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TOM Walton is the retired editor of The Blade, and still a Blade columnist. He is a remarkable man. He can write serious, short, literary, or light. He knows Ohio issues as well as Toledo issues. He has done radio and TV work. For many years, he was the public face of this newspaper. In his late 60s, he’s still playing baseball.
And the most amazing thing is that, with all his talents, he is a genuinely decent guy — humble, easygoing, and fun to talk to.
Carty Finkbeiner is the former longtime mayor of this city. You’d have to say he was the dominant force in Toledo politics for a quarter of a century. He is well over 70 and has a history of heart problems. But, like Tom, he gives the impression that he is much younger. He has a lot of enthusiasm — for politics, the news, public policy, and for baseball.
I wanted to get these two iconic Toledoans together for my own education and edification. The idea was to sit back and listen to them talk and interact, and to glean their hopes for the future and their lessons from the past. Toledo is a place with a rich heritage, but the prophets are not always honored in their own land.
Not that either man would ever label himself so. Both laugh at being called Toledo’s wise men. But both have deep roots and both still care passionately about the city.
We met at Tony Packo’s, the original in East Toledo. “One thing about eating here,” said Tom, “is that you definitely remember where you had lunch.”
These two old friends, and sometime sparring partners, talked mostly about baseball for the first 20 minutes. Both are lifelong Cleveland Indians fans and they are happy campers right now. The Tribe is having a good season. Both like pitcher Scott Kazmir. Tom admires manager Terry Francona and thinks he can turn the team around, long term. Carty likes him too, but with reservations.
Down to business: What dogs the city, what are our persistent problems? Macro, they said, maybe self-image.
“The people highest on Toledo are the ones who just got here,” says Tom.
Second, the two agree that the absence of a top-tier, home-grown, committed-to-Toledo business elite is a huge lack. Leaders such as Ed Dodd, Paul Block, and George Haigh were from a different time and generation. Maybe it was easier to get things done then. But, they said, we must get the business community more involved in the city.
What are our assets? They are huge and many. No 1: Toledo is a livable city and a city of neighborhoods. “But,” Carty adds “we have to hang on to the blue-collar, lunch-pail guy and his family.”
“Water,” said Tom. When he worked in California, it was evident that there would never be enough. We have an abundance here and don’t take advantage of it, he said, though we have talked about various ways to do so for years.
And wind. We can harness it today. There is a wind-turbine farm in Bowling Green. That should be a growth industry for the whole region. Carty thinks alternative energy could be the basis of many new jobs in greater Toledo.
The skilled labor force here is a major asset. “The auto industry is not going away,” says Carty. “It’s all here … The quality of life is in place. And not every city has that. We simply have to build on it.”
Keep the city safe and clean; let the cops do their work; encourage the rich and varied cultural life here; think regionally and “they will come.” Maybe not from China or Germany, but perhaps from Fiat in Italy.
Tom says he doubts the probability of one big new factory with the promise of 2,000 jobs coming down the pike, but he believes the city can attract, over time, 10 new businesses that will each hire 200 people.
Tom also points out that, though we have officially lost population, many of those folks “are actually still here,” they have just moved to the exurbs. Again, skilled labor.
Finally, Tom says that a big part of the quality of life in Toledo is simply that “people still give a damn.”
Before we leave the restaurant, the two old pros pepper me with names of people to meet or call — people who can teach me about what’s going on in Toledo, what has gone down in the past, and what has to happen in the future. One man you have to meet, they say, is Baldemar Velásquez, president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee — as great and brave a man as Cesar Chavez, says Tom, just not as well known.
On the way to our cars, I ask Tom if he thinks his beloved Indians will get far this year. “No,” he says. A building year? He doesn’t like that phrase. The Indians have been “building” for 15 years. But they are getting there. They are improving fundamentals and the job of an ardent fan is to have faith; hang in.
Not a bad approach to Toledo: Improve the fundamentals, believe in the basic product, be patient and pragmatic about our investments, and hang in.
Keith C. Burris is associate editor of The Blade.
Contact him at: email@example.com or 419-724-6266.