Main Body

Chapter 10. Cleveland, 1978

Michael Swihart was never going to make the annals of ‘worst killer in Ohio history,’ even though he killed his father, his mother, and both brothers in violence that residents of a town in Medina County still talk about. But he’s up there with the lesser worst of Ohio killers, and jailed for life.

What makes this case stand out is the sheer ordinariness of it.

A middle class, respectable home, involving respectable people, in the respectable town of Brunswick (pop. 34,000, 95% white) a few miles south of Cleveland, suddenly destroyed by the apparently respectable 18-year-old college son of a respectable former US Air Force man.

And all kicked off by a father-son exchange as they both watched a ball game on TV about whether Michael was ever going to be any good with a baseball bat.

Michael’s family was raised in the U.S. Air Force, where his father Donald was an engineer and was often away from home for long periods; nine schools for Michael, the eldest child, ranging from New Mexico and Arizona to Alaska, Turkey, Spain and Georgia, and finally to Brunswick, Ohio, in 1976.

And a year later another change: to Miami University, Central Ohio, where Michael was in the first months as a freshman – with a girlfiend, to whom he swore his undying love. “He is one of the most considerate people I have ever met, always thinking of other people.” Cynthia (Cindy) Kirkey, Michael’s girlfriend, told the Medina County Court. “He’s sensitive to other people’s needs – one of the types you want to bring home to meet your parents.”

A nice boy. Apparently. Michael’s uncle described him to the three judge panel as ‘very polite, also ambitious and strived to please…….I felt that Mike respected his father a great deal. I felt there was a lot of love.” Apparently.  And of Donald, his father, Michael’s uncle on his mother’s side said Donald was ‘very energetic, athletic, ambitious and always wanted to achieve.’ And a perfectionist.

On the night of Oct 22, 1977, everything seemed fine at home. Swihart told detectives in a tape recording when he was arrested that he, his father and his 16-year-old brother Brian had stayed up late and watched television. He got up at 10am the next morning and went out into the woods while his mother Susan cooked his favorite meal – chicken and dumplings.

When he returned to the house he and his father again watched TV. “My father was swinging a baseball bat,” Swihart said on a tape played in the courtroom. “He was in a good mood that day. I really felt close to him. He was talking about Reggie Jackson and baseball.”

But at one point, the baseball bat in his hands, Donald Swihart asked Michael “Do you think you will ever be able to use one of these?”

The tone of his voice, in that sentence from a police report, was not made clear to the court, but it was clear to me watching from the press box that the word ‘ever’ must have been spoken sarcastically, an annoying niggle that got under Michael’s skin, especially as he later made a point of getting on so well with his father. Michael said his father put down the bat and sat on the coffee table, watching the TV.

Michael then picked up the bat and started swinging it – hard. Exactly at that point, the prosecution said, the father stood up.

“I hit him in the head with the bat,” Michael said on the tape. “He was hurt. My mother came out screaming. I kept swinging the bat.  Brian (his 16-year old brother) tried to take the bat from me. I kept swinging.  I ran outside. I was scared. I didn’t want Russell to know.”    Russell was his nine-year-old brother, who was playing football with a friend in the yard.

Michael took Russell to a store, bought him some candy and put gasoline in the car.  On the way home he told Russell not to go into the house because “Mom and Dad were sleeping.”

At the house Michael asked Russell to get an empty gasoline can from the garage. They then drove to nearby Strongsville to fill it. On their return Russell ran into the house to show his parents the candy Michael had bought him. Michael quickly followed him inside.

“I didn’t want him to know,” he said again on the tape. “He wouldn’t believe I did it. I don’t do things like that.” Michael said he ‘tapped’ Russell with the bat, apparently killing the little  brother he loved, hugging his limp body closely. In doing so he got Russell’s blood on his own clothing. So he changed his clothes, threw the bloodied garments in the fireplace, sprayed gasoline around the living room, and lit it.

As the house blazed around the four bodies (tragically, a coroner told the court, Russell was still alive when the fire engulfed him) Michael cadged a ride from an unsuspecting friend back to Miami University in search of Cindy, the girl he said he loved and wanted to stay with forever.

