February 2007 Issue
Ted Strickland, Ohio's new governor, was never groomed for the statehouse.
The principles and perseverance he learned from humble beginnings in Lucasville have simply always been his guide.
The election night song was perfect.
Three weeks later, Ted Strickland still grins when he thinks about it.
It's a mild December morning, and Strickland is sitting in a back booth at Paul's Restaurant in Whitehall, staring out the window, thinking about that song. Paul's, a low-slung building snug between a bowling alley and a tool shop, has a soundtrack of its own that draws Strickland in nearly three times a week - from the clinking silverware of the breakfast diners who greet him as just another regular, to the friendly chatter of the waitresses who recite the menu's half-dozen pies by heart.
He loves this place so much, Strickland calls it his "Appalachian restaurant." Never mind that it's two hours away from the hometown it reminds him of. And never mind that the people speeding by on Broad Street, seemingly on their way to more chic breakfast spots in Columbus, wouldn't expect to find Ohio's new governor here.
That's okay. That's what that Tom Petty song was all about: defying expectations.
"You can stand me up at the gates of hell," says Strickland, smiling out the window, "and I won't back down."
Petty could have written those lyrics for him. When "Won't Back Down" blared over the speakers at the Hyatt on Capital Square's ballroom on November 7, the night that nearly 2.5 million Ohioans chose Strickland to lead the state, it perfectly summed up a lifetime's worth of hardscrabble situations and underdog efforts that began 65 years ago on Duck Run Road.
Strickland certainly looked the part of victorious politician up there on stage, flashing his pearly white grin and pumping his fists to the ballroom crowd's raucous chants of "Ted! Ted! Ted!" But everyone there - especially the countless Scioto County residents clad in "Ted Head" t-shirts, who'd driven 100 miles to see a hometown boy make good - knew that their candidate was never groomed for the statehouse.
Strickland's brother, Roger, understood that better than anyone. Standing behind Ted on stage, amid dozens of teary-eyed relatives, the 67-year-old, distinct in his signature snow-white beard and ivory Stetson, could still remember when all 11 members of their family moved into a chicken coop after their farmhouse in Lucasville burned to the ground.
Now, his little brother was moving into the governor's mansion.
And Strickland's wife, Frances, certainly knew her husband's early struggles. She still recalls that sympathetic look in the eyes of southern Ohio Democratic party officials when a young and inspired Ted - fresh from watching the Watergate hearings on TV, and filled with childhood memories of his father, fighting for his fellow man at the local steel mill - told them he wanted to run for Congress in 1976. "One or two of them said right out, 'You won't win,'" she remembers.
They were right.
"It's [about] steely will and determination and a never-give-up attitude," Strickland says in his booth at Paul's, sipping his coffee, thinking about that victory song - those ultimately three failed Senate bids and countless other hurdles a distant memory.
"You just never give up."
A more superstitious person might look for something special in Duck Run Road: a profound feature in its miles of pavement, some inspired meaning in its modest homes. How else could such an otherwise ordinary stretch serve as the birthplace of beloved cowboy actor Roy Rogers, famed baseball scout Branch Rickey, and now Ohio's 68th governor?
For Ted Strickland, it's simple. You don't find the spirit of the place in the road itself. It's in the people who inhabit it.
"Sometimes," he says, "it seems like the people who have the least are actually the most giving."
A lot of the old residents of Lucasville are gone now. They started to leave when the nearby employers did: the brickyards, the steel mill in New Boston, the three shoe factories in Portsmouth. But there's plenty that's reminiscent in the more than 1,500 folks who remain - most notably, an accent that sounds more deep south than buckeye state, and a strong sense of community that Strickland still remembers from when Duck Run Road was all gravel and dust.
His steelworker father's wage was stretched thin over a large family that included nine kids and their stay-at-home mother living on 16 acres of farmland. But for a couple who'd already endured losing two homes before Ted, their youngest son, was born in 1941 - one to the bank during the Great Depression, another to the Portsmouth flood in 1937 - having to pinch pennies while living in the comforting environs of a road with its own one-room schoolhouse and church was child's play by comparison.
Besides, "people didn't have a lot back then, but most everybody was in the same boat; your neighbors didn't have much either, so everyone kind of thought they were doing okay," says Strickland's brother, Roger, who today lives just two miles from their childhood home.
