|For 32 years, Roldo Bartimole has vilified, excoriated, castigated and generally flogged the Cleveland establishment for what he perceived as an abundance of self-interest and, at best, only a pittance of principle.|
The angst was delivered in his newsletter, Point of View, which appeared nearly 700 times over three decades and will cease publication later this year. Bartimole cites his health, age and duration of work as reasons for its suspension.
At 67, Bartimole is a man who does not invoke neutral response. The mere mention of his name can trigger a nervous tic or a benign smile. Regardless of the reaction, over the past 30 years he has become part of the fabric of public life here.
While his column will continue in the weekly Free Times, the newsletter's passing represents the end of an odyssey in which — depending upon your point of view — Bartimole has been seen as either a misguided, unbalanced and tiresome misanthrope or a champion of the people whose written voice of virtue spoke for the poor and oppressed.
A memorable photograph of former City Council president George L. Forbes throwing Bartimole bodily from a public meeting in 1981 came to symbolize politics of the time and the spirit of Point of View, which has always provoked controversy.
To me, the most intriguing thing about Bartimole is not necessarily his iconoclastic stance, but the fact that he devoted a life to his beliefs in a time when indifference has permeated our society. There has been no one more out of fashion than Bartimole, and therein lies my fascination.
The 1960s were a medley of hot summer nights fueled by anger, much of which was cataloged by the inhabitants of "the Swamp," an unheralded lot who would in time go on to places such as New York, Washington and Philadelphia, win Pulitzer prizes, cover the White House and achieve esteem within their profession.
The Swamp was miasmic and cluttered, a hovel really, tucked off to the side of The Plain Dealer newsroom. It was a place where newspaper clippings lined the floor like straw in a barn, and the haze of cigarette smoke lingered, mixed with the prevailing odor of stale coffee.
From the Swamp's vapors, Bartimole emerged, turning to an enigmatic calling, an endeavor that for the rest of the century would bewilder and enrage readers with a zeal and tenacity that blazed as if it were trying for the role of the city's conscience.
I remember him vaguely in his Swamp days. A slight, bespectacled figure who moved unobtrusively through the newsroom, Bartimole drew no particular attention until one day the city editor, visibly upset, shouted at him that "any story appearing in this newspaper will be done my way or not at all." That dispute was only a harbinger.
In those days, Bartimole wrote mostly about urban renewal and life in the ghettos — The Plain Dealer liked to term it "the changing city." It was the first time those issues had been probed and the squalid life of residents in the inner city gave the emerging civil-rights movement graphic force.
Sad stories abounded. Bartimole once wrote about a woman on welfare who sold her blood in order to buy Christmas presents for her children. Upon reading the piece, the city's welfare director threatened to deduct the amount from her next check (which, of course, was fodder for another story).
There was meaning to these revelations. That the city had fallen into such disrepair — largely through a series of bad political and business decisions, complicated by the civil-rights crisis — was news of consequence.
Bartimole was better prepared than most at The Plain Dealer to grasp the situation. He had been leavened by the same woes in his hometown of Bridgeport, Conn., where he had covered the urban privations of that city as a reporter for the Bridgeport Post.
Named after the hero of what he says is a cheap Italian novel, Roldo was an unlikely figure to emerge in the role of the community's conscience. He grew up a Catholic, worked in the family meat market, played right field for a local baseball team (the Dantes), and served two years in the Army following the Korean War.
His first experience in journalism and outrage came in 1951, when he sent a letter to the Bridgeport Herald complaining about the unfairness of a column about the Brooklyn Dodgers' Jackie Robinson. Two weeks later, the columnist quoted the letter extensively in another column.
Bartimole had not considered college, but the G.I. Bill and his interest in reading brought him to Northeastern University, in Boston, where he completed a degree in industrial relations. Returning to Bridgeport, he began a career in journalism, hoping to become a sportswriter.
Instead, Bartimole wrote stories that detailed the poor conditions in which Bridgeport citizens were living, using the 1960 census results to track poverty in the city. Over time, 11 children died in slum housing fires, blazes that his stories had warned were potential hazards.
Bartimole was damned by city officials and unsympathetic editors, and lauded by civic leaders. His work earned him the attention of The Plain Dealer. He considered the move to Cleveland an opportunity to learn and contribute to a big-city newspaper. His basic concern was whether he would be able to compete in this new venue.
As Bartimole and others began to deal with The Plain Dealer's "changing city," both the size and scope of Cleveland's urban renewal program began to come under question. Promoted by business and the media, urban renewal was envisioned as the savior of downtown.
