Thursday, April 05, 2007

Today is the 74th Birthday of a Man
Often Called 'Cleveland's Conscience'

Thirty-nine years ago (plus a day), Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered. A day later, on what happened to be his 35th birthday, my friend Roldo Bartimole decided to quite his newspaper job and begin his independent newsletter, Point of View. Cleveland would never again be quite the same.
I've written about Roldo in this space more times than I care to count (including here, here, here, here, here, here and here). But to mark his birthday today, I thought I would also reprise a profile I wrote of him three years ago (but which I've never published here) to mark the occasion of his induction into the Press Club of Cleveland's Hall of Fame. He honored me at that time with the impossible and humbling task of formally introducing him at the event (an annual banquet), which came along with the duty to try to sum up what he has meant and still means to Cleveland. I can't pretend that I even began to do that assignment justice, but in any event, here's that piece from the event program. And should the spirit move you to send along greetings to the birthday boy, please do so, by sending him an email at

A Singular Point of View
Roldo Bartimole has been Cleveland's independent voice for more than 40 years

He's been a Cleveland institution--appreciated by some more than others--for as long as most people can remember.

In 1973, just five years after he began his fiercely independent newsletter, Point of View, The Nation magazine took notice of Roldo Bartimole's municipal muckraking. It headlined the profile "Invaluable Pain in the Neck." More than 30 years later, Editor & Publisher magazine observed that he "has become a municipal institution as familiar as the Terminal Tower or the West Side Market."

In between, the gadfly journalist/muckraker/troublemaker/civic pamphleteer (take your pick) lambasted developers, public officials and more than his share of traditional media institutions, thundering like an Old Testament prophet at anyone he thought was manipulating the public agenda for private gain.

For his efforts, the Chicago Tribune once dubbed Bartimole "the conscience of Cleveland." But that job pays less than even a staff reporter at a small weekly might earn. So this butcher's son had a simple answer when his own children complained about the chilliness of their house. "Wear a hat," he told them, not unkindly. Tellingly, they have grown up to harbor no sense of having been deprived, but rather an appreciation for the sense of social justice passed down to them.

Because he has been read and digested by at least two generations of activists, government officials and planners, establishment figures and especially members of the media, Bartimole's views found a louder echo through incorporation into the work of others. Todd Swanstrom, now a professor of public policy at St. Louis University, says he came to depend on Bartimole's reporting when he wrote his dissertation on Cleveland politics, which later became the 1985 book, The Crisis of Growth Politics: Cleveland, Kucinich, and the Challenge of Urban Populism.

"Roldo Bartimole's POV was key in my research on Cleveland," says Swanstrom. "I found someone who had an entire archive of his newsletters, which were quite valuable in piecing together the history."

Though he's often assumed to be a lifelong Clevelander, Bartimole is actually a transplant from Bridgeport, Conn., who first came to Cleveland in 1965 for a position as a reporter at the Plain Dealer. He later worked for a time in the Wall Street Journal's local bureau.

Then, on his 35th birthday, which also happened to be the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, Bartimole made a decision that would change his life. When he went to hear a black welfare-rights official explain to a largely white audience why the murder had unleashed spasms of urban rioting, he was shocked at the audience's seeming inability to grasp the roots of underclass anger. He figured there was only one thing to do: Quit his job and start his own newsletter. He called it Point of View.

It appeared in subscribers' mailboxes generally twice a month. Bartimole served as reporter, editor, publisher, circulation director and copy editor. It often had its share of typos, but offered subscribers columns of sharply written type, its lone nod to design being the upside down "e" in the title word "view."

If Bartimole ever had models for his work, they probably consisted of two people: consumer advocate Ralph Nader (for whom he briefly worked one summer) and the late I.F. Stone, the ruggedly independent mid-century journalist known for culling the country's paper of record and obscure government documents for clues to important stories overlooked by the traditional press corpse.

