Mr. Lakewood - that was the nickname he had around town.
In fact, in 1978, the year George J. Usher passed away, the Lakewood Sun Post’s headline was "City mourns passing of 'Mr. Lakewood.' They included a statement in that article that has stuck with me since I read it and is the main reason I am sharing this blog post with you today.
"Lakewood lost one of its best known citizens last week. George J. Usher will not only be missed by everyone he knew, but by the thousands who will never know him but will participate in softball or youth leagues, or benefit by some program he helped secure while on city council, or just wear an Usher T-shirt."
Let me introduce you to the man we never knew, over 40 years later...
George J. Usher, husband of Peggy and father of Merry, Elizabeth and George Jr. lived in a beautiful home on the west end of town. His children will tell you he was the greatest man they knew.
Mr. & Mrs. Usher - photo courtesy of The Usher Family
Elizabeth describes him as "charismatic, brilliant, honorable, honest, and friendly."
Merry shares, "He had a marvelous sense of humor, which he sometimes would incorporate into his stories. It might be so subtle that you could only tell he was joking by the twinkle in his eyes."
And George Jr., the man I have been working with since the fall to re-release the George J. Usher t-shirts tells me, "My father was one of a kind. He was the most wonderful man I have ever known. Among other things, he was exceedingly fair, often crossing party lines on city council if he thought an issue should be decided in a certain way. He loved his family. And he loved his 'Lakewood family.'”
photo credit - The Cleveland Press
"He loved speaking with and spending time with the ‘people.' He loved to bowl and at any time belonged to 3 or 4 leagues at different bowling alleys. He enjoyed bowling because it brought together every type of citizen; rich men, poor men, powerful men, average workers. Everybody could afford it and the socializing was full of hometown spirit. They began calling him 'Mr. Lakewood,' while he was still alive and he honestly loved that. It’s written on his gravestone out at Sunset Park Memorial."
From reading past newspaper articles and talking to former colleagues, the sentiment was felt by the whole community.
George J. Usher sat on City Council in Lakewood, Ohio for over 16 years and I am positive he would have gone on much longer if given the opportunity. He passed unexpectedly during a medical procedure.
Former Mayor, Anthony Sinagra described George as a "grassroots politician, he knew what the people wanted." Mr. Sinagra went on to tell me that he was a "...People's councilman. "Everyone wants to be a man of the people, but he really was."
When I spoke to former city councilman and neighbor to the Ushers, Bill Chinnock, he told me he considered George J. Usher the "father of the city." Chinnock continued, "Out of all the public officials at that time, he was the most loved. He was very friendly, everyone knew him and he represented Lakewood better than anyone else."
When speaking to people or reading articles about George J. Usher, I continued to hear similar themes. He was always present in the community, out and about everywhere, he listened to Lakewood residents and did what he thought was best for the community regardless of party lines, he was fair and honest, he had a great sense of humor and as former council president, Mark Magnotto, summed up "He was totally and absolutely committed to Lakewood."
"He was named Lakewood's Man of the Year in 1968, an honor he cherished," the Lakewood Sun Post mentioned.
photo courtesy of Lakewood Recreation
Sounds like a man our world could use right now. Don't you agree?
I asked George Jr. why he thinks his Dad was so passionate about youth sports in Lakewood. "Growing up, my father had not had many of the opportunities other children had to participate in athletics, recreational activities, etc. So, as an adult, a parent, and then as a Lakewood city councilman, he always supported public recreation. There were other softball sponsors before him, who either sponsored boys softball or girls softball. The programs existed. I think he was the first to sponsor both, combining the two as 'youth softball' in the early 60s."
George J. Usher Insurance sponsored the softball program and other sports teams from the early 1960s to the early 2000s - an amazing gift to the children of Lakewood.
Along with that sponsorship came the famous "George J. Usher Insurance" t-shirt. Anthony Sinagra told me that "you could travel to Europe or anywhere in the world and if you were there long enough, you were guaranteed to spot a George J. Usher Insurance t-shirt." Son George Jr. agreed with that sentiment and added "even while he was alive, there had been t-shirt sightings in all 50 states."
Immediately following his passing, a motion was made to rename Madison Park, Usher Park. As with all changes made in the city, this was met with both support and opposition. Bill Chinnock noted back in 1978 (Councilman-at-Large at the time) "It's good someone spoke out and told us their feelings on this issue, I think George would have wanted it this way because he was always fair and wanted to hear both sides of an issue,” said Chinnock. "We can't name every park after a councilman, but George was a unique councilman - perhaps the most unique in the country - and he deserves this honor."
In our recent conversation, Anthony Sinagra also mentioned that the compromise was to name the field Usher Field and not change the name of the whole park. Because of George's involvement and support of Lakewood Recreation, I think this was a fitting tribute.
photo credit - Carol Kovach, special to cleveland.com
So, several decades later, games are still being played at Usher Field and George J. Usher Insurance tees are still recognized by the thousands and thousands of people who grew up in Lakewood.
Stacey Carlin recently commented, "Nothing sums up quintessential summer in Lakewood like the George J. Usher shirt and summer ball!" and I couldn't agree more.
It was reported in the Sun Post that "an estimated 35 past and present members of Mr. Usher's softball league attended his funeral services in their Usher t-shirts."
photo courtesy of Michael Conroy
Also reported, "Mayor Anthony Sinagra has ordered all possible flags in the city to be flown at half mast for the rest of the month in memory of Mr. Usher, whom he characterized as 'a truly dedicated public servant with the best interests of the city always at heart.'"
When I started researching George J. Usher, I sat in the Lakewood Library, upstairs in a corner by myself. There I was, scrolling through several editions of the Lakewood Sun Post on microfiche, tears flooding my eyes. How I wish I would have had the opportunity to know him. How I wish our political world was filled with more people like him.
I cherish every single aspect of my childhood in Lakewood, Ohio. Softball was a big part of it. But after writing this, I realize HE was a big part of it.
Can't thank you enough George J. Usher.
If you’d like to know more of the story, read my first George J. Usher blog post.
If you’re looking to purchase a t-shirt, check out the retro lakewood collection in my shop.
***a portion of every t-shirt sale will be donated to Lakewood Recreation
More about George J. Usher...
Site of the Insurance Company - 15625 Madison Avenue, Lakewood, Ohio
photo credit - The Cleveland Memory Project
George J. Usher with Lakewood Recreation staff and players
photo courtesy of The Usher family
Grandson James reading a book with his Aunt Betsy, wearing an original
George J. Usher Insurance t-shirt. James is now 23
photo courtesy of the Usher Family
this just in - James will be in our booth at the Lakewood Arts Festival
from 10 am to 11 am on Saturday, August 3rd.
Stop by and share your stories of his grandpa
or of playing in the George J. Usher Insurance tees.
He would love to hear them!
Campaign Brochure - Running for State Representative - 1970
courtesy of The Usher Family
The following articles were all found at the Lakewood Library, Lakewood Sun Post, 1978
Microfiche is tricky, I didn't capture the whole article, but felt this section was still worth sharing.