A mom to match our state motto

Friday, September 4, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Most people think Ohio's much-debated motto came from the Bible. Jim Mastronardo can tell you, with a straight face, it came from his mother. Ohio picked it up from Jim. And Jim couldn't be happier that his mother's words of wisdom, words he helped turn into Ohio's motto decades ago, have been ruled fit to be set in stone.

"I heard these words every day," Jim said. "My mom would say them when we ate dinner together, when I was doing my homework, when I was talking with my parents and my sister. I was very lucky to grow up in a family like that. We talked to each other. This is a great tribute to the way I was raised."

Earlier this week, a Federal judge ruled against the American Civil Liberties Union and allowed Ohio's motto -- "With God, All Things Are Possible" -- to be chiseled in granite on a plaza outside the renovated Statehouse in Columbus.

But there's a rub. Words on government buildings can't violate constitutional guarantees separating church and state. So, the court declared that the carving could not contain any reference to the motto's source.

"With God all things are possible" is in the Bible. You can look it up. It comes from Matthew 19:26.

But the state of Ohio didn't know that back in 1959 when those words became the motto as a result of a petition drive. Back then, they were attributed to the then 12-year-old Jimmy Mastronardo of Hartwell.

"I never said the words came from the Scriptures," he told me. "Later on, after this whole thing was over, a reporter told me where it was from."

He still doesn't think of the Good Book when he hears these words. He thinks of his mother. These words made up her favorite expression. And, he always felt better after she said them.

When Jim was a little kid and had trouble with his homework or his classmates, his mother would sit down next to him at the family's dining room table.

"Now Jimmy," Margie Mastronardo would say to her son, "just remember: With God, all things are possible."

Jim immediately thought of his mother's words of encouragement when he found out Ohio had no state motto.

That was 40 years ago. He remembers where he was when inspiration struck. He was 10 years old and doing his homework at the dining room table. He was working on a social studies assignment about the states and their capitals.

His parents had just purchased a World Book encyclopedia. Jim can still see the set's white and gold-trimmed deluxe covers.

"I had all the volumes spread out. I had looked up all the states. Ohio was the only one without a motto."

Jim reported his finding in a letter to the editor of The Enquirer in March of 1958. "I am very proud of my state and think it should have a state motto like the other 47 states." He suggested "With God all things are possible." No mention was made of Matthew or his mother.

The idea caught fire. State lawmakers started courting Jim. He spoke at the statehouse, became a registered lobbyist and made appearances asking people to sign petitions to give Ohio a motto. He gathered 18,000 signatures. Fifteen months later, "With God, All Things Are Possible" became Ohio's motto.

Forty years after writing his letter to the editor, Jim Mastronardo works in Florence for Meritor Automotive. "I make sure spare parts are where they're supposed to be when a semi breaks down."

He's lived in Kentucky for 21 years. But, he doesn't know the Kentucky state motto. (United We Stand, Divided We Fall.)

"I'm still a Buckeye at heart," he explained.

Reminders of his childhood triumph are never far from his heart. He still has the state flag Ohio's lawmakers gave him. The flag, embroidered with the motto, rests on the nightstand next to Jim's bed.

"I've had lots of nice conversations with lots of nice people about this motto," he said.

He also has an autographed photo and a letter from Ricky Nelson. Jim once mentioned in an interview that Ozzie & Harriet was his favorite TV show and the couple's guitar-playing son was his favorite rock star. Ricky heard about Jim and the motto and wrote him a letter. But his sweetest memory surrounds his son, Derek. When he was 10, Jim's age at the start of the motto campaign, Derek had to write a school paper about a famous person. He wrote about his dad.

To his son, Jim Mastronardo is famous. He gave Ohio its motto. "Derek's school paper almost put a little too much weight on my shoulders," Jim said. "It reminds me how important your job is as a parent."

It also reminds him of hearing his mother say: "With God, all things are possible."

"I now know why she said that," Jim noted. "Her words were supposed to bring me hope and be uplifting."

Everything you could ask from a motto.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.