Saturday, June 17, 2006

"Great" people of contemporary Cleveland?

At lunch today, a friend and I got into a discussion of who the "Great People" of Cleveland were and whether there was anyone in the past few decades who would measure up to the titans of the past?

I remembered an exhibit that the Western Reserve Historical Society had mounted a decade ago, speculating on who the city should have been named for, if Moses Cleaveland was out of the picture. Might we have been named after Alfred Kelley, the father of the Ohio & Erie Canal, which put Cleveland on the map?

Anyway, with that in mind, we identified the "Greats" of the city's industrial age as being Louie Seltzer, the Van Sweringen brothers, Tom L. Johnson and Mark Hanna, though my lunch partner made a case for Newton D. Baker as well. Other considerations included Peter Witt, Myron T. Herrick, and Ernie Bohn, but we deliberately left off people who were purely nineteenth century (John D. Rockefeller), businessmen (ditto), or sports and entertainment celebrities (Bob Feller, Paul Newman, LeBron, et al).

Against this short list of five or six people, we then considered the leading lights of the late twentieth century -- the figures of Cleveland's "comeback" -- and found none who we would put on the A List of the earlier period. We considered Peter B. Lewis, the Stokes brothers, Sam Miller, Dick Jacobs, Dennis Kucinich, Art Model, Al Lerner, Howard Metzenbaum, and George Voinovich. These are all important folks in the city's recent history and the jury may very much still be out on them (or others), but so far we would have trouble elevating any to the stature of a Tom L. Johnson or Louie Seltzer in terms of their positive, lasting impact on the city.

My lunch partner, a long-time journalist, said that the A List folks lived in an entirely different city and that those times of growth and the opportunities for influence may've had much to do with putting those people on the A List, so the question remains: who will be on that A List, when historians look back upon the past three decades of Cleveland's history? Any nominations?


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