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Belle LikoverMythbuster: Belle Likover

Senior Advocate

Date of interview: May 19th, 2003

A visit to social worker and social activist Belle Likover's bright and sunny Shaker Heights apartment gives an unexpected peek into a part of her life most people don't see. The apartment's walls are covered with art, some of which she created herself.

That's not really surprising: Though she's been pushing senior causes since 1960, has presented testimony on senior needs to various congressional, state, and county commissions; was a delegate to the White House Conference on Aging and received the Outstanding Service award from the Western Reserve Area Agencies on Aging in 1995; was inducted into the Ohio Senior Hall of Fame in 1998; was named Distinguished Alumni by CWRU's school of social work in 2000; was appointed to the Cuyahoga County Advisory Council on Senior and Adult Services in 2001; and was named one of the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Ohioans of the Year in 2002 for her senior advocacy efforts, Belle got her start working with seniors teaching enameling "back when the Jewish Community Center was called Heights House."

When I caught up with the 83-year-old activist, she had just finished her morning swim, and was doing "scratch notes" for a presentation she'll be giving in front of the Ohio Senate Finance Committee the following week.

2016 Update:
Belle Likover Honored as Crains Eight over 80
Read more here

2014 Update:
Belle Likover Honored by Temple Emanu El
Read the Plain Dealer article

Can you tell us a bit about yourself — when and where you were born and raised, where you went to high school.
I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1919, and raised in Beaver Falls, a small town about 30 miles from Pittsburgh. That's where I went to high school, and the most significant thing in my high school education was being on the high school debate team, where I was the only girl.

When I started, my debate coach said when he was through with me I'd be a different person, and when he was through with me I was. He really changed the way I talked and thought.

What brought you to Ohio, and eventually Cleveland?
I came to Ohio to go to Ohio State (University). I had a very influential teacher in high school who went there, and when I said I was planing on going to a small liberal college in Pennsylvania he said: You don't want to do that, you want to go to a large university where you have all kinds of options. He went to Ohio State, so, when I started college in 1937, that's where I went. And I didn't know a soul.

I started out as a chemistry major. From the time I was a small child I wanted to be a chemist. But they were very discouraging at Ohio State. I was the only woman or maybe there were two of us in all my classes, and they kept saying: You will never get a job unless you want to be a chemical librarian. So after two years, I switched to psychology. (Laugh) The difference in the science was so acute.

I married when I was in college my first husband was killed in the war and came to Cleveland in 1945 and got my first job. I was doing research at the Institute of Pathology at the Medical School. After the war, I thought about going back into chemistry, but after that tremendous explosion of knowledge, that wouldn't have worked.

From chemistry, to pathology to social work, that's a leap. How did you make it?
I fell into the social work. I never had any intention of being a social worker. But, when my three older children (Terry, Lewis, and Joseph) were in school, I started teaching enameling on copper at the Jewish Community Center called Heights House then. That was in the mid-50s.

When the Jewish Community Center opened in 1960 on Mayfield Road, they asked me if I'd be in charge of the arts and crafts program for the seniors. I said: I don't know arts and crafts, I know how to teach enameling. And I don't know the first thing about seniors.

They said: If you know one craft, you can learn the others, and there's only one thing you have to remember about working with seniors and that's that they are like everyone else, only more so. If they were lovely and pleasant as young people they are going to be lovely and pleasant as old people. If they were nasty and mean as young people they are going to be nasty and mean as older people.

I did the arts programs for a couple of years, then they asked me if I'd be a group worker in the children's department. That's when I decided that if I was going to stay in the social services I wasn't going to be a line worker all my life. I went to School of Applied Social Sciences and got my MA in Social Work in 1969. I got it in group work, but really wanted to get it in community organization. But that didn't matter. When you get a degree in social work, it's a generic degree. You can do anything with it.

After I got my degree, I went up the ladder, eventually becoming Director of Community Affairs, which was basically development and advocacy. That was during the '70s the height of the Vietnam War and Kent State and the JCC was very active in social issues.

Your second husband, Ed, was brought before the Ohio House on Un-American Activities during the McCarthy Era. How did that affect you?
My husband (whom she married in 1946) and I both grew up in the Depression. And when we were in college practically everyone who considered themselves an intellectual was part of some kind of leftwing movement.

Ed was a teacher at Cleveland Trade School, and when he thought he was going to be charged, he hired an attorney. Unlike most people, he wasn't going to take the 5th Amendment, he was going to take the 1st Amendment (because)he felt strongly and was prepared to go to jail about it about what was going on. But he was never charged. His attorney said that he thought the prosecutor just simply didn't have the stomach for it.

I found out much later that the FBI had gone to the Executive Director at the JCC and ask that they fire me. He talked with his executive committee from the board and they said: Absolutely, you don't fire her.

I believe and always have-that you stand up for what you believe in. If and when you go through difficult timesand those were difficult times you get over them and you learn from them.

Who were your career mentors and what did you learn from them?
Career-wise, I had good mentors. One was Sam Seifter, a scientist I worked for at the Medical School. He was a real Renaissance man. His knowledge in the arts, and literature and his integrity in science influenced me.

And when I fell into social work at the JCC, it was Herman Eigen. When I decided that I wanted to go back to graduate school in 1967, he put together a financial package for me that allowed me to go. There was never a time that I went to him that he didn't say: We can make this happen.

What was the most important thing you learned from your career mentors?
The importance of humanity and integrity. Certainly, when you are working in the field of science, both those things are important, but they are absolutely paramount in the social sciences, and sometimes they get lost, particularly when the economic times are difficult [and it becomes] tougher to balance financial resources with human needs.

