Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Joseph G. Butler, Jr.


Joseph G. Butler, Jr., Author Unknown. Source: The Youngstown Telegram. Public Domain-US, via Wikipedia

I visited the Columbus Museum of Art on Friday. One of the reasons was to see the actual painting of “Morning Drive” by Christopher Leeper, about which I wrote in an earlier post, “The View From Home.” Leeper’s painting is the view of downtown and the Valley from the corner of Mahoning Avenue and North Portland, where I lived. It is in an exhibit of the Ohio Watercolor Society until September 10, and captures the view that is in my mind’s eye when I think of looking down Mahoning Avenue toward town on a cold and clear winter morning.

The visit to this museum, which has been expanded in recent years, reminded me what a treasure Youngstown has at the Butler Institute of American Art, which easily goes toe to toe with the Columbus, in a far bigger city. For one thing, from its establishment, admission to the Butler has always been free, in comparison to what we paid for admission (even with AAA discount) plus the add-on fee for a special show plus parking. It reminded me of the gift Joseph G. Butler, Jr. gave to the city, and the wider art world in establishing this museum and generously funding it upon his death. And so it made me wonder a bit more about the man behind the museum.

I discovered he was a multi-faceted individual:

He was a pioneer steel-maker. Butler’s father and grandfather were iron manufacturers and blast furnace experts and Butler brought this to Youngstown and facilitated the transition to steel manufacturing. He joined Henry Wick in organizing the Ohio Steel Company, building two Bessemer plants along the Mahoning River, which later became the Ohio Works of Carnegie Steel, later U.S. Steel. His industrial leadership formed the core of his wealth and led to directorships on numerous boards including that of Youngstown Sheet and Tube and the Youngstown and Suburban Railway Company.

He was a dedicated civic leader. He led the fund-raising drive that established St. Elizabeth’s Hospital and worked with the Niles Board of Trade to establish the McKinley Memorial for William McKinley, a classmate of his during his youth in Niles and friend. He also donated monies for libraries and a number of other community institutions.

He was a collector of American art. Butler realized that the works of American artists were overshadowed by those from Europe. He assembled a significant collection in his Wick Avenue home, much of which was lost in a 1917 fire. Plans had already been laid for the Butler, a museum to house his collection, which opened in 1919. When he died in 1927, most of his $1.5 million estate was bequeathed to the Butler.

I found two other interesting aspects to Butler as well.

He was a political insider. His prominence and wealth as a national leader in industry gave him access to most of the presidents of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He was a staunch Republican, and his support was considered indispensable in any national campaign.

He was a historian. Amazingly, this busy man had the time to write a biography of McKinley, a memoir titled Presidents I Have Seen and Known, a history of steel-making, and a three volume History of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley, which has been digitized and may be downloaded here. His other works are also in digital form and came up on this search result.

Thriving cities do so, I’m convinced, because they enjoy dedicated, competent, and honest leadership from three sectors: civic, political, and business. Butler represented all three and a number of the bright spots in the city from its hospitals to its libraries to the Butler are a consequence of his influence. His foresight in recognizing the dearth of talented American artists works being represented in museums led to establishing what is arguably the foremost museum of American art in the country. His careful historical writing provides a bedrock of historical information about his times, and our hometown. The impact of his philanthropy continues to make its mark in the Mahoning Valley nearly 100 years later.

While times have changed, communities will continue to need men and women who use the benefits of wealth, access, education, and leadership skills for the benefit of their communities. People like Joseph G. Butler, Jr. and Volney Rogers are worth the study of contemporary community leaders in Youngstown. Both invested nearly 50 years of their lives in Youngstown, around the same time. One gave us a world class museum. The other, a jewel along Mill Creek. Whose investment in the Valley will make a difference in the next century?


Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Renewing the City

OH Youngstown aThis is a post I’ve thought about for some time. We’ve talked quite a bit about memories, and the richness of life in the Youngstown we grew up in. Yet there is also a sense of what has been lost — the mills, many vibrant neighborhoods and businesses throughout the city, and a significant part of the city’s people. But as many have written about Youngstown, we’ve been knocked down, but not knocked out.

I’d like to think, and hopefully hear your thoughts, about what it takes to renew the city so many of us grew up in and love. Before I write about that, I have to acknowledge that I don’t live in Youngstown and won’t be among those who have to do the heavy lifting to make it happen. Nor do I consider myself an expert in these things. Rather, I simply love the place I grew up in and would love to see the city not only get back on its feet, which I think it has, but thrive once more. What I think this involves is building on what Youngstown still has, learning from the past, and learning from healthy cities.

Building on what Youngstown still has. Youngstown became an industrial powerhouse, not just because of the mills, but because of the work ethic and spirit of its people. People who open restaurants, small machine shops, or new technology start-ups reflect that spirit. There are people who remember what good places neighborhoods can be and whether they live on the north side, Brier Hill, the Idora neighborhood or elsewhere, they are doing the hard work to reclaim that heritage. Youngstown has a rich heritage of cultural institutions in the Butler, the McDonough, the DeYor Center, the Covelli Centre and so much more that make it a place to live as well as work. There is the beauty of Mill Creek Park which needs to be preserved, including the health of its lakes. The city has been the home of a great urban university since 1908 and the partnership between the university and industry in providing a well-trained work force can be a key to renewal.

Learning from the past. I would contribute only two things here. Just as investors diversify, so should the city and not rely on a single industry. The great thing about things like the Youngstown Business Incubator and other entrepreneurial efforts is that it has the potential of building a diverse economic base. The other thing is to relentlessly pursue the rule of law rather than criminal or economic interests that drain the city’s wealth into the coffers of the few rather than the pockets of many.

Learning from healthy cities. We’ve lived in a city the past twenty five years that works pretty well. None are perfect but Columbus does some things that might be helpful for Youngstown. One is that it has had a history of good and shrewd city government and foresight that extends back to the 1950’s when Mayor “Jack” Sensenbrenner made plans to allow Columbus to grow in the 1980’s and ’90’s. That has continued through successive administrations. The other is that this city knows how to solve problems, getting political, civic, and business leadership together to quietly work toward solutions. At least when I was growing up in Youngstown, it seemed that it was much more common to play the blame game in the press or wait for someone else to solve the city’s problems for us.

My hunch is that good cities are not “90 day wonders” but are built over several generations. Columbus is a growing city today because of fifty years of reasonably good leadership. That was true at one time of the Youngstown of the past as well.

My sense is that there are people all over Youngstown who are rolling up their sleeves, at very least to make their own living, but also to make the place around them a bit better. They are in government, running businesses, leading faith communities, rehabbing homes, teaching in schools and the university, working in the arts, or simply clocking in each day to do their job in exchange for a paycheck.

Sometimes we keep looking around for others to provide the leadership a place needs. I wonder if it is the case for those of you who are rolling up your sleeves like the people I listed above, that you are the people you have been waiting for. And why not? It’s your city after all.