Port levy campaign has raised $106,850; Local firms respond to development need

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 13

With funding for the region’s lead economic development agency threatened, local corporations have stepped up with big bucks of their own.

Led by giants like the Dana Corp., Owens Corning, and MidAm Bank, the campaign to renew the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority’s 0.4-mill levy has raised $106,850 in 1999, according to campaign finance reports filed this week. That’s more than twice what the campaign had raised at this point last year. More than 90 per cent of the money has been from donations of $1,000 or more.

Voters go to the polls Nov. 2 to decide whether to renew the levy, which raises $2.2 million annually and expires at the end of the year. When given the chance to renew it in 1998, voters rejected it, 55 per cent to 45 per cent.

Most of the levy money – $1.45 million – is used to fund the port authority’s economic development arm, the Regional Growth Partnership, whose aim is to increase economic activity in the Toledo area.

The $1.45 million makes up three-quarters of the growth partnership’s annual budget. The rest goes to the port authority.

If renewed, the property tax would cost the owner of a $70,000 home $7.30 annually. A mill equals $1 for every $1,000 of assessed property value.

Last year, pro-levy forces had raised only $51,000 at this stage of the election cycle.

Many of this year’s large donors have connections to the port authority or the growth partnership, either through board members or business links.

N-Viro International Corp., the company of port board’s vice-chairman, J. Patrick Nicholson, gave $2,000.

Dunbar Mechanical, Inc., gave $1,500. Its owner, Harlton “Harley” Dunbar, is a member of the growth partnership board.

TolTest, Inc., a construction and environmental testing firm, gave $2,000

Its former owner, Bill Boyle, is a former member of the port board. Former TolTest President Jerry Chabler is a current port board member.

The law firm of Spengler Nathanson, which does legal work for the port authority, contributed $3,000 to the levy campaign.

Hart Associates, the Maumee-based public relations company that is helping run this year’s campaign, gave $1,000.

According to the report filed with the Lucas County board of elections, the port authority campaign had $4,631 left over from last year’s unsuccessful campaign.

So far this year, it has spent $47,885.95, with more than $40,000 going to Hart Associates.

The campaign has more than $63,000 remaining on hand for future media buys and campaign expenses.

The report also states that the Toledo Area Chamber of Commerce forgave a $15,500 loan it gave the campaign two weeks before last year’s levy election.

The chamber also gave the campaign a contribution of $10,000, this year’s largest.

Levy campaign co-chairmen, Thomas Palmer and Lloyd Mahaffey, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The following companies and organizations gave $1,000 or more, according to the report:

* $10,000: Toledo Area Chamber of Commerce.

* $5,000: Dana Corp., Fifth Third Bank political action committee, S.E. Johnson Cos., Owens Corning, KeyBank National Association, Home Builders Association of Greater Toledo, MidAm Bank, and National City Bank.

* $3,000: Spengler Nathanson and Gerken Paving.

* $2,500: Realtors political action committee, Lathrop Co., GEM Industrial, Inc., and National City Bank Investments.

* $2,000: TolTest, Inc., Port Lawrence Title & Trust, Capital Bank, N-Viro International Corp., HCR ManorCare, Inc., and Toledo Molding & Die, Inc.

* $1,500: Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, Dunbar Mechanical, Inc., Romanoff Electric Corp., Mechanical Contractors Association of Northwest Ohio, Skillcraft Systems of Toledo.

* $1,000: A.A. Boos & Sons, Brooks Insurance Agency, Laibe Electric Co., Pilkington Libbey-Owens-Ford, Service Products Buildings, Inc., Mosser Construction, Kuhlman Corp., Auburndale Co., Danberry National Ltd., Aeroquip-Vickers, Inc., and Hart Associates.

Voters may not get say on Hens stadium

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 1

The two most important decisions appear to be made: Where to put a new Mud Hens stadium, and how to pay for it.

But there’s still one big choice for Lucas County commissioners to make: Should they ask voters for their approval?

If the commissioners do not put the issue before voters, they risk political damage from residents who do not want a new stadium. But if they do, they risk delaying the stadium’s opening for a year or more – or even killing the project.

“We’ve got to be cautious,” Commissioner Harry Barlos said. “We could end up with no stadium altogether.”

The commissioners have not made up their minds. But if recent history is any guide, city governments across the country have been willing to act without seeking voter approval first.

County commissioners, city councils, and mayors do lots of things that some citizens object to without putting the issues up for a vote.

There was no vote to renovate the Valentine Theatre, to help fund a new Jeep plant, or to help Owens-Corning or HCR ManorCare find new headquarters downtown, all projects that will cost taxpayers millions of dollars. City and county leaders pressed ahead on their own, believing that the projects were in Toledo’s best interests.

“It’s a question of leadership,” Mr. Barlos said. “There are some things that are good for a community and don’t necessarily have to be put in front of the voters first.”

But, in the case of the Mud Hens stadium, there is an added factor. Last year, voters were given the chance to approve funding for a stadium and soundly rejected it.

In May, 1998, voters were asked to raise the county sales tax 0.25 per cent for 35 months, to pay for about two-thirds of the stadium’s $37 million cost. Voters said “no” by a nearly 60-40 margin.

Now, Cleveland consultant Tom Chema has come up with a plan to pay for the stadium with only $14 million from county coffers. The remainder would come from other sources, such as state money and corporate sponsorships.

But the county commissioners are unclear on whether they want to ask voters for permission to go ahead. Sandy Isenberg, commission president, said that she would consider “a vote of confidence” from county residents. But she also said, “the community elected us to make decisions, and sometimes we have to be able to make very difficult decisions.”

The third commissioner, Bill Copeland, said he is leaning toward asking for a vote.

“It’s more of a political decision than anything else,” Mr. Chema said. “There’s no need to put it up for a vote, legally. The commissioners could approve it on their own. It’s up to them.”

A stadium and arena boom has taken place in Ohio in the 1990s. Cleveland has built facilities for the Indians, Cavaliers, and Browns. Cincinnati is building homes for the Reds and Bengals. Columbus has completed a stadium for soccer’s Columbus Crew, and a downtown arena for a new professional hockey team is on the way.

The new facilities in the Three C’s alone reflect an investment of well over $1 billion.

In each case, cities tried to get approval from voters. Cleveland and Cincinnati succeeded; Columbus’s effort failed, and both stadiums ended up being financed privately.

But the stadiums in Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati are for major league teams, and they came with major league price tags.

The new facilities for the Cincinnati Reds and Bengals will cost more than $544 million. The new Browns Stadium in Cleveland cost $283 million. Jacobs Field and Gund Arena in Cleveland together cost $344 million. Coming up with that sort of money without asking voters for a tax increase is a tall order, and cities did just that in each case.

But the trend in minor league stadiums is toward not going to voters.

In the last six years, six of the 14 teams in the Mud Hens’s International League have built ballparks. None of them got approval from voters in the process.

Some issued revenue bonds or paid in cash. Some established special taxes on tickets or on food and beverage sales at the stadium. But in each case, city leaders paid for the stadium without asking voters.

In Ohio’s smaller cities, Akron built a stadium for the Double-A Akron Aeros in its downtown for $31 million. The city didn’t ask voters for approval, and funded it by selling bonds.

Dayton is building a stadium for its new Dayton Dragons, who will begin play in April. The city issued almost $12.2 million in bonds to pay for construction.

“We didn’t have to go to the voters legally, and we didn’t,” said Ken Betche, Dayton’s accounting and treasury manager.

If Lucas County commissioners decide to put the issue of a new Mud Hens stadium before voters, the likeliest election date would be March 7, 2000, when Ohio voters will be making their choices in the presidential primaries.

But Mr. Barlos has said he worries whether stadium supporters would have enough time to coordinate a solid campaign by then. And if voters turn down a stadium deal yet again at the polls, it may become almost impossible ever to get a new ballpark.

“If this issue lost, because of misinformation or whatever, that would probably be our only opportunity to proceed with a ballpark for more than a year,” Mr. Barlos said. “Normally, I would be the first person to say it needs to go to a vote. But if it fails this time, we can’t just come back again and ask one more time.”

Mr. Barlos and Ms. Isenberg mentioned that, if commissioners want input from the public, their goal could be accomplished through a series of public hearings rather than a vote.

In central Ohio, the Columbus Crew learned the hard way about the will of the people. In 1997, voters in Franklin County were asked to approve a temporary sales tax increase to pay for an arena and stadium downtown. The Crew, a major league soccer team, was to be the primary tenant in the downtown stadium.

But voters turned down the issue, 56 per cent to 44 per cent.

A few months later, the Crew tried to move to the Columbus suburb of Dublin. The team’s owner, Lamar Hunt, offered to pay for the stadium’s construction if Dublin paid for a few infrastructure improvements around the location. Dublin city government approved the deal, but opponents got enough signatures to force the issue to the ballot, where it was defeated.

