Nothing like an astronomy class at 2 pm in the afternoon during your first quarter at Youngstown State to catch you napping. That was me. The reclining seats in the planetarium combined with the dimmed lights was the perfect recipe for an afternoon snooze. You just hoped nothing was said that would go on the test.
I had many classes in Ward Beecher during my years at Youngstown State (1972-76). I can’t say that I gave a thought to the name of the building at time. Only later did I realize that generally, college buildings bear the name of people (or their family) who gave large sums of money toward the construction of the building.
I’ve written about others whose names are on YSU buildings: Kilcawley, Beeghly, Maag, and Jones. But never Ward Beecher. Like many others I’ve written about, I discovered a family that has invested deeply in Youngstown. And I was left with an unanswered question.
Ward Beecher’s family traces back to Connecticut, where his father Leonard, and mother, Ruth Webster Beecher lived. She was the daughter of Noah Webster, of dictionary fame. Their son Walter came to Youngstown at age 19, around 1864 and became involved in a number of community enterprises including the Ohio Powder Company and the Mahoning Bank. He married Eleanor Price, whose family owned a large farm extending along South Belle Vista from Mahoning Avenue to Bears Den Road. Price Road is named after the family and their homestead is now part of the Franciscan Friary on South Belle Vista.
Ward was born September 27, 1887 and graduated from the Rayen School in 1907, going on to study metallurgy at Carnegie Institute of Technology followed by war service with the 309th Engineers in France in World War 1. He returned to Youngstown and in 1923 married Florence Simon, a granddaughter of Col. L. T. Foster, after whom Fosterville is named. He worked for a time as an auditor with Republic Rubber Company, as secretary and treasurer of the Lau Iron Works, and treasurer of Powell Pressed Steel. From 1922 on, he occupied a number of positions at Commercial Shearing and Stamping Company, ending up as Vice President of Finance. He also followed his father’s footsteps, serving as a director of the Mahoning Bank. He attended a directors meeting the day of his death.
He took a major interest in the development of Youngstown State, contributing significant funds for the construction of the science hall and planetarium that now bears his name, which opened in 1967. One of his stipulations was that the planetarium would always be free to the public.
Like many other business leaders of his generation, he served as a leader and benefactor of a number of Youngstown organizations from the Salvation Army to Boys’ Club, as well as the Youngstown Club, the Youngstown Country Club, the Elks, and other organizations. In the late 1950’s, the Beechers sold the Price homestead, where they were living to the Franciscan Friary. Later on, they made substantial contributions for improvements.
After this time, the Beechers moved to Boardman, where they lived together until Ward’s death on October 26, 1970. He was buried, along with many other famous Youngstown residents, at Oak Hill Cemetery. Florence Beecher lived until 1991, supporting a number of Youngstown cultural institutions including the Mahoning Valley Historical Society and the Butler Institute of American Art whose Beecher Court is named in her honor.
The family and the foundations established by Ward and Florence Beecher continue to invest in Youngstown. In 2006 Eleonor Beecher Flad, the Beechers’ daugher, and the Ward Beecher and Florence Simon Beecher Foundations contributed significant funds for a state of the art star projector in the planetarium to replace the one that had been there even before I was a student. Similar contributions were responsible for the construction of the Eleanor Beecher Flad Pavilion on the west side of the DeYor Center, a performance and event space to complement the beauty of Powers Auditorium and renovations of Lanterman’s Mill in the late 1980’s. Eleanor Beecher Flad is now an emeritus trustee of the YSU Foundation, serving for many years as one of the few women trustees of the Foundation.
I mentioned a question. Beechers have played an important part in American history. Both Lyman Beecher and Henry Ward Beecher were abolitionist preachers and leaders, also coming from Connecticut. Henry Ward Beecher’s sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. From the online family trees I accessed, I could find no connection, despite the shared names. It would not surprise me that there would be a connection, and I’d love to find it.
What I do know is that Ward Beecher, and his family have left an indelible imprint on the educational, cultural, charitable, religious, and historic institutions of the city. I may have been napping as a student, but I find myself deeply grateful now for the investment in both time and financial resources this family has given Youngstown.