The most fascinating Omaha native you have never heard of came uncomfortably close to being expelled from Central High School for plagiarism.
Well, not plagiarism, exactly. It is a much weirder story when Michael Rips tells it, a “I’m laughing so hard I’m having trouble breathing” kind of story, a story that shuns a tidy conclusion and sloppily embraces the absurdity hiding just beneath the topsoil of middle-class, middle-American life.
It is also a story that seems darn near criminal to summarize, but here goes:
In the early 1970s, Omaha teenager Michael Rips, already accepted to Princeton, realizes he’s failing French class at Central and might not graduate. He enters a statewide foreign language contest because it’s the only way to get the extra credit needed to graduate. But, since he hasn’t learned any French, he goes to the Omaha Public Library, finds a dusty copy of what he believes to be an obscure American play already translated into French, retypes it in French and hands it in, pretending it’s his own translation.
Which would have worked just fine, except then his brother tells him that his obscure American play is actually a French play — and in fact one of the most famous plays ever written in French. And it still would have worked fine — except then his “translation” wins the school competition and qualifies for state, where a group of amateur actors will perform it for an audience of hundreds and three judges who are University of Nebraska-Lincoln professors ...
“There was no more thought about graduating from high school,” Rips told an audience at a storytelling event several years ago, during a talk that eventually was broadcast on “The Moth Radio Hour.” “No more thought about the embarrassment to my family. This was a felony!”
Rips did not get charged with a felony. He didn’t even get caught — helped, he says, by a professor who realized that the group of actors was performing a French play in French but let it slide. (If you want to listen to Rips’ telling of the story, check here: themoth.org/stories/lost-in-translation.
Instead, he graduated from Princeton, clerked for a Supreme Court justice, became a successful lawyer, largely abandoned a conventional law practice, married a well-known artist, moved to Italy, moved back to New York City, raised a child while living in the Chelsea Hotel, penned two well-reviewed nonfiction books (one about Omaha) and discovered and bought an insanely valuable painting for peanuts in a pawn shop. Now he runs a New York City art school that has educated many of this country’s renowned artists.
He has done a bunch of other impressive-yet-abnormal stuff, the kind of things that prompted his friend, fellow Omaha native and famed writer and radio host Kurt Andersen, to call him “a person from another era, if not from another planet.”
During a recent phone interview, I asked Rips if he thought his life would have turned out differently if his long-ago dishonesty would have been discovered.
“If I had been exposed at the time in engaging in this ridiculous project, this false translation? I would say so,” he answered.
In one way, Michael Rips needed to leave Omaha to become Michael Rips. In another way, Omaha created Michael Rips, especially the part of the city we call the Old Market.
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Rips, born in 1954 to a family with deep Omaha roots, attended Central High, just as his parents and grandparents had. After school, he would walk downtown, where his father, Norman Rips, ran Commercial Optical and where his older brother, Harlan, had an apartment at the corner of 11th and Howard Streets.
There he met Richard Flamer, an eccentric book dealer who regaled the teenager with stories about a group of 19th century Nebraskans who believed that God and the Devil entered Earth through peoples’ pubic hair. He also met the Mercer family, who developed the Old Market into their singular image.
He met artist and arts organizer Ree Schonlau, who later with her husband, the famed artist Jun Kaneko, co-founded the Bemis Center for the Contemporary Arts with the help of people like Rips’ parents. He met vegetable vendors, homeless people, artists, writers, architects, dreamers.
“The Market was sort of this place that was generating a different group of people who had different ideas about what an urban environment should be,” Rips says. “To this day, if somebody said to me, ‘I am going to drop you in one place for the next day, where do you pick?’ I would say, ‘the Old Market.’ ”
Rips has spent his life hunting for places like the Old Market of the early 1970s, searching for and finding an off-kilter cast of characters that he has written about, learned from, become one of. He wrote his first book after quitting as a successful trial lawyer and moving with his wife, artist Sheila Berger, and baby to the Italian village of Sutri. There, while hanging out in the town cafe, he met a cast of eccentrics who turned into Rips’ real-life characters.