Burned twice by the public in less than a year, Mr. Hunt found another location in north Columbus and built his own stadium, at a cost of more than $28 million.

“More and more, you’re seeing stadium ballots go down,” said Jeff Wuerth, director of public relations for the Crew. “People have a negative view of sports these days because they see rich players and rich owners and don’t think they should be asked to pay for a new stadium for them.”

Sylvania Mayor Craig Stough said that the commissioners will have to decide how they’ll pay for the county’s portion of the stadium’s cost before choosing whether to put it on the ballot. Mr. Chema’s plan calls for the county to provide $4 million in cash up front and issue $10 million in bonds.

“If they can find a way to pay off all those bonds without taking money away from some other source, then they can go ahead without the voters,” he said. If thecommissioners came up with a way, such as a ticket tax, to let stadium revenues pay off the bonds, he said he would support it.

“But if they just take money from another project and put it into this one, then it’s just a way to get around the ‘no’ vote last year, and then they should put it before the voters again,” Mr. Stough said.

Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner has come out in support of avoiding the voters. “I don’t think it’s really necessary,” he said. “The commissioners are elected to make decisions like this.”

His stance is not surprising because Mr. Finkbeiner has been one of the stadium’s biggest boosters from the start. At one point, he even talked about changing the Toledo city charter to allow him and the city council to fund a stadium without seeking voter approval.

Maumee Mayor Tim Wagener said he wants the issue taken to a vote. The Mud Hens currently play at Ned Skeldon Stadium in Maumee, and a new stadium in downtown Toledo means Maumee would lose one of its most famous businesses.

“I’d love to see it go to the voters because I could vote ‘no,’ and Maumee would have the biggest voter turnout possible,” said Mr. Wagener, who lives six houses away from Ned Skeldon Stadium. “You don’t ask voters if the city wants to buy a new fire truck, because that’s an essential city service. But baseball stadiums? I think people have a right to say ‘yes’ or ‘no.'”

Still, Mr. Wagener doesn’t think county residents will get that chance.

“I don’t think they’ll put it before the voters,” he said. “I think they’ll find a way to pay for it and get it done. I wish it was different.”

Fallen Timbers gets Senate backing as federal park unit; Status would help raise aid to convert battlefield site

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page A1

WASHINGTON — The Fallen Timbers battlefield has received the Senate’s approval for entry into the National Park Service, a development local preservationists hope will make it easier to find the money to turn the empty farm field into a historical park.

“This is just as important a battle in American history as Yorktown or Gettysburg,” said Marianne Duvendack, president of the Fallen Timbers Battlefield Preservation Commission. “Being recognized by the Senate shows that this effort isn’t just for the Toledo area, it’s for the entire nation.”

On Thursday night, the U.S. Senate passed by unanimous consent a bill, sponsored by Sen. Mike DeWine (D., O.), to make Fallen Timbers and nearby Fort Miamis an affiliated unit of the National Park System. The 1794 battle is considered by some to be one of the most important battles in American history.

It was the third time Mr. DeWine introduced the bill in the Senate. It did not even receive a hearing the first two times.

A similar bill must still pass the House, where it has languished, untouched, in a subcommittee since March. Ms. Duvendack will be going to Washington this week to lobby members of the House to pass the bill by the end of the year.

The Battle of Fallen Timbers pitted a confederation of Native American tribes against U.S. forces headed by Gen. Anthony Wayne. General Wayne’s victory led to the Treaty of Greeneville and allowed the white settlement of much of the Midwest.

The 185-acre battlefield site is owned by the city of Toledo. Mayor Carty Finkbeiner has offered to sell it to preservationists for “its fair market value,” which he has pegged at $7.5 million. Located at the intersection of I-475 and U.S. 24, the battlefield has been a top target for commercial development for two decades.

“It’s exciting news,” said Tim Wagener, who became mayor of Maumee on Aug. 6. “It’s a major hurdle to get over, and now it will be incumbent on those who are working on behalf of the battlefield to come up with the funding.”

A marker was erected near the Maumee River decades ago to commemorate the battle. But Heidelberg College professor G. Michael Pratt led a team of volunteers in 1995 that discovered, through archaeological evidence, the battle took place some distance from the marker, near the intersection of I-475 and U.S. 24.

The city of Toledo bought the site in 1987 in a failed plan to expand its borders for industrial growth. Although owned by Toledo, the land is within the borders of Maumee.

Since Dr. Pratt’s discovery, local historians have been pushing for the battlefield to be preserved, while Mr. Finkbeiner said he would sell the land to the highest bidder, even if that meant the battlefield would be turned into a factory site. But last year, Mr. Finkbeiner announced that he wants to see the land preserved and turned into a historical park – if preservationists would buy it from the city.

Since then, battlefield backers have been trying to raise money from a variety of sources. The state of Ohio included $2 million in its last capital budget for the project and the city of Maumee has pledged $500,000.

While campaigning last year, Governor Taft pledged that, if elected, the state would pay for half of the total cost of site acquisition. If Mr. Finkbeiner sells the land at the price he wants, that could mean the state adding $1.75 million.

Officials in the state historic office have commissioned an appraisal of the land’s worth to determine how much the state is willing to contribute.

Mr. DeWine and U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) are trying to secure a federal contribution for the site’s acquisition and the development of the park.

But Miss Kaptur said that it will be difficult to get any action on the House side before the end of the year because the Senate has not yet committed any money to the project. The passage of this authorization bill was a prerequisite to Fallen Timbers receiving any federal funding.

“For this session at the moment, it’s a long shot,” Miss Kaptur said. “They gave us a one-legged stool. It’s not enough, and it’s late. If the Senate had passed the authorization bill earlier this year and followed it with an appropriation, and then when the bill came to us, we would have had something.”

She said it is possible that it might be included in an omnibus appropriations bill at the end of the year.

Charles Boesel, press secretary to Mr. DeWine, said that even if federal funds cannot be appropriated in 1999, the senator will continue to work for it in 2000.

“We’d love to just slap a sign on it and say here it is, but it does take time,” Mr. Boesel said. “It’s not a done deal, but it is progress, and a step in the right direction. Senator DeWine is determined. This is the third Congress he has brought it up, and persistence hopefully will pay off.”

Mr. Boesel noted that the chairman of the House subcommittee that will determine whether the project gets money is Ralph Regula, an Ohio Republican who was a colleague of Mr. DeWine’s when the senator was a congressman.

“Regardless of what happens, we will continue to press for this,” Mr. Boesel said.

Affiliated units of the National Park System are not full national parks such as Yellowstone. They are locally managed sites that, through federal legislation, receive some support from the park system.

For some, that means financial assistance; for Fallen Timbers, it would mean having access to the expertise of National Park Service employees in setting up a quality park. Among the 24 affiliated units are the International Peace Garden in North Dakota, Chimney Rock National Historic Site in Nebraska, and the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail across the West.

Under the bill, the battlefield and fort would become known as the Fallen Timbers Battlefield and Fort Miamis National Historic Site.

“If the National Park Service is putting its emblem and blessing on the site, everybody knows that it’s a very significant piece of history and well worth saving,” said Toledo Area Metroparks spokesman Art Weber.

Former Maumee Mayor Steve Pauken testified at a Senate subcommittee hearing on the bill in April, but ran into some opposition from park service representatives. They argued that the bill did not state clearly who would be managing the park land.

At the time, the bill said the manager of the site would be “the Ohio Historical Society, the city of Maumee, the Maumee Valley Heritage Corridor, the Fallen Timbers Battlefield Preservation Commission, Heidelberg College, the city of Toledo, the Metropark District of the Toledo Area, and any other entity designated by the Governor of Ohio.”

As a response to the controversy, Mr. DeWine offered an amendment to make the Metroparks the sole manager of the site. On Sept. 15, the Metroparks board accepted the responsibility, and the amendment was approved in the Senate on Thursday before the entire bill was passed.

“We’re happy to be contributing to the effort,” said Metroparks Director Jean Ward. “I think being with the National Park Service tells people all over the country that this site is important. But more importantly, it tells people here that it’s nationally significant and worthy of protection.”

The Metroparks would initially run the battlefield as a part of neighboring Side Cut Metropark, along the Maumee River. A citizen’s advisory committee, composed of representatives from groups such as the preservation commission and the Ohio Historical Society, would advise the Metroparks on the battlefield’s management, Mr. Ward said.

Mayor Finkbeiner said the Senate’s approval is “outstanding,” but he added that “it’s one thing to approve the designation, which is very appropriate. But now we have to find the money.”

Blade staff writer Mark Zaborney contributed to this report.

Downtown favored for Hens’ new park; Warehouse district site endorsed by study

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 1

Lucas County should build a $37 million Toledo Mud Hens baseball stadium in downtown Toledo’s Warehouse District, a highly anticipated study, to be released today, recommends.