Large sections of downtown were razed in order to offer vacant land to developers, who, it was prophesied, would erect a shining new city. Businesses were uprooted, traffic flows changed and the pattern of commerce altered dramatically.
"Cleveland did not have the capacity to handle the large areas of the urban renewal land it created," Bartimole says. "There was more urban renewal area created here than in either New York or Chicago."
While The Plain Dealer exhibited energy and interest in its coverage of urban renewal, Bartimole was urging the newspaper to do a deeper analysis into the issue. He pointed out that the business community had endorsed the destruction of a large part of downtown, only to find that the city's ethnic community did not want to spend tax money to develop it. The result was that the project added to the city's poverty and increased the displacement of the poor, while at the same time wasting public money. The situation was so bad that the Department of Housing and Urban Development likened its involvement in Cleveland to that of the U.S. in Vietnam. "If they could have figured a way to get out, they would have," Bartimole recalls. Vast areas of vacant land remain to this day.
Frank consideration of urban renewal was a place the newspaper did not want to go. It became apparent to Bartimole that he could not write about the city as he saw it. He quietly resigned in 1967 and took a job in Akron with the Summit County Community Action program.
As he was departing, a note from executive editor Philip W. Porter congratulated him for his work and at the same time expressed regret at his resignation, noting that he had a great future at The Plain Dealer. After a short time in Akron, Bartimole was enticed back with an offer of the welfare beat, a source of much news in those days. But in less than a year he was gone again, fleeing the newspaper's editorial inflexibility.
His departure to the Wall Street Journal's Cleveland bureau came to editors as a small surprise, as relations had been cordial and his work commendable. They could not guess at the depth of reflection that Bartimole was undergoing.
"I did not make an issue of the fact that it was difficult to portray the impact of the business community and the foundations on poverty in the city," he says. "I knew better than to confront the editors with these stories, so I slipped them in when I could."
Today, the thought of Bartimole working at the Wall Street Journal is a bad joke at a Growth Association dinner. A former WSJ reporter remembers that the editors in New York regarded Bartimole with some perplexity.
He lasted at the newspaper less than a year before the experience that would trigger Point of View and send him on his life's work. His salary at the Journal was $10,900. It would take him 12 years to regain that level of income.
On April 5, 1968, the day after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. and, ironically, Bartimole's birthday, he attended a conference at which George Wiley of the National Welfare Rights Organization was speaking on the feelings black people had regarding the assassination. Bartimole was stunned by the reaction of white college professors in the crowd, who did not fathom the cause of the looting and burning taking place in the aftermath of the killing.
"It was too much to take, mentally. I had a feeling at that point that life had to be radically changed and I made a decision that I was going to quit," Bartimole said to Cleveland Magazine in 1973.
"Roldo was traumatized by the events of the '60s," says Norman Krumholz, a professor of urban planning at Cleveland State University and the city's planning director under Mayor Dennis Kucinich. "Many of us were."
The frenzy of the times — Vietnam, civil rights, campus unrest, political chaos, assassination —— was the true progenitor of Point of View. Bartimole served to extend the revolt of that era into the '70s and beyond.
In the beginning, Point of View had an electric effect upon the business and journalism circles of Cleveland. The city had always been a "tuck the dirt under the rug" sort of town and the appearance, in print, of names such as Jack Reavis, the managing partner of Jones, Day; Tom Vail, the publisher of The Plain Dealer; and James Davis of Squire, Sanders and Dempsey, attached to charges of civic self-interest, instigated more than a few lifted eyebrows. It caused anger and outrage.
Point of View became contraband in many downtown offices, but it was secretly copied and circulated. Bartimole went from an obscure byline in the morning newspaper to a shadowy figure known simply as Roldo, a name that would grow synonymous with the issues of the day. Reporters, office workers and some public officials began to slip him items and news that would never be reported elsewhere. In time, he would target the city's most powerful, cajoling, embarrassing, revealing and ridiculing.
Not only was Bartimole anti-establishment, but the way he wrote was equally unconventional. He was less concerned with form than with substance. Bartimole opted to break the rules of journalism and write about business leaders in much the same way he saw them conducting their business. There were no rules. It was an interesting reversal, but one that gave his journalistic critics, who lived by specific, if malleable, rules, the argument that his work was flawed.
To gain subscribers in the beginning, Bartimole dropped off copies of Point of View to the best men's rooms in town. Point of View accepted no advertising, which severely restricted its success as a small business, but slowly the subscriptions grew, reaching their peak of 1,750 during the era of Mayor Kucinich.
