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Steven MinterMythbuster: Steven Minter

Mentor and civic leader

Date of interview: January 2010

Never one to coast, when Steve Minter retired as President and Executive Director of the Cleveland Foundation in 2003, he took his 43 years of experience in social work, all levels of government and nonprofit leadership, and his love of Cleveland, into the academic setting, becoming Executive in Residence at Cleveland State University. On a rare quiet afternoon at his office at the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs, the former social worker-turned-civic leader shared his thoughts on what it was like growing up in small-town America in the 1950s; on the importance of the mentors who've helped shape the man he is today; and on why he thinks staying engaged is his key to successful aging.

What was your family like?

My father, who is now 93, came to Barberton with his parents when he was five or six. My mother [now 89] was born in New Orleans and came to Kent, Ohio, when she was less than a year old. My parents met when my father was 20 and my mother 17. They married a year later and, as the children [five more boys and two girls] came along, decided that they could best raise us outside of Akron. We lived in a number of small communities and small towns in northeast Ohio in Portage, Trumbull and Summit counties. I'm a deeply rooted northeast Ohio person, a "buckeye" through and through.

My father was a very smart person and had his struggles being an African American. He worked in the steel mills and was one of the early African Americans to be an over-the-road steel hauler [truck driver]. When my family moved to Windham, Ohio , in Portage County, he worked for the Ohio Department of Transportation, ultimately becoming the Superintendent of Portage County's Highway Department.

A couple of years after he'd retired, my folks moved to San Antonio...not because he wanted to move but because my mother, who'd just turned 61 at the time, told him she'd spent her last winter in Ohio. Within three or four years of their move, my mother was voted the Democratic Precinct Committee Woman of the Year for San Antonio; she was president of the oldest chapter of AARP in San Antonio; and she was a pillar in the Chapel Hill United Methodist Church. That's the kind of person she was. And that's what several of us [children] took from her. You go in, you connect, you make your life.

When we were growing up, she was a homemaker — obviously, with that many children — and she did day work a lot of the time. When we moved to Windham, she was an assistant librarian and worked at the post office. She took business courses and ended up her final dozen years working for the Samual Moore Company, a division of the Eaton Corporation in Aurora.

Growing up, who would you say influenced you the most, your father or your mother?

That's an interesting question. Years ago, I'd have said my mother, with no hesitation. There's no question in my mind that she was my earliest mentor. My dad was working and was the provider, so she was the person who had the responsibility to get us into a new house, get us enrolled in school, find a church. She was the socialization person, and I learned a great deal from her. But, as I've gotten older I've realized that my father had more influence than I'd previously given him credit for.

One of the things about getting older is that you are able to look back and have the time to think about things and insight to understand things. So now I realize my father was a major influence, and presence, too.

In school, what did you excel at?

I was a good student. History was by far my favorite subject, and always has been. But I was interested in general business courses, too, and very much influenced by my high school business teacher. My parents got me a violin when I was in the 5th or 6th grade, and by the time I was in high school I played in the band [saxophone] and orchestra [violin]. I think that was my introduction to the arts and culture that have played such a huge role in my life. And I was good at sports, too.

Your father was a Golden Gloves Boxer. Were you into boxing, too?

My dad was so good that he came within one bout of going to the 1936 Olympics. But, to answer your question, when I was little, he wanted to teach me the art, but I had no interest. [Laughs] It became a matter of frustration for him and for me, so it was not something either of us pursued.

You grew up in small, rural towns in Ohio and you came of age during the early years of the Civil Rights Movement. How do you think both those experiences shaped the person you are today?

My parents were constantly dealing with issues related to what it meant to be African American in small-town environments, where they were such a clear minority. That is where I learned how to address and deal with the issue of trying to get people to take you at face value. We [the family] had some bad experiences growing up — at one point, the Klan ran our family out of Braceville, Ohio [west of Warren] — but in very fundamental ways there were incidents and situations that were far more positive. So I learned — and I learned it from my parents — not to assume the worst, to assume just the opposite: that I'm going to be accepted; that if I have talents to offer, people are going to be interested in utilizing them; that giving people the benefit of the doubt is the thing to do. And this attitude, learned in the small towns where I grew up in, was a navigation tool that's made me comfortable in both the African American and the White communities.

When the Civil Rights Movement came along in the 1950s, it gave me the context to understand the things I was going through including, when we moved to Kinsman and we [the seven Minter children] enrolled in the township's schools. The city's school system had never had an African American student, not one, so in pretty much everything I did, including sports, I was the one of the first African Americans people were encountering. Because of all the stereotypes, there were both advantages and disadvantages. For instance, when I went out for baseball, I was "the guy" to watch out for, not because I was a great baseball player but because I was being stereotyped, compared to people like Larry Doby and Jackie Robinson. [Laughs] At times, I was the positive beneficiary of stereotyping, and I'm using this example as an example of something very important I learned as I came of age during the Civil Rights Movement and carried with me into the 1960s.