Michael Swihart pleaded Not Guilty to all the charges by reason of temporary insanity. This was supported in court by one psychiatrist for the defence, but not by another for the prosecution. The judges decided he was guilty of the aggravated murder of his mother Susan, brother Brian and brother Russell, and of aggravated arson, because of the way he tried to cover up his crimes.

But, to the visible shock of all the spectators in court, he was found NOT guilty of the murder of his father, the first person he hit with the bat. There was no evidence, the judges ruled, of anything more than accident.

Had he stopped at that point Michael could have continued with his life. At worst he could have been charged with manslaughter. But he didn’t. He went on swinging the bat and killing, perhaps believing his mother and brother would never accept he didn’t deliberately kill his father. And then later, though Michael loved Russell dearly, considered what would become of him without that family?

Michael Swihart was still at the Madison Correctional Institution in Ohio when I checked on his whereabouts in 2022, forty-four years later, having appealed unsuccessfully five times to the Ohio Parole Board for release. The premeditated murder of little Russell was given as the primary reason.

But what was it that draws me back to this case so many years later, in some doubt that the right sentence has been reached?  Perhaps just its ordinariness, that almost anyone with the same sort of personality and unstable background could have done what he did. Michael was said by his uncles to be a lovely boy who had a strong loving relationship with his father. But I wonder. Given the different places and countries he had lived, just how much did those uncles actually see of the boy growing up to gain a real insight of his mental state?

There are millions of boys around the world who have had insecure backgrounds who suffer the price in their personality development. As an ‘Air Force brat’ myself I share some experience of his sort of background. But the court heard no testimony about this to my knowledge. And there was no evidence he had a violent nature or that he INTENDED to kill his family – except for little Russell, after the realization of what he had done.

Did his brain in fact ‘freeze’ after he struck his father? A friend of mine who has spent much time with Formula One race cars tells me he had seen ‘brain freeze’ in drivers who were unable to take immediate corrective action when in danger at very high speed. They continued doing what they had been doing, apparently without understanding the consequences. Again, no evidence was presented in court.

By 2021 both the American and British departments of defense were studying what further efforts their militaries could make to ensure more stable service families – and to encourage personnel retention.

And about time.

Why is the schools writer of the Cleveland Press writing about horrific murders anyway? because, as of February, ’78 I was no longer an education writer. There was a significant shake-up of staff and beats, and I took on another tough beat – Labor – from Norman Mlachak, who took on another role.  I was assigned to the Swihart case in the interim.

I can’t say I was sad about moving from education. Sorry, perhaps, not to have reached the point where the school buses started moving thousands of children to achieve school desegregation. But when would that be? And anyway, this would be the new year of a fresh start for managing Cleveland schools, as Supt Briggs was retiring. So why not a move for me?

The year had started with the same old stories: mostly about money, or lack of it. In February I wrote an analysis of a School Board plan for a local tax raise.

“Amidst rock-bottom morale, fears of a take-over by the federal court and charges of mismanagement against them, Cleveland school officials are working up a campaign to sell a 9.9-mill tax levy to the voters on April 6,” I wrote. “Most casual observers think the chances of passage are slim: that the School Board is just throwing away the $200,000 or so it costs to put a levy to a special election. But others are not so sure…… ‘ etc.

Here’s a farewell message to my beat via Pink Floyd: Another Brick in The Wall, a dark but compelling plea to leave kids alone, not to regiment them. I’m not aiming it so much at teachers but at powerful authorities. You know who you are.  The album came out in 1979, was featured in Cleveland’s Rock n’Roll Hall of Fame (opened 1996), sold 12 million records and became an international phenomenum.

It’s NOT an example of how I was educated in England, although there IS an element in there that encouraged a certain anti-establishment rebelliousness in me. (I noticed that millions around the world have watched it: 544,199,423 views by 2010, as far as I can see).

You might prefer this version by Pink Floyd  (6,285,060 views by 2022)

“We don’t need no educashun, we don’t need no thought control.”  

Make of it what you will.

Memory Flash:  South Euclid, Ohio Jan 26, 1978

The Great Blizzard of 1978. Worse than last year’s blizzard, this was an historic winter storm that so hit the state with high winds and snow the wind chill factor was minus 61Deg F (-51C). A ‘white hurricane’ dumped 7.1 inches of snow on the area. It doesn’t sound that much, but whipped by 60mph winds it blocked hundreds of roads. 110,000 Greater Clevelanders lost power. All freeways were closed, except for I-71 The entire Ohio turnpike south of Cleveland was shut down and there are 51 deaths across the state.

