Sunday, July 20, 2003

Catching up with John Shirey and his new life

Laura Pulfer

Apparently there is life after Cincinnati.

Hard to believe someone could leave the center of the universe and find happiness elsewhere. But I have it on official authority, the official being former city manager John Shirey, who hung on here by his toenails for eight years. He was the longest-serving city manager since Charles Adair Harrell, who left in 1963 after nine years.

Shirey's predecessor, Gerald Newfarmer, was booted by City Council, led by the briefly popular Dwight Tillery, who wouldn't be voted president of the Hair Club today. Scott Johnson was forced out in 1990. Before that there is little record of the sport of public floggings.

The charter was changed, as the Enquirer's Greg Korte noted when Valerie Lemmie was hired: Shirey spent his last year counting votes. "When he got to five - a majority of City Council - he knew he was safe for one more week. Lemmie just needs to count to one: Mayor Luken."

But this is semi-ancient history.

Shirey and his wife have a new life in Sacramento, after a year of living apart while son Greg finished high school at St. Xavier. Last July, Shirey became executive director of the California Redevelopment Association.

"It's not as much fun as getting your head beat in publicly," he deadpans. He works "mostly behind the scenes" to rescue blighted areas. It would be rare to find his name in the newspaper.

"Pretty nice," he says, familiarly low key and always the civil civil servant.

Mrs. Shirey - Marilyn, a mainstay in the remedial reading and math programs at Kilgore Elementary School - joined him "with the girls" this month. Oldest daughter, Jill, graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa this spring from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Elizabeth, the youngest Shirey, will be a sophomore at St. Francis High School, "a carbon copy, as close as we could get" to St. Ursula Academy, where she flourished.

Public floggings aside, they all flourished in Cincinnati, according to Shirey. "We loved Cincinnati. We still do. It's beautiful. We still talk about the art and cultural facilities there. And we loved the people."

This is the guy who, given the chance to vent on the editorial page of this newspaper, chose to write thank-you notes to his newspaper carrier, who tucked a letter in his paper "during one particularly low point for me," and a janitor at City Hall, who gave him a book about how God's words apply to our daily lives. "I still find it amazing that I could be the subject of your prayers," he wrote at the end of 2001 after "the darkest days of my life" following the April riots, which finally cost him his job.

Lessons learned? "The solutions to Cincinnati's problems have to do with everybody. If people could put aside personal ambition and petty gripes and pull as one community, it could be a much better place. But you can't legislate that."

And how is he doing?

"At times, if I let myself, I get a little melancholy. I did the best job I could, based on the information I had. I'm proud of what I achieved and wish I could have done more," says John Shirey. "Thanks for asking."

Ever the gentleman.

E-mail or phone 768-8393.

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