The study indicates that a majority of the funding to build the stadium would come from other than local government sources.

The study, completed by Cleveland consultant Tom Chema, who was paid $180,000 in county money, recommends that the stadium be built between Huron, Monroe, St. Clair, and Washington streets.

County leaders appear ready to go along with the recommendations.

“We have the opportunity to do something really wonderful for downtown Toledo,” said Sandy Isenberg, president of the board of county commissioners. “I think this means the stadium will finally become reality.”

The report states that less than 40 per cent of the funding would be derived from local government.

Most of the cost would be borne by the state of Ohio and corporate funding.

“I don’t know if a city has ever had a week as good as Toledo has, with the Valentine Theatre opening and this news,” Mayor Carty Finkbeiner said.

In March, Mr. Chema was charged with determining the best location for a Mud Hens stadium, along with the best way to pay for it.

He was hired because city, county, and team leaders were unable to agree on either issue.

He and his company, Gateway Consulting Group, examined eight sites: the Mud Hens’ home, Ned Skeldon Stadium in Maumee; the Toledo Sports Arena site in East Toledo; a location along the west bank of the Maumee River near the Anthony Wayne Bridge, and five sites in the Warehouse District downtown.

His report, which will be presented to the Lucas County commissioners at their meeting today, recommends the Huron-Monroe-St. Clair-Washington site because the county controls much of the land on the site.

The site would provide a nice view of the downtown skyline and be a link between the Warehouse District and the central business district. Superior Street would have to be closed between Monroe and Washington.

“This location offers the best opportunity for using a new ballpark as a catalyst for economic development and urban revitalization,” the report states.

The Sports Arena site was rejected as too far removed from downtown to create any economic benefit, as was the Maumee site.

The other Warehouse District sites were rejected because of various construction problems, parking issues, or access concerns.

The Gateway study does not outline a specific budget for the 10,000-seat stadium, but it does offer an outline of where money should come from and where it would go. Of the project’s $37 million price tag, $4 million would be a Lucas County cash contribution, with $10 million resulting from a county bond issue.

The sale of stadium naming rights and corporate suites would raise about $7 million, and the Mud Hens would issue $7 million in bonds.

Mr. Chema expects the state of Ohio to contribute $6 million to the project, a figure in line with the money state lawmakers have dedicated to stadiums in other Ohio cities.

Since it requires no new taxes, Mr. Chema’s proposed funding plan could be put in place without seeking approval from the voters.

“I really don’t see any particular need to go to the voters,” Mr. Chema said, “unless commissioners decide it’s the right thing to do politically.”

That could be a blessing for county leaders who want a stadium built. Lucas County voters soundly rejected a ballot issue in May, 1998, that would have raised money for the stadium through a temporary sales tax.

A poll released on Monday, conducted for The Blade by Louis Harris and Associates of New York City, showed that 59 per cent of registered voters favor building a baseball stadium, while 32 per cent oppose it. Downtown Toledo was the most popular potential site of those surveyed.

But 80 per cent of those surveyed said they do not want county commissioners to build a ballpark without getting approval from voters.

Mr. Chema cautioned that putting the issue before voters could push back the stadium’s opening. Without going to the voters, it could be ready for opening day in 2002. Going through the process of getting voter approval likely would push that back a year, he said.

Ms. Isenberg said that a delay is a concern of hers – “We have a lot of momentum going downtown,” she said – but she said that the commissioners might still want to have a “vote of confidence” from county residents.

Commissioner Bill Copeland said he is leaning toward asking voters. “I have never really liked bypassing the voters.”

Commissioner Harry Barlos said he expects the commissioners to make decisions within the next two weeks on Mr. Chema’s site and funding recommendations, as well as whether to put the issue before voters.

He said he is worried that if the issue were rushed onto the ballot for the March 7 election, pro-stadium forces might not have the time to do a good job promoting it to voters.

“If we put it on the ballot and it loses, we just keep losing more time,” Mr. Barlos, a former Maumee mayor, said.

Parking has been the most contentious issue about potential Warehouse District stadium sites. At the Mud Hens’ home in Maumee, fans can park for free in 1,400 spaces at the stadium; some have said they would shy away from paying for a spot downtown.

But the Gateway study goes to some lengths to dispute that claim. The distance from the farthest parking space at Ned Skeldon Stadium to the ballpark’s main entrance is one-quarter mile, the study says. Within a quarter-mile – or about four city blocks – of the Warehouse District site, 6,623 parking spaces are available.

The study said 1,693 spaces are within two blocks of the ballpark site, and 9,884 spaces are within six blocks.

Local government, mostly through the Downtown Parking Authority, control about 2,000 of those spaces, Mr. Chema said. That means that private parking-lot owners won’t be able to charge exorbitant amounts for parking, because the parking authority will be able to charge low prices.

“We’ll be able to apply some downward pressure to the price,” Mr. Chema said. “I doubt anyone will pay more than two bucks.”

Last month, the county commissioners spent $106,500 to buy options on most of the property within the Huron-Monroe-St. Clair-Washington area, setting off speculation that that was the area Mr. Chema would be recommending. He said that the county is still negotiating with two property owners within the site area.

Mr. Chema said that while some historic buildings will have to be torn down to make way for the stadium, he is recommending that several buildings along St. Clair Street be left standing and integrated into the stadium design.

Under its charter, the city of Toledo is not allowed to spend public money on a sports facility without a vote, but Mr. Finkbeiner said the city will be able to make infrastructure improvements in the area around the stadium.

He said that next year, Monroe and Washington streets will be converted to two-way, in part to help traffic flow throughout the stadium area.

Ms. Isenberg’s enthusiasm for the stadium project is a relatively recent development. In an interview in January, she listed her top priorities for the new year: a 911 communication center, a juvenile justice detention center, and a new 6th District Court of Appeals building.

“Those are, in fact, priorities,” she said. “Those issues come way ahead of a Mud Hens stadium. The Mud Hens stadium is not a priority. It’s an ‘also.'”

But now, she affectionately calls the new stadium “Big Luke” and speaks excitedly and at length about the downtown renaissance it could provide.

“I guess I really got the fever,” she said. “When we hired Tom Chema, that added a certain excitement to the project. But one of the neatest things was when I went to Akron this summer” to see that city’s new downtown baseball stadium, Canal Park.

“I just fell in love with the stadium. It’s so open and inviting. I just sat around there with a big smile on my face, thinking about how great it would look plopped down right in the middle of Toledo, with people from all over Lucas County in the seats. It’s just exciting.”

Broadcaster for WSPD helped wake Toledoans

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 17

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. — Charles “Chuck” Parmelee, a WSPD-AM radio broadcaster whose dulcet voice helped wake up Toledoans for decades, died of complications from heart disease Saturday in Imperial Point Medical Center, near his home here.

He was less than two hours from his 70th birthday.

For more than 20 years, Mr. Parmelee was the host of the Alarm Clock morning show on WSPD, then the dominant radio station in Toledo, often earning more than half of the area’s total listenership.

“He was the morning man in Toledo,” said Jim Rudes, a former colleague of Mr. Parmelee’s at WSPD who went on to a career in television. “Everybody listened to Chuck Parmelee in the morning.”

He was born and raised in Toledo and graduated from Scott High School before attending Purdue University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business education.

He began working at WSPD in 1948 and stayed there until 1973. His only break from the station was during the Korean War, when he assisted the war effort by broadcasting on the Far East Network to American and United Nations troops.

When he came back from the war, he hosted the morning show, which featured news, discussion of the day’s events, and Top 40 music.

“What I remember about him is that he was such a pleasant guy on the air,” Mr. Rudes said. “There was no abrasion at all. Just a pleasant guy, nothing like you hear today with these shock jocks. He just had a pleasing personality.”

Every hour, legendary news anchor Jim Uebelhart would read the day’s news, and he would often chat on air with Mr. Parmelee in between segments.

“I remember growing up and listening to him before going to school,” said his nephew Robb Parmelee, now a teacher at Clay High School. “He always had to go to bed early to get up that early.”

Outside the radio studio, Mr. Parmelee was noted for his forever boyish looks. “That man just did not age,” Mr. Rudes said, comparing him to ageless disc jockey Dick Clark.

His young looks ruined his one very brief stint in television in the 1950s. “He was doing a beer commercial on TV,” Robb Parmelee said. “But nobody could believe that this guy doing the commercial was of legal drinking age, and the station got a lot of complaints from concerned citizens. He got pulled back to radio.”

Mr. Parmelee was almost 30 at the time.

In 1956, when Elvis Presley came to Toledo to play at the Sports Arena, Mr. Parmelee scored an interview with the star, fresh out of his army service. Later in life, he liked to give others prints of the photo taken of him and The King.

