As part of Cleveland Magazine's 30th anniversary celebration, the editors have chosen 52 of their favorite stories from the magazine's archives, and wish to share them with you.
A new story will appear every week at Clevelandmagazine.com. It might be controversial, comical, nostalgic or nonplussing. But it will be Cleveland.
From Cleveland Magazine, August 1990
His selflessness offended people. "Hey," somebody would angrily ask his friends, "why is he always helping people?" He could appear bumbling and confused, goofy, a guy who wore too much polyester. If he got you on the phone and was in the mood, he could bore you without mercy, wave after wave of vignettes about the lives of the poor crashing over you until you lay crushed at the other end of the line, helpless, agreeing to anything. After you agreed to help him on a hunger project or find a job for an ex-con, you'd suspect he wasn't bumbling, he was a cunning man, that Ralph Delaney. Big shots trembled in their offices when their secretaries buzzed them, saying ominously He's here, when it was just Ralph with some homeless guy with a harelip he wanted you to help, to whom he'd introduce you with great formality, as if the world's most important person was meeting the world's other most important person. Food was love. "Here, eat, eat this. You need it, I'm telling you" A loaf of bread was a sacred thing. He loved dumb jokes and you laughed at him for telling it more than at the joke. Or, if you preferred, he could talk about global politics. He was what his heroes, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, would have called a nonviolent soldier. His friends loved him fiercely.
Ralph was so exhausted, having been up most of the previous night praying and waking from strange and dark dreams, that now as he walked through the wasteland of this immense public housing project he at first did not see the young man walking toward him, smiling and offering his hand, and never saw or heard the other young man coming up from behind his back, arms flexed like wings preparing to embrace the newly dead.
When he finally saw the first man, Ralph returned his smile. He switched the video camera he was carrying from his right to his left hand and accepted the mans greeting, shaking his hand in the three-part street ritual of first hooking palms, then thumbs, then fingers. The man behind Ralph slipped his arms around around his lower rib cage, squeezed, grunted and lifted Ralph's 57-year-old, 236-pound body off the ground. Ralph opened his mouth to speak, but all that came out was a groan of expulsed air.
From this moment forward -- with Ralph David Delaney suspended in the air, legs dangling -- the account of his beating provided by witnesses is as fractured as the convulsing body paramedics picked up off the asphalt of a parking lot in the King-Kennedy Estate, amid a crowd composed mostly of children, beneath the blue-silver sky and late afternoon sun of April 19,1990.
News reports following the attack referred to Delaney as a social worker and friend of the poor. Robbery was the motive, according to the reports, and Delaney's camera and wallet had been stolen. Anonymous witnesses were quoted as saying three assailants -- later amended to two -- held Delaney upside down and repeatedly smashed his head onto the ground.
Some witnesses not quoted in the news reports insist Delaney was thrown to the ground only once. Still other witnesses corroborate this version, but add that other men subsequently searched Delaney for his wallet and, when he showed signs of consciousness, began kicking him in the head and torso.
In fact, Delaney's wallet was never stolen, and while the camera was quickly recovered, the videocassette that was inside it has not been found.
The most objective witness to any homicide is the autopsy report. The coroner ruled Delaney died of multiple blows to the head and body. He had an eight-inch crack in his skull; a bruised brain, a broken left clavicle, eight broken ribs on his left side, one broken rib on his right side, and numerous bruises on his face and body
The trials of Frank Burks and Cornelius Pratt, the two men arrested in connection with the attack on Delaney, may dissolve the discrepancies in the witness's accounts. (At press time, Frank Burks plea-bargained guilty to murder and aggravated robbery). But more significant than the mystery of how Delaney was beaten to death, or by whom, is the mystery and meaning of why such carnage was suffered by a man who spent the measure of his life consoling the agonies of others.
He simply died the death his life demanded.
Born during the Depression to a Slovak mother who cooked for several wealthy families in Shaker Heights and an Irish-German father who worked as a PBX installer for Ohio Bell, Delaney grew up as the oldest of three brothers and a sister in a quiet, white, working-class neighborhood of South Euclid.
The Delaney's were practicing Catholics; if faith is a gift, then Ralph was the most blessed; if it is a disease, then he was the most deeply infected. He was spiritually precocious-as well as intellectually gifted -feeling called by God to a life of Christian devotion when he was 13 years old.