"People loved to read about Kucinich," Bartimole says. "When George Voinovich became mayor, circulation dropped by nearly 500. When he left City Hall, George Forbes told me to find another job because he was not going to be around for me to write about. [But] there was always more interest over Dennis than George."
Bartimole's style opened him to attack on the part of critics who complained that he often missed facts and his conclusions were one-sided and repetitive. His defense was that his findings were simply his point of view and he was entitled to it.
"The man is like a broken clock," George Forbes once said. "He's right twice a day."
Some critics chide Bartimole for irresponsibility not only in print, but in his personal life, as well. How could he support his family on publishing efforts that produced only meager revenue? On a good year, he brought in $15,000. There were some years he earned less than $5,000.
"You have to remember that being poor is not like living in poverty," Bartimole tells me one afternoon at the Colony Restaurant on Lee Road. "We were poor, but we would get help from the family. My wife, Sue, had a job. We had to shop for groceries with care, but we never starved. We were lucky with the rent, too." The rent for their house on Rexwood remained the same, $130 a month, for 10 years.
Still, there were inconveniences. The ignition in his car, a 1959 Volvo, failed and Roldo had to use a nail to start it. The car had to be parked on a hill so that its downward roll would help spark the ignition.
His daughter Lucy, now 34, remembers how cold the house was in winter, and that when she complained, her father told her to put on a hat. Bartimole wore a blue wool hat in the house during those winters.
Life for the Bartimole children was something of a role reversal. Roldo was usually home when the kids returned from school and generally had dinner ready when Sue came home from her work.
"Dad is a good cook now," says his son, Todd, 37. "But I can still remember some of his experiments when he was a vegetarian. Those were real concoctions."
The children grew up in a household that stressed independence. "Dad was forever telling us that you had to be able to do things for yourself, because no one is going to come along and do it for you," Karin, 39, says. "I think it helped us."
Growing up, the Bartimole kids knew their father occupied a singular station in the world around them. Even though they attended school with the children of some of those being skewered in Point of View, they experienced no ostracism.
"You know, it's not unusual for children to grow in revolt of their parents," notes Krumholz. "You didn't see that with the Bartimole children."
Once, Karin, upset over the way the school's safety patrol was conducting itself, wrote a scathing article for the school newspaper. When the school authorities refused to print it, her father published it in Point of View.
For the most part, the children understand and agree with their father's work.
A favorite Bartimole target was the United Way campaign, which he maintained spent too much money on the executives running the program and not enough on the poor people it was designed to serve. With the exception of one year when she contributed a penny so that her class could have 100 percent participation, Karin was steadfast in opposing the campaign's fund-raising in school.
Todd says that while he was aware that his father did not have the financial wherewithal that others may have had, it did not seriously affect them as children. Today, he occasionally encounters what sounds like a groan when, upon introduction, it is learned that he is Roldo's son.
He laughs. In fact, all the kids find humor when they speak of growing up with Roldo as a father. There was humor, support and an unusual sense of family.
Karin Bartimole remembers spending nights as a child, folding Point of View and pasting address labels on as the family watched television.
"Dad was strict about what programs we could watch," she recalls. "He really liked 'All in the Family,' and we could watch 'M*A*S*H' and a couple of other shows, but not everything that was on."
Lucy recalls one day at college coming upon a strange man sitting on the lawn in the lotus position, shirtless, reading and appearing like some aging guru. What a weirdo, she thought. Then she noticed a scar on the man's chest and it dawned on her that it was her father who had come to pay a surprise visit. The scar was from open-heart surgery.
The energy and emotion required by Bartimole's crusade had an impact on not only his health, but his marriage as well.
His wife's parents never approved of their son-in-law's career, and trying to raise a family on $5,000 annual income was a grinding experience. In 1982, after 22 years of marriage, Roldo and Sue were divorced. There were few real possessions or money to divide, and she did not even bring a lawyer to the hearing.
Karin and Todd were in college when the split occurred and Lucy divided her time between her parents. The kids grew up, finished their education, married and pursued their own lives.
Todd is a lawyer, living in Cleveland with his wife and two girls. Karin is an artist, married, and lives in Tucson. Lucy tried newspaper reporting for a few years before turning to graphic design. She is married and lives in Columbus with her husband and their two daughters.
"There were some difficult times around the house," recalls Lucy. "I'll say this, though — I look back and I'm a better mom for what we went through."
Bartimole was married again in 1991 to Ann Abid, head librarian at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Abid, a St. Louis native, met Roldo at a dinner party in 1987 and was unaware of his crusading newsletter, although she was impressed that the writer seemed to know so many of his subscribers by name.
