Activist tried to rescue Seneca Co. courthouse

Toledo speeding case pivotal, attorney says

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    TIFFIN — Rayella Engle, an ardent preservationist and founder of a local heritage festival who fought a six-year, unsuccessful battle to save the Seneca County Courthouse from demolition, died of cancer Saturday in her home.

    The Beaux Arts-style Sene-ca County Courthouse was built in the 1880s.
    The Beaux Arts-style Sene-ca County Courthouse was built in the 1880s.

    The Clinton Township resident was a core member of the Seneca County Museum Foundation who fought in the courtroom and in the court of public opinion to preserve the three-story Beaux Arts-style courthouse.

    In the end, the commissioners voted on Nov. 17, 2011, to proceed with its demolition, leaving a void in Tiffin’s downtown.

    Franklin Conaway, a historic preservationist from Chillicothe, Ohio, who helped shape the battle to retain the courthouse, called Mrs. Engle and integral part of the struggle to preserve Ohio’s history.

    “She was a key member, together with her husband [Phil], of that small band of Tiffin visionaries who had a future vision of Tiffin,” Mr. Conaway said. “She knew the Seneca County Courthouse was the centerpiece of that vision.”

    Mrs. Engle was a constant presence in the struggle to preserve the courthouse, he said.

    “She was always giving herself for the good of the community,” Mr. Conaway said. “I hope her sacrifice … will be remembered and honored.”

    Sylvia Rayella Engle was born on Aug. 25, 1937, in Tiffin to Adams and Stella Irene Turner. She was a graduate of Tiffin Columbian High School and from Ohio State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene in 1958. She returned to her alma mater in 1982 to earn a master’s in elementary education.

    She worked as a dental hygienist in Fostoria and Tiffin.

    She married John Phillip Engle, owner of a funeral home, on May 9, 1959, and she became a licensed funeral director in 1968, working alongside her husband for many years.

    She was a founder of the ongoing Tiffin Heritage Festival, which began in 1978.

    Brenda Stultz, a member of the Tiffin Historic Trust, said Mrs. Engle was passionate about teaching local history and about the early settlement days in Tiffin.

    “The courthouse was the only thing for her,” Mrs. Stultz said, noting Mrs. Engle’s interest in preserving historic houses and businesses.

    Theresa Sullivan, former president of the Tiffin Historical Trust, said the Engles “helped create and build a historical culture in Tiffin.”

    Mrs. Sullivan called Mrs. Engle a tireless worker for local history and preservation efforts.

    “I really got to know Rayella during the courthouse saga. She really appreciated the value of history, and she wanted to tell people who we are as a community,” Mrs. Sullivan said.

    Mrs. Engle was not a flashy leader, she said, but led from behind, overseeing details large and small.

    “She was not one to seek the spotlight. She was a worker, and she had a passion for what she believed in,” Mrs. Sullivan said.

    The spotlight she tried to avoid often fell on Mrs. Engle during the struggle to keep the keep the courthouse, which was built in 1884 for famed architect Elijah E. Meyers, who is also credited with the Texas Statehouse in Austin and courthouses and public buildings nationwide.

    When the Seneca County commissioners finally voted 2-1 to tear it down in 2011, Mrs. Engle scolded them.

    “This will stay with you. This will be your legacy to this county,” she said after the vote. “I just don’t think that you know how important this is to the people.”

    Her son Matt, said the loss of the courthouse was a major blow to his mother. “It was very heartbreaking,” he said.

    The 14 members of the Seneca County Museum Foundation, who made up the core group seeking to preserve the courthouse, pitched a multitude of ideas on how to pay for the preservation. Meetings were scheduled, grants sought, and Mr. Conaway, the preservationist, was brought on board.

    The fight was taken to the Ohio Supreme Court, but the justices declined to issue an injunction to halt the demolition, leading to the 44 plaintiffs to withdraw the suit.

    “It’s very very sad,” she said at the time. “I don’t know if Tiffin is ever going to be the same.”

    Four months after its destruction, Mrs. Engle said she avoided going by the vacant lot when driving into Tiffin.

    She was a member and past matron of Tiffin Chapter 189, Eastern Star. She was Grand Adah for Ohio in 1974. She was a charter member of Altrusa International in Tiffin and chairman and founder of the Seneca County Ohio History Day.

    She is survived by her husband of 54 years, John Phillip Engle; sons, Matthew and Adams; daughter, Kimberly Jo Griffin; sister, Pari A. Carter; five grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

    A memorial service will be at 11 a.m. Friday at First Lutheran Church, 300 Melmore St. Visitation is to be one hour before the service.

    Memorials are suggested to the Tiffin Historic Trust of First Lutheran Church.

    Contact Jim Sielicki at: jsielicki@theblade.com or 419-724-6050.