December 2007 Issue
Contrary to popular belief, there are times when heroes look the other way.
It doesn’t happen often. After all, for those among us who spring into action at the sight of a problem –– ready to right a wrong, lead a movement, or champion a cause at a moment’s notice –– looking the other way is as unnatural as ignoring a person in need.
However, heroes know that the only thing as admirable as performing a selfless act is not seeking praise for it.
Which is why when someone calls these people heroes, they may avert their eyes.
All six of the Ohioans we spotlight this year are grateful for the recognition, eager to see attention paid to their extraordinary work so that others may join in –– from the group of retired teachers in Columbus who’ve funded scholarships with their own money, to the 17-year-old Munson Township resident who made it her mission to save Ohio’s threatened brook trout population .
But when told that we considered their work heroic, the responses ranged from nervous chuckles to insistences that, surely, anyone else would have done the exact same thing.
That humble reaction, coupled with their noteworthy efforts, makes them Ohio Heroes to us.
When Cincinnatian Marlene Harris, 63, died of breast cancer in 2005, she left behind three children, four grandchildren and a request for her husband, Harvey:
Help fund a cure for the devastating disease.
Harvey had plenty of reasons to honor his wife’s wish. After all, the 65-year-old dentist had also watched his daughter, Allison Harris-Gordon, 37, successfully endure two bouts with breast cancer. Not to mention, the wives of his two best friends are both survivors.
“Cancer is horrific, a terrible disease,” says Harvey. “We have to find a cure for this — and we will one day.”
Thanks to his efforts, that day may come a little bit sooner.
This past June, Harvey launched his first annual Ride Cincinnati, a noncompetitive, daylong bicycle trek to raise money for breast cancer research. The event drew nearly 1,000 participants of all skill levels, eager to traverse four rides of varying lengths, as well as enjoy a wealth of family-friendly entertainment that included clowns, inflatable rides, live music and a mile-long jaunt for children across the Purple People Bridge (which connects Ohio and Kentucky).
Pedaling along right next to all the participants were Harvey, an avid cyclist, and the two best friends who’d also been touched by breast cancer, Ron Stern and Craig Cowit — both of whom helped plan the event.
“We had no idea how big this would be when we organized it,” says Harvey. “We thought whether we got $20 or $30,000 … that would be a good start.”
The final tally: $132,000, all of which went to the University of Cincinnati’s Barrett Cancer Center.
“It just turned out to be above and beyond any and all expectations that any of us had,” he says.
The success has motivated Harvey to raise $200,000 for next June’s Ride Cincinnati — an impressive goal for an event that will only be in its second year.
But for Harvey, it’s just a way of honoring his late wife’s memory and final request.
“This will be done,” he says, “until there’s a cure for breast cancer.”
— Wendy Pramik
Duane & Kathy Jebbett, Rich & Lynne Zydonik and Todd Olsen
Paul and Betsy Kreidler aren’t used to being on the receiving end of aid.
In fact, Findlay residents are accustomed to seeing the couple rescue others: Paul serves as executive director of the Children’s Mentoring Connection of Hancock County, and Betsy formerly coordinated mobile meals for the Hancock County Agency on Aging.
“Those two are the most unselfish people in the whole world,” says Duane Jebbett, president of local plastics company Rowmark. “If there was one piece of bread left in the world, they’d be the last people to take a bite.”
But when the Blanchard River swelled to more than 17 feet in August (11 feet is considered flood level), the Kreidlers were among thousands of northwest Ohioans in need of help.
“We left our street by boat,” says Betsy, 63. She quickly notes that for her and Paul, 62, things could have been much worse –– that seeing their hot water tank float off of its foundation, losing their car, and watching six feet of water fill their basement doesn’t even place them among the flood’s most desperate victims.
Still, the unexpected aid they received from five Findlay residents seemed heaven-sent.
“They were like angels who came out of the blue,” says Betsy.
The first was Todd Olsen, who, despite his own business being under water, pumped out the Kreidlers’ basement until there was little left but a puddle.
“He just dove right in,” says Jebbett, who along with his wife Linda, also didn’t hesitate to help the Kreidlers. Accompanied by Rowmark vice president of sales and marketing Rich Zydonik and his wife Lynne, the group made it their mission to ease the couple’s burden.