For three or four days my Plymouth Volare struggled to get me to work and to reach home again. South Belvoir Blvd, south of Collinwood and up the hill to South Euclid was littered with abandoned Chevys, Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs. Only one vehicle, it seemed to me, was able to get through without too much trouble – Anna’s little old VW, with its engine over the driving wheels at the back, and a few bricks under the hood at the front. Every morning and every night she got to and from Euclid General Hospital in her nurses’ uniform, one hand on the steering wheel, the other scraping ice from the inside of the windscreen, weaving around each abandoned car without difficulty.

Once, though, she turned to enter our driveway, slid sideways towards the ditch, jammed her foot on the accelerator and launched the car up and over it and onto our snow-covered lawn. SUPERNURSE!! With a little help from a neighbor we got the old girl – er, car –  snugly to the front door.

Where does one start with the Cleveland Labor beat?  Where else but with the unions? This was a tough old union town, and had been since 1836, when the carpenters and Joiners Benevolent Society held the first state convention and adopted the 10-hour day as its main achievement. I’ve already mentioned the first steel strike in 1882, which turned violent against imported Polish workers, but didn’t mention the 1899 city streetcar workers strike, when troops were called in and ten passengers were injured when a car was blown up by nitro-glycerine. The auto workers in the 30’s, the clothing manufacturers in the 50’s. the truck drivers (Teamsters) in the 70’s. All struck to improve the lot of their members – and their own leaders.

This was a closed-shop town. You didn’t get a job unless you joined a union. Which I did when I arrived at The Press in 1970; Newspaper Guild Local No 1, where America’s newspaper journalists started their own union in 1933 – and where it effectively died at the Plain Dealer in 2020.

So I started in April with a ‘hello’ interview of Teamster Union leader Jackie Presser, a political powerhouse in local and national union business.

TEAMSTERS LEADER. Jackie Presser Teamsters Union boss in Cleveland who became President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and an adviser to President Reagan, while still with connections to organized crime.
TEAMSTERS LEADER. Jackie Presser Teamsters Union boss in Cleveland who became President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and an adviser to President Reagan, while still with connections to organized crime.


“Teamster Union leader Jackie Presser greeted this reporter warmly,” I wrote. “He appeared outwardly calm, even expansive, about all the publicity surrounding the arrest of John J. (Skip) Felice, arrested by the FBI recently on charges of labor racketeering, misuse of union funds and conspiracy to murder a rival union member.  Felice controls Teamster Locals 293, 73 and 796 and holds seven other key union offices.

“We were stunned,” said Presser about the arrest of Felice, a long-time associate who heads three local Teamster unions. “We know nothing about this. I personally have been friends with Skip a better part of my life. We pray this thing works out for him,” said Presser in a two-hour interview with a Press reporter.

‘Course you were, Jackie, who was – effectively – Felice’s boss. Shocking.  “We felt they (the FBI) were on a fishing expedition,” he said. “I can’t figure out why he (Felice) would want to do what they say he did.”

What Presser says and does is of more than just local news. As one of two reported rivals for the top job controlling the Teamsters Union nationally when Frank Fitzsimmons retires in 1981 he would be as powerful as Jimmy Hoffa, national chairman who suddenly disappeared (believed murdered) in 1975.

But Presser wouldn’t have any comparison to Hoffa and the way he ran his unions, or to his father, Bill Presser, who founded the Cleveland Teamsters. Embezzling the Teamsters Pension Fund?  No. Contracts to a man who went to prison for defrauding the fund in 1973 (Allen Dorfman)?  ‘Quite normal bidding procedures.’ Funds invested in Las Vegas casinos?  “Only 7.2% of the Vegas operation is funded by the Teamsters,” he said.

Comparison with the salaries of top Teamster officials and top corporation officials?  Now you’re talking.  This was one of Presser’s favorite subjects. He produced a chart that showed the salaries of top corporation officials to his own, reported to be $250,00,000 to $300,000 a year. In fact, at least officially, he made $162,000 that year as secretary-treasurer of Local 507 of the Teamsters Union, according to union financial reports filed a couple of months later with the U.S. Labor Department.

