Picking the Next Great Ohioan

By Graig Graziosi

What makes a great Ohioan?

Since 2003, Ohioans of historical significance have received the Great Ohioan Award, an accolade presented annually by the Capitol Square Foundation. So far, only one award winner has come from the Mahoning Valley.

The Capitol Square Foundation, established to promote public awareness and engagement at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, created the award to commemorate historically significant Ohioans who participated in events that would leave a lasting legacy on the state, country or world. In its principal year, Ohio pioneers of aviation were commemorated, with awards given to the Wright Brothers and astronauts John Glenn and Neil Armstrong.

The criteria for nomination of a figure requires that the individual have lived in Ohio for at least five years, and that the event for which they’re being commemorated took place at least 25 years prior to their nomination. Notable inductees include president William Howard Taft, Civil War general and president Ulysses S. Grant, western legend Annie Oakley, celebrated baseball pitcher Denton “Cy” Young, Olympic runner Jesse Owens and inventor Thomas Edison.

Harriet Taylor Upton, a prominent figure in securing Ohio women’s right to vote, is the only local inductee. Upton was born in Ravenna and lived in Warren for most of her life. She eventually would become the treasurer of the National Woman’s Suffrage Association and was the first woman to serve as the vice chairman of the executive committee of the Republican National Committee.

The nomination period for the Great Ohioan Award is open during the entire month of November, and in the interest of seeing more representation of Mahoning Valley, Youngstown State University history faculty weighed in on local historical figures they believed would warrant the award.

When posed with the question of what significant Ohioan should receive the distinction, Diane Barnes, professor of history and co-director for the Center for Working Class Studies, was quick to throw a name into the ring.

“Clarence Darrow,” Barnes said.

Clarence Darrow

Darrow was an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who opposed William Jennings Bryan during the Scopes “Monkey” Trial, a trial that tested a Tennessee ban on teaching evolution in classrooms.

Nicole Marino, the Americorps Ohio History Service liaison to YSU, believes Darrow’s cunning made him a formidable foe for Bryan, the well-regarded orator, but also makes him a viable candidate for the Great Ohioan award.

“He knew he wouldn’t win, and he didn’t want to. He wanted the case to get appealed to a higher court where it stood a better chance at a ruling against the ban,” Marino said. “He knew that Bryan was a famous and well-regarded orator, and knew if he had the chance to make a closing speech, it would hurt his chances with the jury and would be spread by the media nationwide, so, knowing state law, Darrow just said ‘nope’ to giving a closing speech. State law said if one lawyer didn’t give a closing speech, neither could. This stopped Bryan for his big speech … it just goes to show the high level of thinking that went into Darrow’s strategies. He was a big picture guy.”

Donna DeBlasio, YSU professor of history, offered her own opinions on deserving Ohioans of note.

Bishop James Malone

“Bishop [James] Malone was instrumental, along with Rabbi [Sidney] Berkowitz, in the movement to buy a local steel mill to save jobs during the mill closures,” DeBlasio said. “He was a huge proponent for the working class.”

Malone, a native of Youngstown, became a bishop at only 40 years old, and was a prominent figure in labor movements during his time with the diocese.

The Warner Brothers

With a legacy that needs no introduction, the brothers themselves, Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack, spent much of their youth in Youngstown. The DeYor Performing Arts Center was once known as the Warner Theatre, a theater operating in the then-successful Warner brother’s chain.

The Warner brothers would eventually go on to found Warner Brother’s Studios, a staple in the entertainment industry to this day.

Nathaniel Jones 

Nathaniel Jones was the first black judge in Mahoning County, served as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, fought for legislation to end nationwide school segregation and is an alumnus of YSU.

“You know that big courthouse on the corner of Commerce and Market?” DeBlasio said. “That courthouse is named after Jones, so that will give you some idea of the impact he’s had.”

Mary Ann Campana

Mary Ann Campana was a native Italian who came with her family to Youngstown during the 1920’s and a record-setting aviator.

“She set a world record for an endurance flight. She stayed in the air longer than any other pilot, male or female, at that time,” DeBlasio said.

Campana managed to stay airborne for 12 hours and 27 minutes flying around the Youngstown area, only landing due to intense lightning storms forcing her down. An Ohio Historical Marker was placed at the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport in her honor.

There are many more local individuals deserving note and regard for their contributions to the world, through invention, service or feat. Those interested in seeing a local individual of note elevated at the Ohio Statehouse can offer nominations at the Capitol Square Foundation’s website.

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