With their own homes safely out of the flood’s path, “they all could’ve just stood by and not done anything, or simply wrote a check, or just waited for the American Red Cross to help us out,” says Betsy.
Instead, the group made a beeline for the Kreidlers’ basement. They worked in mud and stifling humidity to remove sopping-wet insulation and saw apart debris for easy removal. The following day, they power-washed the entire area.
The Jebbetts also took the Kreidlers into their home. Lynne Zydonik took Betsy to her house to do laundry. Members of the group also filled sandbags alongside the sheriff at the city jail, and even helped the Kreidlers’ widowed neighbor clear debris out her flooded basement.
“That’s the kind of spirit you get here in Findlay,” says Rich Zydonik, noting that, months later, those hard hit by the disaster haven’t been forgotten: Rowmark continues to pass out checks to employees who need their furnaces replaced. “This is an incredible place to live because the community works together.”
— Jennifer Haliburton
For Karoline McMullen, a love of the outdoors and a respect for nature were instilled early in life. “My family moved from Cleveland to Munson Township when I was 5,” the 17-year-old says of her rural upbringing. “The stream in my front yard became my built-in playground.”
So, when McMullen learned several years ago that urban sprawl was damaging the wildlife of streams in her region, she knew she had to take action.
The problem was pollution — specifically, lawn fertilizer, pesticide run-off and other chemicals being dumped into storm sewers that run directly into local streams. The toxic mixture was driving down the population of the 12,000-year-old native Ohio brook trout, a species that most people have never heard of and that is hardly a cause celebre.
“People like saving cute, cuddly animals,” laments the Hawken School senior.
So, in 2002, she began a campaign called “Save Our Stream,” determined to raise awareness. Through the organization and with a team of volunteers, McMullen placed “No Dumping” signs on storm drains, informed area residents how to minimize the impact of lawn chemicals on their waterways, and helped pass local legislation that now requires 50-foot buffer zones around streams.
The group also planted some 1,000 trees and shrubs to replenish the region’s habitats. “It’s exciting to go back and see that the plants are now taller than I am,” she says.
Most importantly, though, a study by a local environmental organization indicates that the threatened Ohio brook trout population has increased by 44 percent in one local stream.
McMullen hasn’t slowed in her mission to spotlight the plight of wildlife. Last year, she even published a book about her efforts, Where Did They Go? A Community’s Struggle to Preserve The Threatened Native Ohio Brook Trout.
McMullen — who looks forward to attending college next year — has earned plenty of praise for her work. However, she insists that all the credit goes to locals who responded positively to her message.
Not to mention those rural surroundings that inspired her long ago.
— Jocelyn Christensen
The Lunch Bunch
It was meant to be an informal meeting: a collection of retired teachers, drawn together by friendship and their shared experiences working in the Columbus Public Schools, convening for a leisurely luncheon in 1986.
But their commitment to education got in the way.
“We wanted to continue to help the kids, because there was so much of a need,” says Thelma Givens, 77, a 35-year veteran of the city’s school system.
“We gathered for lunch, and that was the beginning.”
Thankfully, there’s no end in sight for the group of retired African-American women who casually refer to themselves as the Lunch Bunch, but whom dozens of grateful Columbus-area students know as the Helen Jenkins Davis Scholarship Club.
The group — named after the woman who, in 1918, became the first African-American teacher hired by the city’s public school system — consists of 50 retired educators and professionals. With money from their own pockets, they have bestowed more than $60,000 to local high school seniors.
The Lunch Bunch chooses two finalists each year to receive $2,000 and $1,500 college scholarships, as well as runners-up who receive smaller awards. “It feels so good to think you are playing a small part in helping them achieve their goals,” says Givens, one of the group’s founders.
But just as valuable as the money is the long-lasting moral support that comes with it. From attending recipients’ graduations to remaining in touch for years, the women often become surrogate mothers to their awardees.
Givens remembers fondly one ambitious young mother in high school who had aspirations to pursue a career in medicine. “We sort of wrapped our arms around her,” she says. The frequent care packages the Lunch Bunch sent their scholarship recipient, the phone calls, the shows of concern — Givens believes all played a role in the girl ultimately finishing college and realizing her dream of working in the medical field.
