The toughest SOBs in town

By
From the October 2010 edition

This story appeared in the June 1984 issue of Columbus Monthly.

You know the kind of people we’re talking about. Woody Hayes, middle-aged and paunchy, slapping helmets and kicking butts on 260-pound behemoths, knowing, by God, he was in charge on that practice field. And then taking his firing in stoic MacArthuresque silence, marching grimly into retirement to the cadence of his own rigid code.

Or Dwight Joseph the elder, maybe the toughest cop Columbus has ever had, leading his men right through that smoking hole in the Ohio Pen wall with no idea how many homicidal cons were waiting for him inside. And telling politicos, right to their faces, where to stick their opinions about the way he ran his department.

Or Murray Lincoln, the maverick insurance man, telling Columbus’s power elite exactly what he thought of their tight-ass pomposity, defying them to show him why the city had to be run from the second floor of the Columbus Club. And building Nationwide into one of the biggest, most profitable insurance companies in the Midwest while he was at it.

Lincoln and Joseph are dead and Woody’s being sanctified. But we still remember. They were all tough, tough SOBs. The kind of guys you want on your team when you’re choosing up sides for a war. Hardnosed, no-nonsense types who got the job done, no matter the price. A real SOB doesn’t much care whether you like him or dislike him, as long as you get out of his way. That’s how it was with Hayes and Joseph and Lincoln. Their loyalists swore by them, and a lot of other people swore at them, but they Got Things Done.

You say we don’t have many tough SOBs around Columbus these days? Look again. We nosed around a bit and came up with 22 people who’d fire their own mothers for goofing off on the job; who’d send that $50 bottle of wine right back to the kitchen if it didn’t smell right—maybe with the neck broken off for good measure; who’d squeeze the last $5,000 from a real estate sale and then walk away from the deal, just because they didn’t like the other SOB’s attitude. To avoid offending anyone, we’ve listed them alphabetically—Adams to Zonak.

You say you’ve looked at our list of SOBs, and it’s full of wimps and candies? Your Aunt Minnie’s tougher than half these people? Well, that’s your opinion. You can like our list, or you can hate it. It’s our list, and, when you come right down to it, we don’t give a damn what you think. Go ahead and cancel your subscription. See if we care.

Arthur Adams

People used to ask former Ohio State University provost Ann Reynolds (who could be pretty tough herself) why she was so chummy with Art Adams. “If a 500-pound gorilla wanted to sleep under your window and protect you,” Reynolds would reply, “what would you say?” Adams is too thin and too bald to look like a gorilla, but when it comes to toughness, Reynolds’s analogy works.

A former OSS man and a Russian historian specializing in the Stalin era, Adams developed his own brand of power politics in a series of administrative jobs at OSU. As dean of humanities, Adams slugged it out with former black studies chairman Charles Ross in the early ’70s. Adams came out on top. As head of continuing education, Adams shaped up a raggedy collection of programs—and made more than a few enemies. Now he’s a gunslinger for OSU president Ed Jennings, trying to put together a university research park. “If it can be done,” says an OSU staff member, “Art will do it. The whole place may look like scrambled eggs when he gets through, but he only cares about keeping one guy happy, and that’s Ed Jennings.”

Frank Celebrezze

If you’ve followed the Ohio Supreme Court’s activities for the last couple of years, you already know that Chief Justice Frank Celebrezze runs the court like his personal army. Celebrezze tyrannizes his staff, alternately muscles and cajoles his fellow justices and generally stonewalls the news media, which he despises. Never has one man so dominated Ohio’s highest court.

Celebrezze can be charming and sociable, but he can also turn harsh and angry without warning. Lawyers say he’s continuing his three-year vendetta against the Ohio State Bar Association, whose “establishment” attorneys he loathes at least as much as he dislikes newsmen. Because Celebrezze carries grudges a long time, few lawyers will challenge him openly. With tremendous political strength in Northeastern Ohio, he can probably remain Ohio’s judicial autocrat for as long as he chooses.

Gene D’Angelo

Not many guys would stand toe-to-toe with John W. Wolfe and tell him he’s wrong—particularly when Wolfe was their boss. But Gene D’Angelo, president of the WBNS stations, has done it more than once, and walked away unscathed. “He doesn’t care who you are,” says one WBNS-TV staffer. “If you’re out of line, he’ll tell you.”