When Delaney's brother Paul and his sister, Carol, first saw Ralph after his emergency brain surgery at St. Vincent, he was almost unrecognizable. Deep in a coma, his face was grotesquely bloated, his head shaved and the thick black stitching of a surgical incision ran across his skull and curved down along his right temple.
They did not know how often Ralph had been attacked over the years while pursuing his life7s work; he would not talk about it and tried to hide the physical evidence from them. They were only certain this was not the first time, and found no comfort in the probability it would be the last.
Delaney devoted his life to Cleveland's urban poor for a quarter of a century. He built his adult life on the premise of the concluding verses of the 25th chapter of the Book of Matthew in the New Testament: When you comfort the afflicted you are comforting Christ; when you turn your back on those who are suffering, you are turning your back on Christ.
Delaney made a vow of poverty at the age of 16, leaving Cathedral Latin High School after his sophomore year in 1949 to become a novitiate in the Marianist monastery in Dayton. Marianists place a particular emphasis on the divine role of Mary, the mother of Christ.
Delaney translated this into reverence for poor urban mothers and what he saw as their holy, inviolate love of their children. When he witnessed cruck-addicted mothers in the late 1980s selling even their childrerfs food stamps in exchange for the drug, Delaney was devastated.
Delaney was at King-Kennedy the day he was attacked to feed children he believed were nearly as malnourished as those he aided while on his periodic travels to Third World nations. He was also there to bring an electric hot plate to a friend and mother whose gas had been shut off. He carried the video camera because he was making a documentary about Cleveland's public housing projects -and because he used it to scare and scatter the crack cocaine dealers who work the project's bustling, open-air drug market.
No one knows how many hungry children and adults he fed during the course of his life; how many coats, shirts, pants, pairs of underwear, socks and shoes he handed out; how many homeless he sheltered; how many tormented spirits he comforted. An often tremendously disorganized man, Delaney himself certainly did not know."Jesus never submitted an annual report:' says Mary Curtis Hughes, a friend of Delaney, " and neither did Ralph."
Delaney's dislike of structure, his absolute inability to be punctual and his belief that when Christ said to give unto others without measure he meant exactly what he said, made things difficult for himself in his years with the Marianists. He received an excellent education, loved teaching at the affiliated high school and appreciated the order's sense of ritual and community. But clashes were frequent.
He allowed a drunken homeless man to stay overnight in the community room. The order was not pleased. He demanded money for new glasses for a boy in one of his classes. The order was not pleased. He told one of his superiors: "If Jesus Christ were alive today, you would have him arrested " The order was not pleased-though some of the brothers privately found it funny.
After two years as a novitiate and eight years as a brother, Delaney was eligible
to take his final vows, but the order declined to ask him to do so. Discussions
with his superiors resulted in the understanding that he and the order were
not suited for one another, and God must have another calling for him.
Delaney was not expelled from the order. He could have remained, with the hope that he would eventually be asked to take his final vows. But the decision that he leave the Marianists was at least mutual, and that he had difficulty throughout his life expressing the full truth about this was grounded in the shame he felt.
This shame flowed partly from the dynamics of his relationship with his father, Ralph David Delaney, Sr., a loving but stern and precise man from whom Ralph often felt estranged while growing up. But his father was also the president of Clevelafid's lay Marianist organization, and hisjoy at having a sonjoin the order had helped solder their relationship.
Delaney moved back home to South Euclid in 1959. He was 27, despondent and praying ceaselessly for guidance.
He accepted a job teaching math and science at Wiley Junior High School in University Heights.Teaching was the vocational con
stant in Delaney's life. He eventually earned a master's degree in mathematics and was only a few hours short of a doctorate from Case Western Reserve University.
He often taught as much morality as math or physics. Martin Sheen, the film actor who is also noted for his involvement in the homeless movement, was one of Delaney's students in Dayton. They remained close over the years, and when Sheen had his star placed on Hollywood Boulevard, he flew Delaney in to attend the ceremony.
Throughout his career, even educators critical of his failure to stick to the curriculum and of the calamity in his classrooms were awed by his ability to teach children thought to be unteachable.
He began taking his white, predominantly upper-middle class students into
the cify to meet their impoverished black peers. He was grieved by the immense
needs of the children in the city. He moved to an apartment at the edge of the
city, where he contemplated dedicating the whole of his life to the thousands
of poor who lived within it.