I wrote it up as a front page story (Press union readers like to know these things, I was told) on June 2, headlined ‘$38,000 Raise. Teamsters local hikes Jackie Presser’s pay.’  Plus extra for all the other Teamster jobs he held, bringing the total to at least $223,000. That was still less than his friend Harold Friedman ‘reputedly the nation’s highest paid union leader ($330,547 – 1.4 million in 2022)”.

Back to my interview……

Perhaps, I suggested to Presser, it was the public’s perception that organized crime was involved in the teamster operation that leads the media to inquire so mercilessly?  Perhaps a movie like F.I.S.T. isn’t so far from the truth? F.I.S.T. (the fictional Federation of Inter-state Truckers’) was a just-released movie, written by former Plain Dealer writer Joe Esterhas, that featured Sylvester Stallone in his first post-Rocky movie as a Cleveland warehouse worker who becomes involved in the Teamsters leadership – a la Jimmy Hoffa).

“That doesn’t even resemble Jimmy Hoffa or my father,” said Presser. ”Sheer fiction,” even though he grudgingly admitted it could have been possible for mob figures to have infiltrated the union back in the 1930s or 40s.

“But that was a long time ago. That’s not true today.”

Perhaps it’s a shame he wasn’t able to wait around until 2019 to watch the Martin Scorsese film The Irishman, a 3.5 -hour epic that deals with much more cultural darkness about Hoffa and the Teamsters than any F.I.S.T film of 41 years earlier.

Presser did become national head of the Teamsters Union in 1983, until his death from brain cancer in 1988, at the age of 61. He is believed to have had the active support of the Cleveland Mafia, but also to have been an FBI informant on that same Mafia.[1]

Perhaps Cleveland’s workers didn’t need to cling to unions to get ahead in the second half of the 20th Century, I wondered. Perhaps they could work for the government. At a time when taxpayers nationwide were increasingly rebelling against the gigantic – and still growing – federal bureaucracy – it was time to look more closely at what it was like financially to work for Uncle Sam.

Under a front page headline “Uncle Sam, a nice guy to work for” I revealed a Press study on federal pay scales that showed what many taxpayers and job applicants believed for some time – that federal employees often have it made over their private industry counterparts:

THOUSANDS of federal employees overpaid, making more money than their official job descriptions and possibly more than they could make in comparable private industry positions. GOOD FRINGE BENEFITS, from BROAD MEDICAL COVERAGE to vacations of four weeks after three years’ service, and a RETIREMENT PLAN much better than those in private industry. PAY RAISES every year to cover the cost of living, including retirees.

“According to a new government study, 110% of white-collar federal employees, or 136,000 people, are paid more than they should be and 3% are paid less,” I wrote.

The story led the paper and continued inside with graphics and a separate piece that said competition between college graduates for federal jobs are intense. The best federal opportunities appeared to be those in engineering fields – if applicants didn’t mind moving to other parts of the country.

Memory Flash: I-271, Cuyahoga County, March 1978

I’m stuck in a traffic jam. All four lanes of the main northbound freeway around the southeast suburbs of Cleveland are blocked solid with traffic, at most crawling along at 2mph. There must have been an accident. I keep looking at my watch. I don’t remember where I was going or who I was supposed to be meeting, but I do remember I’m going to be late. Very late. There is no way I’m going to make my appointment.

And NOBODY is going to know where I am, why I am late or what to do about it.

It is hard to imagine, in the 21st Century, how this could be. No cell phones or  communication of any kind to and from a private car. They have yet to be invented – or at least marketed.  Life in the 70s was like this for everyone. Just a driver and his metal box.

Then, suddenly, it hits me: THERE IS NOT A DAMNED THING I CAN DO ABOUT IT!  An epiphany! I don’t think the clouds parted and a ray of sunshine hit my car, but I do know people who swear they found God this way. Or Love, or an invention, or an idea.

Of course I could have thought to myself: ”Serve you right for not starting earlier, or at least checked the traffic”’  But I didn’t. “There is not a damned thing I can do about it,” is the first time I’ve thought this applies to me. And wow! Does it do great things for my blood pressure, for my equanimity!

