David Catalan long searched for a place to call home before finding it in Omaha four decades ago.
Born in San Diego, Calif. and raised in Arizona, the former business executive turned consultant has served on many nonprofit boards. It’s hard to imagine this sophisticate who is so adroit in corporate and art circles once labored in the migrant fields with his Mexican immigrant parents. It’s surprising, too, someone so involved in community affairs once lived a rootless life.
“My whole life had been like a gypsy. I was a vagabond because traveling from place to place and never really having a fixed home – until I came to Omaha with Union Pacific in 1980. I chose to stay even after I left U.P. because I really felt at home here and still do after all those years wandering around.”
Vagabundo, a book of his own free-style verse, describes his coming-of-age.
Catalan, 76, grew up in a Tucson barrio immediately after World War 1. His father worked in the copper mines. When Catalan was about 13, his family began making the migrant worker circuit, leaving each spring-summer for Calif, to pick tomatoes, figs, peaches and grapes and then returning home for the fall-winter.
“I didn’t really feel I wanted to get stuck in that kind of a destiny,” he said. “Maybe escape is too rough a word, but I had to get away from that environment if I was going to do anything differently, and so I left and went to live with a sister in the Merced (Calif.) area.”
He finished high school there and received a scholarship to UCLA, “I was the only one in the family that actually completed high school, let alone college.”
He’d long before fallen in love with books.
“That led me to realize there was more I could accomplish.”
While at UCLA, a U.S. Army recruiter sensed his wanderlust and got him to enlist. He served in Germany and France. He stayed-on two years in Paris, where an American couple introduced him to the arts.
“It was a big awakening for me,” he said.
Back in the U.S., he settled in Salt Lake City, where he was briefly married. Then he joined U.P., which paid for his MBA studies at Pepperdine University. Then U.P. transferred him from Los Angeles to Omaha.
“I never had a sense of knowing my neighbors, having some continuity in terms of schools and experiences, so I felt like I had missed out by not having had that identity with place and community. When I came to Omaha, I loved it, and U.P. really promoted employees getting involved in community service.
“Doing community service, being on nonprofit boards became an identity for myself.”
Upon taking early retirement, he worked at Metropolitan Community College, in the cabinet of Mayor Hal Daub and as executive director of the Omaha Press Club and the Nonprofit Association of the Midlands.
“I threw myself into the nonprofit world.”
He’s served on the Opera Omaha, Omaha Symphony and Nebraska Arts Council boards.
He cofounded SNAP! Productions, a small but mighty theater company originally formed to support the Nebraska AIDS Project.
“Omaha was the first place I saw a couple friends die of AIDS and that was a real revelation for me. That got me working to do some fundraising.”
SNAP! emerged from that work.
“I was the producer for almost every production the first few seasons. The audience base for SNAP! is a very accepting part of the community. It was gratifying. It’s been very successful.”
His interests led him to South Omaha, where he helped found El Museo Latino. More recently, he helped get the South Omaha Museum started.
He also served as president of the South Omaha Business Association.
“I got involved with a lot of economic development.”
He wrote and published Rule of Thumb: A Guide to Small Business Marketing.
He’s “very proud” both SNAP! and El Museo Latino, whose vision of Magdalena Garcia he caught, “are still going strong and still serving the community.”
Each time he gets involved, he said, “it isn’t planned – the need arises and I’m there willing to help work to make it happen.”
“Doing all this work helps me feel I am a part of a dynamic community. That’s what really drives me, motivates me and makes me feel very positive.”
He’s involved in a new project that dreams of building a 300-foot tall Nebraska landmark destination to be called “Tower of Courage” at the intersection of 13th and I-80 across from the Henry Doorly Zoo.
“We’re in the process of trying to acquire the land. It’ll be a place for culture-history exhibits all focused on the rich cultural and historical history of Neb. and the region.”
Meanwhile Catalan has his own consulting company helping nonprofit and small business clients with strategic planning and grant-writing.
He’s also active in the Optimist Club.
“I’ve lived a full life. I’ve met so many wonderful people. I can navigate around many communities because of the work I’ve done and the people I’ve met.”
He’s doing research for what may be his third book: weaving the story of a pioneering Jesuit priest from the same Sonora. Mexico hometown Catalan’s mother was born in and near where his father was from, with the history of area Indian tribes and his own family.
He’s traveling this winter to Sonora – not to escape his roots but to discover more about them.
He’s written about his family in Vagabundo and in poems published in the literary journal, Fine Lines.
“I think I’m creating a David Catalan space of my own I never had growing up.”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.