The whole of Delaney's life was on the minds and in the prayers of his family and close friends as they maintained a vigil at St. Vincent's. Three days after the attack, on the day of his 57th birthday, there was a surge of hope in the intensive care unit as he showed signs ofemerging from the coma, sitting upright, opening his eyes and squeezing the hand of a nurse, who wept.
But the signs came to nothing, and Delaney's pulse rate, temperature and brain activity began to wane.
As the media kept its own vigil, the public's anger about the attack grew, as did their confusion about why they had never before heard of Delaney.He began devoting himself fully to the poor in 1966, moving into the Hough area as most whites were moving out, in time for the coming summer of civil rights rioting and flames.
While living and organizing tenants in a massive apartment building on East 93rd called the Clevelander, he did not have a lock on his door, and neighbors chided him for being naive. He finally relented and bought a lock. That same night while he was out, someone broke into his apartment. He took it as a sign to trust in God and nothing else.
He lived in Hougli for approximately five years, founding the Hough Players, Diversity House and Aurelius Place, arts organizations that worked with high school dropouts and juvenile delinquents.
Illiterate gang members metamorphosed into successful college students and business owners. Others he thought were changing their lives were accused and convicted of rape, robbery and murder.
"But there was never a person created," says the Reverend Daniel Begin, a longtime friend, "that Ralph could give up on."
But while living in Hough, there was one person he did give up on, and the consequences seared Delaney. He would one day relate this story to his friend Mary Curtis Hughes, and it has been confirmed and supplemented by another friend close to Delaney during his years in Hough, who would not speak for attribution.
When Delaney entered the Marianist order at age 16, he took a vow of celibacy as well as a vow of poverty. He was celibate through his decade with the Marianists, and in the several years that followed.
But in the mid-1960s, he met a woman and for the first time in his life fell deeply in love. He was well into his 30s, confused by what he felt but also glorified by emotions he had not previously known.
The woman he loved was a heroin addict. He believed the combination of their love and his faith in God would prove stronger than her addiction.
But when her need for heroin could not be satiated, he turned away from her in anger and anguish. Not long afterward, she died of an overdose.
Delaney believed if their relationship had not been sexual, vanity and pride would not have made him vulnerable, and he would not have, in his own words, forsaken her. After her death, he renewed his vow of chastity and his commitment to love others unconditionally.
When he told all this to Mary Curtis Hughes more than a decade later, she felt he still had not forgiven himself.Forgiveness is what Sister Juanita Shealy was asking for through a bullhorn at a prayer service held a week after the assault on Delaney, at the very spot in King-Kennedy where he had lain convulsing as a woman prayed over him in the unintelligible language of religious ecstasy known as tongues, while another woman performed the more earthly chore of using a spoon to keep Delaney from swallowing his own.
Sister Juanita wanted forgiveness for the men who put Delaney in the hospital, into a coma, on the verge -- it was said by some among the small crowd -- of becoming a martyr.
Perhaps one hundred people had gathered together. Speakers spoke, politicians promised, priests prayed, a poet read a poem, and several songs were sung.
Cleveland City Council president Jay Westbrook called the service of 100 people "a monumental outpouring of community concern for Ralph Delaney and the conditions at King-Kennedy." As he spoke, crack dealers at the edge of the gathering laughed, looking up at the sun and advising that the service end before it went down. To the council president's right, women looked out from the broken windows of a three-story building that had been commandeered for use as a "strawberry den" -- a whorehouse comprised of female crack addicts.
Mayor Michael White, after making impassioned remarks about the violence against Delaney and the despair at King-Kennedy, left before the end of the service, and the television cameras dutifully followed. The mayor stopped 50 yards away, turned to face cameras and talked about the city's need for a new $128-million stadium for professional baseball.
As the people at the prayer service dispersed, some trying to gently disentangle themselves from children asking to be taken home with them, they did not know that in the intensive care unit at St. Vincent, Delaney was no longer showing any signs of brain activity, and the doctors were only waiting for Delaney's youngest brother, Bobby, to arrive from Florida to say his good-byes, before pronouncing him dead.