His second nonfiction book, “The Face of a Naked Lady,” is set in Omaha, and was propelled by his discovery that his quiet, straight-laced late father had secretly painted a series of nude paintings of a black woman Michael had never met.
Andersen says that Rips attracts fascinating situations in part because he will engage any stranger who strikes him as fascinating. Andersen has spent a fair amount of time in New York City standing by Rips’ side as Rips strikes up meaningful conversations with CEOs, baristas, homeless people. Rips also attracts fascinating situations because he’s Michael Rips, Andersen thinks.
“I’m not a believer in magic in almost any sense,” Andersen told me. “But it is a kind of magic. He will buy some crappy painting and it turns out to be a famous artist. That kind of thing.”
The crappy painting of which Andersen speaks is an etching Rips found a few years ago in a pawn shop on 25th Street in Manhattan. He happened to notice that, in place of a signature, the etching was signed with a beautiful, hand-drawn butterfly. He happened to know that this is the way the famed artist Whistler signed some of his works.
He did not mention this to the proprietor of the pawn shop. He bought the Whistler at a pawn shop price.
Rips is now putting his deep knowledge of art to a pursuit that will not make him rich, but could make a difference in New York City. He’s now the executive director of the Art Students League, the wildly unconventional art school that trained Georgia O’Keefe, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Norman Rockwell and a bunch of other names you would recognize.
There is no real curriculum at the school, no required classes or graduation requirements. Instead, a student works with a teacher who often is a successful artist. The student might learn from the teacher for a month or a decade. It does not matter.
“It is without question the most important art academy of the past 150 years,” Rips says. “But it doesn’t really fit into the American educational system.”
Rips is working to reintroduce the Art Students League to the public, reopening the school’s gallery spaces and publicizing it to a city that has largely forgotten it exists.
He will keep sitting in cafes that remind him of the Old Market, and chatting up random guests of the Chelsea Hotel — he and his wife have lived there on and off for a quarter century. Their daughter, Nicolaia Rips, wrote her first book about the experience of growing up there.
He will continue to talk to strangers who become characters in his books and also sometimes friends. He’s writing his third book and continuing to collect art. Maybe he will practice law again at some point, he tells me. Maybe he will teach law.
It will probably figure itself out, because most of what Rips does ends up making sense, though you can’t necessarily tell exactly why.
“It’s how much of Michael’s life seems to work,” Andersen says. “You look at it and you go, how in the (expletive) did that happen?”
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The moon rose over the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge in the early morning hours.
On the 75th anniversary of D-Day, Ed Morrissette a 95-year-old WWII veteran of Papillion, reminisced while toasting to his fallen comrades with a drink accompanied by John Adams, Tom Demro, Antonio Chickinelli and Jeff Hadden at Patriarch Distillers Inc. in La Vista, Nebraska, Thursday, June 6, 2019. Morrissette who was part of the second wave on D-Day at Omaha Beach drank a Canada Dry while the others had Soldier Valley Omaha Beach D-Day 75th anniversary bourbon whiskey.
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Detroit Tigers' Miguel Cabrera signed autographs for fans prior to a Major League Baseball game against the Kansas City Royals at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska, on Thursday, June 13, 2019.
Omaha Burke's Jaylon Roussell jogged the field people to participating in the Nebraska Cornhuskers Friday Night Lights event at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Louisville's Adam Elliott warmed up before the start of game 7 of the College World Series.
Louisville's Drew Campbell celebrated a walk-off win on his hit in the bottom of the 9th against Mississippi State during game ten of the College World Series at TD Ameritrade Park.
Te'Andi Titus, left, and Kevin Kalaw, both of Omaha, read on the dock at Standing Bear Lake as a cool breeze swept over the lake, keeping the mosquitoes at bay.
Vanderbilt and Michigan faced off in the College World Series finals at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska in 2019.
