“Brain drain” saps Toledo of its best, brightest youths

By Sam Roe and Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writers

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Fifteen years ago, Ronni Chen stood on the podium in the Sylvania Northview High School gymnasium and gave her valedictory address.

Across town, Nadya Swedan spoke to the graduating class of Southview High.

And Karen Boezi addressed her St. Ursula Academy classmates.

All graduated No. 1 in their class, all went off to top colleges, and all took jobs far from the Toledo area.

And they never came back.

Ronni Chen is now a children’s eye surgeon in Florida. Nadya Swedan is a sports medicine doctor in New York. And Karen Boezi is a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley.

They are part of a problem that has plagued Toledo for years: brain drain.

Lured away by prestigious colleges, high-powered jobs, and the energy and diversity of big cities, thousands of young, educated people are leaving the area and not returning.

With them they often take the qualities that can make a city great: fresh ideas, an entrepreneurial spirit, and a passion for the arts.

“It’s the No. 1 problem facing Toledo, Ohio, today,” Mayor Carty Finkbeiner says. “We’ve got to find a way to make Toledo a place the best and brightest want to live.”

Those who leave Toledo say it simply does not offer the career, cultural, and intellectual opportunities they are looking for.

Marla Bobowick, Sylvania Southview’s salutatorian in 1984 and now a consultant in Washington, gives an example:

“I woke up one morning here, went to an old neighborhood, sat in a diner and had breakfast and watched these French fathers with their little cute French babies come in to get their croissants, and I watched these old African men sipping coffee. I mean, you don’t get that kind of diversity or pedestrian street life in Toledo.”

The 32-year-old adds: “I was watching M*A*S*H last night, and Klinger was complaining that he wants to be sent back to Toledo. I mean, you got to love it. That’s our claim to fame in the rest of the world – it’s Klinger. That’s about it.”

Dr. Swedan, Southview’s valedictorian who now lives and works in the New York City area, says Toledo is too small for people to grow professionally. In New York, she says, her career has taken off. She works for an orthopedic group on Long Island and has a private sports medicine practice in Manhattan.

She even recently treated actor Liam Neeson, now of Star Wars fame, for a leg injury.

And, she adds, Toledo “is not a great place to be single at age 32.”

Are these top students – and others like them leaving Toledo – disloyal to their hometown? Or are they doing the right thing: leaving a mid-size, factory town with few top-flight jobs to pursue a better life in big cities, where they may find more challenging careers, more talented colleagues, and better social opportunities?

Statistics help tell the story:

* A Blade analysis of U.S. Census data shows that the Toledo area is a net exporter of young, educated people. For every two who move in, three leave. Many of Toledo’s native sons and daughters land in America’s power and media centers: New York, Washington, and Los Angeles.

* The more education Toledoans have, the more likely they are to leave, the analysis shows. Those with advanced college degrees are nearly four times more likely to move away within five years than those with only high school diplomas.

* At Toledo’s St. John’s Jesuit High School, one of the most respected private schools in the area, about 60 per cent of the honor students from the class of 1984 now live outside the Toledo area, school records show. The same is true at Toledo’s St. Francis de Sales High School.

* The per cent leaving is even higher among the very top students. About 70 per cent of St. John’s valedictorians and salutatorians in the 1980s have left; at St. Francis, it’s 80 per cent.

* At Ottawa Hills High School, perhaps the area’s best academic public school, 26 students made the 1984 honor roll. According to school officials, parents, and residents, more than 90 per cent of those students have left the area, including the valedictorian that year, Viki Christopoulos, who now lives in London.

“I don’t think it’s that unusual for young, bright people to get out and get away from what was home,” Ottawa Hills Schools Superintendent Bill Reimer says. “I wanted to do that.”

The Flint, Mich., native says it is healthy for students to explore new opportunities and see the world. “One of the statements in our mission as a school district is to prepare students to be life-long learners and prepare them to be excellent citizens of the countries, states, and cities that they find themselves in.”

