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Beryl RothschildMythbuster: Beryl Rothschild

Longtime Civic Leader

Date of interview: April 13, 2010

Recently "retired" Beryl Rothschild helped lead the city of University Heights for 42 years — 10 as a councilwoman and 32 as the hugely popular mayor of the 1.9 square mile municipality. Always known for her straightforward and pragmatic approach, at age 81, she's enjoying retirement immensely: playing catch-up with friends, attending art classes, and putting things in order so she can get started on her magnum opus, a book on the impact small city and town governments — like University Heights' — have on their residents welfare and on the nation's well-being.

On an sunny, spring-is-busting-out-all-over afternoon in mid-April, Beryl (pronounced "Burl") shared her insight in how she became the woman she is today, her experiences (for the most part good) running the "best little city in Cuyahoga County," and her take on what we should all be doing to age well.

When and where were you born and raised?

I was born in Cleveland , at Mt. Sinai Hospital , on November 23, 1928. I was the first child. There were two girls. My sister, Miriam, was born 7 years later. We lived in Cleveland until I was in 8th grade, then we moved to Cleveland Heights. In 1951, we moved to University Heights, and I still live in the same house today.

What did your parents do?

My father, Manuel Shapiro, was the youngest of eight. He was a real estate person a tummler always dabbling in things. He tried to talk the Cleveland Transit System into extending the streetcar line to Parma, but in those days, they wouldn't do it. He was a victim of the Depression, which really caused problems for people in real estate.

My mother, Margaret, was the oldest of three sisters and a brother. Her father, my grandfather, was a tailor and had moved the family here from Toledo. After she married my father, she became a housewife.

Growing up, who do you think influenced you most in becoming the person you are today, your mother or your father?

Actually, it was a tough, but very good, teacher I had at Euclid Avenue Temple when I was attending religious school there. She, and other teachers, really left an impression on me. Because of them, I always knew I'd be going to college.

When did you graduate from Cleveland Heights High School ?

That was in 1947. I was a mid-year graduate I graduated in February but they don't do that anymore. I went to work for the Federal Reserve Bank downtown until it was time to go to college. I sorted checks all day long and earned money for college, too.

What were you good at in high school, and not so good at?

I was always good at English and writing and I was always interested in journalism. I thought it was a way to be able to get involved in a lot of different things. [Laughs] I wasn't that good in math. But I'm not sure that was me. All the math teachers had gone off to the Second World War and we had English teachers teaching math.

You came of age during World War II. What do you remember about the war and how did it impact you and your family?

It didn't really affect our family. It was there, and it touched everyone, but I was in school at the time, and that's what I was concerned about. But my mother's sister's husband served in the Pacific and became a prisoner of war and was in the famous Corregidor death march [in the Philippines in 1942]. When he came home, he just wasn't the same.

What really made an impact on me was when I went to college and there were all these older guys there going to college on the G.I. Bill, which was one of the best things that happened for the U.S. after the war. It didn't just give hundreds of thousands of veterans the chance to go to college; it changed the whole scene and atmosphere at colleges. When you went to class, it wasn't just high school kids. There were people there in their 20s and 30s, people who'd been out in the world. That made things very interesting. When I think about it now, I think the boys just coming out of high school must have been intimidated by all the veterans they were taking classes with.

For the girls in college, it was wonderful having all these older men around. They really treated us like little sisters.

When you went to college, you majored in journalism? What were you planning on doing with a journalism degree?

When I went down to Ohio University, I knew I was going to be a journalist. When I graduated [in 1951] and came back to Cleveland , I got a job at The Cleveland Press, working for the paper's radio-television editor, what you'd call the entertainment editor today. But I was only there a short time because I got married.

When and where did you meet your husband Edmund? And when did you marry?

We met on a blind date. He told me later that the person who fixed us up told him not to say it was him or I wouldn't go out with him and he was right. We dated about a year and got married in May of 1952 when he got drafted for the Korean War. We had a house wedding, with Rabbi [Barnett R.] Brickner performing the ceremony.

He was a private, but with his legal background he was tapped for intelligence work. He was assigned to work in Tokyo and I went to Japan to join him. We were there two years. While we were there, I worked for the American Chamber of Commerce, which hosted a lot of big-wigs from the states. Eleanor Roosevelt came, and I met with her to interview her. I have to tell you, she was a big, tall, imposing woman with piercing blue eyes. With those eyes, I'm sure she was a woman no one ever lied to. Richard Nixon and his wife also came for a visit.

You have been married 58 years and both you and your husband have had very demanding jobs and careers he in law and you in government. How did you make your marriage work?