I can almost take this warm, comforting feeling as my life’s controlling motto! “Sorry, boss, I can’t come to work today.  I think I might have the flu. There’s nothing I can do.” Wonderful! “Sorry, honey, I forgot to put the garbage out. It’s too late now.”  I’m relaxed.

May 2, 1978. I’m not quite done with Cleveland’s schools. Supt Briggs has announced his retirement, and I’ve been asked to write a personal assessment of his 14-year tenure as head official for the Insight page, opposite the editorials. I’m pulling no punches. Here’s the first few paragraphs:

“Popular wisdom is that Paul Briggs quit as superintendent of the Cleveland school system because Federal Judge Frank Battisti stripped him of his power.

“Well, I’m sorry if I can’t join in with the community’s anguish at his departure, or the gnashing of teeth at Judge Battisti. Because Briggs’ time was up anyway.

“It’s a shame that the emotions of desegregation are caught up in Briggs’ resignation because even if there was no Judge Battisti, or any desegregation case at all, Briggs probably would have been in deep trouble over the school system’s finances and general administrative capabilities.

Paul Briggs knows that after six years of covering the Cleveland schools for The Press I have no great fond regard for him, and I’m sure the feeling is mutual. I have to say that I found him vengeful, tyrannical, paternalistic, oversensitive and a superb politician (that’s different from a statesman and not always a nice word in my book.)

“However, to set the record straight, let me say that in my view Briggs is also the most dedicated public official I know, keeps his telephone publicly listed, almost never takes vacations, is personally thrifty, humorous, and a great image-maker for the Cleveland schools.

“He is a tireless worker for the benefit of children, he’s a ‘doer’ (one of his favorite words), and he’s a man with a lot of guts.,” I wrote. ”I hope to have as much when I’m 65.

“What Briggs had going for him over most of his 14 years as superintendent was his own strength and a docile School Board. As one top federal official put it in 1974: “Cleveland has the strongest superintendent and the worst school board of the 20 largest cities in the United States”.

“For years Briggs was the king. If a reporter wanted to know about a particular contract, he went to Briggs. If he wanted an explanation of reading scores, he went to Briggs. Other large city school districts have public relations staffs. Cleveland had Briggs. He was PR man, a skilled manipulator of state and federal legislators, master schoolteacher, businessman, labor leader.

“He was the champion architect, building new schools everywhere, often in areas of the city which had not seen a new building in 30 years or more. As the largest public employer in the state, and one of the most prolific suppliers of contracts, he was the darling of the city’s business, labor and civic leaders.  Hardly a voice was heard to criticize him publicly. Certainly not the School Board in the early 1970s’  ……

……And on to my closing paragraph:

“He came close to creating “The Briggs Memorial School System.” He might have succeeded. But he never would recognize that there is a limit to what one man can do. If only he could have swallowed his self-centered pride just once in a while.” 

And so to the lighter things of Cleveland Press journalism:

April 1. Headline: “Hey Pete, there really IS some paint on your pants’ ‘Believe me, it was hard to come to work this morning,” I wrote. “What jocular gent, I wondered, would be calling to get half our photographers out to a fire – in a duck pond? What titillated tipster would try to persuade me that (City Hall personnel director ) Bob Weissman will fire Dennis Kucinich, Cleveland’s ‘boy mayor’? Which perennial prankster would tell me I have paint on the back of my pants?

“They all come out of the woodwork today – April Fool’s Day”.

And on to describe who does what around the world on April Fool’s Day. We had one special last line from Anna, who insisted the day ends not at noon but starts again with the East Yorkshire Legging Down Day – tripping people up!

May 3 Farrah Fawcett-Major is in town and I’m there to meet her at Burke lakefront airport. Wow! (not). Why am I assigned to meet the wife of the Six Million Dollar Man, Lee Majors? Because she’s also the star of the hit new TV show Charlie’s Angels, or because there’s nobody else available in the newsroom? Perhaps it’s the Charlie bit, since I seem to have done quite well chasing Prince Charles around town last year.

Anyway, I (and dozens of other reporters) told the world that Ms Fawcett-Majors brought her famous hairstyle to Cleveland because she was peddling a line of Faberge cosmetics and was collecting a check for $1 million on behalf of Faberge from the Cleveland-based Revco drug store chain. She got a smooch from Mayor Kucinich and a (cardboard) key to the city. I couldn’t get near her. Instead, I got to interview David Sizemore, 16, a student at South High School, who skipped class but had made a ‘Good Luck Farrah!’ poster which he desperately wanted her to sign.