The Rev. Don Vettese, president of St. John’s, says it is only natural that many talented Toledoans leave town: They want the best jobs and the best places to live. A top doctor, for example, may be attracted to a prestigious institution like the Cleveland Clinic or the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

“With all due respect, we don’t have that here,” Father Vettese says. “Toledo Hospital is not a draw. Medical College of Ohio is not a draw. The top docs are going to go to the top hospitals.”

Some of the bright people who decide to return to Toledo come back to run a family business.

“I couldn’t be happier living in Toledo. There couldn’t be a better community to live in,” says Bill Bostleman, a graduate of Northview High, the University of Virginia, and Duke law school.

He returned to town to run the Bostleman Corp. construction and real estate development firm – a decision that allowed him to spend time with his father before he died in 1998.

“I wouldn’t trade those last few years for anything,” the 32-year-old Mr. Bostleman says.

But in some ways, the loss of educated, young people affects the lives of everyone in the Toledo area. The loss weakens some professions and makes it more difficult for Toledo to have a thriving arts community. And if companies cannot convince the best workers to live here, the firms might move out of town, says Randall Root, who runs Root Learning, a management consulting firm in Perrysburg.

“Toledo’s greatest scarcity now is talent,” he says.

Brain drain – or loss of talent – has long been an issue in developing nations, which watch many of their students go off to foreign universities and never return. Now, cities across America, particularly in the Midwest, are seeing their best and brightest move elsewhere.

It wasn’t always like that in Toledo.

In the 1950s and 1960s, many Toledoans went off to college, started families, and landed jobs at one of Toledo’s six Fortune 500 companies. Company loyalty meant people might stay with one firm for 20 or more years.

“You had a lot of corporate headquarters there,” recalls Toledo native Charles Brumback, the retired president, chairman, and chief executive officer of the Chicago-based Tribune Co. “The professional firms, the CPA firms, and the law firms seemed to have a lot of top-flight professionals.”

A 1950 Princeton graduate and the grandson of Charles Tiedtke, founder of the former Tiedtke’s department store, Mr. Brumback returned to Toledo and started his career as an accountant for Wideman, Madden, and Dolan, a firm that became part of the accounting giant Ernst & Young.

“I loved living in Toledo,” Mr. Brumback recalls. “It was an active city with lots to do.” He stayed here until 1957, when he took a job in Orlando, Fla., as the comptroller for the Sentinel and Evening Star daily newspapers there.

Mr. Root notes that in the 1950s, people married young. “That helped Toledo because this area has always provided a high quality of life for married people raising a family. But now you’ve got young people who might be single for 10 or 15 years, and they want different things in their hometown.”

And those six Fortune 500 companies that were so vital to Toledo in the ’50 and ’60s? They have dropped to three, and the big firms that remain have been more interested lately in cutting jobs than creating them.

Mark V’Soske, president of the Toledo Area Chamber of Commerce, says he hears companies complain that there aren’t enough top-quality people to hire. “Business wants to have the best employees available, so they spend an incredible amount of money looking for the right people,” he says.

Many cities and states are fighting back. Some states have even considered paying bright students to stay home.

But Mayor Finkbeiner acknowledges that, beyond a few internships for college students, local government and businesses aren’t doing much to attack the problem.

“This city, particularly the corporate community, needs to be more active in stopping this exodus from Toledo,” he says.

And he says that one of the major draws of bright young people to any area – colleges and universities – needs to be improved in Toledo.

New University of Toledo President Vik Kapoor agrees, saying he is committed to making UT stronger.

“My goal is to make UT the choice of every top student in the area,” he says. “We are not going to be competing with Owens Community College anymore. We are going to go after the top talent.”

Many top high school students in the area ignore UT – generally considered a commuter college without a national reputation. Dr. Kapoor says that hiring new faculty, upgrading the curriculum, and increasing on-campus living are the keys to making UT more of a draw.