Mr. Parmelee left WSPD in 1973 when management decided to overhaul its on-air staff. He moved to Florida and worked at several radio stations there, including doing a motivational talk show on a faith-based station, his nephew said. But after a few years, he developed emphysema and was unable to do much talking without tiring.

As his voice weakened, he switched to an FM station that didn’t require much talking between songs and, finally, to doing radio commercials. At around age 64, he couldn’t work any longer. “That may seem like an appropriate retirement age, but he was the kind of guy who liked to keep going all the time,” his nephew said.

Surviving are his mother, Mildred Parmelee; and two nephews, Charles II and Robb Parmelee. The body will be cremated and no services will be held.

Praise pours in from Valentine Theatre’s neighbors

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page A9

George Kamilaris, co-owner of Georgio’s restaurant, was busy last night.

His restaurant, next to the Valentine Theatre, was more packed than usual and his valet service was undermanned. So he spent most of the night outside, in his spotless white chef’s jacket, frantically running the valet service.

“We try to take care of our regulars,” he said. “We’ve been downtown for a long time, and we want to take care of the people who aren’t just here for the Valentine.”

Hopes that downtown Toledo would be turned into the bustling, packed place of yore by the Valentine Theatre’s opening last night were quickly doused by the sloppy weather. While things were bustling inside the theater, most of the activity outside was concentrated near Georgio’s.

As soon as she stepped out of her vehicle, Lucas County Commissioner Sandy Isenberg saw Mr. Kamilaris. He and his brother Chris announced on Monday they will paint their restaurant’s chipped, faded exterior wall next week to improve the theater’s surroundings. That decision was reached after several months of spirited discussion with theater officials.

“Hey, George, nice wall!” Ms. Isenberg yelled with a grin.

“Gimme a break,” he yelled back. “I start Tuesday.”

Outside the theater, several residents of the Renaissance Senior Apartments stood and watched the seemingly endless parade of Jeep Grand Cherokees, Mercedes ML320s, and Lexus RX300s. The apartments are in the same building as the Valentine, and residents expressed relief that the constant hammering and drilling in their building would stop.

“I think it turned out fantastic,” said Millie Beckman, 80, who has lived at the Renaissance almost three years. “It is positively beautiful.”

“I’m just thankful they saved it,” said resident Lucy Dye. “There are a lot of places downtown they didn’t save.”

Judy Preleski, another resident, was watching the flow of tux-clad men and little-black-dress-wearing women into the theater.

“Everybody’s wearing black!” she exclaimed. “Where are they all supposed to be going – a mortuary?”

She saw one woman wearing a black sleeveless dress: “Oh, she’s gonna freeze!”

Ms. Dye: “Oh, she looked pretty hot to me.”

Ms. Preleski: “Oh, she’s no hottie.”

Taking care of all those Grand Cherokees were the theater valets, 16 young men and women earning six dollars plus tips for their work.

One valet thought that the theater could be the start of something great in Toledo.

“I know there’s a problem with brain drain in Toledo,” said Shaun Farrell, “and I think this could be a step toward fixing it. It’ll give people something else to do.”

Nearly all the guests at last night’s gala steered their own cars or vans to reach the Valentine, but that doesn’t mean that some didn’t try to arrive by fancier means.

“I got a lot of calls about people wanting limousines for the Valentine opening,” said Nancy Reinhard, owner of White Knight Limousines.

Alas, Ms. Reinhard was unable to help. All of her limousines were taken for Saturday night.

The reason? A more common Toledo fall activity: homecoming dances for area high schools.

City had a part in radio history

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page A12

Toledo played a role in the invention of modern broadcast radio.

Marconi invented radio in 1895, but his machinery could only produce a faint, tiny signal, making it almost useless for large-scale use.

In 1906, Dr. Lee DeForest invented what he called the Audion, and what is now known as the triode. It was the first functioning vacuum tube, and allowed signals to be amplified and sent over longer distances. It was an invention necessary for long-distance telephone networks, as well as commercial radio and television.

But Dr. DeForest had trouble finding investors for his invention, and needed to have a public display of its powers. Struggling for money, he decided to move from New York to Toledo, where he could stay with one of his top assistants, Toledoan Frank Butler.

Dr. DeForest decided that the annual Put-in-Bay Regatta would be the place to demonstrate the Audion. He put a radio transmitter, equipped with his invention, on board the Thelma, a yacht competing in the regatta. When it came time for the yacht to leave for the regatta, the two men tried transmitting back to a receiver in Toledo.

It was the first ship-to-shore broadcast in history, and gained a measure of excitement for the Audion. The Navy was impressed enough to order Audions to equip the Atlantic fleet with radio phones. Dr. DeForest never worried about finding investors again.

After the regatta, Dr. DeForest and Mr. Butler stayed in Toledo for a while longer for further experiments, setting up a transmitter in the old Nicholas Building downtown and a receiver in the Ohio Building.

Mr. Butler later called those Toledo experiments the first successful radio broadcasting station.

Corporate ownership boosts radio profits, shrinks news staffs

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page A1

It was the most recognized voice on local radio.

Floating through the air to anxious listeners across northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan, it told the news every morning to tens of thousands. And it ended every newscast the same way:

“This is Jim Uebelhart filing Gas Company newscast number …,” followed by a running total of how many broadcasts he made in his long career.

The deep, resonant voice of Mr. Uebelhart (pronounced u-bull-heart) was a familiar one to the area’s older residents. For decades, he reported the news on WSPD-AM. By the time he retired in 1972, he had done 14,269 broadcasts at 8 a.m. sponsored by Columbia Gas Co. – hence his closing line – and was a local legend.

“If Jim Uebelhart said the sky was falling, everybody would have gone outside to watch,” said Jim Rudes, the former Channel 13 anchor who started his career at WSPD-AM in 1951.

“He was the king of broadcasting,” said Frank Venner, who worked at WSPD and Channel 13. “He was the most trusted figure around.”

It wasn’t too long ago that radio stations were a scrappy alternative for Toledoans to get their news. Just two decades ago, more than 20 radio reporters were running around town and gathering local news for four Toledo stations.

Things have changed, radically. Now only two reporters, both at one station, are around and the days when local radio was a major source of original reporting are over.

“Radio was an important news source when I broke in,” Mr. Rudes said. “It’s a big disappointment to see the state it’s in now.”

What’s happened in Toledo has mirrored a national trend toward corporate ownership and cost-cutting, and away from local news. As an industry, radio is doing phenomenally well, with gaudy profit margins and rising listenership. But news content has sometimes been sacrificed along the way.

“Radio’s a minor player now in news, compared to television and newspapers,” said Vernon Stone, a professor emeritus at the University of Missouri school of journalism who has studied radio news operations nationwide.

*

Radio has been a part of Toledo since the turn of the century, when Dr. Lee DeForest did experiments here that led to the beginning of station broadcasting.

At first, Toledo radio meant amateurs erecting unwieldy aerial antennas around their homes in an often vain attempt to hear some distant signal.

Then, on April 21, 1921, the first real radio station arrived in Toledo, when Earl Frank fired up a 10-watt transmitter in the Navarre Hotel at Jackson and St. Clair streets. His station, which he called WTAL, started transmitting less than six months after the first commercial station in the country, Pittsburgh’s KDKA.

WTAL struggled along for six years, with no set programming and little listenership. It was often easier for local listeners to catch programs from out of state than to hear tiny WTAL. Easiest to hear were the two major Detroit stations, WWJ and WJR, then owned by the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press, respectively. The two, which would go on to become Detroit institutions, were broadcasting 5,000-watt signals.

At the time, radio was an exciting novelty. Stations were starting all over the country, many with signals strong enough to reach far and wide. Known now as heritage stations, outfits like WGN Chicago and WJZ New York sent entertainment and news to thousands, and began to organize into networks like National Broadcasting Co.

The largest stations, broadcasting at between 10,000 and 50,000 watts, were known as clear channel stations – because competing stations on their frequencies were not allowed for some distance around them – and could be heard many states away from their source.

Throughout the 1920s, The Blade ran a daily radio page reporting the stray signals local listeners picked up from cities like Houston or St. Louis.

Those clear channel stations were the first time Americans, previously divided by geography, could have the same experience at the same time: listening to jazz from a New Orleans station, hearing the inauguration of a president, or laughing at the jokes of New York vaudevillians. It was one of the first steps toward the creation of a nationwide popular culture.

In 1927, Toledoan George B. Storer was trying to jumpstart his own business, selling gasoline to motorists. In search for more ways to advertise his product, which he called Speedene, he decided to buy WTAL, change its call letters to WSPD, and flag it “the Speedene Station.”

Speedene never made Mr. Storer a fortune, but broadcasting did. He made WSPD the eighth affiliate of the new Columbia Broadcasting System and, over time, added 10 other radio and television stations to his media empire.

For years, radio was king, and its networks were the only national medium.