Roger, whose plainspoken attitude and frequent appearance in his brother's TV ads made him a celebrity on the campaign trail, embodies why Ted Strickland calls this area "a very unpretentious, very real part of Ohio."
Despite the enormous "Sportsmen for Strickland" recreation vehicle, decorated in camouflage paint, that Roger rode in while stumping for Ted, the retired cement mason doesn't hunt nearly as much as he used to. Rather, he drives to the banks of the Ohio River every other day to what he calls his "summer home" ("a trailer with a screened-in porch," he says with a chuckle) to feed the dog he keeps there and watch the river roll by - living the perfectly content life to which many people growing up on Duck Run aspired.
"I'm not wealthy, but I'm not destitute, either," says Roger. "I'm retired, have a little pension, and I don't want a lot. I've had a decent life â€¦ and if I had to do it over, I might do everything the same."
That focus on contentment over material comforts was passed down by Strickland's mother, who found her satisfaction in her children, the church and helping others. Ted Strickland unabashedly calls her "a saint": a self-sacrificing woman who'd scrape together spare change to buy a newspaper from the poor local paperboy, fearful that he might lose his route and suffer more hardship; and a devout woman who fought tirelessly to get her kids to attend Sunday School - a mostly losing battle.
"It wasn't like she didn't try," Roger says with a laugh, noting that although the local preacher's words fell on deaf ears when it came to him and his older brothers, young Ted always seemed transfixed by the sermons.
The family needed every ounce of faith one night when Strickland was 5 years old.
There was an odor before the blaze: a whiff of burnt wiring, maybe a singed electrical cord. Whatever it was that caused the fire that spread as the kids and their mother slept, the effect was devastating.
"My dad was working the midnight shift at the mill, and by the time he got back, the house was completely gone. Everything," says Strickland, who was carried from the burning house by his sister, Jean.
For the next several months, all 11 family members lived in the property's long, narrow chicken shack until the barn could be converted into a residence. Today, that converted barn (now occupied by one of Strickland's nieces) still stands as a testament to both the tight-knit family and the tenacity of Strickland's hard-working father, who headed out the door and to the steel mill every day for almost 50 years.
"There are three things that my father always taught us to live by: A hard day's work won't kill you, be a good union man, and be a good Democrat," says Roger. Their dad, he says, always credited Franklin Roosevelt with saving the country in the wake of the Depression and creating the middle class.
In fact, if Ted Strickland's mother infused the spirituality and concern for others that led him toward service as a Methodist minister (he received his bachelor's degree in history from Asbury College in 1963, followed by a divinity degree from Kentucky's Asbury Theological Seminary) and psychologist (he received a doctorate from the University of Kentucky in 1980), it was his dad who instilled in him a sense of public service that would later lead to politics. After all, the elder Srickland was one of the main workers responsible for unionizing the steel mill.
"I think that's the reason organized labor supported Ted so strongly: They knew our whole family believed in fair wages for a fair day's work," Roger says, pointing out that the volunteer who drove his mammoth "Sportsmen for Strickland" RV during two months of campaigning was a carpenter and president of the area's local union.
Indeed, if you want to see Ted Strickland go from laid-back to worked-up in two seconds flat - from enjoying his coffee and the casual atmosphere at Paul's Restaurant, to narrowing his eyes and jabbing his finger into the table for emphasis - bring up the opposition to an increase in minimum wage.
"That people who don't have to worry about spending $100 on a meal in the evening would take actions that would deprive people who are struggling of the ability to get what they deserve â€¦ it's just so pathetic and sad," he says. "It portrays an attitude toward poor people that's reprehensible." (A month later, the state's minimum wage was increased.)
For Strickland, it's a matter of neglecting the needs of people who lack higher education. His father's early creed was, as Roger puts it, "If you're old enough to go to work, then you go to work." So, while many of his eight siblings went on to make good wages as tradesmen - Strickland, too, worked in the local rock quarry for a while - only he and Roger graduated from high school, and Strickland was the only one to graduate from college.
Today, Strickland still wears his gold, 1959 high school class ring on his finger: a memory of the achievement of graduating, and a reminder of where he's from.