Bartimole once observed that Nader "is probably the best journalist in the country, simply because he goes to the major issues, investigates them and puts out information that the public needs. If you look at what the newspapers have done in the last 30 year and what Ralph Nader has done in the last 30 years, newspapers come out shamefully way, way behind." Nader returns the admiration. Roldo Bartimoe, he wrote in 1997, "gives some of us in Washington a respite...his monthly POV punctures the balloons of the city's political surrender to corporate fat cats who shake down the Mayor and the City Council for huge tax escapes..."

While he was well-known in certain circles through the 1970s and into the 1980s, Bartimole probably first came to the attention of a wider Cleveland audience in 1981. In a now-celebrated incident, then-Cleveland City Council president George Forbes grabbed and physically ejected him from a special meeting of council when he refused to leave. The resulting photo of Forbes' bullying got big play in the Cleveland Press, but the TV footage was even more dramatic. The far smaller, bespectacled Bartimole could be heard protesting, "George, you're tearing my jacket" in the clip. He laughs about it today. "That was my sharp First Amendment retort," he says.

Three years later, he began reaching an even larger audience when his column was featured in the Cleveland Edition, the city's first major alternative newsweekly. Bill Gunlocke, at the time a bookstore owner and himself a transplanted Clevelander, knew he needed to recruit one voice to help launch his free weekly. "Roldo was the obvious centerpiece, with the credentials and the courage," says Gunlocke, who now lives in New York City. "He was like a priestly scholar. Wherever you saw him, he had some reading material. He always looked like he was coming from something important and going to something important." Bartimole's column later ran in the paper's successor, the Free Times.

Now in his early 70s, Bartimole remains thoroughly plugged into events as an elder statesman who's become half social historian and half institutional memory. He spends more time with his beloved second wife Ann, and with his children and grandchildren. And while POV came to a close in 2000, he continues to write occasional columns, which are now distributed through the Cool Cleveland e-newsletter. He's widely quoted and footnoted in a flock of histories of Cleveland and municipal politics. His Point of View even has its own entry in the Encylopedia of Cleveland History. By influencing the influencers, his moral outrage has left a deeper mark than even he could have ever imagined.

"He worked hard and he worked long and he never made any money, but he had some fun," says his friend Terry Sheridan, a legendary Cleveland reporter and later private investigator, who now lives in Belgrade, Serbia. "And on publication day, he always had a flag for sunrise, one that proclaimed, 'I shall continue to be impossible so long as those who are now possible remain possible.' A good epitaph but a better credo--just about perfect for a guy who purposely set out to be a pain in the ass in a terrific news town and succeeded superbly."
UPDATE: The ever-acute Bill Callahan has this to add about the subject of Roldo. And George Nemeth nicely steps up with these additions.


At 2:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i guess your essay on Roldo really inspired your readers. I enjoy reading Roldo whenever i can find him. Being a former POV reader ( it was a gift subscription from a colleague) i chuckled that his story line has not changed for over 30 years....Gateway, RTA, Chema, Gund, etc. My favorite Roldo line is "why is Roldo screaming? Why aren't you?" MFH

At 2:39 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

You're right, I too was surprised no one seemed to be moved to comment on this. But then, you never know: your comment may well release a floodgate. We've had this discussion many times before, MFH, about why his story line hasn't changed. Pretty simple, really: because the dynamics of what he's been writing about in urban power politics haven't changed either. He doesn't invent the story line (though of course like any writer brings his own biases, angles, etc. to it), but just unearths what's happening.

I know why you remember that line about why Roldo is screaming so well: because I dragged you to an event about 15-18 years ago at Case, marking one of Point Of View's anniversaries, where that line was captured on a T-shirt (I've kept one in my vintage collection). I think you secretly got a major kick out of it, just like I think you secretly admire his independence, despite your otherwise intellectually lazy soft right-ring views.

At 12:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

He's a true blessing for Cleveland-even though he isn't appreciated often enough. We wouldn't still be floundering around (as usual) if a few more people around here would just suck it up and take heed.
I think he deserves his own Wiki page. :-)


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