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mike cleggMythbuster: Mike Clegg

Communicator, Mentor, Volunteer

Date of interview: November 2010

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On one of the last fine fall days of 2010, in the cozy conference room at the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities, Mike Clegg talked about growing up on Cleveland's east side, of opportunities lost and found, and the balance, wisdom and contentment that are the hallmarks of successful aging.

When were you born and where are you in the sibling line-up?

I was born Dec. 4, 1938, here in Cleveland, at University Hospitals' MacDonald Women's Hospital. I was the third child. My brother was 9 pounds, my sister was 10 pounds, and I was 11 pounds, 9 ounces. My mother said enough, because she didn't like the progression. She used canes for about six months after I was born because you don't stretch the muscles for that long and then just have them snap back.

That year, I was the third largest baby born in Cleveland and the only one of the three who survived. Fat babies in those days were allergic to everything as they hadn't advanced dietetics to the point where they could feed the kids and keep them alive. Most died due to diarrhea because they couldn't retain anything. The first time my father saw me I was lying on my stomach under a sunlamp — because they were trying to keep my bottom dry. When my father saw me he said: "That's got to be my kid. He's got a smile just like his father's."

Where did you grow up, and what did your parents do?

I grew up in Cleveland. We lived in Moreland Courts near Shaker Square. And I lived there for my first 22 years.

My mother was a stay-at-home mom. My father, who'd graduated from Case in 1918, and was hired by my godfather, Fred Crawford, came up through the ranks at Thompson Products, which became Thompson, Ramo, Wooldrige and then they started using the acronym, TRW. When he passed away in 1960, my senior year in college, he was Executive Vice President of the company.

Did you grow up a techie?

No. I'm terrible with technology. My father was an engineer, but he wanted to instill liberal arts into the program at Case [Institute of Technology] — where he was an active alumnus — so that engineers could learn to communicate. I think he was probably single-handedly responsible for the changes in the curriculum there that made sure the graduates had some writing and speaking and listening skills.

[Laughs] That's something I think medical schools could be doing. Sometimes doctors deliver their messages badly, hitting their patients cold. That's like performing surgery without anesthesia.

Growing up, what you were good at in school and not so good at? And what were your hobbies and pastimes?

I went to Hathaway Brown for pre-school and Hawken through the 9th grade, then, in 1953, I went away to Choate School, a boarding school in Wallingford, Connecticut. The teachers would tell you that I lacked self-control and was immature. But it's interesting: When you do the same things at 70-plus that you were doing at seven, you are just eccentric.

I was good at languages and I loved sports, but my sports options were limited. When I was seven, I came down with Legg-Perthes Disease, a [hip joint] disease that tends to hit young boys. I was in traction for three months at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital, and my parents were only allowed to visit me every two weeks. They told us I'd probably have hip issues for the rest of my life so I didn't play the running and jumping sports in school. [Laughs] But anything that had to do with upper-body coordination — baseball, golf, bowling — I was into.

As for hobbies, I started collecting Israeli stamps when I was 10 years old. That was due to Alfred Stern. He'd delivered some dry cleaning to the house and when my mother told him I was home sick from school, he asked if he could visit. He came into my bedroom and we started talking and he asked me what I was doing to help pass the time. I was reading, but that was it. He suggested I collect stamps — and explained what a philatelist was — and that there was this brand new nation, Israel, that was producing stamps that were very interesting. So I started collecting the stamps of Israel, and still do. [Laughs] Today I've got a really fine collection.

You "came of age" in the economically-booming 1950s. How do you think growing up in the Eisenhower-era influenced the man you are today?

