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Ben Shouse
Ben Shouse died March 30, 2003 at age 88. This interview is from September 7, 2000.

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Back to MythBustersTaking a walk into Ben Shouse's modest bungalow is like walking into a museum: in one corner sits a collection of hand-crafted teapots; in another, an array of beer decorative steins. Elsewhere are miniature art exhibits, such as a set of miniature train engines. Among his eclectic art on the walls hang awards and article reprints on Mr. Shouse's accomplishments. An extensive book and CD collection is dwindling into the hundreds only because he is giving much of it away to charities such as Malachi House. At age 86, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants has been widely lauded for creating an unlikely pairing of organized labor and the arts. He had a lot of practice unifying groups of people, having served as a union leader in Cleveland's upholstery, furniture, decorating, and mattress and bedding industries. Now purportedly retired, he remains active in both labor and the arts. Most nights of the week can find this cultural arts enthusiast in one of several theaters or performance halls.


Tell us a bit about yourself.
I was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. I moved to Cleveland around 1946. I moved to Cleveland because of the opportunity to continue my labor organization and administration work. I've identified with the labor movement since I was a child. My father had emigrated from Russia and he was pro-labor. He inculcated into my consciousness the fact that I should identify with the struggles of the immigrant particularly, and in the working class generally.

What led you to become so involved with unions?
I come from the hard coal fields of Pennsylvania. Although I graduated at the top of my class, I found no opportunities for higher education. A good deal of my education is what the good book calls "self-learned." There was a library in our area called the Osterhout Library and I spent a great deal of time there. In addition, my brother went to college and I read his books.

I lived in an area that was very well organized. There were three mines around the town where I lived called Luzerne, PA. John L. Lewis (who established the Congress of Industrial Organizations and was president of the United Mine Workers) did a very good job for the miners while the mines were operating, but he was not prepared for the Depression. When it hit, there were very few places prepared to represent the unemployed worker. There was no so-called "safety net" in those days. The Catholic, Protestant and Jewish charities were likewise not prepared. I joined the unemployment movement and I became very active. I was successful in organizing approximately 800 unemployed miners.

How did you go about doing that?
By going house to house and talking with them. The fact that a number of my classmates came from mining families helped. After awhile I got a job in a furniture plant. I joined the union. The union leadership knew I had organizational experience from organizing the unemployed. There was NO way young fellow like Ben Shouse could have been corrupted. Why? Because you paid 10 cents a month in dues. For the whole year, you paid $1.20. With 800 members, you got the sum of $960. And even though $960 was much more in those days than it is today, it wasn't enough to corrupt me. So I came into the labor movement with an idealistic viewpoint.

What cultivated your interest in the arts?
When my brother went to college, he used to bring home books on Shakespeare, and that's where I got my main interest in Shakespeare. I used to read the books even before I fully could understand them. I was about 12 at the time. There was always a heavy emphasis on education in my family; more on education than anything else. Also, my brother and three sisters had piano lessons, and though I didn't have lessons, I was exposed to it constantly.

You were awarded by the New Cleveland Campaign for bringing the arts and labor together. How did you go about doing that?
In 1946, Leo Perlis, who was the head of the Community Services Department of the American Federation of Labor, decided to phrase it the way I said it: to enter to the sacrosanct realm of cultural arts. Locally, there were a number of people who knew of my artistic proclivities in terms of attending all these types of productions. The local labor movement decided to enter that realm to help educate the workers-both as audiences and as participants. We set up what was then called the Cultural Arts Committee of the United Labor Agency (ULA). Since the workers knew of my interest, I was immediately elected chairman and I've been chairman ever since.

That was a pretty radical maneuver.
I don't know if you'd call it radical, but it was a definite change in orientation of the Cleveland labor movement. The ULA is the social service arm of the entire labor movement. It's comprised of a board of 21 people; one-third AFL-CIO, one-third teamsters and one-third auto workers. Plus six community representatives at large. I was chosen as one of the community representatives. And I was chosen to be the community representative on the executive committee. I'm fond of saying that's where the real power is, and I'm exposed to it all the time.

What were some of the activities of this committee?
What we did was we worked out a deal with Ray Shepardson, who was then saving the theaters downtown at Playhouse Square. We went to see the "All Night Strut." All we had to pay was for the drinks and snacks. It was very, very successful. We then worked out an arrangement with the Cleveland Ballet that we would take over a night of "The Nutcracker." We worked out an arrangement where the working class could take themselves and their families for a dollar a head. Even then that was very good. They thought maybe we'd bring 200, 250. We wound up having more than 2,000 people-we hit the Today Show.

We then developed a program called "The Worker as Artist" where we delved into the talent that we contend lies latent in the working class. We had a wonderful show down in the Terminal Tower.