Farrah appeared in several TV shows, won a number of Emmy Awards, was partnered by actor Ryan O’Neill, and died of rectal cancer in 2009, aged 62.

July 18 A Column One front page piece demanding an end to the 55mph speed limit and returning it to 70. The lower limit was brought in as a crisis measure to save fuel after the Saudi oil embargo in 1973, and was stuck there because the government said U.S. public opinion wanted to keep it. Which public was that? I asked. Certainly not the driving public, which is slowly pushing the limit up every day on freeways. I reported the return of the 70mph limit on British roads, on Canadian roads and certainly on German roads – with speed  limits up to 140mph.

Aug 22. Featuring Backpacking, with a half page in the adventure/travel section of hiking the virgin wilderness of the Otter Creek in the mountains of West Virginia. “One of the things about backpacking is that full bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon wine and Aunt Jemima’s Maple Syrup don’t really belong in your pack. Even if they are in plastic bottles,’ was my lede. ‘Neither do books, camera, air mattress, rubber mallet or tape recorder’.

You get the picture. Anna did nearly stand on a big snake, though. She said.

Jun 13.  Back on the Adventure/travel page. ‘Climbing on the rocks.  Reporter Almond learns the ropes of how to fall off a cliff’.  That took up another half page, with  photographer Larry Nighswander getting bored and making funny noises.

And then back to Cleveland politics at the school board. Board President Arnold Pinkney announced his resignation in mid-August, with a view to mixing it in politics if Mayor Kucinich got thrown out of office because of the city’s financial troubles. He had run for mayor twice, unsuccessfully, but knew an awful lot of people and where most of the skeletons were buried.

Where the school board would go post- Briggs and Pinkney was not immediately obvious. Those two were like two scheming peas in a pod when it came to directing the multi-billion dollar school operations, and it was likely to become quite a different institution, I wrote in an analysis on Aug 18.

“Under acting Supt Peter Carlin, administration attitudes have already begun to change from the days when Paul Briggs ran the schools with an iron fist. And now – with John E. Gallagher Jr expected to take over as school board president following Pinkney’s resignation – board policies, too, will probably change considerably.

‘Expect a more public discussion of issues; a more businesslike approach to finances and education, and a less emotional (some might say humanitarian) concern for education programs.’  And on for a lot more detail, except that I didn’t have the name of the person Pinkney expects to replace him.

Memory FlashChicago, Jun, ’78

I’m with the Cleveland Old Gray Rugby Club on our hired bus just leaving the Windy City for our 350-mile ride back to Cleveland. It is nearly noon and there is total silence. We are all utterly exhausted. We drank far too much of Peter Stroh’s donated beer on the way here, didn’t take enough precautions against the extreme heat, lost 60-0 against Windsor, Ontario – and then over-partied all evening.

I’m nursing a sore knee from tackling people on ground that was baked hard by the sun, my head hurts and I’ve had very little sleep. Not least because it was a noisy night in my hotel bedroom, which I shared with a fellow Old Gray who didn’t play because he was still on crutches from a game weeks ago, but was still fit enough to entertain a local rugby groupie in the bed next to me all night. 

We’d recovered a bit by the time we reached Lorain, and told each other we had a great time and would be back for the next Midwest rugby tournament next year.

But not me. I’ve decided that at 32 I’m now too old. I’ll give rugby a few more months, but I’ll switch to more heavy duty running. There’s a marathon in Washington DC next year. 

It took time to learn about the depth of influence of unions in Cleveland, and who runs what. One name I picked up from the Teamsters was the Cimino family, who ran a couple of big local food distribution and other worker unions in the area and could soon have had a lock on food supplies in the city.  But not much seemed to be known about them publicly at the time. They were not newsmakers (at least I did not find out much about them in the library or our news files), were not courted by politicians, were not troublemakers.

There was Charles Cimino Sr (who wouldn’t talk to me), who inherited the little produce shop his Sicilian father had built up from a fruit and vegetable cart on Orange Avenue in the 1920s. Charles worked with other food vendors and became head of the 2,200-member Local 400 of the Commission House Drivers Union, a Teamster organization that represents food warehousemen and food drivers. He had six children- his sons Anthony and Charles Jr and daughter Ann all working for the union. Charles Jr took over Local 400 from his father.