It wasn't the times that influenced me, it was the exceptional experience I had at boarding school in Connecticut. When I went, I was very immature in many ways. I was still only about 5' 11" and about 150 pounds when I graduated in 1965. I grew another 4 inches and got up to 210 pounds while I was in college and my voice hadn't fully changed. Commuting from Cleveland to Connecticut — having to make all those plans, navigate the system — influenced me. The growing sense of independence and maturity I received at Choate changed me. I was in glee club and playing sports, and the courses that I took at Choate were exceptional. They taught me reading, writing, speaking and listening skills that I use today. [Laughs] I think I learned more in some of those courses than I learned at Yale.

When you went to Yale University, what were your career plans?

From the time I was a boy back at Hawken, I'd taken vocational guidance tests, and they always indicated that I should be in social work. Maybe that came from my experiences at Rainbow [Babies and Children's Hospital], when I saw so many underserved kids right there in the ward with me, and I began to realize how different peoples' circumstances were. That experience really taught me a lot about sharing and differences.

You know, that time at Rainbow is probable a big part of that "coming of age" experience you just asked about, and it's affected me all my life.

My freshman year I was planning on going into medicine, but chemistry did me in. In my sophomore year I thought about law, but a constitutional law course did me in. So I decided to major in American Studies, a major for people who didn't know what they wanted.

But you know, I have to admit, I blew it when it came to Yale. It is one of the finest universities in the world and I was cutting classes — traveling with the glee club, going to movies, bowling — when I could have been taking advantage of some of the greatest professors in the nation. Yes, I got good grades, but I know I didn't get everything I could have out of the undergraduate experience.

But it seems that you've definitely made up for that "missed" opportunity.

Going to work for IBM, in 1960, played a big roll in that. Before earned the right to be a salesman, you went through a two-year training program, and they supported that training program with one of the biggest corporate education budgets in the US. As I went through the ranks, and moved up the ladder, I went through different programs — in communication, in management development — all of which were terrific.

My brother went to Harvard for his MBA [master in business administration], and we would argue about which of us got the best [business] education. He had a parchment up on his wall, but I had in-the-trenches experience and money in the bank.

Is college where you met your wife, Sue?

No, she was an airline hostess [with United Airlines]. And I didn't meet her on a plane, I met her on a blind date after I'd been living the bachelor life for several years. Sue will tell you that as I was walking toward her, she told the friend she was with that she thought I was "darling." [Her friend differed with her!] ...We married in 1965 in her grandmother's church in South Bend and we've been married for 46 years.

A month after we were married, we went to a Smith-Wellesley Tea Dance with some friends. The society editor for the Plain Dealer came up, with a photographer, and asked Sue whether she'd gone to Smith or Wellesley, and she replied, "Ball State Teachers College, but only for a year." She'd landed in this very WASPy environment and she has handled things beautifully.

What led you from IBM into commercial real estate?

In 1973, our third child, Scotty, was born with Down Syndrome. In 1977, just before his fourth birthday, he was diagnosed with chicken pox, pseudomonas and leukemia, all at the same time. We spent the summer living at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital, watching him go on and off the critical list.

IBM took second place to being with him. When IBM offered me three positions that would move me out of Cleveland, I turned them down. Not just for our son's needs, but because I knew Cleveland; I liked Cleveland. When you do that in a large corporation, you are no longer a company man.

When I was talking about my future with IBM to some friends, one of them — Ed Crawford of Park Ohio — suggested I talk to the people at Ostendorf-Morris and we had some interesting meetings. They'd never considered hiring someone from outside [real estate] with expertise in the areas of marketing and communications, among others. And they told me that if things worked out, I had the potential to be president of the company, so I resigned from IBM in 1978 and joined Ostendorf-Morris as Vice President of Marketing. They'd never had that position before.

[Laughs] I knew nothing about commercial real estate, but I did know about organizational planning and attention to detail and how to use business and marketing tools to help achieve corporate goals.

What's the most important life-lesson you've learned — business or personal — so far?

That's a tough question, but to over-simplify I'd have to say being able to recognize and set priorities, and that came from having a disabled child.

