It's too bad that Bob Shamansky's remarkable life will be overshadowed by the manner of his death. The story of the skinny, sickly kid from Bexley who became a wealthy, respected lawyer, intrepid world traveler and U.S. congressman should be a fine chapter in recent Columbus history.
Instead, his suicide inspires grief and invites speculation: Why?
Shamansky shot himself at his Miranova residence on Aug. 11 at the age of 84, an act that confounded his family and closest friends.
He didn't leave a note. People in a position to know insist he had no financial worries, that he wasn't dealing with any serious health issues.
He was as active as you can expect a man in his 80s to be, still possessed of the same keen intelligence, still involved in the civic life of his city, still proud of his fitness and always dapper appearance.
Those left behind by a suicide can torture themselves with hindsight: Was there something I missed? Were there warning signs? Should-could-I have done something if I'd only known? Shamansky left even his intimates perplexed.
"I was probably as close to Bob as anyone," says Jim Feibel, his former law partner and friend of almost 60 years. He says he knows the news of the suicide produced the usual questions and theorizing among the multitudes who've known Shamansky over the years. Had he suffered a blow to his considerable fortune? Been diagnosed with a terminal illness? Been hit with some trauma in his personal life?
Feibel dismisses all of those theories, but can offer none of his own: "I personally am at a loss to understand it."
Shamansky never married and had no children. His nephew, Sam Shamansky, one of the city's top criminal defense lawyers, got the call from the police after the body was discovered. It was a shock, he says: "There was no note, no explanation."
It was an ironic end for a man who, as Sam recalls, "Would tell us, those of us who are sometimes paralyzed by fear, 'Why take yourself out of the game?' "
Even more ironic was the method: "He buys a gun, some ammo at Vance's [Shooters' Supply], test fires it a couple times and. . . ." Sam says, letting the sentence trail off.
"Bob abhorred weapons," Feibel says. "For him to end his life by shooting is totally out of character."
Bewildered as they are, they also know that Shamansky had struggled before his death with depression. It so concerned him, he checked himself into a psychiatric hospital. Uncharacteristically, he was having dark thoughts. But after he left the facility, it appeared he had recovered, returning to normal.
So, why did he pull the trigger? Maybe it doesn't matter. At his funeral, one of the eulogists said that it's far less important how you die than how you live, and "Bob lived a hell of a life."
Shamansky descended from Russian Jews who fled their troubled country at the end of the 19th century. His father's family lived in Nelsonville, where his grandfather owned a junkyard. His mother's family lived in a rundown section of Spring Street near the Ohio Penitentiary and Union Station. "They got off the train and found the cheapest place to live," Shamansky once told an interviewer for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society.
As for his maternal grandfather, "I don't know whether he had a pushcart, but he was a peddler and I was told that they were so poor, of course, that they lived in the 'red light district' because that was the only place they could afford," he said in that interview.
The peddler prospered, running a pawnshop before starting R. & H. Greenberg, a general store on Long Street. Shamansky's father, meanwhile, left the Nelsonville junkyard behind by earning a medical degree from Ohio State. The family-Bob, born in 1927, and a brother, Samuel, four years older-settled in Bexley and the boys attended Bexley High School. Bob was tagged as brainy, not brawny, and avoided sports, which became a lifelong aversion.
Health concerns led to a trip to stay with an aunt in Tucson, Arizona, where he grew up and filled out (as much as he ever would, anyway). Then he went to Mexico for six weeks, by himself. Another teenage trip, to Los Angeles and other points west, not to mention a voyage to Europe working on a cattle boat, presaged a life of travel that took him nearly everywhere in the world.
As a little kid, Shamansky had his imagination fired by his brother's third-grade geography book full of exotica-pictures of Mesopotamia and Africa. "I couldn't wait to get to the third grade so I could use that same geography book," he said in his historical society interview. "I've been mentally and psychologically chasing that geography book ever since."
Unlike many of his contemporaries, World War II did nothing to broaden his horizons. He was drafted, but at 115 pounds was too small to serve. He made the cut for Korea, but ended up in Baltimore in a school for counterintelligence agents. He was assigned to the school itself instead of the field, and he recalled having to dump wastebaskets each afternoon.
