Extraordinary Women: A Tribute to women of the Near West Side
by Holly K. Gigante
(Plain Press, February 2005) I worked in the Near West Side for quite a few years at May Dugan Center and before that with churches and non-profits. During those 20-some years, I was impressed by the diligent, committed work of many residents, and in particular, some outstanding women who helped change the face of the neighborhoods and leave legacies of opportunity that stand today.
These women have all passed on. But knowing how they spent their time may help us appreciate why some organizations exist today.
One woman I met just starting out in the early ‘70s was Shirley Smith. She was a proud Appalachian from Sumerco, West Virginia and was smart, demanding, and quick. I remember her telling her community things like “stand up, speak out, quit whining, get help, be someone”. She worked out of the old Office of Economic Opportunity [OEO], helped develop the Appalachian Action Council, and, among other things, fought to obtain the charter of the West Side Development Corporation, which eventually transferred to what is now Tremont West Development Corporation. Flaxen-haired Shirley challenged me, and many others, by her feisty participation in community building. She was a hard worker, dedicated and driven, and died too young from breast cancer. But her impact upon people’s lives and future reached beyond her time.
I kept up with Connie Smiddie over many years. From Peoria, Illinois, she worked in the Near West Side as an Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) outreach worker to help families get jobs, housing, education, health care, etc. She also volunteered to help operate the Near West Side Peoples Clinic, precursor to what is now McCafferty Clinic, and during those years went to school to become a nurse and eventually worked at McCafferty in pediatrics. She also continued to volunteer with the OEO programs to get a new building for the neighborhood, which became known as the May Dugan Center, and volunteered until her death in the mid-90s to keep it well-maintained. Connie had chutzpa, was a ‘can-do’ person, and relied on her sense of humor in the best and worst of times.
Glenna Fischer was another woman who worked with the Near West Side community. She was a VISTA volunteer with the old Welfare Rights Organization [now called Empowerment Center] and later worked at Cuyahoga County—Income Maintenance, I think. She also volunteered in promoting safety in the community, working with police-community relations before it was an organized unit. She put in long hours in court watch. As a Mom, she was also caring for kids, and shares in the credit of establishing the Michael J. Zone Recreation Center, a dogged challenge back then, but tremendously rewarding to see completed.
Audrey Holt moved from Logan County, West Virginia to Cleveland in the late ‘60s. She was an outreach worker for Welfare Rights for 6-7 years, knocking on doors, visiting families to let them know of resources. She’d tell them “Honey, you can get help” here… there. And she’d go with them to get that help, often making the difference in a person becoming self-sufficient. Audrey also volunteered with Shirley Smith in the Appalachian Action Council as well as with the Cleveland Public Library. She continued to volunteer at hunger centers until she died late in 2004.
Pennsylvania-Dutch Goldie Bratsch ran the Comprehensive Youth Program [CYP] for hundreds of teens, getting them jobs, advocating on their behalf, working through all sorts of problems and situations. I remember young adults stopping in to visit Goldie, attributing to her the support they needed to ‘stay straight’ as a teen and become a good adult. Goldie volunteered at the May Dugan Center for years, and broke me in as director there in 1982. I could see why so many youth loved her—she had a great sense of humor and a sunny disposition, just like her name. She worked with 4-H, taught kids to garden in vacant lots, and was reliable in helping with all sorts of activities and events. And she was a great cook! Best German potato salad I ever ate!
Barbara Ogden participated in police-community relations in her Storer Avenue neighborhood. She worked at May Dugan Center for a time, helping people get jobs and working with merchants. She volunteered with the Stockyards Association and was particularly helpful to people in need, whatever their age.
Sandi Gerena was hired by Lillian Craig at May Dugan Center in the late ‘70s. Sandi helped families in crisis situations—the homeless, jobless, victims of disaster or crime. Smart and thorough, she used to say “I’ve done my job if the family doesn’t need me anymore”. Sandi could be tough, but she, like most of us, could also question her abilities. Once, she had set up a meeting with a speaker and about 30-40 people were there waiting. She told me that she got a call that the speaker just canceled; “What’ll I do?” she said. I told her to ‘wing it’. “Wing it?!”, she shrieked. And after a few seconds thinking about it, she did the meeting presentation herself. She was like that, ‘just do it already’. Sandi was the founder of May Dugan’s Rental Bank in the early ‘80s and is probably best remembered for her work with Police-Community Relations. She devoted much of her final years to that effort and died in late 2004 from cancer and diabetes.
A Lakewood native, Mary Caldwell got involved with, then moved to, the Near West Side as a young adult. Mary was a nurse and was helpful in starting the Near West Side Peoples Clinic and Neighborhood Family Practice and served on several non-profit boards. She could simplify discussions and directions so easily that all of us could quickly understand details of issues, and meetings were always productive. It was a pleasure to have Mary as our board chair for several years at May Dugan Center; the People Helping People Campaign” thrived under her watch.
There are many more women now deceased who stepped forward in their day to advocate on behalf of Near West Siders—like Nina Reilly in the Clark-Fulton area who fought for safety issues, kids, and better public schools, and Margaret Middleton, principal at Orchard School for years, who also supported non-profits like May Dugan and West Side Community House. There are more people, too, all remarkable in their own way.
What strikes me most in thinking of some of these “legends” is their audacity to try to make life better. They believed “if not me, who? If not now, when?” They did not know all the answers. They were not made of steel. They were not unafraid. But they were brave when they were afraid or intimidated. They were resilient in defeat. They were honest in their values amidst challenges and disappointments. They were ordinary people just like us—but they also found within themselves that little something “extra”. They used that extra and became extraordinary.
So maybe the next time you walk by McCafferty Clinic or Zone Rec, or visit Neighborhood Family Practice or go to a Police-Community-Relations meeting, you’ll think about your neighbors of times past, and the benefits they left to future generations.
To them all—“Well done!”
Holly K. Gigante is currently president of Cleveland International Program, an international professional exchange between Cleveland and world countries whose mission is to strengthen community and build understanding among people that can lead to peace.
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