But UT, he says, shouldn’t be blamed for the brain drain: “If the jobs aren’t here, we can’t create them for our graduates.”

And he says the university will need to encourage its faculty to be more engaged in the community if it is to create a more intellectual atmosphere in Toledo.

“The current faculty isn’t used to having a community role,” he says. “We need to work with the existing and the new faculty to have a higher profile.”

He says that under his administration, there will be more cultural and “intellectually stimulating” events on campus geared for the entire community.

“We don’t want to just copy the University of Michigan, but they have an excellent caliber of events there that get their faculty into Ann Arbor,” he says. “We want to create an environment where we’re not Ivy League, but we’re close.”

That started, he says, last month when the university selected a Nobel laureate, chemist Herbert Hauptman, to be its graduate school commencement speaker.

Sidney Ribeau, president of Bowling Green State University, acknowledges the seriousness of the brain drain problem, but he warns that by the time students graduate from college it may be too late to keep them in Toledo.

“It’s a cultivation process. We need to give bright students the kind of experiences and relationships that make them want to stay.”

Dr. Ribeau says his university has a variety of programs designed to keep talented people in northwest Ohio. BGSU’s honors program has increased by 60 per cent in the last five years, he says, and the number of top high school seniors taking college courses on campus has tripled in recent years.


Nadya Swedan and Marla Bobowick have been best friends since the sixth grade, and their lives have followed similar paths.

Both graduated in 1984 at the top of their class at Sylvania Southview (Nadya No. 1, Marla No. 2); both went off to elite New England colleges (Nadya to Brown, Marla to Amherst), and both ended up pursuing careers on the East Coast (Nadya in New York, Marla in Washington).

And they have another thing in common: Both do not plan to return to Toledo.

“Toledo doesn’t have enough diversity, enough intellectual and cultural stimulus to make it interesting to me at this point in my life,” says Ms. Bobowick, a consultant with the National Center for Nonprofit Boards, which provides resources and training to boards of directors of nonprofit groups.

“I always think of the fact that Toledo struggled to find an art house that could have independent, artsy films,” she says. “If you can barely keep one of those open, it’s not very encouraging.”

Yet she says she is proud of her roots – a sentiment shared by many other former Toledoans. “I never hide the fact that I am from Toledo,” she says. “It gets a good reaction, like, ‘How did you end up here?’ or ‘That is where Klinger is from.'”

Her best friend, Dr. Swedan, says she is glad she moved to New York to pursue her medical career but feels somewhat disloyal to her hometown – “a nice, comfortable, wonderful place” that provided lasting childhood memories.

“Maybe I feel a little bit guilty that I can’t give back what Toledo gave to me,” Dr. Swedan says.

Others say they don’t feel disloyal or selfish for leaving. They left Toledo simply because the kinds of jobs they wanted don’t exist here.

Karen Boezi, for example, is a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, the 50-mile strip between San Francisco and San Jose, Calif., where the computer revolution blossomed. She aids businesses in the biotechnology and medical-devices field.

“I couldn’t do my career in Toledo to any great extent,” says Ms. Boezi, a University of Pennsylvania graduate. “Here, 50 per cent of my companies are in my backyard.”

Fellow Silicon Valley resident Seksom Suriyapa agrees. A 1984 graduate of Maumee Valley Country Day School, the 33-year-old is now an investment banker.

“I definitely liked Toledo and thought it was a great place to be brought up,” he says. “But I think I am also very practical. You know how the market works: People who are capable will go to the place that best allows them to exploit their full potential.”

Toledo’s best and brightest have been leaving in this fashion for years. Take Marcy Kaptur. After graduating from St. Ursula Academy in the 1960s, Miss Kaptur went off to the University of Wisconsin. She returned to Toledo to work for the planning commission, but after a few years she took a job in Washington as the director of planning and development for the National Center for Urban Ethnic Affairs.

Now, of course, she spends most of her time in Washington as the Toledo area’s U.S. congresswoman.