In 1963, I was a young, Black professional working for the County Welfare Department with a new master's degree in social work. This was a moment in time when our institutions were looking to be more inclusive and therefore looking for more minorities who could be groomed for leadership. Yes, I'd worked hard and well, and yes I had that degree, but the most important thing at that time was where society was — and society is a very complex thing — and at that point in time, society was looking for people with the background and skills I had, so I was able to take advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves.

You and your wife, Dolly, seem always to have worked as a team. Where and how did you meet her, and when did you marry?

We met at college, in the dining hall at Baldwin-Wallace, in the fall of 1957. She was a waitress in the dining hall and I was a dishwasher. She was a year behind me in school, majoring in elementary education, and was my college sweetheart in every way. We married in April of 1961.

No one gets where you are today without mentors. Who were your mentors growing up and who were your mentors in later life?

At every step of the way I've had mentors. Clearly, my first mentors were my parents. In high school [in Kinsman, Ohio], there were two: the Superintendent of Schools [Robert Titus], who was also my Sunday School teacher, and Jean Garlock, my General Business teacher, also a pillar in the church. It was Mr. Titus, in my senior year, who first asked me about college, and I hadn't even thought about it. They sent me to the library to research colleges and one day I told Mr. Titus that I'd sent a post card to Baldwin-Wallace. That afternoon, the pastor came to our house and told me that Mr. Titus and Mrs. Garlock told him to pick up my mom and me at 8:30 the next day and take us to Baldwin-Wallace.

It was a beautiful fall day. Student elections were going on. What was there not to like for a kid like me? After taking the tour, we met with the financial aid officer. She said, "Well, how about coming here?" And we said we didn't have the money. And she said, "You wouldn't be the first person who wanted to go to college who didn't have the money. You get the application papers filled out and we'll see what we can do about the money." [Minter financed much of his education working in various jobs at the school.]

And that's how I went to college.

There were others, but what had happened by the time I'd taken my first job — with the [Cuyahoga] County Welfare Department — was that because of my interest in and curiosity about people, I'd begun learning from people — all kinds of people at all kinds of levels — who weren't directly mentoring me. I studied and observed how people did things, how they accomplished things and, when the opportunity arose, I put what I'd learned to use. And in 1965, when Eugene F. Burns, head of the new Title V Work Experience and Training Program that was going to be administered through the [ County Welfare ] Department, asked me if I'd like to be the top social work person for the program, I said yes. I feel like I gained 15 years experience in my four years working under him.

You graduated from Baldwin-Wallace College in 1960 with a degree in education. What were you planning on teaching?

I had a major in physical education and a minor in history, and my plan was to coach and teach social studies.

Does that mean that your first job out of college, which was with the Cuyahoga County Welfare Department, and surely grounded you for your later work in philanthropy, was your second choice?

Things sometimes don't work out the way you plan. My senior year at Baldwin-Wallace, I interviewed with people in the Physical Education Department of the Cleveland Public School System and after the interview they told me when I got my degree in June [of 1960] I had a job. So I didn't go for other interviews. I wanted to teach in Cleveland because I wanted to be close to Baldwin-Wallace because Dolly still had a year to go there. But, sometime in May, I got a notice from the Registrar's Office that I'd failed to take a required political science course, and without it I wouldn't be getting a diploma at the graduation ceremony in June. When I contacted the person in the district's Physical Education Department, he said, "No problem. When you have your degree, come in and sign a contract." But when I came into the office in early August, with my degree, things had changed. I had no job.

That August, I went for almost 30 interviews. At one, the superintendent sobbed at his desk because he felt so bad about not being able to hire me because of my race.

Walking across campus one day, I ran into Ms. Reigler, the secretary to the president of Baldwin-Wallace. She asked me what I was still doing on campus, so I told her my story. She said, "I know the County Welfare Department always needs social workers. I'll call there and set up an interview for you." And that was the first time I ever thought about a social work. I went in for the interview, but I could tell it wasn't going anywhere.

On September 5 th I was walking across campus and ran into Ms. Reigler again. She asked about the interview and I told her it hadn't gone well. When I got back to the fraternity house later that day, the telephone rang and it was someone from the County Welfare Department telling me that I was supposed to report to work at 8:30 the next Monday.

It was months before it registered that Ms. Reigler at Baldwin-Wallace College was the sister of the Ms. Reigler who was the executive secretary to the director of the County Welfare Department. So, that's how my career in social work began.

Why did you stay with the Welfare Department?

That desire to make a difference, whether as a teacher or a social worker, has been a theme my whole life. My mother always said, "When you go into something new, get engaged."

My first day at the department, there was a meeting to celebrate the fact that a group of employees was enrolling in a [master's level] social work program at the Mandel School of Social Work. That was the first year the department sponsored that program, and since I realized that those were the people who were going to make a significant impact on the department, I was in the department's second group.

In 1970, you left the County Welfare Department, of which you were then director, to become head of the Public Welfare Department for the state of Massachusetts. When you left Cleveland did you think you'd ever be coming back?

