Wednesday, September 10, 2003

What would the man who cleaned up Newport do?

Peter Bronson

His name was Christian. He made a pledge to God to clean up Newport. And he did it.

Christian Seifried, 90, died last week. But his legacy lives on as families in Newport raise their children free from the shadow of corruption, prostitution, casinos and organized crime.

If someone made up this story, even Hollywood wouldn't buy it. But it's true. The good guy won.

"I knew him as my Boy Scout master and almost a second father,'' said Gary Howard, a former Newport policeman who grew up down the street from Seifried. "He set out to take back the community. And he did.''

The way Howard remembers it, Seifried was inspired in the mid 1950s by a sermon from his pastor, the Rev. Harold Barkhau, urging someone to clean up Newport.

For years, Seifried had walked the streets of Newport as a mailman, getting a street-level view of brothels and casinos.

"They, in themselves, were bad enough, but I was horrified at the children I saw hanging around those places,'' he told the Enquirer in 1961. "I made a pledge to God and myself that I'd do something about it if the opportunity ever presented itself.''

And then one Sunday in church, opportunity leaned on the doorbell.

"I asked Mr. Barkhau after the sermon whether he meant what he said," Seifried told the Enquirer. "He assured me he did, and I learned that many other ministers had preached sermons along the same lines.''

City Hall ignored him, so Seifried formed the Social Action Committee of the Newport Ministerial Association. It launched a battle that eventually prompted Kentucky Gov. Bert T. Combs to order the prosecution of a sheriff, two police chiefs, a few police officers and a local lawyer.

Seifried formed the Committee of 500 to run reform candidates, and backed a former pro-football player, George Ratterman, for sheriff.

During his campaign, Ratterman was invited to a nightclub to discuss getting casinos out of Newport. Instead, he was drugged with "knock-out drops,'' dragged to a hotel bedroom and photographed with a stripper, April Flowers.

The frame-up backfired on the hoods. Ratterman was elected, and Seifried's dream of a safer, cleaner Newport began to come true.

In the early 1960s, the Enquirer reported that the ouster of crooked cops and a federal investigation were credited to the efforts of Seifried. Meanwhile, Newport used urban renewal to close down "seven houses of ill repute and five gambling casinos . . . all of which had operated for the last decade.''

Now the mailman who delivered good news to Newport is gone. More than 40 years have flowed downriver since Newport was named "a city of prostitution'' by Esquire magazine..

And now some Northern Kentucky leaders are working to bring casinos back to the riverbanks.

In 1961, Seifried said: "We don't intend to give up - ever.''

Howard says his friend never did give up, and remained adamantly opposed to casinos. "He saw it as a reversal. We worked too hard to get away from that.''

Christian Seifried's life is an inspiring story of one man's pledge to God to make a sick city healthy. It's also a warning to Newport: Never give up - ever.

E-mail or call 768-8301.

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