We also created an "arts advocate" class. We notified all the unions that they could send one to three delegates to participate and learn that they shouldn't be afraid of the arts; many had been brought up to believe that the arts are for the rich. Actually, the arts are for everybody. We taught number of what we call arts advocates. We took them to the Ballet and the Opera and the Play House. We worked out with the management that for a certain number of advocates, they would get free tickets. Then they go back in the shop and spread the word.

Simultaneously, we worked out an arrangement for what we call the "unemployed worker discount card." If we interested enough people with the unemployed discount card, when these people get jobs, those are the potential customers.

The important thing is we provided access to the arts for the working class. The unions set up an arts advisory committee where we had representatives from Playhouse Square, the Great Lakes Theater Festival, the Cleveland Play House, the Lyric Opera Cleveland, the Dobama Theater, SPACES, NOVA. We had a very high powered advisory committee.

How did you measure the success of these programs?
Many people gave us a lot of feedback. We'd learn that this member had a child taking dance lessons, or this member had a child taking music lessons ... that's how you help to integrate. It became less intimidating. We taught the worker how to relax and accept it and that he is welcome. I'm not saying everybody was gung-ho, but those we worked with, especially the leadership in the arts community, loved it.

You've been "retired" for 20 years.
All I retired from is compensation. I'm still involved in labor, the arts, education, social service, Jewish causes and the poor. I've had many opportunities for other work, especially when I retired December 31, 1980. I could have been an arbitrator or a mediator and a lot of my associates and acquaintances thought that's what I would do. If I felt that I needed the money that badly, I would have. But I made a fundamental decision, and it is a fundamental decision, not a superficial one. I would not work for anybody else. As long as I could, I would live totally free from any obligation for money. And I've kept to that since December 31, 1980. Basically I give and don't take.

So how have you been supporting yourself?
Since I've been covered by Social Security from the inception, my Social Security increment is one of the highest. My union pension is not nearly as high. As a matter of fact, my members make two and three times what I do under the pension program that I helped establish for Local 48.

How have you been spending your time since then?
I was elected to serve on the Ohio Arts Council in 1983. I served two terms, until 1993. I was the first one from the ranks of the working class. That's where I learned that it's easy to distribute millions of dollars, although it's harder to find out who's worthy.

How do you determine that?
We had what we call the panel committees. These committees would meet and the application forms were set up by Ohio Arts Council. I brought 300 members in to the Ohio Citizens for the Arts, the arts lobbying organization. For The City Club's 75th anniversary, I promised I'd bring in 75 new members. I brought in 127 new members.

What do you think it is about you that convinces people to join these causes?
First of all, I have a reputation for integrity. Secondly, I'm known to be a philanthropist. Third, I can be relatively persuasive when I have to. And fourth, I have a great deal of experience organizing, where I've had to not only win the worker over, but destroy his fear of the boss firing him. I learned a great deal about parliamentary procedures. In a number of organizations I am the "unofficial parliamentarian." I don't want to pose as an expert.

In addition to the numerous arts boards on which you serve, how else do you spend your time?
I'm a full-season subscriber: 26 concerts for two box seats for the Orchestra. In the summer, to see and hear the Orchestra at Blossom, 8 to 10 concerts. And I've got tickets for the full season for the Cleveland Play House, Cleveland Signstage Theater, Lyric Opera Cleveland, Great Lakes Theater Festival, the Dobama Theater, the East Cleveland Theater, and the Ensemble Theater. Then on an ad-hoc basis I go to different places that have events. I go to SPACES (an art gallery), and I was a member of NOVA until its demise. I also like to help support new organizations, like Red Hen Productions. I'm also active in the Workmen's Circle and other Jewish organizations and causes.

So you're not home many nights of the week.
I'm gone at least five nights out of the week. And often during the day. Yesterday, for example, I had meetings for four separate committees on which I serve. And in between those I did my physical therapy at the Jewish Community Center.

Do you think of yourself as old?
If you talk about what is inside, the answer is no. If you talk about whether I'm conscious of the fact I'm going to be 86 very shortly, the answer is yes. But the fear of reaching 86 has nothing to do with it. I regard age in this manner: I regard every passing day that ages me chronologically as a constant challenge to what I can do in this society.

Do you think successful aging is mostly attitude?
I think attitude has a great deal to do with it. But I'm no psychologist and I can't determine beginnings and ends for other people. I can do it for myself to some degree, but even then, things happen which are totally unexpected and for which you are unprepared. The idea is that you do not let anything affect you to that degree that you no longer can function in your basic orientation, which is that you're a part of society and it's your job to help make it the best society you can.


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