Monday, October 16, 2000

Ted Berry, Mr. Cincinnati, dies at 94


Mourners' recall ex-mayor's lifetime of victories

By Tom O'Neill
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Ted Berry's grandson, Joshua, 4, lays his head on a portrait of his grandfather.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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        Theodore M. Berry, who for more than a half-century helped shape the landscape of Cincinnati as a civic leader and was the city's first African-American mayor, died Sunday morning in Loveland. He was 94.

        Mr. Berry emerged from an impoverished childhood in Maysville, Ky., and Cincinnati's West End to become a high-school valedictorian who wrote a winning essay under a pen name because his original writing on Abraham Lincoln was rejected by white judges.

        The year was 1924. In winning, he used the pseudonym Thomas Playfair. It was fitting.

        What followed was a lifetime of victories about playing fair: social and cultural victories that led him from hallowed courtrooms to City Hall to the hallways of the White House.

TRIBUTES
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  • When someone in the community had a problem, they went to Ted ... He was a hero among black folks in Cincinnati.”
  — Marian Spencer, first African-American woman elected to City Council.
  • “He was always swimming upstream, but he was persistent, smart and committed. There was never a question about his integrity.”
  — U.S. District Court Judge Nathaniel Jones
  •   “He was a pioneer, opened new doors, and led the way in social issues. I felt he was an intellectual.”
  — Gene Ruehlmann, Republican member of Cincinnati City Council who worked with Mr. Berry on the finance committee in the early-1950s
  •   “He stands as an icon in certain neighborhoods and nobody was more loved, or accomplished more for our community.
  — Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken, whose father served on city council with Mr. Berry in the 1970s.
        He left a legacy of standing firm against shifting political winds.

        Throughout, he was a family man quick to quote the Bible — especially Proverb 31:9, which says: “Open thy mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy.”

        That he did with tireless conviction.

        “We're, of course, very thankful for what a wonderful man he's been, we're very blessed to have had him as a father,” his daughter, Gail Berry West of Washington, D.C., said Sunday. “Integrity, he was a man of his word. Fairness. Service.”

        Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken echoed that assessment.

        “Ted Berry is one of the greatest Cincinnatians of all time. A kind man, an intelligent man. A true statesman in every respect. He led our city to a better place in the area of civil rights.”

        Mr. Berry died at 10:20 a.m. Sunday at Lodge Care Center in Loveland.

        Away from the glare of public service, Mr. Berry was a golfer, chess player, avid reader, symphony concertgoer and world traveler who celebrated his 90th birthday with a trip to Alaska, a gift from his daughters.

        “In private,” Ms. Berry West said, “he was what you saw in public. He was a loyal person to his children. He was a rock.”

        Marian Spencer - a friend of Mr. Berry for 60 years and the first African-American woman elected to City Council - said Cincinnati was Mr. Berry's life.

        “He gave much to it and got much from it,” Mrs. Spencer said.

        She and her husband, Donald, lived in an apartment in the Berry home for four years after their marriage in 1940; they considered the Berrys family.

        Mr. Spencer said he met Mr. Berry in the 1930s when Mr. Spencer was a senior at Walnut Hills High School and Mr. Berry was head of the local NAACP chapter.

        Mrs. Spencer described Mr. Berry as “a man who simply believed that he had an obligation to fight for all those people who couldn't fight for themselves.

        “He was a leader because he could see things in a much broader perspective than other politicians,” Mrs. Spencer said.

        Declining health in recent years limited his public appearances, but when City Council in 1997 announced the renaming of Produce Drive on the riverfront as “Theodore M. Berry Way,” he attended the dedication in a wheelchair. Also in '97, Cincinnati Park Board voted to rename International Friendship Park after him.

        That same year, however, he suffered a stroke that confined him to a nursing home.

        The accolades continued in his final years. In February, Applause! magazine honored Mr. Berry as the Imagemaker Awards' “Person of the Century.” His family attended the annual Imagemaker Awards at the Aronoff Center for the Arts in his absence.

        Person of the Century.

        It all seemed so far removed from turn-of-the-previous-century Maysville.

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Johnie Mae and Ted Berry married in 1938.
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Words unheard

               Mr. Berry was born out of wedlock on Nov. 5, 1905, in Maysville, that small town hard against the banks of the Ohio River. His father was a white farmer he met only once. His mother was deaf and communicated with him only in sign language.

        As a child, he sold newspapers, shined shoes, shoveled coal and delivered laundry, shelved books in local libraries, and worked as a desk clerk at the “black” YMCA, then on West Ninth Street in Cincinnati, where he roomed during high school.