Northview’s 1984 valedictorian Dr. Chen says she is not surprised that many of Toledo’s top students move away. Her experience was that some of those people felt like misfits in high school.

“But when you go off to college and beyond that, you meet all these other people who are doing the same things, and you feel much more connected with other places and other people than you would in Toledo. You don’t feel as different. So you say, ‘Maybe it’s better for me to stay in Colorado or Chicago or Texas or wherever.'”

Sylvania Schools Superintendent Les Schultz says he can understand her feelings. But he says schools try to nurture these students and make them feel like they belong. “I think teachers generally do that, but I don’t know what more could be done.”

Parents say that, naturally, they would like their children close to home. But they also want the best for them, and that may mean watching them accept jobs out of town.

Rey Boezi’s two children left Toledo: Karen is the venture capitalist in California; son David is director of product development for a Sidney, O., manufacturer.

“They were brought up to be independent and make their own decisions and pursue their own goals and objectives and dreams,” says Mr. Boezi, project manager for the new Valentine Theatre in downtown Toledo. “We have never constrained them to geography.”

Dr. Shui-chin Chen, father of Ronni Chen, the eye surgeon, says he wouldn’t want to restrain his daughter’s career. But he says brain drain has been a major concern of his for years, and he thinks local leaders aren’t doing enough to stop it.

“It seems to me the people who are prominent no longer care about what the young people do,” says Dr. Chen, a retired chemist.

Others say it is good for society at large that some talented people leave Toledo.

Jean Kim, a 1987 Whitmer High graduate, is doing AIDS research at Harvard, where she is working on her doctorate. This fall, she will go to Tanzania to study the relationship between breast feeding and the AIDS virus.

“Helping a single individual versus helping a million individuals all over the world – certainly it is much more gratifying to see the widespread good that one can do,” Ms. Kim says.


Toledo may never be a mecca for young talent like San Francisco or New York, and it may be unfair to make such comparisons.

But even compared to other midwestern cities its size, Toledo does a poor job of keeping its young people.

Census data show that of the 19 midwestern cities with between 150,000 and 500,000 people – cities such as Louisville, Buffalo, and Grand Rapids, Mich. – Toledo ranks 17th in the percentage of 25 to 34-year-olds in its population. Finishing last: Pittsburgh, considered by many a more vibrant town for singles than Toledo because of the 117,000 college and university students in the greater Pittsburgh area.

Toledo’s ranking, along with national demographic trends, is not heartening for the city.

U.S. jobless rates are near record lows, making firms work harder to find qualified employees. America is shifting from a manufacturing-based economy to an information-based one, in which workers with high-tech skills are at a premium. Baby boomers are retiring, leaving fewer workers available to keep companies growing.

All of these trends point in the same direction: that young, educated workers will be the key commodity of the future.

And those are precisely the people Toledo is losing.

“The battle for talented people is going to be the key struggle of the coming decades,” says Mr. Root, the Perrysburg management consultant whose clients include 17 of the nation’s largest 20 companies. “The ability of greater Toledo to attract these people is absolutely critical for our future.”

Some who leave Toledo are replaced by those who move in, but Mr. Root cautions that they aren’t being attracted in large enough numbers to make up for the losses.

“It’s like a baseball team,” he says. “To be successful, you want to get most of your players from your own farm team. You can’t rely too heavily on pulling in free agents from someplace else.”

Experts note that the economic impact of educated, young people doesn’t stop with the jobs they hold. As singles with relatively high incomes, many are more free-spending than young couples with families. Their disposable incomes can fuel businesses throughout a region.

So factory towns like Toledo – towns that generally do not weather recessions well – can ill-afford to lose that economic force.


Obviously, television stars Danny Thomas and Jamie Farr couldn’t have pursued their careers in their hometown of Toledo.

Same with TV and film star Katie Holmes, a Notre Dame Academy graduate.

But Ms. Holmes’s older brother, Marty, can have a career here – and does, with no regrets.

