Found: Tom Dennison’s House

Tom Dennison’s Northwest Omaha home at 7510 Military Ave. Pictured here in 2006, shortly before it was demolished.

[Please note, some of the information on this page is outdated. See this link for updates.]

It took a while, but I was finally able to track down the exact address (and approximate location) of Tom Dennison’s estate house! More accurately, Gary Rosenberg, Douglas County Historical Society archivist, was able to track it down. Thanks, Gary and the DCHS!

The address? 7510 Military Avenue.

ORDER KINGS OF BROKEN THINGS, A NEW NOVEL ABOUT DENNISON-ERA OMAHA!

Tom Dennison was first listed as living in the house in 1931, just three years before he died. He didn’t live there long, and his involvement in Omaha politics and crime was all but through by then. This was his retirement home. He raised wire-haired terriers on the back acres. He lived there with his daughter, Frances, and her husband, Vernon Ragan. This was during Prohibition. The house was surrounded by cyclone fencing, there were security guards, Dennison kept a sub-machine gun under a blanket on the seat next to him in his car. (It’s fascinating how Prohibition transformed the political machines of the early 20th Century (which mostly focused on gambling, prostitution, and government-centered rackets) into deadly criminal syndicates. In earlier decades, Dennison lived in the city (at 1507 Yates, among other places). He stood on the sidewalk and fed pigeons in the morning. They did a lot of bad things in those days too, but the machine never engaged in gangland killings until Prohibition. The Omaha Race Riot of 1919 is potentially a different matter altogether.)

Dennison remarried late in life, but his young wife, Nevajo Truman, never lived in the same house as Tom. She lived at 2201 Country Club Avenue with her mother. Tom would come by and visit most every day, but that’s as far as that went. Such a strange and sad sounding relationship.

Tom Dennison with his second wife, Navajo Truman.

Last year I hypothesized that Dennison’s house was put to new use as part of Marian High School–specifically the convent–but was disabused of that notion by Sister Joy (another devoted archivist, this time with the Servite Sisters). I wasn’t too far off, however. As told by my sister-in-law and Marian alumna, Sara Magnuson West, the house was still on the Marian campus until recently, although she didn’t remember if it served a purpose there. She remembers that it was back by the motherhouse, where the nuns live. Maybe it was torn down when the soccer field and athletic complex was built? Gary Rosenberg tells me that the building was demolished in 2006, approximately.

I’d greatly appreciate it if you could share any information, stories, memories, or rumors you might have of the building. Do you know what it was used for, if anything, by Marian? Do you know anything about the history of the house? Do you have friends or family who went to Marian, or taught there? Maybe they know something? In the picture above, the house appears to have been kept in good shape, there were security lights installed, the windows were maintained. I’d imagine this effort wasn’t for nothing.

If you know something about this house, please pass it along.

Weeks of Aug 4 – Aug 21, 2010

-I made some progress on some of the peripheral research surrounding the novel in the last couple weeks. Notably, Sister Joy, an archivist with the Servite Sisters, supplied a very informative response to my guess that Tom Dennison’s mansion might have been turned into one of the buildings that now make up the campus of Marian High School. (In the comments of this post.) However, as Sister Joy illuminated, this was not the case. I’m still not sure where the Dennison estate stood, but the land where Our Lady of Sorrow Convent would be built was purchased in 1920, and mass first celebrated in the building in 1925. Dennison was still active in Omaha at the point, and would be for nearly another decade. So my shot in the dark was wrong. I’ve narrowed it down to either the southwest or southeast quadrant of the intersection, though. And that’s something.

I’ve also been trying to find out more about Dennison’s grave site, but Forest Lawn Cemetery has not been as forthcoming as Sister Joy, unfortunately.

-After nearly a month of research, I jumped back into finishing up the drafting of Part II of Hyphenates this week. Even though I’m a little further behind now than I’d hoped to be, it was my goal to finish drafting by the end of the summer and will still meet that soft, self-imposed deadline. Hyphenates Part II has been somewhat more difficult to write than Part I was, with the principal reason being that I’m now working more intimately with the real life characters than I did in the first 125 pages. It’s one thing to just search around and make up some backstory for Jacob Bressler—my lead character, who isn’t a historical figure, and is only a composite of real people—but it’s completely different to do so for Tom Dennison, a well-known figure in regards to political machines and local history, or Josie Washburn, a turn-of-the-century prostitute and madam in Omaha who published one of the initial first-hand account of life in an American brothel. I’m not really comfortable just making it up when it comes to real people, so I needed to go back and get a handle on the history before I moved on.

That being said, it almost always amazes me how consistently research pays off—and this has been one of the most heartening things in writing a historical novel. Whenever there’s a gap in the story I’m telling, or some inconsistency in character, there’s usually something to be found in an old newspaper or biography or diary that satisfies the gap and shows how the story—both mine and the composite historical record—both makes sense and is fascinating. I won’t get into too many specifics, but, in the case of Washburn, I was able to write a scene wherein she gives an anti-Dennison speech in a Little Italy meeting hall at a critical juncture of the story. It’s pretty awesome.

-As a consequence of said research needs, I’ve been spending some quality time in the microfilm room at the downtown Omaha library reading newspapers of 1917 and 1918. This also happens to be the golden age of comics–which leads to many distractions, of course, but also some really great cartoons. Two of the best, and most affecting, are posted. Both are from the Evening World-Herald.

Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County

“Jacob walked down Pacific with his crew, where traffic had been cut off by the crowds, and he tried to ignore the coalitions around him. Every word spoken by a stranger sounded like an insult to Jacob, some vindictive joke that cut close to his heart. A dozen Russian warehouse workers rested against the hall to eat a quick dinner and they seemed to be talking about Jacob, laughing at him in their native cackle. They wore overalls and denim jackets, floppy felt caps made heavy with sweat and dust. They bit at sandwiches wrapped in newspaper, hunks of cheese and onion pressed between slices of cottage white with black smears of soot rubbed in from their fingers. A tin cup sat between each of their thighs, brimming over with the sudsy head of a beer. Some boy dug into his parents’ secret supply to flit along with a frosted clay jug hugged to his belly, making wisecracks to the men. These were thick-chest serfs whose mouths closed in satisfaction over their food, wiry ones whose clothes puffed over sinewy bodies. The lean ones looked the meanest, lips curling venomously under blood-shot eyes. Jacob thought this as he glanced at them. They were sizing him up, he could tell this. They imagined how much it would take to claim a win in a fight with Jacob and his men. And when one of them whispered something to another, when they leered at Jacob and laughed, he too dreamed how it would go down in a brawl.”

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