Michigan's Jordan Brewer and Jack Blomgren celebrated after defeating Vanderbilt in their College World Series game.
A B-2 stealth bomber flew over as Michigan stands during the National Anthem before their College World Series game.
Vanderbilt faces Michigan during their College World Series game.
Vanderbilt's Harrison Ray signed autographs before the start of game 3 of the CWS championship.
Vanderbilt fans celebrate at the Commodores capture a national title with a win over Michigan.
Michigan players mingled prior to their College World Series game against Vanderbilt.
Vanderbilt celebrated their win over Michigan during the third game of the champion series of the College World Series.
Chris Isaak performed at the free Memorial Park Concert at Memorial Park.
Omaha firefighter David Kirchofer provided water to Louie the dog, after Kirchofer helped battle a a fire at 5427 86th Court. Louie, who does not live in the unit that caught fire, was interested in all the action.
Ray Renk of San Francisco, California, holds his daughter Kennedy, 8, alongside his son Benjamin, 10, while sporting personalized suits and watching Warren Buffett, the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, walk the convention floor during the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders Meeting at the CHI Health Center Omaha in Omaha, Nebraska, Saturday, May 4, 2019.
Phoebe the giraffe eats lettuce fed by visitors as the Lincoln Children's Zoo provides a sneak peek at their new exhibits and expansion in Lincoln, Nebraska, Thursday, May 9, 2019.
Lincoln Southeast’s Katie Whitehead, center, and Caroline Miller, right, celebrate with teammates including Ally Keitges, left, after winning the No. 1 doubles against Millard North during the NSAA Class A girls state tennis championship match at Koch Family Tennis Center in Omaha, Nebraska, Friday, May 17, 2019.
Omaha Bryanâ€™s Darwin Loftin lands a long jump during the Metro Conference track meet at Omaha Burke.
Millard West's Corbin Hawkins waits out the rain delay in the dugout. The baseball game between Millard West and Creighton Prep was postponed because of the weather.
Archbishop Bergan's Luke Jessen hits the center field wall trying to catch a hit from Millard West's Max Anderson resulting in an in-field home run during their state tournament game.
Crawford's Jillian Brennan (13) points up to the sky before the Class D 3,200-meter final at Omaha Burke High School during day one of the state track meet.
Gretna's Ashley Marsh connects with the ball alongside Marian's Maureen Tolley during the semifinal round of the Class A girls state soccer tournament at Morrison Stadium in Omaha, Nebraska, Saturday, May 11, 2019.
Elkhorn South players celebrate their championship while reading the name plate on the trophy after defeating Skutt during the NSAA Class B girls state soccer championship game Morrison Stadium in Omaha, Nebraska, Tuesday, May 14, 2019.
Jacob Himelick, left, a Millard north senior, chats with fellow senior Jace January as he signs January's year book. January likes to spend the time between classes greeting fellow students in the hallway.
Hannah Gruhlkey hugs her goat Griffin as he nibbles on her hair during a Country Bumpkin 4-H Club meeting at the Living Legend Farm.
Chipper Fyfe stands on a dike to see how far floodwaters have risen just west of Hamburg, Iowa.
Nebraska pitchers stay loose before their NCAA Regional game in Oklahoma City.
Tad Badje, 49, right, and wife Shelly Badje, 48, pepper Title Boxing Club's general manager, Chris Gerhardt's mid-section during a two-on-one body shot race as part of their work out at Title Boxing Club in Omaha, Nebraska.
Two-year-old Hannah Bonnot of Denver, Colorado, stands in awe before "Mountain Outlaw" taken at Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, on display at Tom Mangelsen's "Life in the Wild" exhibition at the Durham Museum in Omaha, Nebraska.
A deer walks through the tall grass at Chalco Hills Recreation Area in Omaha, Nebraska.
Canada geese fly over Flanagan Lake at sunset in Omaha, Nebraska.
The sunset is reflected in some open water at Flanagan Lake in Omaha, Nebraska.