When major news like the Hindenburg disaster broke, radio got the news out instantaneously.

World War II made celebrities of news reporters like Eric Sevareid and Edward R. Murrow, with his famous introduction – “This is London” – of his newscasts from bomb-battered England.

In was in this era that some of Toledo’s radio news legends were born, men like Mr. Uebelhart, who died last year, and his afternoon colleague on WSPD, the late Edward C. Kutz. To many Toledoans, if one of them didn’t say it, it wasn’t true.

When civil defense officials needed someone to be the “voice of Toledo” on all radio stations in the event of an air raid, they chose Mr. Uebelhart because his was the best-known voice in the city.

Radio was the main source of breaking news for people for probably 30 years, said Dr. Michael Gerhard, a professor of telecommunications at Ball State University and a former radio reporter. “That obviously changed.”

*

The first blow to radio news occurred in the 1950s, according to experts, with the growing mainstream popularity of television. Radio’s ability to get the news out instantaneously was suddenly trumped by the flow of pictures into American homes. The big stars of radio news, like Murrow and Sevareid, moved to the tube, and television men like Walter Cronkite became the trusted voices of news.

“Television pushed radio right to the sidelines,” Dr. Gerhard said.

WSPD-AM got into the television business early, starting WSPD-TV in 1948. It was only the 28th TV station in the United States. The stations shared a news staff until 1954, when the two were split.

WSPD-TV eventually became WTVG, Channel 13, and the two stations are now separately owned.

But even with TV as competition – along with The Blade and the Toledo Times – AM radio news still fared well. As recently as two decades ago, there were four radio stations in Toledo with active reporting staffs: WSPD, WOHO, WCWA, and WMHE.

“At press conferences, we’d usually have reporters from at least two or three radio stations there,” said Harry Kessler, mayor of Toledo from 1971 to 1977. “Radio was a force.

“I remember back when I ran for city council for the first time, back in 1961, and I was losing,” Mr. Kessler remembered. “I was listening to the radio and I knew I was in trouble when Jim Uebelhart said on the air, ‘Harry Kessler, who’s that?'” Not surprisingly, Mr. Kessler lost.

Radio news reporters took pride in working for WSPD and its legendary team.

“It was fantastic working with Jim Uebelhart,” said Jerry Arkebauer, who reported for WSPD from 1961 to 1964, before moving to the company’s television station. “We were the No. 1 news radio station in town, and you were part of a group of people who were very good at what they did.”

Mr. Arkebauer, now a vice president of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, said Mr. Uebelhart’s 8 a.m. newscast was one of, if not, the top-rated radio newscast in the country, because no other station had a full 15-minute newscast at that time. “We had international, national, state, and local news, and we were far ahead of everybody else in town.”

Kent Slocum, general manager of WSPD in the early 1970s, said the station was a key player in the local news market. “The Blade led the community in news, but SPD played an important role,” he said. “We had qualified people and they worked hard. We had a real news ethic, a real commitment to accuracy. We didn’t necessarily aim to beat the newspaper, but sometimes we did that too.”

While WSPD was still the leader in its field, by the 1970s, fewer and fewer people were looking to radio for their news. One of the culprits: the FM band.

FM stereo, quite simply, sounds better than AM. It had been around since the 1940s, but most homes only had AM radio, leaving FM stations out of the mainstream.

But by the 1970s, more FM stations began popping up on the dial, and with the improved sound, more began focusing on music instead of news. As rock ‘n’ roll grew as an economic force, news became a less profitable format.

Not long after, in 1980, the federal government deregulated the radio industry. Until then, stations were required to have news and public service programming.

Before deregulation ended that requirement, many stations had their own staff of reporters, and most of the rest had newsreaders to recite headlines from the major wire services. But given the freedom to cut their budgets by eliminating news, many stations took the opportunity.

One by one, the other news stations in town started dropping their staff, first eliminating reporters, and eventually switching to just reading stories from wire services or other sources on the air.

“Things were competitive at the start of my time there,” remembers Steve Jablonski, who reported under the name Mike Jablonski at WSPD from 1981 to 1989. “SPD had the biggest staff in the market, as it had traditionally, but there was still competition. Over time, though, that went away.”

*

By the mid-1990s, WSPD was the only radio news game left in town.

Several other stations have news readers who give news updates, and some do reporting by phone, but none have reporters who gather news around town.

The final hit occurred three years ago, with the passage of the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996. Among other radical changes, the act removed all limitations on the number of radio stations a company could own nationwide, and doubled the number of stations a company could own in a single market, from four to eight.

Stations that once were owned by small companies were suddenly under the control of large corporations. In 1996, WSPD was purchased by Kentucky radio conglomerate Jacor Communications.

Then last year, Jacor merged with Clear Channel Communications to create an enormous corporation with more than 400 stations. Then, last week, Clear Channel announced it was buying AMFM, Inc., for $23.5 billion, which would result in a company with 830 radio stations nationwide.

With corporate ownership, radio stations began to have a more bottom-line focus, forever searching for ways to cut costs. News was often one of the first things to go.

“You’ve got fewer owners now, and they want a bottom-line, corporate focus,” Dr. Stone of the University of Missouri said. “The dropping of the ownership rules lets one owner have a bunch of stations in one place, and they’re not too keen to compete with themselves by having more than one news operation.”

In August, 1998, WSPD’s corporate parent decided to cut back on the news resources based in Toledo. Because Jacor owns news radio stations in several Ohio cities, the company decided to centralize its resources in one place to save money.

Since then, WSPD has had no anchors to read the news in Toledo. Instead, the news is written in Toledo and sent electronically to Columbus, where an anchor reads it on the air.

At the same time, WSPD’s local staff declined. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, WSPD employed between eight and 12 news employees, including anchors and reporters. All but a few of the anchors did reporting when not on the air, meaning the station sometimes had up to seven or eight people reporting the news daily.

But with the shift of anchors to Columbus, the staff was cut back. Now, WSPD has two news employees: news director Tom Watkins and reporter Rob Wiercinski. Between the two of them, they are responsible for covering all of Toledo and its suburbs 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Mr. Wiercinski covers the morning shift, Mr. Watkins the afternoon. If news breaks on the weekends or at night, they are on call.

Mr. Wiercinski is quick to point out that the new way of doing things at WSPD has some advantages. For example, the station used to broadcast a network news feed overnight because it didn’t have an anchor to read local news in the wee hours of the morning. But with a news hub in Columbus, an anchor there reads Toledo news every half hour through the night.

“We actually produce more news product than we used to,” he said.

He said having Clear Channel personnel throughout the state allows the station to have stronger coverage of state government and events in Cleveland or Cincinnati. And the anchors in Columbus “now know how to say ‘Peter Ujvagi’ or ‘Wade Kapszukiewicz,'” he said.

But former WSPD reporters think that covering a city Toledo’s size with two people is an impossible task.

“You can’t cover the city like a blanket with a staff that size,” Mr. Rudes said. “Rob Wiercinski is a very good reporter, but how thin can you be? This system of having the anchors sit in Columbus is awful. It’s all bottom-line, say the news as quickly as you can and get done.”

“You don’t see a lot of the original reporting you used to see, the human interest stories and the interesting pieces that the other guy might not find,” said Mr. Jablonski, now director of communications for Columbia Gas in Columbus. “With fewer people, you don’t see as many original pieces, because the reporters don’t have the time. You can only cover the fires, the shootings, and the council meetings.”

Mr. Jablonski also pointed out that when a major story broke in the 1980s, he as news director could mobilize almost a dozen people to work on it. Now, there are only Mr. Wiercinski and Mr. Watkins.

The news gathering abilities of WSPD became part of debate last week when they became the subject of a very public legal battle. On Sept. 28, The Blade filed suit against WSPD and morning-show host Mark Standriff for allegedly stealing the content of its news articles. The station denied the allegations.

Many say the loss of active radio news operations is a loss for the entire community.

Just as only large markets like New York and Chicago have been able to support more than one newspaper, only large cities like Detroit have been able to maintain thriving news radio, some say.

“Our staffing levels have been steady and are growing,” said Steve Stewart, operations manager for WJR, the Detroit news radio giant, and a former news director at WSPD. “In the big markets, news radio has done very well as a format in recent years.”

In smaller markets like Toledo, news is less of a money maker because of the costs of having a staff large enough to do a good job of covering the city.

“It’s a lot tougher to make money doing news in radio than it is in television,” said Dr. Gerhard, the Ball State University professor. “In TV, you have a few stations in each city with large audiences for news, so you can draw in lots of money for advertising. Radio is so fragmented that you’re dealing with tiny audiences in a lot of cases.”

Dr. Gerhard said nationally, local TV stations make about half their revenue from their news operations. For radio, the total is closer to a fifth, he said. News is mostly profitable for very large stations, he said.