        He served as commencement orator and senior-class valedictorian of Woodward High in June 1924. To enter the essay contest, he submitted his oration “The Chaos Beyond” under the pen name Thomas Playfair. His initial entry under his own name, “Lincoln and the Constitution”, had been rejected by the panel of white teacher-judges.

        The Playfair essay won.

        When its real author was revealed, Mr. Berry was forbidden to walk in the commencement procession with a white female classmate. He walked alone, the first African-American valedictorian in the school's history.

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Theodore Berry Jr. and Gail Berry West met with family Sunday.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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        He was 21 when his mother died in 1926 having never heard her son speak, but a blessing hid within the obstacle. Because of her hearing disability, Mr. Berry grew up carefully enunciating his words, so she could lip-read. From it, he mastered diction.

        That skill propelled him throughout his career.

        He paid his way through the University of Cincinnati law school by working at Newport steel mills. He was admitted to the Ohio Bar in 1932 and, six years later, was appointed the first black assistant prosecuting attorney for Hamilton County. Also in 1938, he married the woman who now is his widow, the former Johnnie Mae Elaine Newton. They raised a family.

        The firsts kept coming.

        He became a pivotal civil-rights attorney for the National Association fo the Advancement of Colored People, where he became — unknowingly — a strong influence on a teenager from South High School in Youngstown, Ohio, named Nathaniel Jones.

        “He was profoundly influential in my life, and I feel a debt I can't repay,” said Federal Appeals Court Judge Jones, who became such close friends with Mr. Berry that about five years ago, Mr. Berry asked Judge Jones to speak at his funeral.

        The judge tried to make light of it, saying the arrangement would probably be the other way around, with Mr. Berry outlasting him.

Rest assured
               When Judge Jones spoke with Ted Berry Jr. on Sunday, he told him “Rest assured, it'd be an honor.”

        “He was such a towering influence on events at that time,” Judge Jones explained of the early 1940s. “These were the heroes, the persons who were committed to change, and they had such a sophistication about them.”

        In 1942, Mr. Berry became morale officer for the Office of War Information under Franklin D. Roosevelt, switching his political allegiance as a result from Republican to Democrat.

        After the war, he returned to the NAACP and, from 1947 to 1961, served on the Ohio Committee for Civil Rights Legislation, focusing his attention on equal employment and fair housing issues.

        He won a seat on Cincinnati City Council in 1949, but the social tenor of the city, very simply, wasn't prepared for a black mayor. He was bypassed by the majority Charter party, which he had joined.

        In 1953, he was appointed chairman of the finance committee, where he worked closely with Gene Ruehlmann, a Republican who found more common ground with the Charterites than Democrats.

        “I'd say that on many, many items, particularly fiscal items, we agreed,” Mr. Ruehlmann said. “By and large, there was a genuine mutual respect.”

        Mr. Berry became vice mayor in 1955, considered by many the dawn of the national civil-rights movement. He lost re-election in 1957, then returned victoriously in '63.

        The following year, Mr. Berry created the city's first Community Action Commission, which drew the attention of new Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) in Washington, D.C.

        In 1965, he was appointed by President Johnson as head of OEO's Community Action Programs (CAP), which include Head Start, Jobs Corps and Legal Services.

        He returned to Cincinnati and in December 1972 became the city's first black mayor.

        “Today,” he said in his inaugural speech, “marks the symbolic recognition of the Afro-American community as a full and visible partner in the governance of our city.”

        In its coverage the next day, which included a front-page photo of Mr. Berry, The Cincinnati Enquirer described the ceremony as “perhaps the largest inaugu ral audience ever to crowd into City Council Chamber.”

        The theme of his administration was “Togetherness.”

        “We were under the spotlight,” recalled Steven Reece, then an administrative assistant to Mr. Berry. “It was a different time, there were still doubts as to whether our city was ready to have an African-American as mayor. But Ted had such unique talents, that that transition wouldn't be a problem. And that proved to be right.”

        Ten years ago, Mr. Berry spoke to members of the Cincinnati Bar Association, an organization that had rejected him decades earlier because of the color of his skin.

        “He told them about being rejected and said I forgive you,” Judge Jones recalled. “You should have seen all these hard-bitten lawyers in tears.”

        Howard Wilkinson contributed to this report.

WILKINSON: Berry had a lifetime of firsts
Street near riverfront will bear his name
Milestones in the life of Theodore M. Berry

       



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