When OSU football coach Earle Bruce got uppity in his demands for more money and more control of his popular TV show, D’Angelo told him to buzz off, even though the show made money for WBNS. Last spring, after a less-than-happy season at WTVN-TV, Bruce tried, through an intermediary, to test the water at WBNS again. D’Angelo just laughed. Whether he’s reaming out a contractor or putting the screws to his on-air talent, Gene D’Angelo follows his own philosophy about how to get to the top and stay there: “Stick it in, and break it off.”

Lisa Galat

They laughed when Lisa Galat sat down to create a restaurant, but Columbus’s most tenacious female entrepreneur usually laughs last. A Victorian Village pioneer in the mid 1970s, Galat had modest success with a cooking school that grew into her first restaurant, A Matter of Taste, on West Fifth Avenue. She figured that would open the necessary doors for her next project—restoration of The Clock Restaurant at 161 N. High St. But bankers and investors, knowing the odds against any restaurant business, were initially unimpressed.

To the single-minded and hyperkinetic Galat, “no” was not an acceptable answer. She shook the local money trees until they begged for mercy and finally put her nearly $1 million deal together. Now she’s the no-nonsense boss of one of Columbus’s trendier eateries, and already expanding next door. Galat can be caustic and tyrannical to employees, whom she motivates as much through fear as through persuasion. But she gets results.

Edward Jennings

Any successful college president must be a good politician. But Ed Jennings is turning out to be much more. In two years he’s completely reconstructed Ohio State University’s administration, installing his own loyalists from top to bottom. Thanks mainly to increased state taxes, Jennings has also stabilized OSU’s financial situation. Now he’s turning to tough projects like revamping the OSU athletic department, quintupling the university’s fund raising, building a research park and upgrading academic standards. It’s a big agenda, but Jennings has a big ego.

Jennings’s operating style is smooth and nonconfrontational. But don’t mistake smooth for soft. Jennings can be relentless when someone is bucking him, as more than one OSU administrator has learned. “He’s very efficient about dealing with opposition,” says an OSU professor. “Either the opposition disappears, or the opponent does. Either way, Ed wins.”

Bernie Karsko

In his good old days as a Dispatch police reporter, Bernie Karsko was an easygoing guy who liked to paint, hang out at Scioto Downs and knock back a few beers with the rest of the ink-stained wretches. He didn’t really earn his SOB spurs until he became Dispatch city editor. But now, responsible for most of the paper’s local reporting, Karsko’s a tough guy to work for. He’s been known to send green reporters back to the same crime scene five or six times, each time demanding some new piece of information. His acid questions quickly eat through a flimsily researched story, and his compliments are few and far between. Reporters cringe at the sight of Karsko’s distinctive red pen marks on their copy.

But Karsko gets the job done. He may manage through intimidation and fear, but he manages. Stories coming from the Dispatch city desk have probably never been more accurate or more thorough. Karsko may not be Mr. Charm, but in the newspaper business, nice guys are often the ones who wind up in court being sued for libel. Bernie Karsko and his reporters don’t get there very often.

Sue T. Kindred

Some people are SOBs because they want to be SOBs. Sue Kindred, say her associates, is an SOB because she has to be. Kindred is OSU’s affirmative action director, responsible for monitoring the university’s conformance with federal laws and regulations concerning hiring, firing and promotion of minorities. She may work for the university administration, but it’s her job to take it to task if she finds that OSU is discriminating against someone on the basis of sex, race, creed, etc. And she’s been known to do just that. University officials describe her as a tough, no-nonsense negotiator and investigator who isn’t afraid to chew out higher-ups if she thinks they’re wrong. It’s a habit, they say, she acquired by dealing day-to-day with people who are hostile toward her work to begin with. “There’s no monkeying around,” says one OSU source. “There’s no gray area with her.”

Joseph Kinneary

Want to glimpse the fires of hell? Just show up in Joseph Kinneary’s federal courtroom with your suitcoat unbuttoned, or your tie loose, or anything on top of your head but hair. Kinneary, the senior U.S. District judge in Columbus, runs his court with an iron hand. When anyone offends against his rules of decorum, the iron gets red hot. An Indian Sikh once refused as a matter of religious principle to remove his turban in court. Kinneary nearly chewed the turban off the man’s head.

