Social Activist and Advocate
Date of interview: September 2010
On a glorious Fall afternoon, after a morning spent studying international politics at Cleveland State University, former Director of Development for Cuyahoga County, women's and children's advocate, pillar of the Democratic Party, and acknowledged community treasure, Nancy Cronin, shared how Eleanor Roosevelt and the "movements" of the 1960s and 1970s shaped her world view; her life in local politics; her passion for Cleveland (where she's lived since the early 1970s); and why she feels staying active, engaged and involved the community "keeps me purposeful."
Can you tell us a bit about yourself: when and where you were born; where you grew up; what your parents did; where went to school?
I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on January 27, 1931. We moved to Vermillion [Ohio] shortly after I was born. My dad was a lawyer, and he drove back and forth to Cleveland to work every day. Mother was a housewife.
I had an older brother, Bill [Callahan], who became a veterinarian and a sister, Mary Lou, 10 years younger than I. She joined the Peace Corps and went to Liberia, then she came back and worked for Peace Corps in Washington.
What were you good at in school...and not so good at?
I went to Vermillion schools and graduated from Vermillion High School. I was good in all my classes, an "A" student. There were 37 in the graduating class, and I should have been the valedictorian, but I was told that I'd already gotten too many honors, so they were going to give the opportunity to make the valedictorian speech to one of the boys in the class.
You were 10 when World War II started. How do you think the war affected you?
Not much, though it did affect our family. We didn't have a Victory garden, but I remember my mother churning butter. And I remember my aunt was an airplane spotter: the thought was that enemy planes might come in over Lake Erie. And I remember saving foil from chewing gum and collecting milkweed pods because they were, supposedly, being used in life jackets.
One thing I do remember is that every night, when my dad came home from Cleveland, he brought the Cleveland Press with him and I'd sprawl out on the floor and the first thing I'd read would by Eleanor Roosevelt's My Day column — not the comics. She wrote in ways that really reached out to me and she opened my eyes to a bigger world. [Laughs] She's the one who showed me what it's like to be not just a woman but an activist woman. Her column really encouraged me — sort of gave me permission — to be an activist woman.
Do you think there was anything special in how you were raised that made you the person you are today?
As I look back, I don't think so. It was the Civil Rights Movement — I was very personally moved by what was going on in the Civil Rights Movement in the '60s and the murder of those three voter registrants in Mississippi in 1964 — and the Women's Movement and what was going on in Viet Nam that had the most impact on who I am today.
When you went away to college in 1949 — to St. Mary in the Woods in Indiana — what was your career plan, your goal? In other words, what were you planning on being, doing, becoming?
St. Mary's was a Catholic girls' college. I graduated in 1953 with a B.A. in English and a teaching certificate, too, because I was going to teach high school English. After I graduated I went to Washington, DC, and taught school. During the summer's I'd come home, and went to CWRU where I got my master's degree in English.
While I was teaching I met my future husband, Kiely. He was a friend of a friend and was a graduate of The Citadel [a military college] in South Carolina. When he was assigned to go overseas, to Germany, I got a position teaching at the Army Air Force Base high school in Wiesbaden in Germany. We married in October of 1960, in Germany, and our first son, Kiely (Jr.), was born in Frankfort [Germany] in 1963.
What brought you to Cleveland?
My husband didn't get a promotion that he felt he should have gotten, so in the early 1970s we left Germany and came back to Cleveland and he went to law school at CWRU. He was kind of following in my father's footsteps.
I wasn't teaching anymore and we weren't going to be moving around any more — we'd put down roots and bought a house in Cleveland in the Shaker Square area — so that's when I started getting involved in "causes." And that's when our family grew, too. Our second son, Kevin, and our third son, Robert, were born here.
You had a long and very public career in fair housing and community development. What drew you — a woman — to those issues?
Probably, if you have to tie it to something, it goes back to two questions I'm always asking myself: Why are you here? and How do you make the world a better place? Clearly, getting involved in both those issues responds to both questions.
By 1985, you were Cuyahoga County's Director of Development. What got you involved in that kind of community development?
It was something that I gravitated to. My volunteer activities [in fair housing] led me to work in the community and being a volunteer I got a pretty good picture of what the city and the county needed. When I went to work in for the County Development Department my first job was in fair housing...Eventually I became director, then I became the Port Authority's government and international liaison.
[laughs] It was the kind of job where you never stopped learning. I was always reading about development, and I even went to Harvard one summer for a Kennedy School of Government program on community development. That [attending the Kennedy School] was a crystallizing event in my life: it's where I really knew I'd become a professional.
You have been a very successful advocate — both professionally and personally — for minorities, women, the City of Cleveland. What do you think it is about you, personally, that has made you so good at going to bat for others?
Going back to what I said before: I'm always asking how I can make the world a better place. And much of the answer to that is that you learn how. When I was working for Carl Stokes' election [in the late 1960s], that was a tremendous opportunity to learn about the city, fair housing, black-white relationships, poverty, the school system, discrimination, etc. When I was volunteering with the Fair Housing Network, it gave me the chance to learn about the needs of the city and county. And it gave me the chance to learn about the excellent resources we have here in the Cleveland, especially those that we have at Cleveland State. I know I'd never have become the professional I became if I hadn't been able to call upon all the local expertise we have here.
And I have an ability to work with people. I know how to connect people and that's important for getting things done. I've never met a person who has not taught me at least one thing that's made me a better person. That has to do with attitude, and my attitude is that working together will get the job done, the problem solved, the situation changed.
