Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Berry Park shows we can do better

The start of it was unbearably small. The distinguished civil rights leader Theodore M. Berry was ailing, and there was a well-intentioned rush to honor him.

A street. Something easy. Central Avenue was briefly considered, but businesses complained about the cost of a new address. Ditto Eighth Street. Councilman Charles Winburn put together a hasty plan to name Produce Drive after the first black mayor of Cincinnati.

Even if the bouquet is a short, undistinguished stretch of pavement formerly used by trucks filled with lettuce? Not good enough, said Marian Spencer, who served with Berry on the NAACP board. "Make his memorial commensurate with his contributions."

[IMAGE] A sign in eight languages greets visitors to Theodore M. Berry International Friendship Park.
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"I believe in sending people flowers while they are still alive," Winburn said in 1997.

His life was bigger than that. All 94 years of it. Sometimes this "rabble-rouser" made huge strides. Sometimes he moved things an inch at a time. He was eloquent. He was serious. He was relentlessly dissatisfied.

Born in Maysville, Ky., in 1905, Ted came here when he was 6. The son of a white farmer he met only once and a deaf-mute mother, he was the first black valedictorian at Woodward High School. He worked in a steel mill to pay his way through the University of Cincinnati. Summers he was a Red Cap at Cincinnati Southern Railway, where he later served on the board of directors.

When he began practicing law here in 1932, there were fewer than 15 black attorneys. He took on some big cases, like the one against Crosley Radio, which at that time had not a single black worker. But he wasn't too busy to make a ruckus when a black man was denied a haircut at a downtown hotel.

Produce Way was a compromise and singularly unfit to represent an uncompromising leader. Somebody suggested a park. A place where we could sit on a bench, look at the river and think. A remarkably diverse group - the Park Board, politicians, business leaders - some of whom hadn't had a civil word to say to each other for years - worked together.

And Saturday, the Theodore M. Berry International Friendship Park was dedicated. It was a damp day. Rain and more rain. Seats under roof filled quickly. Still people came, standing in the corners, then outside. A wall of people, more than 400, some ducking under umbrellas, some just getting wet. No freebies to lure them. No beer. No brats. Just respect.

About 70 Cincinnatians who came from foreign lands to make their homes here placed flowers into the hands of a Cincinnati florist - from Lithuania - who fashioned an enormous international bouquet. Gail Berry-West spoke movingly of her late father, who died in October of 2000. Debonair, a quartet of young men who met at Walnut Hills High School, sang "The Star-Spangled Banner." Muse, Cincinnati Women's Choir, sang "Lift Every Voice". And every voice was lifted, in harmony against the incomparable backdrop of the river.

The day, the park, the future seemed very big.

Just like the man.

E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com or phone 768-8393.

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