During the period when I was director of community affairs at JCC, which included a lot of development work, too, I worked very hard to get (Federal) government money. That was very new for the agency at that time.

Is that what got you interested in political advocacy, then?
(Laughed) I have always been politically active. The first person I voted for was FDR, but the need to raise the money for the JCC in the '70s led me into another area of activism-politics.

Long before you, yourself, turned 65, you were advocating for seniors. Why?
Seniors were a major segment of the population served at the JCC. But when I first retired from there (as associate executive director in 1982), I worked equally on senior and children's issues. But now, most of what I do now is senior-focused.

When I was appointed to the board of the Western Reserve Area Agency on Aging (in 1991).I began to think about what I could do that would make a difference, that had some meaning. From that time on, senior issues have been my main focus, especially health issues.

That's why (in 1995) I went to Ron Hill (Executive Director of WRAAA), and said: How about we start a coalition to make sure people in Medicare HMOs get appropriate and timely and safe care? We took it to the board and they agreed and we formed the Coalition to Monitor Medicare Managed Care. It was a coalition of 28 different groups-consumers, providers, doctors-and got funding from the Cleveland Foundation and Mt. Sinai Foundation.

It was tough to get things organized because everyone came in with their own agenda. Providers and consumers have different agendas. Keeping them focused (laugh), that was tough, but I realized that I have to be active in things that give meaning to my life, and that project definitely did.

Now I'm busy chairing the Council on Older Persons for the Federation for Community Planning. I thought (laugh) that wasn't going to be such a big job, but it is. And as a result of that, I'm involved in everything that goes on in the county, and in the state, that's got to do with seniors.

You have always been a successful advocate-for seniors, for children, for the communities you have lived in. What is it about you, personally, that makes you good at going to bat for others?
Because there are so many things that need advocates, I focus on things that I'm good at and I think and speak clearly on an issue. I have learned that to be effective, you have to keep yourself focused. That's the only way you are going to be effective. I don't get bogged down on a lot of the side issues and stay focused on the most important points.

But equally important is that I understand that politics is the art of compromise. If you can't compromise, you are in danger of becoming a zealot. Zealotry is totally ineffective because you don't see anything but your own point of view.

Also, I don't wait to be asked to do things. If I see something that needs to be done, I do it or I organize to get it done.

You were recently appointed to the Cuyahoga County Advisory Council on Senior and Adult Services and also elected chairperson of the Federation for Community Planning's Council on Older Persons. What do you hope to accomplish as a member of these advisory councils?
Advisory council members are spokespeople. Our jobs are to get the organization's message out into the community. Having a voice in both councils means I can be more effective at that.

You are a senior and you advocate for seniors. In your opinion, what are the major challenges seniors are facing right now? And, if you could wave a magic wand, how would you help them overcome these problems?
That's tough to answer because you are talking about a broad range of people. You have to break the group into seniors from 65-75 and from 75 up.

But, looking at the totality of older persons, one of the most serious problems is the question of prescription coverage. I feel that Medicare must be updated to include prescription drugs: When Medicare was formulated in the '60s, medications didn't play such a huge role. Now they do.

But the problem isn't just getting coverage for medications, it's making sure people get the right medications. We spend $154 billion a year on pharmaceuticals, and twice that in overcoming their side effects and miss-use.

Also, we have to take responsibility for maintaining our own health with healthier lifestyles so we don't need so many of the drugs that we are taking.

At 83, are you doing what you thought you'd be doing when you retired at 63?
(Laughs) When I retired I didn't think ahead to today. But the smartest thing we (husband Ed, who I married in 1946 and who died in 1992) did was to sell our house and move into an apartment. Moving was hard work because we had lived in our house for 42 years. But moving made such a difference in the kind of life we could lead, more difference than we imagined before we moved. For instance, I'm on a rapid line now, so I take the rapid downtown for meetings and to the airport.

Did you think you'd be doing so much advocacy when you retired?
No. But I didn't think I'd not be doing it either. Advocacy has always been something that's been a big part of my life.

What's your definition of, and criteria for, successful aging?
Accepting who you are and being comfortable with who you are. And always being open to new ideas and new challenges. The worse thing you can do when you get older is to get stuck in a rut. For example, I've taken up painting. It's a wonderful way to relax and express myself.

And I also think that physical activity is important in your daily life. It gives you the energy to keep going. When I worked, I didn't do any physical exercise. But once I retired I started making sure that I did some exercise and I got back to swimming.

When I was in high school, I was a competitive swimmer. Now I do water aerobics. If I skip three days of being in the water I feel it all over (laughs). When I can't swim, I walk-at least 15 minutes a day-and when I can't get out and walk I use my cross country ski machine.

Which accomplishment are you the most proud of, and why?
My four children-there is 13 years between the oldest and youngest, but they are wonderful people and all good friends-but I suspect you mean career-wise and that's hard to say.

Working at the JCC and helping bring Jewish Family Services and the JCC together to create the Rap Art Center is something that I'm very proud of. From that project I learned how to do grants. As a result of that, I never wrote a grant that didn't get funded. I wouldn't put pencil to paper until I knew the money was waiting. And that only happens when you establish a personal relationship with the funder. And it's got to be a personal relationship. They have to trust that you are going to do what you say you are going to do.

After I retired, bringing the Coalition to Monitor Medicare Managed Care group together is what I'm most proud of. That was the toughest project I have ever done.

Do you think of yourself as being old?
When I look in the mirror, I say: Who is that old lady. Some days I feel very old, and other days I think: Hmmm, 83 sounds old, but I don't feel old.

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