Roberta Wilhelm and one of her mentees.
By Julien R. Fielding
– Photo courtesy of Midlands Mentoring Partnership
Meet Roberta Wilhelm
Trying New Things Is Her Forte
The Daily Record
Roberta Wilhelm became the executive director of Girls Inc. of Omaha nearly 10 years ago, and when she took that position, one of her goals was to give the girls a “vision of a bigger world.” And who was better equipped to do that than Wilhelm?
Born in Heidelberg, Germany, this “Army brat” moved around a lot in her childhood. One of the more memorable locations that she had the opportunity to call home was Tehran, Iran.
“It was a remarkable place to live,” she said. “My best friend was an Iranian girl, and when I came to the U.S., she came here as an exchange student. I had traveled with her family some, to some tourist sites, the graves of poets, Shiraz, Persepolis ... I hadn’t heard from anyone there until I reconnected with them on Facebook. We feel real bonded; we’re all very nostalgic.
“In Iran, I went to a private school, and a lot of American kids went there,” she continued. “We had a lot of holy days off – we recognized the death of the imam – and we got the major Christian holidays off.”
Even though she was raised Catholic, she and her family respected Muslim holidays. For instance, she said that during Ramadan, the month of fasting, “it was rude to eat on the street.”
Overall, the experience didn’t impact her religious upbringing, but it did help her to develop a “huge appreciation for other cultures.”
Her family left during the summer of 1977; right before the fall of the Shah of Iran. “It was during my senior year, and mine was the last class to graduate from that school,” she said.
Back in the United States, Wilhelm’s family lived in Leavenworth, Kan. After graduating from high school, she attended the University of Kansas in Lawrence, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theater.
She moved to Omaha with her then husband, James Larson, who was writing his Ph.D. on the Magic Theatre. Her first job was at the Emmy Gifford Theater, which eventually became the Rose. “I was there for 20 years,” she said.
“I did a lot of different jobs, and learned about bookkeeping, managing, directing … I learned about fundraising and marketing; I wrote grants and taught classes. I did whatever was needed. James started after me, and we worked together for many, many years.”
She said that she learned about the opening at Girls Inc. of Omaha, while she was working with them on a program.
“My best friend said, ‘You ought to consider applying for this job.’ It was closing the next day. I thought, ‘I am a creative person, and I can bring creativity to the job.’ I have an interest in storytelling and drama, and my background is conducive for sharing that.”
Since being hired in 2003, Wilhelm has made some changes. “I’m willing to try new things with the kids,” she said.
“I’ve taken the girls to New York City, to Florida, to Chicago, and to Detroit. These trips change lives, and give them a vision of a bigger world.
“We’ve added a big science and technology camp at UNO. It’s the first of a five-year program. We go camping every year; summers are a really busy time.” (In 2011, Girls Inc. of Omaha serviced 952 unique girls.)
One of the highlights of her job was meeting First Lady Michelle Obama, who was in Omaha last year for the Girls Inc. of Omaha luncheon. “I welcomed her,” she said. “She is more beautiful in person. She has the most toned arms, and she’s very sweet and kind. I had a great time with her. She’s very genuine and was great with the girls.”
Although her job keeps her busy, Wilhelm finds time to mentor two young women. She enjoys reading, and, overall, her tastes in literature remain pretty eclectic.
“I like memoirs, the classics, and nonfiction,” she said. Recent favorites have focused on South Pole explorers, the Donner Party, Steve Jobs, and the history of Saturday Night Live.
“I read so much on Kindle,” she said. “It’s a wonderful invention. I’ve read a lot about Iran and the Jewish ghetto in Terezin [in the Czech Republic]. I’ve read The Hunger Games, [John Steinbeck’s] Travels with Charley, Tina Fey’s book … old Persian literature, and Mark Twain, all were free on Kindle.”
Family is important to her. She has two sons – one recently graduated from high school – a daughter, and two step-sons. “We also have two dogs – golden retrievers – that my husband may love more than he loves me,” she joked.
Her husband, Vic Gutman, whom she married in 1998, is president and founder of Vic Gutman & Associates, the company that manages the Holiday Lights Festival and the Omaha Farmer’s Market, among other events. He also earned a law degree from Creighton School of Law.
Both enjoy traveling. Their first trip abroad was to Paris, where his brother had been on sabbatical. “We spent five days in Paris and five days in Germany,” she said. Two years ago, they went to Italy and visited the Vatican, and then in 2012, they went to Eastern Europe, visiting Budapest, Krakow, Prague, and Vienna. During that trip, they found time to “walk” Auschwitz-Birkenau. “It was a little overwhelming,” she said.
If her husband had his way, she said, they would go someplace every year. And considering that both have family members scattered throughout the country – Gutman is from Detroit; Wilhelm has family in Vermont, Germany, Hawaii, Alabama, and Omaha – that wouldn’t be too difficult.
One place that Wilhelm would like to return is Iran. “I would love to go back,” she said. “It’s a really beautiful country. When I was there, I learned some Farsi, and I know enough to get around. I would still like to go back to school and learn more.”