From the Archives: Mr. Bexley

Julia Osborne
David Madison at the Bexley community pool in 2007

Editor's note: With his son in the news for his confrontational style at Bexley City Hall, Columbus Monthly is republishing this February 1981 profile of David Madison, who served as mayor of Bexley for 32 years. 

Dave Madison carries a small paging device in the pocket of his jacket so that he can be reached at any time. He drives around Central Ohio in a blue Chevy with vanity plates that read "BEXLEY.” He works 12 hours a day, sometimes more. While it might be too much to say that he is obsessed with being mayor of Bexley, the relatively trouble-free suburb of some 15,000 people on Columbus' East Side, it does seem as though he's made it into more of a job than it needs to be, dealing personally with nearly every "crisis" that arises in his city, be it a serious accident or a resident's complaint about a neighbor's dog.

Perhaps part of his devotion to the mayor's job can be explained by the fact that for the first time in Madison's life, he's doing something that he really likes, something where he is judged on his own merits and—if you ask almost any Bexley resident— something he's good at.

There shouldn't be much surprise that Madison has picked Bexley for his political arena. It's not a city that's large enough for him to make statewide political waves, but since its population includes many of the area's more wealthy and powerful people, frequently used to getting what they want when they want it, the job does come with some built-in challenges. Besides, Bexley is the part of Central Ohio Madison knows best. He grew up on Preston Road (in the city of Columbus, but in an area identical to much of Bexley), attended Bexley schools, took a couple of years of prep school like any proper suburban resident, then came back and graduated from the Columbus Academy. Now 48, he's lived most of his adult life in Bexley, and in the late '60s became a member of the Bexley City Council. He served for eight years.

There was surprise among all but Madison's closest friends when he decided to run for mayor five years ago. It seemed he was trading guaranteed filet mignon for the never-ending chicken and peas circuit. He had a comfortable, high-paying position with the small chain of women's specialty stores bearing the family name and started by his father, Louis, in the mid 1930s. Dave Madison was an executive vice president, and it appeared he had a direct line to the presidency just about any time he wanted to move up. To outsiders, all seemed to be going well.

A few knew otherwise. They knew that by the mid '70s, Madison was tired, very tired of retailing and of working in a business started by his father, where he would always be thought of as his father's son. It was the business that he had been groomed for, that he had been expected to enter. He dutifully received a business degree from a small junior college in Massachusetts, then tried—though he never succeeded—to finish his degree at Ohio State. No matter. After he took a break for a stint in the Navy during the Korean War, his father used his connections and found his son a job at B. Forman Company, a small store in Rochester, N.Y. Madison was to learn retailing basics there, and he did. After “a year and a half," he remembers, "during Christmas I talked with my father and told him I was working 16 to 18 hours a day. He said, 'Hell, if you’re working like that, come back and work for me.'"

His training over, Madison came back to Columbus and to Madison's in early 1956; his father died in late 1957. His mother Jean took the title of president (and retained it untilher death in 1976) and suddenly Madison found himself an executive vice president. (His brother-in-law, James Jacobs, took an identical title; Jacobs is president of the company today.)

Madison says that there were many years during which he did enjoy his job. The store was expanding, and he was overseeing acquisitions of property and development of new buildings. After work, he spent time with his wife and their growing family (they had three children). But the store expanded a bit too much in the early ’70s; Madison’s tried to crack the market in Milwaukee and Chicago. The store in Chicago was never a success and soon closed, and Madison became more and more frustrated.

Looking back now at his retailing career, he says, “the easiest thing for me to do would have been to stay there.” But he adds, without apology for himself, "I wasn't very good at it." And he says, “I hated it. It was total monotony. ...There was no challenge anymore. I just wanted to get out."

Get out and do something on his own, without relying on his father’s name or even his own. He weighed his options. Further schooling was out; "I was a mediocre to poor student,” he recalls, and David's closest friends say even today, "He's never professed to be a Phi Beta Kappa—and he isn't." He considered selling insurance, or perhaps real estate. Or he could build on his Bexley City Council experience. He had, after all, been one of the youngest people ever elected to the council, and though he admits, “we didn’t really do much of anything” during his years of service he knew he had some community backing.

Then there was motivation. “There was an incident,” Madison says. “A friend’s wife was assaulted.” He adds, “I really don’t want to talk much about it, but it just wasn’t handled right.” Madison decided what he should do. He’d run for mayor of Bexley, and guarantee that in the future, such things would be handled much more the way he thought they should be.