I've never really thought about that. We are very compatible. And it didn't bother us that we both worked – he's still practicing, though he's recently talked about retiring. We did have a deal that someone always had to be home when the children came home from school. That was very important, because our second child had learning disabilities. We both became very active in the local chapter of the Learning Disabilities Association of America. Ed became a member of the Board of the Learning Disabilities Foundation. He's still treasurer.

What got you, on the personal level, interested in politics?

The flooded basement in our house on Washington Boulevard. I went to a University Heights City Council Meeting and asked the council members what the city was going to do about this constant problem. That's how I got started. And, you know, the answer to my question didn't come for years, not until repairs were made to the city's sewer system.

Soon after that, a friend got me a job at The Plain Dealer covering University Heights Council Meetings. I was what you'd call a stringer, covering community news. In 1967, when there was a vacancy on the City Council, I thought I knew how things worked from covering it for the paper so I, and four other people, ran. When I won and became a Council member, I very quickly discovered that it wasn't the same covering City Council as being on it.

I was 10 years there. In 1977, when Irv Konigsberg decided he wasn't going to run for Mayor again, I ran against two others and won. When I was sworn in [1978], my cousin Milton Shapp [then governor of Pennsylvania ] swore me in. The years went by and I was re-elected 8 times. I never thought I'd be there 32 years, but I liked what I was doing and I never took anything residents' issues, re-elections for granted.

You were a Republican councilwoman and mayor for a predominantly Democratic city for 42 years. How did you make that work?

University Heights is a non-partisan city by charter, so no one really cared about or brought up their political affiliation when I was first elected to council and as mayor. Residents didn't care what my political affiliation was and we never discussed politics and parties. All they were interested in back then was having someone in office who would do well for the city. And all the city officials were interested in back then was doing well for the city. That's the way it should be: the government that most affects you delivers necessary services and has the most impact on your daily life is your local government.

It was only years later in the late-1990s that people started making political affiliation an issue in city elections. That just added an element to the process that didn't need to be there.

On December 31, 2009, at the age of 81, you retired after serving the city of University Heights for 42 years. That's half your life as a civil servant.

I've never thought about that. And I've never thought about being 81, either. I've always been "doing" so I never had the time to think about "aging."

Now that you are "retired," what are you doing? Are their any hobbies or passions-put-on-hold that you're reconnecting with?

After I retired, I was so exhausted from winding up everything that for three weeks I didn't do anything. [Laughs] The incoming mayor, Susan Infeld, had brought me a farewell gift a six-pack of Guinness and a can of nuts and I spent time just watching TV and sipping a beer, something I hadn't done in years. Then I enrolled in a program at the Art Museum. I'm really enjoying that kind of learning.

My big "project" is to organize things in order to do a book about my experiences as the mayor of a small city, and about how important America 's small towns and local governments the ones that touch them on a daily basis are. People don't seem to get that. They take things at that level services, community, quality of life for granted.

MythBusters is all about aging well. What's your definition of successful aging?

Keeping busy and being involved with things and people. I like people, so that's always been easy for me. And I've always had a lot of interests, so I've always belonged to a lot of organizations, though I didn't always get to meetings because I just didn't have time.

The worst thing to do: do nothing, fall into a rut.

At 81, you are definitely aging well. What are Beryl Rothschild's personal tips for successful aging?

Stay involved in things that are meaningful to you, that engage you. And make the decision, consciously, that you are going stay engaged. For some people, that means going outside their zone of comfort.

Keep your mind active. No matter what your age, you should always be pushing yourself to have new experiences. When you don't, it's easy to get just stay home doing the things you have always done the way you have always done them.

Work with younger people. That's one thing I've always done, not just to stay engaged, but to share experience, information and insight, too.

And when you do retire, think in terms of the having 24 hours a day that belong to you. That's what I'm doing!

If you could be remembered for only one thing you have accomplished, what would that one thing be?

I'm very proud of the way University Heights has become an integrated community. It didn't just happen. It started with a goal and a group of 50 people who worked for two years to build a diversity program for the city from the ground up. Along the way, we discovered that there were 39 different cultures in University Heights and that 11 second languages were spoken in homes. We won two national awards [from the U.S. Conference of Mayors and Good Housekeeping Magazine ] for our Series of Discoveries multicultural diversity program. I think that was the most interesting, intellectually challenging thing I had a hand in. The program went for 10 years and over 5,000 people participated in it.

And, I'm proud, too, of the fact, that I left the City of University Heights with a balanced budget, and very, very low debt.

Beryl Rothschild passed away on November 25, 2016 at the age of 88. Read her obituary.

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