You are, and have been since your 20s, a dedicated and respected community volunteer — doing everything from organizational grunt-work to serving on the boards of organizations such as the MetroHealth Foundation, Ronald McDonald House and Bluecoats, an under-the-radar organization that helps the families of slain police, fire and EMS personnel. Was there anything special about the way you were raised — or a particular mentor — that shaped your attitude about volunteering?

I saw some volunteering by my mother when I was a child. But I think it was life experiences that got me into volunteering. The experience I had — at Rainbow Babies' and Children's Hospital — definitely helped shape it [attitude toward volunteering]. And having Scotty reinforced, again, on a personal level, that knowledge that a lot of people are not able to influence their present or future by themselves.

I think you wind up getting involved with causes that affect you personally. I wouldn't be sitting here [Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities] if my son did not have Down Syndrome. I'd probably not have helped create Cleveland's Ronald McDonald House if he hadn't gotten leukemia.

What attributes do effective volunteers have?

Passion, then the ability to be organized, to not let any balls drop. And the ability to commit. You have to be able to be counted upon and relied upon.

But it's the passion first. A lot of people "volunteer" because they want their name on the [cause's] masthead so people will know what they are doing. That's not what makes a good volunteer. The cause should always be front and center, not who is making things happen.

You were very instrumental in the establishment of Ronald McDonald House, serving as a founding trustee. How did you get involved with that? And how involved are you today?

I became involved — and have stayed involved for over 30 years — because of Scotty and Dr. Sam Gross, who just passed away. He was head of Pediatric Oncology at Rainbow, and in the winter of 1977 he called six families [whose children had been under his care] together to tell use about a wonderful project in Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia Eagles [football team] had raised money to help buy a house right next to the Children's Hospital [of Philadelphia] where out-patients and families could stay. Ray Kroc, founder of McDonalds, read about what they did and sent $25,000 to have the house named after Ronald McDonald. That's how the first Ronald McDonald House came to be [in 1974]. Then [Kroc] funded a house in Chicago.

Sam Gross hoped ours would be number three, but by the time we found the property and got the house built and opened, in 1979, we were seventh or eight.

The McDonald House concept made so much sense to me. We [he and wife, Sue] had watched all these families, sleeping next to their children's beds at Rainbow, get so drained that when big decisions had to be made they were too exhausted to make the best call. And we'd been there, too, so we realized that families needed help beyond just a place to stay. Years later, when we [the House's Board] were looking for a project to celebrate the 25 th Anniversary in 2004. Carl Doersuk, a trustee and former head of Rainbow's Cystic Fibrosis Center, came up with an idea and I asked for permission to elaborate on the idea and run with it.

We set about interviewing families...about what they needed. They told us they were afraid to go home, primarily for four reasons: they didn't know how they were going to make it financially; they didn't know how to address their legal concerns, or even what they should be concerned about; they didn't know how to deal with family problems — the guilt and stress, their other kids' jealousy at all the attention their sick sibling was getting, the arguments and pain that often lead to divorce; and they didn't know how to find resources and advocate for their child with school systems, social service agencies, the health care and insurance systems.

We listened, closely, then put together a proposal and presented it to the heads of over 20 [local] health care and social services agencies and organizations. Our community also lacked a calendar showing all the events that organizations in this field were offering. Out of that [presentation] came Ronald McDonald House's Tools for Today and Tomorrow, a program to help families access resources they needed to address those four issues. We also created an updated calendar showing sessions on a myriad of topics available for families and for those who care for them. This is all available on as website [www.toolsfortoday.org] which gets over 5000 hits a month. The next step is to take the program, through a public-private partnership, state-wide and national.

We are meeting here today at the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities. Why did you choose to meet here?

Because I've learned so much from the developmentally disabled, starting with Scotty. As a parent, you want your child to realize their full potential, so as a result, I started getting involved with the resource providers who were helping children like Scotty. And the more I got into it, the more I crossed paths with the Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, its former name. Then my mouth got me in trouble and they asked me to be on the board. Then I became chair of the board.