Nearly 80 years old, Kinneary is said to be slowing down a bit on the bench, but he’s still hard as nails, always cantankerous and sometimes downright nasty. Woe unto the lawyer who shows up late, or unprepared, or with an argument Kinneary finds silly. “At least,” says a lawyer who admits his hands shake every time he appears in Kinneary’s court, “he treats everybody alike. He’s an equal-opportunity SOB.”

Charles S. Lopeman

Sam Lopeman is a master at building stone walls. As the former Republican chairman of the Ohio Building Authority (OBA), he not only built walls literally, but succeeded figuratively in stonewalling opposition Democrats, members of the media—anyone he thought might stand in his way. And Lopeman was rarely challenged, partly because he was widely considered one of Gov. Jim Rhodes’s most trusted political henchmen.

“Sam’s as mean as a skunk,” says another Republican who dealt with Lopeman often. “Nobody wants to fight him because he’s so nasty. So he got things his own way at the OBA for a long time.” Lopeman still holds a seat on the OBA, but he’s out of power and out of favor now that Democrat Dick Celeste has taken control and appointed Marvin Warner as OBA chairman. Still, people who have watched Lopeman’s rough-and-tumble politicking and dealmaking think he’ll be heard from again. “A guy like that can be very useful,” says the Republican. “He doesn’t give a damn what anybody says about him.”

Jim Malloy

Negotiating with a union leader is never a picnic at the beach, but with Jim Malloy it’s more like three weeks at Dunkirk. Malloy’s the guy who took the local ironworkers out on strike two years ago and stopped several big construction projects dead in their tracks—despite the fact that most other building trades unions had already signed new contracts. Some general contractors worry that he’ll do it again this year.

Controversial even among members of his own local, Malloy faces a stiff challenge in an ironworkers election this summer. Privately, some contractors are hoping he’ll lose. “Malloy is a screamer,” says one person on the contractors’ side. “And this is not a time for screamers.”

John McConnell

“A strong union,” John McConnell likes to say, “is evidence of a failed management.” That’s why you’ll find no unions at McConnell’s Worthington Industries headquarters and very few among the steel and plastics corporation’s subsidiaries. At the moment McConnell is in a brutal battle with unions at Buckeye Steel Castings, which Worthington took over several years ago. Few who know the WI chairman’s single-minded tenacity doubt that he’ll win.

McConnell rewards hard work and loyalty, but has no time for malcontents or shirkers. Worthington Industries has no sick leave policy. If you’re sick, you stay home. If you stay home when you’re not sick, you’re fired. If your hair’s too long—which is to say, longer than McConnell likes it—get it cut, on company time. Or else. McConnell may expect two days’ work for one day’s pay, but he also spreads Worthington’s profits around through bonuses and profit-sharing plans. He’s always tough and sometimes harsh, but he’s no robber baron.

Charles William O’Brien

The word around Ohio State University and City Hall is: Don’t mess with Bill O’Brien. As a campus area landlord, O’Brien has repeatedly clashed with individual tenants and the Columbus Tenants Union. When he didn’t like what the OSU Lantern said about those battles, O’Brien sued the paper and the university for libel, and the case dragged on for years—to the university’s considerable dismay. When he didn’t like municipal sanctions against one of his apartment projects, O’Brien sued former chief code enforcer Charles Egelhoff—to the city’s considerable dismay. When students parked illegally in the lot outside his College Inn bowling lanes (later destroyed by fire), O’Brien chained the cars in and charged hefty sums to get out—to the students’ considerable dismay.

A bodybuilder with an imposing physique, O’Brien often represents himself in court and drafts his own legal papers—quite effectively, according to opposing lawyers. He loves a fight and doesn’t seem concerned about whether anyone likes him. “If you cross him,” says an old acquaintance, “you’d better be ready to go to the mat.”

Clifton Pennington

Clifton Pennington is one of the last of a dying breed—a tough, no-nonsense, law-and-order cop whose patriotic zeal for God, country and the Ohio Revised Code might force him to arrest his own grandmother if she spit on the sidewalk. Pennington is the avenging angel of the Columbus police division’s downtown motorcycle squad, the guy you’d least like to see in your rear-view mirror if you make an illegal left turn.