Madison had found something that he wanted to do, picked a job for himself. And with the intensity that would later characterize his work in office, Madison began to campaign for the Bexley mayor’s spot. He left the store in mid 1975 “and I knew,” he says, “win or lose, I wasn’t coming back.”

His campaign was managed by Norton Webster, a Downtown attorney who’s figured in the political careers of several Bexley residents. (Webster’s more recent claim to fame is his management of Bob Shamansky’s successful bid for Congress in 1980.) Webster says he supported Madison because “we needed a change in Bexley.” Though two-term mayor Ken McClure had done little to raise the ire of the city’s residents, Webster says he felt the city needed a mayor “who would honestly and sincerely work with the people.”

If Madison had learned anything from those years in retailing, it was how to work with people. Webster encouraged him to go door to door throughout the community “if he had the stamina to do it.” No problem. “I visited 5,000 homes,” Madison says. “I went through south Bexley twice. I was on the streets seven days a week.” He met people and listened. “I couldn’t promise anything,” he says, “because I didn’t know what I was going to do if I won.”

He expected to win, though, and did. In November, 1975, Madison beat McClure by 141 votes: Madison with 3,097, McClure with 2,956. McClure, who’s since moved to the far east side and is now selling real estate, shrugs off the defeat. “I really didn’t campaign that much,” he says, and adds he was becoming tired of the job.

For Madison, the election meant a new job, a chance to show himself as himself. He immersed himself in preparation. Between the election and January 1976, when he took office, Madison filled his time with visits to mayors of other small communities around the area, including Reynoldsburg and Whitehall, and sat in  on some of their council meetings. John Bishop, mayor then and now of Whitehall, says of him, “He didn’t realize the magnitude of the job. He he was quick to accept it. He was perturbed with himself that he couldn’t do the job from the first day.”

Madison says now that it really took him his entire first term to learn everything he needed to know about the job. And some of his learning experiences helped him establish his reputation of personally caring about everything that happens in his city. He wanted to know how a working fire was handled. So when there were fires in Bexley, he’d show up. He needed to see how the police department worked. So he went out on calls. He worked with, talked with various city employees—and in one of his first publicized actions, replaced the police chief with Thomas Tobin, formerly a lieutenant on the force. Tobin just says, "We were having some internal problems" and that Madison "took the steps he felt necessary"; but it does seem that morale on the force improved and has remained strong.

Long hours, evening meetings, irregular schedules became common place for Madison as he learned his job. And though he won't make the connection, others say his devotion to his new work caused a crumbling marriage to deteriorate even further. He and his wife were divorced in November 1976, though Madison says today, "We're generally friendly, and I do see the children."

 It was in connection with one of his children and her activities that Madison made what he still calls the "biggest mistake" he's made since he was elected mayor. His daughter Patti was still in high school, and her sorority planned a party in the fall of 1977 at Blacklick Stables. Madison says, “I was the only parent who would chaperone," so on Oct. 20, he found himself at the stable with a group of about 400 high school students. His daughter's sorority was selling the drinks at the party. The only drink available: 3.2 beer.

Beer was sold, it was reported later, to people as young as 14. There were no arrests, no serious incidents as a result of the drinking, but many Bexley residents took dim view of their mayor's presence at such an event—despite the fact it wasn't official city business or within the city limits. It got Madison onto the front page of the Dispatch. "I'm glad the news article was written," he says now. "I don't condone the drinking of alcohol by minors and it was really kind of stupid on my part.” After the story appeared, Madison wrote a letter to the Dispatch, which was printed, saying he had simply "made a mistake" and he had no excuse for what had happened. He later received "quite a few" letters from people supporting his honesty.

After his family breakup, Madison moved into a two-bedroom apartment in the Cassady North Apartments, at the north side of Bexley, He chose an apartment over a house, he says, "because I don't want to worry about cutting the grass." With no day-to-day family pressures, he threw himself into his job. He became about Bexley, says one friend, “just like Jim Rhodes is about the Ohio State Fair." Madison doesn't deny it. "This is the neatest little community I've ever been to," he says.

He does take a bit more time for himself these days (now that he feels he's learned his job), but his schedule hasn't changed much over his years as mayor. Up at 6:30 every morning, he's usually in his office by 7:15. Surrounded by wood-paneled walls dotted with mementoes of his work at the store and as mayor, he may glance through his bright yellow in-and-out boxes, then make a couple of early morning phone calls, to current council president John Offenberg or other city employees not yet at their desks. "If he gets an idea, or gets onto something, he wants to share it," Offenberg says, but adds, "He hasn't called me that often that early."