“I love the Toledo area,” the 29-year-old lawyer says. “I think the people who truly appreciate Toledo are those who have lived elsewhere and have come back and realize the benefits of the community.”

A 1988 graduate of St. John’s Jesuit High, Mr. Holmes went to Harvard, then the University of Toledo Law School.

“The East Coast, for me, was too crowded,” he says. “I looked forward after spending four years there to getting back to the Midwest. I wanted to come back to practice law with my father, and that’s what I do now.”

Those returning to Toledo often mention three factors for coming home: family, friends, and the sense of community.

“The pace of life is much better in Toledo – more of an understanding of what is important,” says Brett Loney, a 1988 St. John’s valedictorian who graduated from Fordham University and the College of William & Mary’s law school. “While work is important and deserves its proper time, there is more concern here for being a well-rounded person.

“The downside for Toledo,” adds Mr. Loney, now alumni director at St. John’s, “is that you don’t feel like you are in the center of the national political or business scene. Whereas in Washington or New York, you feel that you are at the center of those scenes – even if you are not.”

Mr. Holmes says practicing law in his hometown is rewarding.

“It’s wonderful to walk into a restaurant and recognize people and be able to help those who were formerly your neighbors,” he says. “That’s what I envisioned when I went to law school.”

Then there is the cost of living.

A Toledoan might pick up a Victorian mansion for under $200,000. In contrast, Sarah Thal, a 1984 National Merit Scholar at Northview, pays $2,450 a month in rent – utilities not included – for her two-bedroom Manhattan apartment.

And St. Ursula grad Karen Boezi, who lives in Silicon Valley, says: “A two bedroom shack in Palo Alto goes for $500,000 to $600,000. And we are talking, literally, a two-bedroom shack.”


Brain drain isn’t unique to Toledo. Some of the hardest hit cities have been in the industrial Midwest.

“Places like Toledo aren’t the sexy parts of the country,” says William Frey, a sociologist with the Milken Institute, a think tank in southern California. “You don’t have the outdoor amenities of out west, or the warmer climate of the South. People who want style or sophistication are going to move to Seattle or San Francisco or Atlanta.”

Those movers are inordinately young and educated, he says. They are some of America’s most mobile citizens, because their job skills are often best suited for large cities and because they are traditionally more willing to risk a move far away from “Hometown America.”

Dr. Frey, who spent 18 years at the University of Michigan and now teaches at the State University of New York-Albany, thinks the Midwest can reverse some of the brain drain – if the region’s economy stays strong.

But “you’ll never get back to the time when waves of people were moving to the area,” he says. “That time is gone.”

Dr. Gary Manson, a Michigan State University geography professor, says that the shift of young, educated people to major metropolitan areas is “a classic pattern.”

“It’s not the bright lights of the city as much as the economic opportunity that attracts them,” he says. “The information jobs being created in those cities are the ones they want to take, the ones they’ve been trained for.”

“Young people,” says Dr. Bernard Finifter, a Michigan State sociologist, “will search for places where they have the most opportunities. For some people, that’s getting big bucks. For others, it’s something more altruistic.”

Dr. Finifter, who studies U.S. migration patterns, adds that those who leave are often the most likely to assume leadership positions. “Those who are psychologically insecure are among the least likely to migrate,” he says. “It takes a certain psychological strength to risk hacking it on one’s own.”

Mr. Loney, the St. John’s valedictorian who returned to Toledo after college, says many young, educated people face peer pressure to be tops in their fields, work for big-name corporations, and live in the most glamorous cities. He says he felt such pressure while in law school.

But he says it takes a certain degree of maturity and security to reject that pressure and make choices that will truly make one happy. And if that means moving back to Toledo, so be it.

He recalls the advice a Fordham dean once gave him: “Don’t forget who you are, and don’t let other people change that.”

Some cities and states are trying to find ways to bring people back.