I have learned so much from the people here about special-needs-challenged people, what the fears are, what the resources are, and how to go about getting them to improve quality of life. And the issue we are talking about is definitely a quality of life issue — not just for the person with developmental disabilities, for their family, too. Having a special needs child is a game changer. You are dealt something that is totally unexpected, and everyone in the family has to learn to live with it.

And you know, I don't know of a family that's been touched by this where the siblings aren't world class because they learned so much. One time, when Eileen Korey was doing an interview on TV, she asked [older son] Chris what it was like to have a brother like Scotty, and he said he'd watched kids at school do things to their bodies — with drugs and alcohol — that he could never do because he'd watched his brother fight so hard to live. Sue and I, standing off-camera, were wowed by what he said. Chris, and his sister Tracey, have been spectacular with their little brother, as have their friends, several of whom have gone into special education.

What other issues or organizations are you particularly interested in?

[Laughs] I'm not big on the arts. The curtain goes up and my head goes down. And I'm not interested in diseases or conditions, even though I've had both hips replaced and colon cancer. But you definitely have my attention when you talk to me about kids.

You have accomplished so much and received so many awards and honors. If you had to pick the award or honor that has meant the most to you, what would it be? And why that particular one.

[Laughs] That my son, Chris, asked me to be his best man when he got married 13 years ago. I cried when he asked.

You are in your 70s — active, involved, hale and hearty. How do you do it? In other words, what are you doing on a daily basis to stay fit, both physically and mentally?

I think everyone, when they decide to retire, should read the book Younger Next Year. It's written by a doctor and attorney who take turns writing chapters. The first section focuses on staying physically fit.

And golf doesn't count, you have to get your heart rate up with cardio exercises and do weight-bearing exercise because it is said: "Cardio keeps you alive, weights help you enjoy your life." The second [section] is on diet and food. [Laughs] They do a couple of pages on fast foods would not make Ray Kroc happy. In the third section, they focus on the fact that if you want to age well you have to socialize, get out there and get involved with people. And stay involved, because the socialization and mental stimulation that come with involvement will, indeed, make you feel younger next year. And the year after.

When I read that book — and it's a short read — it made a tremendous impact on me.

And I'm blessed to know several young men in their 30s and 40s who are, well, I'd call them my protégés. Mentoring them is a win-win. They are stimulating and challenging and I can draw from my past to share things with them.

What role do you think attitude plays in aging successfully?

It's huge. To me attitude plays a huge part in what we were just talking about, staying involved...And a lot of people don't, because they don't have interests that engage them.

I can probably describe growing old in two words: It sucks. But on the other hand, I don't think about the fact that I turned 72 in December. And I have never been an age that I didn't really enjoy. I might be physically changing — there's a tremor in my hand or a twinge in my hip and I wonder what it is — but what's going on with me physically is not who I am. It's not who any of us are. [Laughs] Some of my friends have resorted at luncheons to making the first person to mention a health issue put $5 in the till.

And aging successfully means knowing what you want to do, and doing it. I have a bucket list, and we just took a cruise with our two oldest kids and their spouses, so I've checked that off the list because I knew it would be better to do it now than wait.

When you do retire, how do you plan on spending your time?

I have retired, but I don't see much change from what I've always done. While I'm no longer President [of Ostendorf-Morris], I still go in to the office every day...I'll probably die with my boots on.

What's really great about where I am now is that no one can get me. I can't get fired. If I'm outspoken or say something controversial, no big deal. Over time, I've realized that you get more sensitive about good things, and you get less sensitive about doing the wrong thing.

We've covered a lot of ground in this interview. What did I not ask you that I should have?

The only area you didn't get into was how really important our kids — Chris, Tracy and Scotty — are to Sue and me...Life is all about balance, trying to fit in everyone who is important. There are only 24 hours in a day, so if you want to fit in all the important things, you wind up making choices. Family always gets the nod, followed by friends.

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