No, I don't think either my wife or I thought we'd be coming back to Cleveland .

Then what brought you back to Cleveland in 1975? In other words, why did you quit your job as head of the Public Welfare Department in Massachusetts to take a job as a grants administrator at the Cleveland Foundation?

The short answer is that Massachusetts had a new governor, Michael Dukakis, and though he'd asked me to stay on, I'd had three good job offers — in Sacramento, California, Albany, New York, and Washington, DC — and was thinking about which position to take. Dolly said, "Whatever you decide, be willing to stay in one place for 12 years so our children [Michele, Caroline and Robyn] can have the continuity they need for school."

You don't take a job in state government with the idea that you will be there for 12 years, so I began thinking about cities where I could work in government or the private sector. Since we had family in Cleveland, I started looking at opportunities in Cleveland. Within a matter of days, I had an offer in Cleveland. When I came for the interview, I also had lunch with the new director of the Cleveland Foundation [Homer Wadsworth]. When I got word, through back channels, that he was looking for a program officer, I applied for the position.

You became Executive Director of the Cleveland Foundation in 1984 and held that position for 19 years, until you retired in 2003. What accomplishments did the Foundation make under your watch that you are particularly proud of?

I think I'm the most proud of the housing and economic development work we did. Our grants and leadership stimulated inner-city housing and redevelopment of blighted neighborhoods; helped start reform initiatives in the Cleveland schools; provided planning and operational assistance for the Gateway stadium and arena; provided the impetus for development of the lakefront, parks and the Playhouse Square area; and we were an important source of arts and culture funding. After that, it's the number and quality of the partnerships the Foundation helped create, partnerships that clearly led to the betterment of the region.

Just three months after "retiring" from the Cleveland Foundation you became Executive in Residence and Fellow at the Center for Nonprofit Policy and Practice at Cleveland State University. How is your new job different from your old one?

As an Executive in Residence, I'm a practitioner-academic. It's different in that I no longer have the management or leadership responsibilities I had at the Foundation. It's similar in that when [then CSU President] Michael Schwartz offered me the position, we both knew my "new" role would entail teaching and connecting the community and the university.

This position gave, and continues to give, me the opportunity to be engaged in broad and important civic issues, to be the kind of "connecter" and bridge builder I've always been.

At 71, your volunteer and civic activities are endless. You serve on the boards or advisory committees of half a dozen nonprofits, including PolicyBridge and the Knowledgeworks Foundation, and you also are president of the Board of Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, a public agency. Why do you think it's important at your age — at any age — to engage in these kinds of volunteer activities?

Staying engaged and being connected keeps you vital, but the other part of it is that working in the nonprofit sector is vital to the long-term future of our region and I believe very strongly that individuals can make a difference. I'm interested in a wide variety of things, and I think when I got engaged in philanthropy the phrase "making a difference" really resonated with me.

Plus, I'm a Christian. I take very seriously the concepts of who my neighbor is, how I am responsible for the welfare of others, and how I can give back. Both Dolly and I, and as they became adults, our children, have always been engaged in building community and in our church, Fairmount Presbyterian Church. Making a difference is energizing and invigorating.

You have the physique of a much younger person. What are you doing to stay fit?

[Laughs] I play golf and I carry my own bag in the summer, but I have to say, the real reason I look so fit is great genes. My mother is 89 and my father is 93, and all five of his sisters are approaching 90 and look at least 10 years younger.

My wife has always been rigorous about her own diet. But I never really paid attention to mine until about a year ago, when the doctor said he didn't like my weight, and that I was going to have to exercise more and change my diet. Since I don't like to exercise, I decided to change my diet to lose the weight I needed to lose. My wife loved it when I started reading books and taking ownership of the issue and created my version of the South Beach Diet. It's really worked. I've lost maybe 14 or 15 pounds.

[Laughs] For Dolly, there has never been a problem. She weighs what she did when she graduated from high school.

You have always been open to new ideas, to alternative ways of doing things. Do you think that's an important aspect to aging well?

Absolutely. I know a number of people who've been profiled as MythBusters. They are role models. Seeing what they are doing is a very energizing and inspiring thing. It encourages you to stay out there and be active.

When I retired [in 2003], I had no illusions about what I'd be doing in "retirement" and no plans to go off into the sunset. I looked forward to the position at CSU, where I was going to be able to work on what I call the "enduring issues," education, provision of social services, and improving the neighborhoods. And the exciting thing about these issues is that there are always new people coming along with new ideas and new perspectives.

MythBusters is all about aging well. What do you think people need to be doing — physically, mentally and emotionally — to do that? In other words, what are Steve Minter's tips for successful aging?

You have to have a mind set that says, "I'm going to remain active and be terribly curious." And, to borrow from the U.S. Department of Education's mode that we were using in 1980, "learning never ends." And you have to be constantly adapting to situations, based on what's going on in your life and health, what your resources are, what your long-term — yes, long-term — goals are, so that you remain resilient.

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