Occasionally Madison will take an early morning break and drive to the Grill & Skillet for breakfast with staffers or city residents, but more often he stays at his desk, working, perhaps with chief Tobin or with Stanley Sheehan, assistant to the mayor. Sheehan has worked for the city of Bexley since 1973, and calls Madison "a good man to work with and for. He takes the time to attend to matters that need his attention."

His only complaint about the mayor: “He does take most of his phone calls. He gets caught in a whole lot of routine matters that I'd like to handle." Sheehan feels the difference between Madison and McClure is “more a matter of personality than anything else." Like others, Sheehan says Madison is "very intense about things at times."

Sipping tea from a blue and white enamel cup (“I've tried to give up coffee," Madison says), he skims reports, perhaps prepared for the EPA or the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, or considers some new information about the development of I-670. At least a couple of times a week, he'll break for lunch and drive to German Village and the Clarmont, where he eats with a half-dozen or so of his friends, including "some doctors, some lawyers, some businessmen." He may have a meeting away from his office after lunch, or hurry back to talk with a group of schoolchildren from the city's public schools on how the city is run. Later in the day, he may light up a pipe or a cigar as he works at his desk, and usually leaves his office by 5 pm.

But it's rare that his day as mayor is over then. He may have a meeting somewhere in Bexley, or drive home for a quick dinner before attending a City Council meeting at 7 p.m. He might appear as a speaker at a public school or for some other group later in the evening. His day is usually over by 9 p.m., Madison says, and though police will notify him if there is a serious problem or accident somewhere in the city, he'll only occasionally drive to the scene. “If there's an accident in Bexley and I'm at Friday's," he says, “I won't come out.”

If he's home, there's a better chance he will, but he drives at a normal rate. Though his car does have a flashing red light he can attach to its top, he never uses it while driving, and his current car doesn't even have a siren. He goes to such scenes since "I am the chief law enforcer," but he adds with a smile, “I guess all of us little boys like to play police officer at one time or another." Once every two months or so, Madison gets even closer to playing policeman, taking some time to go out and ride around the city with various police officers.

Throughout the day and evening hours, Madison will almost certainly spend some time talking with individual residents of the city about their problems and concerns. Though Sheehan may be frustrated by the fact that much of Madison's time is taken up by things he's sure he could handle, Madison doesn't seem to be. "Somebody comes down to pay their water bill and they want to stop in to talk to me. I'll see them. What they have to say is important," he says. Residents who have spent time with him agree. "Whenever I've talked with him, he's always such a gentleman,” says one woman who lives in the same apartment building Madison does. "I always feel as if it's the only thing he has to do all day is listen to me talk about Bexley, though I know he's got to have 1,001 other things going through his head." His ability to concentrate on the individual and the situation confronting him—or, at least, the ability toseemto concentrate—has gone far to earn him his reputation of doing his job with involvement and intensity.

His schedule on every other Friday includes a morning of presiding over Mayor's Court. Madison, as mayor of a municipality where no municipal court is located, can hear cases regarding the breaking of any of the city's laws and of any traffic laws within Bexley city limits. A typical morning's docket may include charges of driving while intoxicated, failure to stop at a traffic light, assorted domestic fights or perhaps even public indecency. Madison can impose a fine of up to $5,000 and a jail sentence of up to six months, but says he's never told anyone to serve more than 28 days (sentences are served in the Franklin County Jail).

Mayor's Court in Bexley is held in the room which doubles as the City Council chambers. Madison holds court wearing his business clothes, flanked by chief Tobin and the city attorney and prosecutor, David Bodiker (who works full-time as a Columbus criminal attorney). Those in court sit on rows of folding chairs, and generally walk forward meekly when their cases are called, plead guilty, and wait for Bodiker to slide the papers on their offense around the long desk to Madison, much like a bartender would slide him a beer. Madison puts on glasses, reads the papers, and usually imposes a light sentence. On occasion, someone will show up in court with an attorney and plead not guilty, or the case is a bit complex, but Bodiker and the city often win anyway.

Madison admits he doesn't know much about the law. He feels that's better for all concerned, that he can come to more just decisions without being bothered by technicalities.

Not all Bexley citizens feel that way. In fact, when Madison was challenged for reelection in 1979, his opponent was a recent Capital University Law School grad, Lawrence Reinhold, who says, “I didn't think the Mayor's Court should function as it does." He says he believes Madison ignores "procedural safeguards and rights ... I think they're doing something wrong."

