Cleveland has had many great leaders in government, business, arts and entertainment, healthcare, education and philanthropy. It’s difficult to name just a few, says John Grabowski, CWRU’s Krieger-Mueller associate professor of applied history and chief historian of the Western Reserve Historical Society. But narrow it down to individuals who created significant changes that affected the city of Cleveland or a part of it, and the list gets more manageable. Grabowski spotlights his choices:
1) Alfred Kelley (1789-1859) — Known as the “Father of the Ohio-Erie Canal,” Kelley backed building the canal, which came in on budget and was a remarkable construction feat. “Without the canal, Cleveland would not have grown into a major port and mercantile city,” says Grabowski.
2) John Malvin (1795-1880) — A preacher and leader of Cleveland’s Black community before the Civil War, Malvin supported and helped fund efforts toward education for Black children. He also opposed Ohio’s Black Laws that, among other things, prevented a Black person from being a witness against a white man in court.
3) Rebecca Rouse (1799-1887) — A “mover and a shaker,” as Grabowski calls her, Rouse helped organize one of the first benevolent organizations in the city, as well as the Ladies’ Aid Society, the local U.S. Sanitary Commission (precursor to the American Red Cross) and the Cleveland Ladies Temperance Union. She was also unstoppable in supporting Civil War soldiers and their families.
4) Frederick Goff (1858-1923) — A lawyer, banker and president of the Cleveland Trust Co., Goff spearheaded the efforts to create the Cleveland Foundation in 1914, one of the first community trusts in the U.S. “This allowed people to create legacies and leave money to things that were relevant to the times,” says Grabowski.
5) Adella Prentiss Hughes (1869-1950) — Hughes was the founder of the Cleveland Music Settlement, Musical Arts Association and Cleveland Orchestra, of which she was the first manager. She was also instrumental in establishing Severance Music Center (formerly Severance Hall), the orchestra’s permanent home. “Adella didn’t just bring great music to Cleveland, she used it for educational purposes,” says Grabowski.
6) Newton D. Baker (1871-1937) — Baker often gets lost in the shadow of his predecessor, Mayor Tom Johnson. But as mayor, Baker carried out many of Johnson’s progressive reforms. He also promoted home rule for municipalities, helped create the city’s municipal electric plant and served on a long list of power boards and committees.
7) Abba Hillel Silver (1893-1963) — The rabbi of The Temple-Tifereth Israel in Cleveland for 46 years, Silver was a civic activist, scholar and Zionist. He spoke passionately about the creation of Israel and educated the country about what was happening in Nazi Germany. “A larger-than-life figure, his sermons were of extraordinary quality and depth,” says Grabowski.
8) Louis Stokes (1925-2015) — The first Black congressman from Ohio, Stokes served in Washington, D.C., for 15 consecutive terms and had a thriving law office here. “He brought a lot of federal money to Cleveland — think of the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center,” says Grabowski. “I can’t think of any other congressional person who has had his impact here. I knew him. He was an incredible human being.”
9) Ray Shepardson (1944-2014) — Shepardson, a theater preservationist and restoration specialist, founded the Playhouse Square Foundation. From 1970 to 1979, he saved four major 1920s Cleveland theaters (with funding help by civic cheerleader Lainie Hadden), creating what is now the second-largest performing arts center in the U.S.
10) Barbara Snyder (1955-) —During her time as president of Case Western Reserve University, Snyder oversaw the end of the school’s $20 million deficit. Her skills and unfathomable enthusiasm spilled over and helped renew the Uptown area along Euclid Avenue. In 2020, she became the president of the Association of American Universities.