What more fitting place than the rotunda of the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal for hundreds of friends to come together Sunday to celebrate the life of the late William L. Mallory Sr., one of the city’s political giants of the 20th century?
It was there, in the 1940s, as a young boy from a poor family in the West End, that he shined the shoes of thousands of people traveling through the bustling train station, listening to their stories of faraway places, as they would flip him a quarter for a tip.
And it was there, in the mid-1980s, when Union Terminal was an empty shell, threatened with demolition, that William L. Mallory Sr., now the powerful majority leader of the Ohio House, delivered $8 million in state funds that provided the seed money to turn the formal railroad terminal into a museum center that is the centerpiece of his beloved West End neighborhood.
It was only one of a long list of accomplishments in a life in politics that sparked in his five sons the desire to follow in their father’s footsteps.
That life came to end Dec. 10 at the age of 82. And, although he was laid to rest a week ago in a private ceremony, the Mallory family gave his many admirers and friends a chance Sunday to say goodbye with a two-hour memorial service in the Museum Center rotunda.
“He knew instinctively that all politics is local,’’ said Hamilton County Democratic Party chairman Tim Burke, in the memorial celebration of Mallory’s life that was hosted by WLWT anchor Courtis Fuller.
“He would walk the streets of the city from the family home on Dayton Street to downtown, always stopping to talk to people and listening to what they had to say,’’ Burke said. “He knew that good politics was the art of the possible and the science of compromise.”
Sunday, before a crowd of about 700, the Christian Fellowship Choir sang gospel songs that had many in the audience clapping and singing along – “Oh Happy Day,’’ “Soon and Very Soon, We are Going to See the King.”
With his wife Fannie, his five sons, his daughter and their families seated in the front row, speaker after speaker spoke of the impact that this poor boy from the West End had on his own neighborhood, on life for African-Americans from circumstances as poor as his own, and on the city as a whole.
He served in the Ohio House of Representatives from 1966 to 1994.For 20 of those 28 years, he was the House majority leader.
And the family seated in the front row represents a true Cincinnati political dynasty – Mark, who took over his father’s House seat, served in the Ohio Senate, and just completed two terms as Cincinnati’s mayor; William Jr., a municipal court judge, Dwane, also a municipal court judge; Dale, who currently holds the House seat and who will run for the Ohio Senate in 2014; Joe, a former Forest Park vice mayor who is an administrator at the Hamilton County Board of Elections; and daughter Leslie Denise, who works for the Ohio Lottery.
The Mallory children grew up walking the streets of their father’s West End district, stapling posters to telephone poles and passing out fliers at the corner of Linn and Liberty.
As his career opened up opportunities for his children, Mallory’s tenacious pursuit of justice led to political careers for other African-Americans in Cincinnati.
Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Nadine Allen, who became the first African-American elected to a judgeship in a countywide race, spoke of the lawsuit that Mallory filed in the late 1980s – Mallory v. Eyrich – which challenged the at-large system of electing municipal court judges, saying electing judges countywide prevented blacks from being represented on the bench.
The suit was settled in 1991; and a district system was set up to elect municipal court judges. One of the first was his own son, William Jr.
“It guaranteed that black judges will always serve in Hamilton County,’’ Allen said. “And now there are 10 black judges serving on the courts of this county.”
Mallory’s interest in politics started when he was 12 years old when he was sent to the family doctor to pick up asthma medicine for his mother, a domestic worker. The doctor was R.P. McClain, the city’s second black council member.
Young Mallory would sit and listen to McClain talk politics for hours. McClain was a Republican, but Mallory was a Franklin Roosevelt Democrat; and he showed up at the 18th Ward Democratic Club as a 12-year-old and was put to work passing out literature on the streets.
He dropped out of his school and worked at odd jobs, including selling newspapers in front of city hall, where he got to know the leaders of the city.
He went back and earned his high school diploma from East Vocational High School and then, with some financial help, he went to college at Central State University, a predominately black college in Wilberforce.
It was there is met Fannie, his future wife and mother of his children.
In a video presentation at Sunday’s memorial produced by Fuller for WLWT, Mark Mallory talked about his mother.
“For all the accolades about my dad, I don’t think he could have done all the things he did without my mom,’’ Mark Mallory said. “She was the glue that held our family together.”
One of the senior Mallory’s last public appearances was at the mayor’s office on Nov. 30, Mark Mallory’s last day as mayor of Cincinnati.
At the memorial Sunday, Fuller read a letter sent to the Mallory family by President Obama.
“William insisted on nothing but full equality for all Americans,’’ the president wrote.
Douglass McDonald, the president and CEO of the Cincinnati Museum Center, spoke of Mallory’s love for Union Terminal.
“This was his building,’’ McDonald said. “He was my friend because I was in charge of this building. He has been one of the most committed supporters of this institution.”
The $8 million in state funds that Mallory secured in 1985, McDonald said, “saved the Union Terminal from the wrecking ball.”
O’dell Owens, the president of Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, told of how Mallory walked the campus of the fledging college in the mid-1980s and noticed how many students had their children with them.
“This wasn’t acceptable to Bill,’’ Owens said. “He got the state to fund the first day care program at a college so students’ children could get good care while their parents studied to make better lives for themselves. He believed in that.”
In another video shown to the audience, Mallory himself delivered his own epitaph.
“I saw things that were unjust,’’ Mallory said. “I saw things that were not fair. I saw things that discriminated against people.”
“My whole life,’’ he said, “has been about trying to improve the lives of others.”