“In a lot of ways, radio news is dead outside the major markets,” he said. “Radio has much more of an entertainment role. It’s kind of sad, but that’s what the market has dictated.

“When I was in radio [in Indiana in the 1970s], there was a real excitement when you would compete with the other outfits or beat the newspaper to a story. Even small stations had two or three news people on staff. That’s almost completely gone now.”

The world of radio has changed radically in the 1990s. The shift to corporate radio has led to a programming uniformity that has pushed many, more eclectic formats to the sidelines, while generating massive amounts of money.

Many stations have discovered that local disc jockeys are more expensive than purchasing syndicated programs and, as a result, crude shock-jocks like Howard Stern have moved to the forefront, along with political commentators such as Rush Limbaugh and G. Gordon Liddy.

Many stations have abandoned DJs altogether, deciding instead to pipe in music from satellites.

Several former WSPD employees said they wish their old station would invest more in its news operation, hiring additional reporters and bringing back anchors. But most acknowledged that, with the changing face of radio, it’s unlikely.

“It would be great if you could do more than just the basic news and have a large staff you could put out on the streets to bring back what’s happening today,” Mr. Jablonski said. “But the industry is more automated now, more interested in USA Today headline-type stuff. People might learn more about the community they live in if there were more resources thrown at news, but I doubt it’ll happen.”

City can take some cheer in magazine’s yearly ratings

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 1

It may not have the ring of “We’re No. 1!,” but “We’re not No. 274!” isn’t bad, either.

Money magazine has published its annual survey of which of America’s 300 largest cities are the “Best Places To Live,” and Toledo does not appear in its usual position near the bottom of the list.

Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily because Toledo has improved: it’s because Money stopped ranking the cities overall.

“We thought it would be better to change the way we present our information, and stop listing them one to 300,” said Diane Milton, a spokeswoman for the magazine.

Instead of just one ranking, Money has ranked the cities in 15 categories, from the quality of its air to average commuting time. Toledo finishes in the top half of the rankings in six of those 15.

The city’s strongest performance came from the increasing value of its houses. In the last year, houses in the Toledo metropolitan area have jumped 11.18 per cent in value, more than twice the national average, according to the magazine. That ranks the city ninth out of 300.

Toledo ranked 37th in air quality, although its water quality came in a less impressive 242nd. The city finished above average in arts and culture (95th); lack of violent crime (144th); and average commute time (115th).

Among the sore spots: ranking 235th in property crime, 210th in unemployment rate, 231st in projected job growth over the next decade, and 276th in utility costs.

But some of Money’s data appeared questionable. For instance, the magazine reported that Toledo ranked 55th in job growth since 1998 – at the same time it said that the area lost more jobs than it gained during that period.

“That certainly seems off,” Ms. Milton said.

And Money reported that the median three-bedroom house in metro Toledo is worth $165,490, a figure that local Realtor Patrick Leahy called “way off the charts.” Mr. Leahy, of Sylvania-based Cavalear Realty, estimated a more accurate number would be about $97,000.

The median value appears to be too high for Lucas County, Jerry German, director of the real estate division of the Lucas County auditor’s office, said last night.

A review of sales reports for three-bedroom houses puts the median at about $63,000 in 1996, about $65,000 in 1997 and into early 1998, and will probably range between $65,000 and $70,000 this year, Mr. German said.

He said he did not know the source of the information for the Money report. Some statistics carry values of only new housing, for example.

In the remaining categories, Toledo ranked 173rd in cost of living, 214th in municipal bond rating, and 151st in sports attractions.

Over the years, Money has been accused of subtly changing its ranking methods – which were always kept secret – in order to create new winners each year. U.S. News & World Report has faced similar charges in its annual college rankings.

As part of this year’s change, Money has posted a program on its web site that allows anyone to enter his or her own criteria on what to look for in a city. For instance, someone who wants to stay far away from hurricanes and earthquakes but doesn’t mind the occasional tornado would be pointed toward Toledo.

Money’s annual rankings are important because they provide information to thousands of people every year looking to relocate. In doing so, they shape the national conscience about cities and offer a perspective on a community’s suitability for economic development.

Don Jakeway, president of the Regional Growth Partnership, said last night the area’s low ranking on water has to be in error if water quantity and its availability are both taken into account.

“An article like that seems to feed off the stereotypes of what the community was like at one time,” he said.

He doesn’t believe the rankings count for much among companies weighing business location decisions. Readers turn to the magazine for financial advice, not site selection issues, he said.

“There is no measurement for the friendliness here, the community, family feel,” said Mr. Jakeway, who moved here from Columbus two years ago. “It is a big, small town. It has amenities. I don’t think it hurts me and the job I do to sell the Toledo area.”

In the 11 years that Money ranked the cities one to 300, Toledo broke out of the bottom third only once, in 1988, when it ranked 150th. Otherwise, Toledo never ranked higher than 214th (1989), and was as low as 293rd (1994).

In 1998, the magazine took a step toward taking the stigma out of the ranking process by dividing the nation into 12 sectors: small, medium, and large cities in each of four geographic regions. Toledo finished 12th out of the 24 midwestern medium cities that year.

This year, Money only announced the best large and small cities, along with runners-up in each category. San Francisco was named the best large city, followed by New York and Austin, Tex. Rochester, Minn., won the small-city crown, with Boulder, Colo., and Columbia, Mo., following.

The mayors of a few midwestern cities are probably breathing a little easier as a result of Money’s change, knowing that they won’t be tagged No. 300, the worst city in America.

In the past, that unfortunate title has often fallen to depressed midwestern burgs like Gary, Ind., and Flint and Jackson, Mich., towns that usually didn’t appreciate being kicked while they were down. Some Flint residents held public magazine burnings when their city hit No. 300 in the late 1980s.

Beyond belief: The remarkable life and mysterious disappearance of Madalyn Murray O’Hair

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page A1

Madalyn Murray O’Hair, America’s most famous atheist, was ready to retire.

Back in 1964, Life magazine had called the former Rossford resident “The Most Hated Woman In America” after she had won a Supreme Court case stopping prayer in public schools.

For two decades, her brash, abrasive personality made her a favorite of the talk-show circuit, debating ministers over the existence of God and assembling a multimillion-dollar empire dedicated to fighting religion in any arena.

But the morning-in-America Reagan years had pushed her to the sidelines, and the 1990s brought little hope of an atheist revival. The Moral Majority had been defeated, but the Christian Coalition was right there to replace it. In her 70s and suffering from diabetes, Ms. O’Hair was in no shape to leap back into the religious war she helped create.

“I have little or no hope about the country,” she wrote in a May, 1995, letter to Toledoan Naomi Twining, a Rossford High School classmate of hers. “I think that it is going to be taken back to Medievalism. The American people are not politically sophisticated enough to manage an (alleged) democracy. Oh well, it’s been a good fight, even though a losing one.”

She seemed well on her way to being just another answer to a trivia question. “I was 76 in April,” she wrote. “That is just one helluva long time to be alive.”

Madalyn Murray O’Hair was ready to give up the fight and prepare for the pleasures and pains of old age.

Four months later, she vanished.

Some surmised that an angry God had taken her; others said she had gone into hiding because she was near death and didn’t want Christians praying for her. More cynical types suggested she had stolen millions and had run away to a retirement overseas.

But federal authorities believe none of those scenarios are true. They say Ms. O’Hair was kidnapped, murdered, dismembered, stuffed in a plastic barrel, and buried somewhere on a West Texas ranch.

A few weeks ago, more than four years after her disappearance, the man they think did the killing was sentenced to time behind bars, but on unrelated charges.

Ms. O’Hair had long ago faded from the spotlight. Few took notice of her activism. Even the one triumph of her life, her Supreme Court victory, is endangered: the court will consider, in its session that begins tomorrow, several cases that could chip away at the church-state divide she helped create, including allowing prayers at high school graduations.

It is one of her life’s bizarre ironies that it took her disappearance to make the world notice her one last time.

“Next year, it’ll be 40 years since my mother came into public view,” said her surviving son, Bill. “And in that time, she’s gotten more attention from this than from anything else she did. Everything else she did was a flash in the pan. But this is a Lizzie Borden story, a Lindbergh kidnapping, a Jack the Ripper, an Amelia Earhart – a case people are still going to be talking about a hundred years from now.”

*

From the moment she entered this world, Madalyn was touched by darkness.

When little Madalyn Mays was born on April 13, 1919, in the Pittsburgh suburb of Beechview, she emerged in a black shroud, a bizarre dark membrane coating her infant body.

At least that’s the story told by Madalyn’s Presbyterian mother, Lena Mays, after her daughter became a nationally hated atheist. Like many stories about Madalyn Murray O’Hair, it’s impossible to know whether it’s true.

Not much is conclusively known about young Madalyn’s childhood. Her parents, while not particularly religious, had Madalyn baptized in a Presbyterian church as a child. Her father, John, moved from job to job, and in 1934 took the Mays family to Rossford for a job at Libbey-Owens-Ford. Madalyn enrolled as a sophomore at the high school.