The men injail for Delaney's beating and who would soon face charges of aggravated murder were young, poor and black. "When I saw the photographs of the two men the police arrested," says Peggy Rooney, director of the West Rose Senior Center, "I thought,'They lookjust like two of RalplYs kids' "
"Ralph's kids" was an expression his friends used to describe the throngs of teenagers and young adults, black and white, who often surrounded Delaney, especially through the 1970s, when he ran the Collinwood Arts Center. The center offered classes in several art forms and was a refuge of racial peace in the volatile, integrated Collinwood area.
During the latter half of the 1970s, with money he earned through teaching and private donations, he began buying inner-city homes and turning them into clandestine, unlicensed homeless shelters. The locations of the homes spread through word of mouth, and even the police began dropping people off at the five shelters.
People simply down on their luck, the deinstitutionalized mentally ill, abused women, runaway teenagers - anyone in need of shelter - could stay for one night or several months. There was little supervision and a few incidents of theft and violence. But there was also cooperation, the pooling of welfare and Social Security checks, the sharing of cooking and cleaning duties.Near the end of the glory days of the Collinwood Arts Center, Delaney spoke to a man staying at one of the shelters about an allegation of theft. The man admitted to the theft, but struck Delaney when he was asked to return the property. "I want to see if you practice what you f ------ preach about turning the other f ------- cheek:' he said, and began to repeatedly hit Delaney in the head and body.
His anger seemed to grow each time Delaney refused to strike back. Delaney said when the man finally stopped, "He seemed more disgusted with me than ashamed of himself'
Delaney wanted nonviolence and forgiveness to be the blood and bone of human behavior. Three years before his death, he established the Gandhi-King awards for achievement in "the art of loving your enemy"; given to local people, especially children, who resolved conflicts without the use of violence.
In 1981, the Collinwood Arts Center lost its lease, and Delaney took it as a sign that in response to the city's deepening poverty he must now concentrate on the essentials: feeding, clothing and sheltering.
In a beat-up station wagon, with food donated frodi the Cleveland Food Bank and leftovers from various hunger centers, he went on nightly search-and-feed missions through downtown and the Flats, where the hungry and homeless waited expectantly: Public Square; the Greyhound bus station; several alleys along East 9th Street; and the various locations of the hidden homeless, such as those who live beneath or high up within the bridges in the Flats.
In 1984, he became a volunteer chaplain in the Cuyahoga CountyJail at the justice Center. He tutored prisoners in reading and writing, and taught the Catholic catechism, culminating in a visit by a priest and the confirmants being baptized with water poured from one ofthejail cafeteria!s pitchers. Even hardcore inmates took Delaney seriously, because by this time he had worked the streets for 20 years.
In 1987, he was banished from the jail for reasons not much different than those for which he was expelled from the Marianist order. In the eyes of bureaucracies, he was irresponsible; demanding changes, breaching rules.
The summer of the year he was banned from the jail, Delaney went to the wedding of Patrick McGirvey, one of the other volunteer chaplains. The reception hall was out in the country, and when everyone arrived it was discovered there was no tap for the beer kegs. There were some bottles of beer, but they would not last. Delaney disappeared before dinner. He showed up again two hours later as the plates were being cleared, just as the bottles had run out, smiling, a beer tap in his hand, refusing to say where he had gotten it.
"All I could think about:' says McGirvey, laughing, "was Christ's first miracle, which took place at the wedding in Canna. He turnedjars ofwater into wine because, to the embarrassment of the bride and groom, they had run out"
"Ralph wasnt like anybody else:' McGirvey says. "The wise men saw the star of Christ over Bethlehem. Ralph saw that same star above the inner city, above the jail, above the projects"It was not a holy star, but a dark bronze sun that hung above a funeral home on Cleveland's West Side as street people from throughout the city made their pilgrimage to come and see Delaney as he lay in state at his wake, his wounded head turbaned in white cloth. Many swore elaborate oaths of revenge as they stood or kneeled before the casket, several trembling and crying, one woman placing a lingering kiss on Delaney's lips.
Carol Sexton saw that the lines and cracks in her brother's hands were still embedded with dirt, and thought of how even until recently their mother -- now in frail health, having suffered a stroke only two weeks before the attack on her son -- would insist that surely with scrubbing they would come clean; but they would not.