Ian Murphy, canvases the nearly 90 snow people which are on display at the Leavenworth Park in Omaha, Nebraska. Neighbors such as Murphy say the snow people didn't exist yesterday and claim it happened over night or possibly early this morning.
Husker fans rock The Rock and corn hats in the first half as the University of Nebraska-Lincoln men's basketball team hosts Michigan State at the Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska.
An allosaurus appears to be eyeing a tasty, 19-month-old morsel named Austin Haseltine as he is lifted from the shoulders of his grandpa, Greg Fasano, by his mother, Amy Haseltine, with his father, Jim Haseltine looking on. The Dinosaur UpROAR exhibit at Lauritzen Gardens, 100 Bancroft Street in Omaha, Nebraska, features 20 life-sized installations as well as discovery stations and educational activities set throughout the gardens.
The setting moon is framed by some dried flowers at Lake Zorinsky in Omaha, Nebraska.
A person goes for a run along the snow covered trails at Lake Zorinsky in Omaha, Nebraska.
The sun rises on a snow covered Lake Zorinsky in Omaha, Nebraska.
Pink and blue balloons float past the Sower statue on the Nebraska State Capitol after balloons were released for the 45th annual Nebraska Walk for Life in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Steam rises over north downtown Omaha, Nebraska, as morning lows were below -10 degrees.
Water covers a road near Valley, Nebraska, on Friday, March 15, 2019.
Heavy machinery stacks up concrete chunks on the shore of the Elkhorn River at the Q Street bridge as part of an effort to stabilize the bank on the recently flooded river.
Sarpy County Sheriff's Deputy Darin Morrissey rides an ATV through floodwaters in Hawaiian Village.
Omaha Roncalli's Shane Orr celebrates their double overtime win over Aurora during a semifinal game in the Class B Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
The Auburn bench and crowd react to Auburn's Cameron Binder hitting what would be the game winning shot against North Bend Central during the championship game in the Class C1 Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Nebraskaâ€™s Adrian Martinez runs out of the end zone after a play during spring football practice at the Hawks Championship Center in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Treyton Gubser, left, and his uncle Daniel Gubser paddle using shovels through the floodwaters after they rescued Daniel's kid's cat, Bob, in Hamburg, Iowa.
Highway 81 is covered in floodwaters south of Columbus, Nebraska.
A Nebraska National Guard helicopter flies over a flooded Waterloo, Nebraska, in March.
Cars drive drive across a flooded Platte River on Highway 50 just north of Louisville, Nebraska.
A Canada goose flies over Matthew J. Placzek's "Monument to Labor" sculpture as floodwaters from the Missouri River begin to recede on the Omaha riverfront.
Floodwaters closed Ave I at North 26th Street in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
A truck drives through a flooded road near the Platte River in April.
Lincoln Pius X's Austin Jablonski holds up the net after his team defeated Omaha Roncalli in the championship game in the Class B Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Amelia Fritz, right, holds on to her daughter-in-law Tesha Fritz in Glenwood, Iowa. They were evacuated from Pacific Junction, Iowa, after floodwaters hit the town last night. They were part of 15-relatives all staying in the same house or in a camper in the front driveway.
Robert Jones looks around his flood damaged house north of Highway 50, near Louisville,Nebraska. The floor, which is normally a white tile, is covered in mud.
Aurora's Nicholas Hutsell, left, fouls Omaha Roncalli's Alexander Rodgers during a semifinal game in the Class B Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Lincoln Pius X's Charlie Easley, left, and and Omaha Roncalli's Alexander Rodgers stretch for a loose ball during the championship game in the Class B Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family's Trent Reardon, left and Jason Sjuts celebrate their victory over Fremont Bergan during the championship game in the Class D1 Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Aurora's Kaleb Moural wipes the sweat from his face during the second half against Omaha Roncalli during a semifinal game in the Class B Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Bob the cat looks on from a basket in a boat after being rescued from floodwaters in Hamburg, Iowa.
A vehicle is stuck in floodwaters near 1st Street and Pierce Street in Fremont, Nebraska.