Indiana is studying how to keep its young people after discovering that one-third leave the state after college graduation. Nebraska has been a national leader in its efforts. With a population of only 1.6 million, Nebraska has a lot of jobs but not a lot of people to fill them. “We train the people in our schools, and they want to go see Paris,” says Donald Wright, spokesman for the state’s development department.

Under one Nebraska program, young people can get full scholarships, an apartment, a new computer, and a paid internship at a local technology company – all for agreeing to go to college in-state.

The state legislature even considered a bill to pay top college students thousands of dollars if they agreed to stay in Nebraska a few years after graduation. The bill lost: “The legislators were aghast that they’d have to pay people to live here,” Mr. Wright says.

Nebraska’s measures have had some success. The “brain gains” are intangible, Mr. Wright says, but important.

“In Nebraska, we have kids who think that things haven’t changed since 1875,” he says. “But if you can convince these people that your city is creating things that will make life more attractive for them, and let them know about the exciting things that are going on now, then they’ll start seeing a future for the community, and they’ll see themselves in that future.

“If they can’t see that, then they’re gone. They’ll pack up and be gone. This is about pre-building our next economy from the ground up.”

In Louisville, a Yale University booster has started Bulldogs in the Bluegrass, a program that provides internships and other enticements to Yale students. The hope is that the students will see what Louisville has to offer and consider moving there permanently after graduation.

Dr. Manson, the geography professor, isn’t convinced any of these ideas are working.

“If you talk to the mayors and the public relations people, they’ll tell you they’re making progress,” he says. “But if you look at the broad picture, I don’t think they’ve made much of a difference.”

He pointed to his hometown. “Lansing has done a darn good job of doing all it can to build up its downtown and make itself more attractive,” he says. “And it probably hasn’t made much difference.”


Turnarounds are possible. Not long ago, Seattle was derided as a logging town. Now, bright, young people are descending on it in droves.

Closer to home, Cleveland has gone from being the Mistake on the Lake to a magnet for many of the region’s youth. In fact, it is the No. 1 destination for Toledo’s young, educated people, followed by Columbus, Detroit, Chicago, and New York.

Mr. Finkbeiner says that many of his goals – a residential neighborhood downtown, a new baseball stadium, a vibrant waterfront, a downtown health club – are aimed at making Toledo more attractive to young people.

Mr. V’Soske, the chamber of commerce president, says that the mayor’s priorities are in the right place, because a thriving downtown is key to stemming the brain drain.

“Communities that have successful downtowns, with a mix of uses and lots of people, tend to be the ones that attract young people,” he says. “People just feel comfortable there. In the cities that attract these people, there’s just an ambiance downtown that makes you want to be there.”

But Mr. Root, the management consultant, says Toledo’s past could make it difficult to find new ways to attract young people. “Because of our industrial tradition, this is an area that tends to focus on tangibles, things that you touch,” he says. “But those things count for less and less as you move forward. It’s the human, intellectual capital that counts now.”

Mr. Finkbeiner says he would like to see the business community identify top area students, track them after graduation, offer them internships and jobs, and remind them of the good side of Toledo.

“Just that attempt could make a real difference,” the mayor says. “We need to try something.”

Mr. V’Soske says the chamber of commerce recently formed a workforce development committee to, in part, find ideas on how to keep top students in town. “By the end of the year,” he says, “we should have an idea what direction we want to move in.

“The issue for business,” he adds, “is finding the right person for the right job. If the person fits and meets the needs of the business, then that’s the point.”

Offering no specifics on how to keep young people in Toledo, Mr. V’Soske says he doesn’t know how much it will cost to mount an effective campaign. He says he doesn’t know about specific programs in other communities nor how much they have spent on the problem.

Dr. Ronni Chen, the eye surgeon, thinks a little recruitment could go a long way. She says that had she been recruited by Toledo leaders, she might have considered moving back home. Other young people, she says, might feel likewise if Toledo made the effort. “I think it would make you feel more connected, like, ‘Gee, there is a place for me there.'”

Blade Staff Writer Jeffrey Cohan contributed to this report.