Imagine trying to talk your way out of a ticket with a cop who stands 6-feet-3 and weighs 230 pounds; whose stormtrooper motorcycle boots are specially made to fit around his calves; who has two American flags fluttering from the handle bars of his Honda Trident motorcycle. When it comes to doling out tickets, Pennington “recognizes a gray area, but it isn’t very wide,” says his supervisor. He once gave a fellow police officer a ticket for a violation he committed while en route to an emergency call. Like some other tough guys, Pennington has a soft side too. Fellow officers describe him as a loving family man who enjoys needlepoint. Really.

Vern Riffe

Forget any naive reading of the Ohio Constitution that would lead you to believe the governor is the most powerful figure in state government. The framers of the constitution couldn’t forsee the emergence of Vern Riffe of New Boston, the Speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives. Since becoming Speaker a decade ago, the crafty Democrat has redefined the position with his deft use of the pleasure/pain system. House members who have attempted to oppose him have found themselves occupants of a political wasteland. Friends find their rewards.

Take the case of Riffe’s good friend, Michael DelBane, who was rewarded for years of loyal legislative service with an appointment to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO). When Governor Celeste made a campaign promise to fire all three PUCO members, he included DelBane. And sure enough, the ax did fall on all three members. But then DelBane was immediately reappointed. Surprised? You don’t know Speaker Riffe. Says one former legislator of Vern Riffe, “He practices politics the way medieval popes ran the church. With grace, skill and cunning.”

Jerome Schottenstein

How can a list of Columbus’s toughest SOBs be complete without the man who shut down Halle’s? Jerry Schottenstein makes his considerable living driving hard bargains with other businessmen in distress. He’s got a sharp mind, a sharp pencil and the stamina to squeeze the last dollar out of a negotiation. In New York where the big SOBs play, Jerry Schottenstein is considered one of the toughest retail liquidators around.

Schottenstein seems genuinely perplexed by the public uproar that followed his decision to liquidate Halle’s. He’d tried to turn the chain around, he says, but when that didn’t work he simply made the obvious business decision. “That’s the problem with Jerry,” says one person who knows him well. “It’s all business to him. He doesn’t understand that there are other things in life.” Schottenstein may not be a barrel of laughs at a cocktail party, but he’s a formidable force in Columbus business and real estate.

The drivers of Shamrock Towing Service

It’s pretty hard to pick just one Shamrock Towing Service driver on whom to bestow SOB honors. Ask any Ohio State University student or faculty member: The guys at Shamrock seem to take a particularly uncommiserating and mercenary delight in snatching cars off private lots in the campus area. Owned by Charles N. Duffey, Shamrock has the dubious distinction of being the towing company with the most citizen complaints filed against it each year with the city’s license section.

Says one Columbus police officer, “They would tow your car with you sitting in it.” And he’s not exaggerating; he saw it happen. Called to the scene of a disturbance in a campus area parking lot one night a few years back, the cop arrived to find a Shamrock driver and an irate citizen in heated argument. Seems the tow truck driver had been called to remove the man’s car from the lot, and didn’t seem to mind that the man was asleep in it at the time. “The tow truck driver had to sneak up on the car very quietly, put the chains on very quietly and back his wrecker up very quietly,” says the police officer. “The only reason the guy knew he was being towed was because the back end started going up.” The rudely awakened man jumped out of the car to protest, but the Shamrock driver refused to let the vehicle down until the man forked over $28.

Bob Steele

Don’t go getting rowdy at Scioto Downs this summer unless you’re prepared to confront an imposing, white-haired man who looks more like a deputy sheriff (which he is, by special commission) than the track’s general manager (which he also is, by profession). Bob Steele has worked for Charlie Hill at the standardbred track for 26 years now; his tight-fisted discipline explains much of Scioto Downs’ reputation as a clean, honest, orderly racetrack. And no, that bulge in Steele’s coat is not a wallet.

Steele also is known as a shrewd businessman, a hard bargainer who knows how to cut costs to the bone. When the track’s parimutuel clerks—the people who sell and cash betting tickets—went on strike a few years ago, Steele locked them out, hired nonunion clerks and effectively broke the strike. He’s known in racing circles as a man of unbending morality and absolute integrity—the kind of guy who’d put his best friend in the slammer if he tried to slip a phony $50 bill through the betting window. The racing business could use more like him.

Joanne Stevenson

As research director for the Ohio State University college of nursing and a member of the OSU Athletic Council, Joanne Stevenson is used to being underestimated by men—doctors on one hand, coaches and athletic directors on the other. But she’s a tough infighter who can give as good as she gets. And she doesn’t care whom she offends.