And [laughs] I'm a good organizer, too. And I learned how to do that as a community volunteer, first in Cleveland Heights, and then in Shaker [Heights].
If you were going to be written up in the Guinness Book of Records for just one accomplishment, what would you want that to be, and why?
Surviving the death of my husband — he was a lawyer and he died of a heart attack in 1979 and didn't leave any life insurance — and making sure that our three kids were not damaged by his loss. All three kids got the education their brains deserved and went on to make successful lives and careers.
You've been very active in the Cuyahoga County politics — thought mostly behind the scenes — for almost 50 years. What got you interested in politics?
That goes back to the Civil Rights Movement. That's when I realized that in order to change things you have to change the law. And to do that you have to become an activist, not just socially but politically.
With fair housing, I first was interested in simply enforcing the laws that were already on the books. But there were so many areas — not just where people were living — that needed change that I realized that to make changes in peoples' housing you had to deal with other issues, and that you had to address all those issues collectively. And I realized that the only way to do that was to work for political change. That's when I decided to become active — very active — in the Democratic Party. And this was when politics was pretty much male dominated. Soon I was a precinct committee person, and I have been ever since.
It was only later that I realized that at the same time we were working for the civil rights of minorities, we were also working for women's rights and creating the kind of collective momentum to change or eliminate the barriers and empower women so that they could run on a par with men for political office. For years I was actively involved in programs for women — Women Elected Democrats of Ohio, WEDO — a state organization that encouraged women to run for office and educated them about how to be an effective legislator.
Now, my passion has more to do with education. Our schools really aren't doing a good job for kids.
How do you think county politics changed over the years?
For one thing, now women have role models, which they didn't before. And it's become much easier for women to run for political office — and win — than it was back in the 1960s. And money — big money — became an issue, as did raising money.
You are just shy of 80, yet you are still active and involved in both civic and political activities. How do you do it? In other words, where does all the energy come from?
Part of it is attitude: I just like to do things, be active, stay informed, stay involved. But I think, by nature, I've also always been pretty energetic.
But just because I'm energetic doesn't mean things were easy. It means I've always had the energy and the push to tackle things and see them through. I've always worked hard for things I believed in. And, I've worked hard not to let people pigeon-hole me. [laughs] I can't tell you how many times, in the early days of working for the county, that I was the only woman sitting at a meeting table where they were talking about community or economic development. I realized that if you weren't at the table no one was going to be hearing what you had to say.
Why do you think it's important — as you age — to stay active and involved in your community?
[laughs] For me, I'd be bored stiff if I wasn't keeping active and involved, and Cleveland is a great place to get and stay involved. And I enjoy knowing what's going on in my community.
And there's a lot that I don't know. That's one reason I'm taking this [tapping a college textbook on the table] international politics class at Cleveland State right now. I've been taking classes there, through the Project 60 Program, for about six years. I started out with philosophy classes, then I took cultural anthropology classes. Now I'm doing the politics.
And, though I really never think about it this way, I'm probably staying so active to show others that when they get to be my age, not only can you do the same thing, you should. It's important to do things like that, to help people see options. I guess what I'm talking about here is being a role model, but I never think of it that way.
And it goes back to what I've already said. We all have a purpose in life and age doesn't have anything to do with it. Staying active and involved, well, it keeps me purposeful. [laughs] Is that a word?
I wouldn't say any of this keeps you young, but it does keep you involved and for me that's very important.
You look to be in very good physical and shape? Do you exercise?
No, but [pointing out her cool black and white walking shoes] I'm a walker. Today I walked from my house to the rapid station, then when I got to Terminal Tower I walked to Cleveland State for my class. And I'll be doing that at least twice a week as long as the weather holds.
Is there anything special about your diet?
Not really, but I do try to be careful because my doctor keeps telling me that I'm a candidate for diabetes.
One reason I'm an advocate for community gardens — here in Ward 4 — is that they don't only provide good, nutritious food, they get you outside.
How to you stay sharp mentally?
I have two mantras up on the wall in the kitchen that may come close to answering that question. One, from Frank Herbert [author of Dune , one of science fiction's groundbreaking novels] says: "Knowledge is an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty." The other is from [geneticist] James Watson. It says: "It's time for us to take charge of our own evolution."
I'm 79, but I think my brain is much younger and it's perfectly capable of enabling me to analyze information, make wise decisions, pass on information. And I'm a reader and always have been. That's one reason I'm going to the Project 60 classes at CSU. I've been reading things I never would have read before.
MythBusters is all about successful aging, so: What's your definition of, and criteria for, successful aging?
Hum. That's difficult, but I'm going to go back to what I just said. Stay involved in what's going on around you and never stop wanting to learn more, whether it's though some kind of formal study like Project 60, or whether its through reading a book from the library or going to a lecture or getting out and talking to people you've never talked with before or getting involved in volunteer work.
In your opinion, what are the major challenges seniors are facing right now. And, if you could wave a magic wand, how would you help them overcome these problems?
One thing is retirement. When people think about retiring, too many think it's going to be the "do nothing" phase of their life.
Or the aren't thinking or planning, they are waiting for someone to do that for them, someone to make their life fun and interesting and exciting. You can't sit around and wait for someone else to plan things for you. It's not going to happen.
And another thing, if they do plan — and this is especially true of women — they get tied up in shoulds and oughts.