The military experience resulted in a trauma that Shamansky said marked the rest of his life. Driving home on leave with fellow Bexley draftee Ted Huntington, a member of the banking family who'd been a best friend since childhood, Shamansky couldn't avoid an oncoming car in his lane.
The head-on crash killed Huntington and left Shamansky with months of painful rehab and permanent disability as well as crippling guilt that was only alleviated when Huntington's mother visited him in the hospital. She assured him he was blameless.
More sorrow was in store, though: Shamansky's father fell ill, dying of cancer even as his son was still rehabilitating.
Shamansky, who'd graduated from Ohio State and Harvard Law School before the Army, threw himself into his profession, going to work in 1954 for Troy Feibel, Jim's father. He also started to make money: His brother was in construction, a perfect fit for a real estate lawyer looking to buy and sell property. It was a lucrative partnership.
"He was self-made from day one," Sam Shamansky says. "He wasn't born into it."
His entry into politics surprised no one, Jim Feibel says. Shamansky dared to take on longtime Republican congressman Sam Devine in 1966, though he had virtually no shot at the seat. He lost, but didn't lose the taste for politics, Feibel says: "That was Bob."
He came back for more in 1980 and in an upset for the ages defeated Devine, becoming the first Democrat to represent Columbus in Congress in 41 years. He did himself no favors in his term by taking on the tobacco lobby, but his real mistake, Feibel says, was endorsing someone other than Vern Riffe, then the most powerful man in the Statehouse, for governor.
As Ohio House speaker, Riffe was in the middle of redistricting the state and Shamansky suddenly saw his district lose wide swaths of urban Columbus and gain a whole lot of suburban Republicans. He lost in 1982 to a young firebrand named John Kasich and the seat has been in Republican hands ever since.
In a campaign as quixotic as his first, Shamansky ran against Pat Tiberi for the seat in 2006, spending more than a million dollars of his own money. He won a majority in Franklin County, but couldn't overcome Republican votes in Licking and Delaware counties.
Out of office didn't mean out of sight: Shamansky rallied the opposition in the early 1990s when downtown planners first floated the idea of moving COSI and the art museum to the west bank of the Scioto.
He also fought with the city over the Seneca Hotel, the grand old downtown property that had deteriorated badly since the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency left in 1987. Shamansky and his brother bought it in 1992, but their redevelopment plans stalled when Shamansky couldn't persuade the city to build a parking garage to serve the building and the surrounding Discovery District.
It was a nasty spat, as the city denied Shamansky's plan for demolition and he threatened to take the city all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the partnership with his brother unraveled to the point where a court ordered their property split and sold, including the Seneca.
"It was a disagreement over how property was going to be managed," Sam Shamansky says. "Very sad." Sam Sr. died in 2002. Did they ever reconcile? "Sort of," Sam says. No one suggests the rift led to lingering depression for Bob: He was not a man given to melancholy.
At least not until shortly before his death, when depression scared him into the hospital. "He was feeling despondent, thoughts of suicide," Sam says. "But he was getting help."
"He checked himself into a psychiatric ward. He said he was having dark thoughts, past tense," Feibel says. "But they released him because he was fine. He said, 'Well, they kicked me out.' "
He was in the hospital for four days. When he left, he seemed like his old self. Looking back, Feibel suspects he'd already made his decision. He ensured that a check funding a program for Jewish art would be cashed promptly. "He knew they'd cancel his checking account after he died," Feibel says. "At that point, it's clear he knew what he was doing."
Sam agrees that it was no momentary impulse: "I think he did it because he had a rational, well-thought-out belief that his time had come. He prided himself on his intellect. If he thought for an instant that his mind was slipping, that was a slope he wouldn't want to go down. He was not a fearful person. It makes sense that he wouldn't be afraid to do it."
Feibel isn't so sure: "That doesn't resonate with me. But nothing else resonates with me, either."
Jeff Long is a freelance writer.