan Nik Fackler. Two years after approaching the group filming Imitation Life, he became involved in Fackler’s 2008 movie Lovely, Still, with a one-line part as “Rufus” in a scene with lead actors Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn.
“What a thrill that was,” Kresl exclaimed.
Through word of mouth, other gigs followed: a spectacular photo of downtown New Year’s Eve fireworks bought by First National Bank of Omaha was followed by a request from Creighton to photograph its renovated soccer field.
The hobby took off. There was profitable photography for a modeling agency and his studio in NoDo’s Hot Shops. But Kresl found his passion—and eventually a new career path—following a visit to the Madonna Rehabilitation Center in Lincoln.
“My best friend’s 5-year-old son had a traumatic brain injury,” Kresl said. “I went to visit and got a tour. It moved me unbelievably to see all of these people with strokes, spinal cord injuries, and traumatic brain injuries, and see them recovering in rehab.”
As he drove back to Omaha, his thoughts revolved around the question “what could I do?”
He found his answer. “Well, I couldn’t write a big check,” he said. “The camera gave me a vehicle to give something unusual of value. No nonprofit is going to keep its doors opened or closed because of a donation I made or didn’t make.”
Kresl soon struck upon an inspired idea—he would take “glamour shots” of patients going through recovery by enlisting beauty college hair designers and makeup artists to get them ready to be photographed. All digital files were provided free of charge, including one 8x10 print. Fridays were set aside for shots with extended family members.
“People would be incredulous that everything was free,” said Tammy Rudder, Madonna’s specialist for marketing, media, and public relations. “Patients could forget about rehabbing for a while and do something fun and uplifting for themselves.”
The project lasted four years, and Kresl has mulled a similar project for Madonna’s nursing home after the COVID-19 era passes.
Volunteerism from the Heart
His Madonna experience nurtured Kresl’s desire to help out nonprofits of all kinds with his photography skills. He said he has provided free photography for nearly 30 local nonprofits, including Merrymakers, Team Jack, the Nebraska Humane Society, the Durham Museum, and the Git-R-Done Foundation established by Dan Whitney (AKA “Larry the Cable Guy.”)
“I wouldn’t say no to most,” he said.
Cancer charities, such as Team Jack, hold a special place in Kresl’s heart. His work was to honor his wife’s best friend’s battle. Then his spouse, Paula, contracted gall bladder cancer herself, passing away in August 2020.
“This last year has been a lot quieter for me. I’ve been more of a caretaker than a caregiver.”
Kresl’s good works have extended beyond photography. Besides his role on Madonna’s Board of Trustees, he has served on executive boards for the Omaha Film Festival and the Cathedral Arts Project, furthering his experience in music and the arts. He also served as treasurer for the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards.
His work inspired him to make a career change. Beginning in 2014, it would be working in the nonprofit sector from here on out.
From Photos to Music
The high-level executive retreated from 20 years of corporate life in locales such as Pittsburgh, Dallas, Memphis, and suburban New York City, having meet-and-greets and meals with superstars such as basketball’s Michael Jordan and David Robinson, and baseball’s Ryne Sandberg. But he tired of the travel and came back to his native Omaha 20 years ago. He eventually transitioned his career to nonprofit development.
He ended his private business to work as director of marketing and development for Midwest Geriatrics until his daughter spotted a want ad that she thought would trigger his interest: director of development for the Omaha Conservatory of Music.
“She saw it and knows I am a music nut,” he said, although he didn’t start playing an instrument (the piano) until two years ago. “I applied on a Sunday and accepted an offer that Thursday.”
His three-year tenure has been a rousing success, according to Ruth Meints, the Conservatory’s executive director.
Because it is easy for Kresl to see the picture, whether that means through the lens of a camera or that of a nonprofit’s vision.
Editor's Note: This story has been altered from the print version to correct factual errors.
This article first appeared in the 60 Plus section of the March/April 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.