Though Bodiker admits Madison may handle the court a bit more informally than someone with a legal education might, he says, "He has a very good sense of what's right and wrong. He has an equitable manner of handling cases—and I can't think of very many instances when he hasn't followed the law."

It seems that few Bexley residents saw the problems with Mayor's Court—or with Madison—that Reinhold found. Reinhold lost his bid for election, 818 to 4,844, Madison receiving 85.5 percent of the votes.

Madison is proud of several things he's been able to accomplish while in office. He's established a good relationship with Bexley residents; many streets have been repaved; the city has a new set of street lights (a globe from the old lamps sits on a shelf behind Madison's desk, looking like a large, frosted compote); and most importantly to Madison, a program to increase Bexley's awareness of substance abuse by young people has begun. Community Awareness of Substance Abuse (CASA) was begun last summer, with adults and high school students involved in its planning and development.

Judy Wood, president of the Parent-Teacher Organization council in the area, explains that CASA has helped establish some guidelines for both the schools and city government to follow in dealing with people who are thought to be abusing drugs or alcohol, and is now developing an ongoing educational program for parents and other adults in the area. She estimates several hundred Bexley residents are "active" participants in the program.

Other Bexley residents cite moreofMadison'saccomplishments.Jim Goodman, owner of Youthland, a children's clothing store with shops in Arlington and Bexley, and owner of the mini-shopping center along East Main Street housing Youth land and several other stores, says, "He was instrumental in the redevelopment of downtown Bexley. He made sure work was done well and in good taste.” Goodman says all four stores in his center are "enjoying record business." Goodman also lives in Bexley and adds, “My real estate investment in both my home and the shopping center are sound, because the city is run so well."

Other merchants are pleased with the police protection they've received under his administration, "Their police force is as fine as any I've worked with," says Dick Argo, vice president of Argo & Lehne Jewelers and manager of the Bexley store. Roy Wentz, who's owned the Wentz Pharmacy near City Hall “for about 60 years," agrees, "The police and other city services are on the job when you need them."

And even a businessman in quite a different business has only praise for Madison and his employees. DennisYoung is the manager of the Bexley Art Theatre, an adult movie theatre that most Bexley residents ignore—and at least a few would be much happier without. But Madison doesn't seem to be one of those. Young says, “Our dealings with him have been very professional and above board.” He adds, "The police protection has been excellent."

Madison has also maintained a good relationship with his across the-street neighbor, Capital University. President Harvey Stegemoeller says, "He's been friendly, helpful, supportive."

Because Madison truly seems to enjoy his job and seems willing to give the time he must to deal with the problems of the city, he's hard pressed to come up with many disadvantages of the job. He does say he's not crazy about the salary. “I get $25,000 a year," he says. "I couldn't make it on that, not with my three children." That money is supplemented by a salary he earns by remaining a "consultant" to Madison's stores, paying regular visits there and working with Jacobs, plus what he receives from owning one third of the stock of the store. (The rest is owned by his sisters, Betsy, who lives in Connecticut, and Joyce, married to Jacobs.) He won't give and exact figure, but says he makes "at least as much as I make as mayor" from the stores each year.

The only other complaint Madison has is that "I have very little privacy. Being mayor of a small city, people feel they can approach you any place, any time, and talk about problems." He's people-oriented, but only to a point.

Though he has done well as mayor of Bexley, he says he doesn't know what he'll do after he completes this term. (He has three more years to go.) Fingering the sterling bracelet he always wears, he says, "I hate politics. I love to campaign, but I don't like it when politics gets involved." Though Madison makes no secret of the fact he is a Democrat, races in Bexley are nonpartisan.

He has made some attempt to keep himself in the eye of those other than Bexley residents. Besides his work there and with Madison's, he serves on the board of trustees of St. Anthony Hospital and of Sounding Board Counseling Center, a nonprofit group which operates an east side center for the prevention of domestic violence. He also works with the Charity Newsies and is a member of Rotary. With such Central Ohio involvement, he could perhaps run for some other office someday. But he's not sure he wants to. Friends have suggested he might be congressional material, but he's not sure about that, either.

For now, for at least the next three years, he wants to enjoy being mayor of Bexley. Despite his intensity, his deep involvement in the city since he was elected, he's still not tired of the city or his job. On the contrary, he seems to enjoy it more and more. Friends who have known him for awhile say, "He's found himself in this job," and, "It's great. Since he became mayor, he's turned into a whole new human being." And Madison himself seems, finally, to relish his work and his life. “I really can't think of anything I'm not happy with," he says. “I'm enjoying doing what I want to do."

This story originally appeared in the February 1981 issue of Columbus Monthly.


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