The other ring he wears holds special meaning, too, and not just because it was a gift from his wife. It's imprinted with an image of the congressional seal from when Ohio voters first elected him to serve in Washington, D.C., in 1992. As much as the ring represents that victory, it's also a reminder that his 88-year-old father took the first plane ride of his life to see his youngest son sworn into office. "First time he ever flew on an airplane, first time he ever looked down on the clouds," Strickland says with a smile. (His mother died in 1977; his father in 1996.)
As excited as he was to see that success, though, Strickland and his brother both know he'd have been just as happy seeing him live a contented life in Lucasville, infused with the principles he learned back on Duck Run Road.
"A newspaper reporter asked my dad [in '92], 'Are you proud of Ted?'" says Roger.
"He answered her right away: 'I'm proud of all my kids.'"
Frances Strickland can't help but smile at the thought of the 16-acre spread on which her husband grew up being considered some sort of homestead. Her rural roots know better.
"Down in Kentucky where I grew up," she says with a giggle, "we wouldn't call that a farm."
That's because what her tiny hometown of Simpsonville lacked in population (she graduated from high school with only 33 other students), it more than made up for in fertile, rolling acreage. Her family's dairy farm was 243 acres, and between the never-ending chores it demanded of her and her three siblings and the church that was the heart of the town, Frances has the same spirituality and strong work ethic as Ted.
Not to mention, a love of southern-style food that comes straight from Simpsonville.
"Grits, cornbread - you put hash on some fried cornbread, and those things are so good together," says Frances, who makes a point of ordering the mush (fried cornmeal), when she accompanies her husband to Paul's Restaurant.
The couple met when they were psychology students and teaching assistants at the University of Kentucky in the '70s, both searching for better ways to help counsel troubled kids: he after working at a Methodist Children's Home in that state, she after working as a health teacher in area schools. The area around their small campus office quickly became a popular hangout, with Ted and fellow students glued to the TV as the Watergate hearings unfolded, and hanging up signs emblazoned with messages that echoed the turbulent times. "I'm going to put the same thing up on the wall in the governor's office: 'Question Authority,'" says Strickland.
It probably shouldn't have come as much of a surprise to his family, then, when Strickland came back home to Duck Run, Frances in tow, and stood in the middle of a crowded living room to announce his plans to run for Congress in 1976. But there was the fact that his opponent would be a 16-year incumbent.
"They looked at him a little bit like he'd just taken leave of his mind," says Frances, laughing.
"But they're a tight-knit family and not short on expressing their opinions, so they started asking him questions about what made him want to do this and did he think he could win," she remembers. "'He said, 'I think I can. People are ready for a change.' So they said, 'Then we'll be behind you.'"
His sisters held yard sales and made baked goods to help raise money, while his brother Roger sped around town in an old pickup truck, a plywood sign with "Switch to Strickland" affixed to its sides. "An Appalachian family campaign all the way," Frances says.
Although he ultimately lost, Frances and his family were always by his side. However, the couple didn't ultimately marry until 1989, when they were both 46, for myriad reasons over the years: She took a job in Kentucky working for the department of child welfare, and later as a psychologist in Colorado; his political aspirations had him trekking around Ohio, with stops as a psychology professor at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth and as a psychologist for the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville.
And although they have no children, "neither of us has been devoid of those types of relationships â€¦ we've both had a lot of young people in our lives," says Strickland, who notes that, in addition to his dozens of nieces and nephews, one of his best friends is a Florida surgeon who as a child lived at the Methodist Children's Home where Strickland was a counselor.
For Frances, there are no regrets about waiting to marry, nor about hanging in during a political journey that's had plenty of hiccups.
"When you get a guy who's full of life, is tantalizing, and has a zest for trying new things, you don't find many people that can match that," she says.
"There's just something about [his] hopefulness, of going after what seems to be impossible," she adds. "I don't think there's enough of that today."
Strickland knows he needs another song now.
The formal celebration for his inauguration is a month away, but sitting in his booth at Paul's this mid-December morning, he's already got a new tune in mind.
For him, it's just as perfect as Tom Petty's "Won't Back Down" was on election night. It sums up the fact that a political outsider, someone who didn't have a silver-spoon upbringing or a well-paved path, can ascend to the highest office in Ohio - and carry along with him the values he learned back in Lucasville.
"I'm going to have a very special song at the inauguration," Strickland says with a grin. "There's a kid from Columbus who sings it â€¦ he sounds exactly like Louis Armstrong:
"'What A Wonderful World.'"
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