She thought also of how he carried the smell of the streets on him, a smell of smoke, sweat and age that most of the homeless have in common; of how she could never keep him in a winter coat because he always gave it away; of the pneumonia he had battled each of the last few winters, the back that had given out because when you serve the poor you're always carrying things; of the weight he had put on, the lines below his eyes that had deepened and darkened; so much of this happening in the last few years as the suffering in the city worsened and he became more obsessed, making it through days and nights on the sustenance of three or four hours of sleep, acting as if time were his tremendous enemy.
The following day, May 2, more than a thousand people were at St. Johris Cathedral for Delaney's funeral, the intertwining voices of the city's powerful and powerless fluttering upward in elegiac song toward the high, carved ceiling, and as Ralph's life was remembered and celebrated in this elegant sanctuary, it was gracefully easy to trust, as it had not been at the prayer service in King-Kennedy, that in their hearts people want nothing so much as someone to show them how to lay down their hatreds and weaknesses, and they will then suffer any cost to end all suffering.
And it was true, not wishful or illusory, just so fragile that as the benediction was given and the doors were opened, fear and doubt seemed to rush in with the air from the outside world, breaking the spell of trust and a congregation that had been unified by sorrow filed out and separated again into the powerful and powerless, the muted differences suddenly made distinct again in the light and noise of a city that had not been visibly transformed by one man's death.
There are some who have even found comfort in the thought that Delaney is a martyr. The writer Milan Kundera says we actually prefer martyrs to heroes (who struggle, conquer and survive), because a martyr reassures us of the wisdom of our apathy and our view that life provides only two alternatives: to be submissive or be destroyed. "You try to help these people," was the refrain many of Delaney's friends heard from others in reaction to his death, "and look what they do to you."
Perhaps someone should have stood outside the doors of St. John's, asking these people as they left the cathedral, "Why did you do this to Ralph Delaney?"; asking it of the mentally ill he consoled, asking it of the hungry he fed, asking it of the homeless he sheltered, asking it of everyone he loved.If everyone who loved Ralph Delaney could have been waiting for him on that April afternoon as he walked ex hausted across the wasted grounds of King-Kennedy, and had been allowed to offer him the choice of slipping into death that night as peacefully and unremarkably as a man slipping into the sheets of his own bed, or dying a death of such violence and horror that an entire city would be compelled to look upon not only his work, but all that remained undone, the wildly deepening suffering he could not alleviate -- would he accept the offer ofa tranquil death, or turn from those he loves and walk toward a stranger who smiles and, extending his hand, offers to Ralph David Delaney the death his life demands.
Sources: Daniel Abston, Omar Ali-Bey, Khadijah Ali-Bey, Mark Armbruster, Dr. Elizabeth Balrai, Roldo Bartimole, the Rev. Phillip Batten, the Rev. Daniel Begin, the Rmm Robert Begin, Leroy "Junebug" Bell, Officer Charles Berming, Dan Berry, Jr., Brenda Bradley, Lavondra Burrell, Leonard Calabresse, George Calabreeze, Bill Carpenter, Cece Coreajudge William Corrigan, Claudia Coulton, Paul Delaney, Robert Delaney, the Rev. Dismas, the Rev. Michael Domingo, Shafeea Dozier, Brother George Drury, Danny Dunlop, Pat Egan, Bobby Farmer, Lieutenant Martin Flask, Herman Griffin, Timothy H. Hagan, the Rev. John Henry, Sister Mary Heydorn, the Rev. Ray Holland, the Rev. VladimirJvanov, RedJenkins, Renajenkins, Harlleljones, Bruce Katowski, Deborah King, Detective Buddy Kovacic, Detective Greg Kunz, Irene Lawler, Eugene Leach,jerry Lackampjames Levin, John Lofton, Atty. George Lonjack, Patrick McGirvey, Charles Murray, Phillip Opeka, Jerry Pockar, the Rev. Eldon Reichert, Zandra Richardson, Howard Ricks, Peggy Rooney, the Rev. Velda Rucker, Sister Kathleen Ryan, Carol Sexton, Saurin Shah, Atty. Thomas Shaughnessy, Sister Juanita Shealey, Shelton, Joyce Hall Stowers, Mary Smith, Daniel Thompson, Priscilla Treska, Atty. Brad Van Auken, Michael Walker, Jerome Walcott, Nate Warren, George Zeller. (And William Lee Engler, who also lived for others.)