Stevenson gets considerable credit for the long and ultimately successful struggle of the OSU school of nursing to break away from the college of medicine and become a college in its own right. On the Athletic Council, she’s a strong, sometimes belligerent voice for parity between women’s and men’s sports. Her negotiating style varies from blunt to battering-ram, and she may loose some fights because she won’t compromise. But these days, very few people take her lightly.

Willis “Pete” White

Utility company bosses are mostly faceless numbercrunchers who climb to the top on stacks of computer printouts and inter-office memos. Not Pete White. He’s the iron-fisted CEO of American Electric Power Company, and he doesn’t bother much with the velvet glove. Ever since AEP took over Columbus and Southern Ohio Electric Co. in 1980, White has been knocking heads in Columbus, demanding cost cuts and bigger profits. He’s bumped dozens of C&SOE managers into early retirement, and in 1982, when AEP’s profits couldn’t cover its dividend, White rammed through a series of salary cuts, benefit reductions and layoffs. White has cut 2,600 employees from the AEP payroll in three years.

Outside the AEP building, White takes hardline stands against environmentalists on acid rain and nuclear power issues. As a negotiator, he’s about as subtle as George Patton, but there’s no mistaking his message. Last year, White hammered Cincinnati Gas & Electric Co. until CG&E gave C&SOE and Dayton Power & Light $55 million each in retroactive rebates on the botched Zimmer Nuclear Power Plant. And AEP, unlike many investor-owned utilities, covered its dividend. Employees may quake, but AEP shareholders probably figure tough guy Pete White earned his $360,000 salary.

Frank Wobst

Don’t be fooled by the smile and the gracious Continental style. Frank Wobst, big boss of Huntington Bancshares and Huntington National Bank, is the toughest banker in Columbus. Just ask the former executives of Union Commerce Bank in Cleveland. They snickered when the upstart from Columbus started takeover maneuvers a couple of years ago. Then Wobst’s troops swept through Cleveland. Now Union Commerce is history, and Wobst is looking for new targets of opportunity.

Or ask Bill Cooper, Huntington’s former president. He was hand-picked by Wobst and carefully groomed to become chief operating officer. But Cooper fell out of favor after only a few months on the job, and was gone within hours. Wobst’s control of his staff and his board of directors is smooth and sure. He lavishes praise for good work, but tolerates no second-rate efforts. “In his next life,” jokes a friend, “Frank’s going to come back as Kaiser and reconstruct the German Empire.”

John W. Wolfe

John W. may not be the toughest SOB in town, but from his perch atop the Ohio Company, the Dispatch and the WBNS stations, a little tough goes a long way. When he goes hunting he brings back his quarry, sometimes strapped over the fender of a Dispatch delivery truck. Ask Will Hellerman, the former Nationwide veep. Hellerman, then president of COTA, complained that the Wolfes were too stingy to support public transit; John W. drove a spike through the heart of COTA’s next levy campaign. Or try to find Gordon Labuhn, former head of the Mid-Ohio Health Planning Federation. Labuhn opposed John W.’s pet project, a new cancer hospital at Ohio State University. Poof! No more Labuhn, and no more Mid-Ohio.

If he likes you, John W. Wolfe can be a loyal and generous friend. He’s been known to pick up hospital bills for sick friends, carry marginal employees until retirement, help out in family crises. There must be a soft spot somewhere. But if you’ve ever opposed John W. on anything he really cares about, watch out for those Dispatch delivery trucks.

John Zonak

“I couldn’t believe it,” recalls Columbus City Council President Jerry Hammond. “John Zonak’s my own personal lawyer, and there he was, telling me he was going to blow me and everyone else at City Hall out of the water. That’s tough!” Indeed Zonak’s made a legal career of hanging tough in government and political disputes, often representing aggrieved candidates or government workers. He can scream and pound tables with the best, and nobody ever knows quite how far he’s prepared to go.

A loyal Democrat, Zonak seems to take particular relish in needling Republicans. “He’ll ask himself, ‘What are the outer limits to which this situation can be pushed?’ ” says one GOP regular. “And then he’ll push it exactly that far. He’s a good theatrical technician. And he gets a lot done.” Off duty, Zonak can be a great social companion. But in the courtroom or the hearing room, he’s a deadly and implacable foe.