The man who gave Ohio a national park
When I lived in Akron, Ohio, I would often pick my sons up from school in the afternoon. While I waited for the last class to end, I would chat with some of the other parents, who were in their 20s and 30s and 40s.
And every once in a while, there was an older guy, in his 80s, who was there waiting to get his grandkids.
I knew who he was. But I never worked up the nerve to talk to him. He was a larger-than-life figure to me.
He was John Seiberling, a retired congressman from Akron and a true giant in the conservation movement.
More than any other person, he helped establish in 1974 what would become the Cuyahoga Valley National Park — a treasure for everyone in Northeast Ohio who likes to hike, run, or bike through the beautiful outdoors.
“Without John Seiberling there would be no Cuyahoga Valley National Park,” said Ralph Regula, another Ohio congressman and outdoors lover.
Every once in a while, I would try to get up the nerve to talk to John Seiberling, and thank him for fighting for the park, over the wishes of developers and utilties and even the National Park Service itself, which said it had too many parks already.
“You are so strange,” my wife said. “You’re not afraid to speak to anyone else.”
And it was true. In more than two decades as a newspaper reporter, I’ve interviewed thousands of newsmakers, from big-city mayors to rock stars to CEOs. I’ve talked to governors and bishops and murderers and mobsters. It’s part of the job.
But John Seiberling was different. He was an American hero, in my book, anyway. He was the biggest man in Akron, grandson of the founder of Goodyear Tire & Rubber, and a local hero for helping beat back a takeover attempt of the company in the 1980s.
And he was green before it was cool to be green.
As a congressman, he sponsored legislation to preserve 129 million acres of public land in Alaska and in national parks and wilderness throughout the United States.
He knew the importance of preserving wilderness for Americans to enjoy.
“He’s a god,” I told my wife.
“So talk to him,” she said. “He won’t bite you.”
I kept putting it off. I didn’t want to seem fawning.
But then we moved to Indiana. And then, last summer, John Seiberling died of respiratory failure at the age of 89.
“I never got to thank him,” I told my wife.
“A lot of other people did,” she said. “Don’t worry about it.”
Today, I found out that I wasn’t the only one who worshiped John Seiberling.
I read a story in Akron Beacon Journal that hundreds of people are planning to attend a special reception in Washington to honor Seiberling.
The occasion is a new book about him called A Passion for the Land: John F. Seiberling and the Environmental Movement, written by historian Daniel Nelson. Many of the people who were invited said they didn’t get a chance to attend Seiberling’s funeral, or to pay their last respects.
“It promises to be a Seiberling love fest as former staffers and longtime friends recall the man many consider an American conservation hero,” the newspaper story said.
I don’t usually get carried away by hero worship, but this tribute is one that is well-deserved.
John Seiberling, wherever you are, thank you.