Thursday, December 4, 1997
Unbeatable combo of heart, chutzpah

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Why do these people do it? Committee meetings that drag on through dinner. Hours on folding chairs in stuffy rooms.

Power? Hardly. Influence? Maybe. But not power. Powerful people don't beg for attention from bureaucrats. Or take orders from elected officials.

What makes them keep pushing? It can't be for money. Or glory. How glorious do you suppose it has been for Lois Broerman, working from a basement in North Fairmount? From there, she has managed to get this neighborhood a medical center, day care, pocket parks, a food co-op, housing, a bank.

Ignoring the odds

When she wanted to open the community center, she was told, ''Nothing ever opens here. Everything closes.'' Hopeless, the parish priest said. She stubbornly ignored the advice. And the odds.

Friday she will be honored by the Cincinnati Planning Commission and Planning Department with the Estelle B. Berman Award. Usually, the honoree is a Cincinnati resident. Lois Broerman sleeps in Bridgetown, but ''my heart is in North Fairmount.'' The selection committee decided that counts.

The award is named for another one of ''those people.'' Estelle Berman has been working for the City of Cincinnati in one way or another for 25 years. If you ask around, you'll find that she has plenty of adversaries. But surprisingly few enemies.

Surprising because she is relentlessly honest. Not to mention bossy and opinionated. But she also is principled and charming. A hard package to resist. She and her husband, Dr. Jerome Berman, have a son in Texas and proteges, ''extra children,'' all over the world.

The North Avondale resident has had her elegant fingers in environmental quality, hillside protection, historic preservation and zoning. She is hardly the darling of the business community, but when 20 heavy-hitters were flown to Toronto on a planning mission, she was on the plane.

As Sylvester Murray, Cincinnati's first black city manager was unpacking his bags, Mrs. Berman told him she thought they would get along fine because ''I'm just as mean to black folks as I am to white ones.''

She's not mean. Not even close. Feisty? That's too easy. She is funny and tough and thinks she knows the answers to questions the rest of us aren't smart enough to ask. A native of Frankfort, Ky., she went to school with Gov. A.B. ''Happy'' Chandler's children. ''I learned my manners from Mrs. Chandler at the mansion. Not from Happy, because he didn't have any.''

She didn't get her politics from the governor either. Charter Party chair, she ran Bobbie Sterne's first three council campaigns and helped elect Calvin Conliffe, Cincinnati's first black school board member.

The first female head of the Planning Commission, appointed in 1973, she now chairs the city's Riverfront Advisory Council. Whooeee. Another hot seat. And more lectures and advice and orders from people who are not fit to shine her shoes.

Unofficial officials

Not everyone looks like what they are. But this one does, I think. Wry smile. Dark - almost black - eyes shadowed a little. Kidney cancer. For a year, she has scheduled chemotherapy around her meetings. Now, she works around daily dialysis.

She says she'll try to make it to the ceremony for Mrs. Broerman at City Hall on Friday. They've never met. But they might recognize each other. They are a type, these people who make things happen without title or official clout.

Just like Over-the-Rhine's Jim Tarbell. Avondale's Chaunston Brown. Bond Hill's Rose Nelson. The West End's Shirley Colbert. Cincinnati's Estelle Berman.

So, why do they do it? Here's what I think. I think they fight so fiercely and work so tirelessly because they love these places. And, sometimes - more often than they know - the people in these places love them back.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.