"I listen when he talks about the issues, but I don't have the same intense interest that he does," Abid says. "He'll use me to test public opinion because I'm not aware of all the levels that he sees in an issue."
She adds that her husband's motivation centers around one issue: poverty.
"It is not that he is against baseball and football and the people who own those teams," she says. "It is that we are spending all this money on stadiums when people are living in poverty. That is why he has spent his life bringing this to the attention of the city."
If Point of View was driven by a desire to cast light where none had been shed, that same desire brought with it a stress that took its toll both physically and emotionally. Once, death passed so closely that Bartimole felt the lifting sensation that people speak of when they momentarily approach and then return from its threshold.
His heart stopped one day in 1974, brought back to life by electrical shock applied in a hospital coronary unit. When friends raised $1,600 to help with the family's needs, Bartimole refused to accept it.
Bartimole told Krumholz that the money should indeed go to the family, but only upon his death. Otherwise, it should be contributed to a group of nationally printed liberal publications.
"Why did you do that?" I ask on another afternoon at the Colony.
"Because I was paranoid," he says. "I didn't know where all that money came from.... I didn't want to take the chance."
"That's crazy," I observe.
"I could not allow myself to be a hypocrite. That is how paranoid I was in those days."
And driven. I remember him around town, off to City Hall on those cold winter days, walking halfway across town after parking the aging Volvo in some free space a mile away. Bartimole would trudge off to some press conference where, at the appropriate moment, he'd pop a most embarrassing question and send George Forbes or whomever into a fit of anger.
It could be the best of theater.
As the Point of View years draw to a close, Bartimole is mellower, easier on himself, and full of the humor that he always possessed but few recognized. While we disagreed about most things, humor seemed a bond between us.
Once, he obtained corporate stationery and forged a letter under the signature of one of the city's leading citizens congratulating me for all my work as editor of Cleveland Magazine in making the city a better place. For years, his annual Scrooge Awards poked holes in my ego, as well as the egos of those in far higher tax brackets.
His list consists of the usual suspects, three of whom are dead: Jack Reavis, downtown developer Jim Carney and James C. Davis. Art Modell moved to Baltimore and Tom Vail has retired from The Plain Dealer (but was replaced on Roldo's hit parade by Alex Machaskee).
Sam Miller of Forest City Enterprises is on the list, as is former Indians owner Richard Jacobs. Their downtown interests made them easy targets for Bartimole.
Of the politicians Bartimole cites, George Voinovich is in the U.S. Senate, George Forbes continues to exist in the politics of intrigue, and Mayor Mike White remains the captain of a battered ship often tossed by Bartimole's stormy rhetoric.
Those who drew his fire in the newsletter generally remained silent in public, smiling awkwardly at colleagues who mentioned the Point of View's author as if he were an alien in their midst, a creature who not only lacked civic understanding, but failed to appreciate Cleveland's achievements.
"The man had no impact whatsoever," George Forbes says over lunch at Johnny's. "He didn't do anything but raise hell with those of us who were trying to do something for this city. I'm telling you, he leaves nothing."
Bartimole, his hair and mustache white with years, and his heart now fortified by a pacemaker, would smile at this. After all, they were both born under the sign of Aries and he once admitted there was something human about Forbes despite the fact that the two have engaged in America's longest war.
A dispassionate appreciation of Bartimole's ability as a journalist would conclude that his writing could probably use an editor, his focus often tended to be narrow, sometimes he displayed an unwarranted anger, occasionally his facts were askew, bur for sheer reporting skills he was resolute and unapproachable. His ethical behavior — as well as his wardrobe — was that of a cloistered monk.
Greg Stricharchuk, assistant managing editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and former Wall Street Journal reporter, says that one of Bartimole's most significant contributions came in the form of counsel for young journalists.
"Roldo lifted the consciousness of the reporters in Cleveland about the role of foundations, charities and other organizations that no one paid any attention to," Stricharchuk says. "And he shared information and his experience. Most people in this business don't do that."
Bartimole figures that his influence was in keeping stories alive, calling them to the attention of other reporters who, over time, would embarrass their editors into following up. And while he may have been instrumental in shaping the news, it took The Plain Dealer 32 years to refer to him by name in connection with it.
Still, Bartimole has no regrets.
"I figure it cost me at least $1 million in income during my lifetime to publish Point of View," he says. "When I look back over those years, it was money well spent. I did what I wanted to do."
Some on Bartimole's hit list would have given him much more than a million to get a new car and move to another town — say, Pittsburgh. Others will miss Point of View. There was nothing quite like it in Cleveland.