It’s unclear when young Madalyn started thinking about God and religion. After she achieved her fame, she told several different stories about how she came to her beliefs. Sometimes she said she had been an atheist since age 6. In an interview with Playboy magazine in 1965, she said her eureka moment came when the family was living in Ohio.

“I was about 12 or 13 years old,” she said. “It was then that I was introduced to the Bible. We were living in Akron and I wasn’t able to get to the library, so I had two things to read at home: a dictionary and a Bible.

“Well, I picked up the Bible and read it from cover to cover one weekend – just as if it were a novel – very rapidly, and I’ve never gotten over the shock of it. The miracles, the inconsistencies, the improbabilities, the impossibilities, the wretched history, the sordid sex, the sadism in it, the whole thing shocked me profoundly.”

But if Madalyn was thinking about atheism at Rossford High School, there’s no indication in her yearbooks. Next to her 1936 senior photo is a listing of her school activities: the French Club, the school newspaper, and the Girl Reserves. The Girl Reserves, the yearbook says, was “a subsidiary of the Young Women’s Christian Association” and held chapel programs and a Christmas ball.

“She was very assertive, very bright,” said Stanley Schultz, who was then the Rossford High student body president and now sells real estate in California. “But she was not a particularly attractive girl. She was sometimes the victim of classmates’ jokes: ‘Who are you going to take to prom? Madalyn Mays?’ ”

He recalled walking to school with Madalyn and having discussions about her religious doubts. “She had the same views she had later, but not quite as strong,” he said. “She took life seriously. She didn’t believe in God; I was Catholic, so I would disagree with her. But she didn’t get too angry about things back then.”

Classmate Charles Duricek has less pleasant memories. “She was terrible,” he said. “She was anti-Rossford, just anti-regular society … She was just a different type of girl, that’s for sure. She wanted to be president of the United States.”

Her views didn’t make Madalyn very popular, either during high school or at later reunions.

Naomi Twining was six years behind Madalyn in school, but remembers her vividly. “I used to walk behind her on the way to school,” she said. Later, Ms. Twining became involved in her old schoolmate’s movement and talked to her about their Rossford days.

“Madalyn told me that one of the first places she started thinking about religion was in the Brooks drugstore in Rossford,” Ms. Twining said. “The owners of the drugstore had been to college, and she liked to sit at the counter by the soda fountain and talk about philosophical issues with the owners.” (One of the workers at the former Superior Street drugstore, Jerome Brooks, went on to be the Detroit regional director of the National Labor Relations Board and president of the Detroit chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.)

Even in high school, Mr. Schultz could see Madalyn’s potential.

“I’m sure she would have succeeded in whatever she did, and I had to admire her because she had beliefs and she stood up for them,” he said. “But I was a little disappointed that she took so much pride in being so hated.”

After graduating from Rossford in 1936, Madalyn attended the University of Toledo, but only for a year. “My father moved a lot, and I went to whatever college was handy,” she told an interviewer in 1964.

She ended up attending the University of Pittsburgh, Howard University, and the South Texas College of Law, along with a total of four Ohio schools: UT; Ashland College, where she received her bachelor’s degree; Western Reserve University; and Ohio Northern University, where she attended law school for one year.

Later in life, in her Playboy interview, she talked about her time at Ashland, a Brethren institution which required two years of Bible study for graduation. “It was a good, sound, thorough, but completely biased evaluation of the Bible, and I was delighted with it, because it helped to document my doubts; it gave me a framework within which I could be critical.”

In 1941, Ms. O’Hair eloped with a steelworker named John Roths, but World War II separated them two months after marriage. He joined the Marines and was sent to the Pacific; she went to Europe in the Women’s Army Corps. While in Europe, she had an affair with a married air corps officer named William Murray, Jr., and in 1945 conceived her first child.

When she returned to Mr. Roths, she demanded a divorce and hoped Mr. Murray would leave his wife for her. He never did, but Ms. O’Hair decided to take his name anyway. She became Madalyn Murray, and named her son William Murray III.

Over the next few years, Madalyn moved back to Ohio, then to Texas, and finally, in 1952, to Baltimore. She met another man, who fathered her second child, whom she named Jon Garth Murray – despite the fact that her wartime lover was not the father. She took a variety of jobs, including a lengthy stint as a psychiatric social worker.

It was there, in 1960, where she found her true calling. Her eldest son, Bill, was enrolled at Woodbourne Junior High, where students were required to recite the Lord’s Prayer at the start of each school day. Ms. O’Hair, by that time an avowed and open atheist, decided to file suit against the Baltimore schools, saying that her son’s rights were being violated when he was forced to be around prayers in a public school.

Few noticed, until a Baltimore Sun reporter decided to do a story on her and her son. Within days, every major television and radio network was on the story. Ms. O’Hair was a celebrity.

In 1961, a local court dismissed her suit, but she appealed to the Maryland Court of Appeals. She lost there too, leaving only one court to hear her case.

When the suit reached the U.S. Supreme Court, the attorneys general of 18 states had filed a friend-of-the-court brief opposing Ms. O’Hair. On her side were an array of liberal and humanist groups, along with the National Council of Churches and several Jewish groups.

On June 17, 1963, the court ruled 8-1, with Justice Potter Stewart dissenting, that school-sponsored prayer was unconstitutional. She had won.

*

After the Supreme Court decision, Ms. O’Hair became a star.

In truth, her role was not essential to the court’s ruling. The Supreme Court made its groundbreaking decision on another case, Abington Township v. Schempp, and merely attached Ms. O’Hair’s suit to that one. Had Ms. O’Hair’s suit never been filed, school-sponsored prayer would be just as unconstitutional as it is today.

And it didn’t take an atheist to oppose school prayer: many believers of many faiths believed the court had made the correct decision in keeping religion and education separate.

But, to millions of Americans, Ms. O’Hair was the villain.

The plaintiff in the Schempp case was a relatively quiet Unitarian from Pennsylvania. Ms. O’Hair was a fire-breathing radical atheist, eager for attention and always ready with an enraging quip. When the media and angry Christians went searching for someone to symbolize the massive change the court decision had wrought, they didn’t go looking for Ed Schempp of suburban Philadelphia. They went to Ms. O’Hair.

She loved it. She took to calling herself “the most hated woman in America,” and reveled in the seeming importance it brought her.

“My mother was constantly talking about how brilliant she was: ‘I’m Madalyn Murray O’Hair, a very important person!’ ” said her son Bill, who converted to Christianity in 1980. “She always told my brother, ‘Maybe one of these days you’ll live up to being called the son of Madalyn Murray O’Hair!’ ”

She immediately set to filing more lawsuits, seeking more impressive victories. She tried to remove the tax exemption of churches; when she couldn’t win that battle in court, she succeeded in getting her atheist organizations declared tax-exempt. She tried to get “In God We Trust” removed from American money. She tried to stop public bodies from having prayers before meetings, and to stop courts from swearing witnesses and jurors with “so help me God.”

She tried a lot of things, and most of them got her a lot of publicity, if little success. For her work, Ms. O’Hair received an enormous amount of abuse, from death threats to physical confrontations – which isn’t surprising, considering she was cracking jokes about virgin births and advocating sex for 13-year-olds at a time when Leave It To Beaver was still on the air.

Christian clerics began using the name of Madalyn Murray O’Hair in their sermons as a symbol of all things bad about the modern world.

After describing, one by one, the performance of each of her past lovers to Playboy, she said: “Say, I wonder why I’m telling you all this. I know I’m being indiscreet, because this kind of thing could be used against me nationwide; it’ll just add fuel to the fire, which is already hot enough for me. But you know something? It just so happens that I don’t give a damn. I’m going to be damned anyway. If they haven’t destroyed me yet, I’d say I’m indestructible.”

Her rise coincided with the rise of the talk show and the televised debate, and she was a perfect match for the new medium. Ms. O’Hair was smart, well-read, and a powerful speaker; she could be a magnetic personality when she wasn’t repulsing her audience with her ideas. (She spoke twice in northwest Ohio, in 1972 and 1975.)

In 1967, when a young Dayton man named Phil Donahue was starting a talk show on WLWD-TV, he had Madalyn Murray O’Hair as his first guest. During that first show, Mr. Donahue noticed that audience members were asking tough questions of her during commercial breaks. He decided to run out into the audience with a microphone, getting them to repeat the questions on the air – and starting the modern daytime talk show format.

By 1965, Ms. O’Hair had moved to Austin, where she would live for the rest of her life. She made the Texas capital the center of the many atheist organizations she founded . She claimed that her main group, American Atheists, had more than 50,000 members, although more objective estimates put the total at around 2,000 or 3,000.