“We walk with [the students]. That is the purpose of what we do,” says Catherine Willis, another founder, who began her 35-year career as a teacher in 1953. “We remind them to keep their eye on the prize.
“And that prize, of course, is graduation.”
— Brittany Timmons
Community Food Initiatives
In scenic Athens County, in the rural southeastern part of our state, nearly a quarter of the population doesn’t know where their next meal will come from.
The problem is much greater than just the pain of going hungry. If schoolchildren aren’t eating before they start the day, they can’t focus in class. Which leads to poor grades. Which contributes to a high dropout rate and an inability to find good jobs.
“You name it — hunger affects everything,” says Ronda Clark, executive director of Community Food Initiatives, an organization devoted to making healthy foods available to the region’s residents and promoting sustainable agriculture.
Clark knows well the benefits of self-sufficient food production. “I grew up this way,” says the 41-year-old, who was raised on a farm in Michigan. In 1996, she came to Athens to earn a graduate degree in international affairs from Ohio University. But it was while attending a class on agricultural economics that her family’s roots, the poverty of the surrounding Appalachian counties, and her desire to make a difference meshed to steer Clark down a new path.
“It was this euphoric moment,” she says. “I realized that farming and gardening advocacy are what I needed to do with my life.”
Today, Clark coordinates some 50 volunteers and heads an array of CFI programs that address hunger, health and food security.
The organization’s Athens Community Gardens project has participating growers donate 10 percent of their produce in exchange for gardening space — a program that, this year, has seen 1,800 pounds of food sent to local hunger organizations. CFI’s Community Composting includes collecting yard waste that would otherwise end up in the landfill.
Meanwhile, the Edible Schoolyard Project coordinates with teachers to show elementary students how to create nutritious salads with garden produce — an effort to combat the country’s obesity epidemic. Clark is also collaborating with a science teacher at Glouster’s Trimble High School to create a program where students grow and market their own food.
“Community Food Initiatives is having a huge impact on hunger issues, and it’s empowering people in this area to do more with their lives,” says Clark. “Being healthy allows you to have a whole different outlook on life.”
— Rachael Brugger
Darren Rhodes & Ronald J. Buck
Darren Rhodes, 16, still remembers what he was thinking that December day one year ago when he saw his pal, fellow Northfield resident Cornell Carter, 17, floating facedown in the frigid Cuyahoga River — his unconscious body spinning below a cascade formed by high water and a dam wall near the St. Rte. 82 bridge, a few miles east of Brecksville.
“My heart dropped,” says Rhodes. “I thought he was going to be dead.”
That morning, Nordonia High School wrestling teammates Rhodes, Carter and 18-year-old Ronald J. Buck of Sagamore Hills set out to fish a popular spot. But while casting into rough waters below the dam, Carter’s line got tangled in a tree. He stepped onto a slanting section of concrete to retrieve the lure, and suddenly began to slide.
Buck reached out to his friend — first with his hand, then with a fallen tree branch. Unable to connect, Buck watched as Carter slid under the water. He phoned 9-1-1, then ran downstream to get help from Rhodes.
“Oh, my God,” Carter remembers thinking as the river pulled him down into darkness. “I’m really about to die.”
He bobbed up momentarily and found a tree trunk, but the cold, the current and the weight of his water-filled waders forced him loose. His head slammed against the dam and he was knocked unconscious.
The next thing Carter remembers seeing is Rhodes, standing in chest-deep water, pulling him to shore.
“I really didn’t think about it. I just went in,” says Rhodes. “There were 20 or 30 people there. Some of them kept on fishing.”
Carter was alive but hypothermic, so arriving paramedics tended to him on shore. But without the actions of his two friends, he might have never made it out of that water.
That’s precisely why Cuyahoga Valley National Park chief ranger Chris Ryan nominated Buck and Rhodes for the Citizens Award for Bravery, an honor given by the U.S. Department of Interior to recognize life-saving acts of heroism.
“That was a great experience,” says Rhodes, whose recollections of that frightening December day are now surpassed by memories of the trio’s May trip to Washington, D.C., where he and Buck picked up their award.
— Dave Golowenski