But somehow, with a small membership, her atheist groups managed to pull in enormous amounts of money, and some of it reached the O’Hair family. She bragged about paying for the new 16,000-square-foot American Atheist headquarters in 1986 with more than $1 million in cash. At that time, she drove a Mercedes, as did her son Jon; granddaughter Robin drove a Porsche. Jon bragged in the media about how much his suits cost; the entire family had overseas bank accounts with hundreds of thousands of dollars. (A leader of a rival atheist organization once called Ms. O’Hair “the Jimmy Swaggart of the movement.”)

At the same time, her abrasive manner alienated more than a few members of her organization. She was not known for keeping her voice down, and she didn’t hesitate to belittle even her allies. In 1980, even her own son Bill revolted, declaring he had found Jesus Christ (on Mother’s Day, no less) and becoming a fundamentalist minister.

She put her other son, Jon Garth, and granddaughter Robin into positions of power within the organization that others didn’t feel they were ready for, pushing more people away. Some revolted and formed splinter groups; some became O’Hair enemies.

“She perpetually challenged everyone’s motives and intentions,” said Frank Zindler, a Columbus resident who edits American Atheist magazine and remained a friend of Ms. O’Hair’s until her disappearance. “She was cautious – some would say paranoid – about others, and that was always lurking in the background. She could get extraordinarily angry at the people who worked for her and with her.”

In 1995, according to federal authorities, one of those people was not willing to take that abuse anymore, and settled on revenge.

*

The mystery began on Aug. 28, 1995, when employees of American Atheists showed up for work at the Austin headquarters.

“The Murray-O’Hair family has been called out of town on an emergency basis,” read a note left at the headquarters. Ms. O’Hair, son Jon, and granddaughter Robin were nowhere to be found.

An atheist friend of the family stopped by their home, and found a half-eaten breakfast on the table, and Ms. O’Hair’s blood-pressure medication on the kitchen counter.

Concerned associates of the O’Hairs tried reaching them on Jon’s cell phone, and succeeded. Ms. O’Hair told her callers that she was on unspecified business in San Antonio and that she shouldn’t be contacted. She told them that everything was fine, but her friends told authorities they weren’t so sure. “You could tell everything was not OK,” said Ellen Johnson, now president of American Atheists.

The last contact with the O’Hairs took place on Sept. 29. After that the phone was turned off. No one has heard from the three of them since.

Few noticed when Ms. O’Hair vanished, because her star had long ago dimmed on the national scene. People in Austin threw out a few theories, from alien abduction to Satanic human sacrifice.

No one even filed a missing persons report until September, 1996, when son Bill finally did.

Over the next two years, a few tantalizing clues trickled out of private and law enforcement investigations. While in San Antonio, Jon Murray had wired $600,000 from an offshore account in New Zealand to a San Antonio bank. He had used that money to buy 1,174 gold coins from a jewelry store.

And a former office manager at American Atheists named David Waters was pushing his own theory: He claimed to have documents taken from the atheists headquarters proving that the O’Hairs were planning on fleeing to New Zealand with the organization’s money. He even wrote an as-yet-unpublished book about it, entitled Good Gawd Madalyn! The Not-So-Sudden Disappearance of Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

The theories and counter theories flew furiously until March 24 of this year, when FBI agents raided Waters’s Austin apartment and simultaneously entered the Novi, Mich., home of a man named Gary Karr.

Waters, 52, and Karr, 50, have extensive criminal records. Waters has the longer rap sheet, with a homicide, an assault, and two forgeries. Karr had been convicted of armed robbery and indecency with a child, along with weapons charges.

Agents in Waters’s apartment were looking for, among other things, pieces of Ms. O’Hair’s jewelry, the missing gold coins, and a 9mm handgun. They didn’t find those, but they did find 119 rounds of ammunition. As a convicted felon, Waters is banned from having weapons or ammunition, and he was arrested on weapons charges.

At the same time, agents in Michigan found two handguns in Karr’s Novi home, and arrested him on similar charges.

It quickly became clear that the agents weren’t just looking for evidence for weapons charges against these two men. They were, agents revealed, the leading suspects in the murders of the O’Hairs.

Neither man has been charged with anything related to the family’s disappearance, and no bodies have been found. But an affidavit filed in federal court and unsealed on May 26 lays out a substantial circumstantial case against Waters and Karr.

Here, according to the affidavit, is what agents believe happened to Ms. O’Hair and her family:

In April, 1994, more than $54,000 disappeared from the bank account of one of Ms. O’Hair’s groups. A subsequent investigation showed that the money vanished when Waters had written checks to himself from the account. In May, 1995, Waters pleaded guilty to theft, and despite his lengthy, violent criminal record, received a light sentence: 10 years of probation, and an order to repay the money over a 10-year period.

Ms. O’Hair was flabbergasted; had someone stolen this amount from, say, a Protestant church, the sentence would have been much more severe, she believed. As she often did, she took out her anger in writing, penning a long article for the July, 1995, issue of the American Atheist newsletter about Waters.

She detailed his criminal past, including details of his 1978 battery conviction against his mother, in which he beat her with a broom handle, broke wall plaques over her head, and urinated in her face. She detailed how fear of Waters had caused the organization to erect a seven-foot steel-link fence around atheist headquarters.

According to Waters’s girlfriend at the time, the essay enraged Waters. He began talking about wanting to kill the O’Hairs, to torture Ms. O’Hair by pulling off each of her toes with pliers. He felt he had been mistreated by the O’Hairs and wanted his revenge.

So, according to the affidavit, he recruited Karr – an old buddy from a prison stint in Illinois – along with a man from Florida named Danny Fry. Their plan: kidnap the O’Hairs, force them to withdraw money from one of their bank accounts, convert it into untraceable gold coins, then kill them.

According to the affidavit, they carried out the plan. Waters rented a mini-storage warehouse in San Antonio in which to store the gold coins , and ordered Jon Murray to get them the money. Once the gold coins were purchased, the O’Hairs weren’t heard from again.

A confidential source quoted in the affidavit stated that soon after, Danny Fry “looked sick … It was obvious that Waters and Karr were getting along, but Fry was not part of the group … It was quite uncommon for Fry to be so quiet [and] strange that Fry was not drinking or even drunk, as he usually drank whiskey and beer everyday.”

Three days after the O’Hairs were last heard from, Fry disappeared as well. His body, with its head and hands chopped off, was dumped by a river east of Dallas. It went unidentified for more than three years.

In the month after the killings, Waters and Karr went on a spending spree, buying expensive clothes, jewelry, and cars.

Most elements of the government’s case are well documented through phone and purchase records accumulated throughout investigations. The major holes: no bodies and no weapon. But when authorities went to Michigan to question Karr, he allegedly admitted to his role in the killings of the O’Hairs and Fry, according to court testimony from one of the FBI agents who interviewed him. (Karr, through his attorney, has since said he made no such admission.)

The government’s explanation has satisfied many of the people around the O’Hairs. “I think that’s what happened,” said Ms. O’Hair’s son, Bill. “They make a strong argument, and it makes sense to me,” said her colleague, Frank Zindler.

But some still have doubts, and hold out hope that the family is still alive.

On May 27, Waters pleaded guilty to the weapons charges, for which he was sentenced to eight years in a federal prison.

Then, on Aug. 11, came what might be considered Ms. O’Hair’s revenge from beyond the grave.

She had been enraged when Waters was given just 10 years probation on his theft of $54,000 from American Atheists in 1994. But the federal weapons charges were a violation of the terms of that probation.

So an Austin judge decided to throw the book at him and sentenced him to 60 years for the theft for which, just a few years earlier, he had gotten off almost scot-free.

Karr is being held in the Wayne County jail in Michigan on the weapons charges, awaiting a judge’s ruling on a motion to suppress key evidence in his trial.

As important as Ms. O’Hair fancied herself to be, her movement has survived without her. American Atheists moved its headquarters to New Jersey and has kept its membership rolls steady. Many atheists are happy that their movement now has a less abrasive face.

In the new U.S. Supreme Court session that begins tomorrow, the justices are expected to take up several cases that could weaken her historic school prayer victory, including suits over private school vouchers and prayer at graduation ceremonies or football games.

But her legacy has survived. In the wake of last year’s school shootings, more than a few conservative pundits blamed the violence on Ms. O’Hair and her removal of school prayer.

If she is dead, it’s possible that her body will never be found. If authorities are correct, it’s likely that only Waters knows where it is, and he has little incentive to talk. But Ms. O’Hair, more than a decade ago, sketched out for an interviewer how she would like to be remembered:

“I told my kids I just want three words on my tombstone, if I have one. I’ll probably be cremated. One is ‘woman.’ I’m very comfortable in that role. I’ve loved being a woman, I’ve loved being a mother, I’ve loved being a grandmother.

“I want three words: Woman, Atheist, Anarchist. That’s me.”