Then there was Frank Cimino, another son of Charles Sr, who was head of the 6,500-member Local 427 of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America, representing butchers and delicatessen workers. It was Frank’s union which appeared to be the more powerful, because it was planning to merge with the much bigger Local 880 of the Retail Clerks Union. Frank had already persuaded its president, David McDonald, to accept night hours for supermarkets.

Merging the two unions would create a combined union of 1.2 million members, the biggest in the AFL-CIO (the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations), the 14 million member heart of the US Labor movement. It would be a dramatic political shift from the historic industrial and craft union roots of the nation, into the ranks of government and service workers.

Only a year earlier the largest union was the United Steel Workers of America. That was then overtaken by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)  after a government employees union merged in New York state.

So, within a year or two, the little-known Cimino family could be in position to shut almost every supermarket, food preparation plant and delivery system in the country, especially locally when Charles Cimino Sr retired and if, as expected, Jackie Presser and Harold Friedman moved to take over Cimino’s Local 400.  

It was certainly one to watch.

Retirement was big with the unions as the economy slowed, jobs were being lost and a new federal law raised the mandatory retirement age from 65 to 70. Retirement? It had never occurred to me as a 32-year old, particularly as I had spent the last six years with kids who had not even entered the work force.   So I did some local research, asking people if they would be happy to retire at 70.

No, not really, they said for a front page feature. Most wanted a good pension and to leave earlier, not later.

“Most of our hourly people leave between age 62 and 65,” said Joe Kmiec, an employment benefits official at General Motors Cleveland Fisher Body plant. “We have a 68 age limit now, and only two or three are going to stay after that.”

But there’s a big catch: inflation. It was then roaring ahead at 8.7% a year across the country, and most company pension plans didn’t have cost-of-living provisions. So increasing numbers of 65-year-olds were having second thoughts about retirement. “If there isn’t some compensation more people are going to stay on until 70, if they can,” one Case Western Reserve University professor told me. “Based on current inflation a $600 -a-month company pension plan is going to be worth $306 ten years from now.”

Tell me about it! My Cleveland Press pension, after 12 years work there, was $115 a month when I retired in 2011. It is still $115 a month.

Rumblings of union discontent continued through the fall. Employers were worried, especially in the steel and automotive sectors. How to keep the workers happy?  Out at the Chrysler stamping plant in Twinsburg I found out that the company was working up a plan with the United Auto Workers Union for a unique fringe benefit: free lawyers for each of the 4,100 employees.

Divorces, speeding tickets, wills, real estate transactions, problems with warranties on car repairs, all would all be taken care of under a nationwide pre-paid legal package to start nationwide for all Chrysler auto workers in the new year.  If it was a boon for workers it was a gift for lawyers too. An American Bar Association survey the previous spring had shown that many people with legal problems simply don’t go to lawyers, mostly because they think they can’t afford them.

“The average working man doesn’t have time or knowledge to deal with lawyers,” William ‘Red’ Harden, president of local 122 at the Twinsburg Chrysler plant, told me. “He feels he gets ripped off when he goes to one. He either feels cheated or he doesn’t go to one at all,” he said, adding that the two lawyers to be hired full time in Twinsburg would probably have plenty of handle.

But nothing like that was being offered to steel haulers – or at least one faction in the Teamsters Union: the Fraternal Association of Steel Haulers (FASH), based in Pittsburgh. They were ready for a national strike. There were about 35,000 members of FASH, all independent owners of flatbed steel trucks which they kept mostly at their homes in the countryside.  They vowed to strike on Nov 10 because they felt the Teamsters Union were not representing their concerns about pay and costs.

If it came to a strike it could be Teamster vs Teamster in America’s steel belt, particularly in the Midwest. And it could be nasty indeed.

Memory Flash: My desk, Press newsroom, Nov 3, 1978

I had just sat down at my desk when the City Editor looked over at me with a questioning expression, stuck his thumb up and mouthed ‘Yes?’

I nodded my head.

A half-minute later the building-wide tannoy system, rarely used except for emergencies, crackled and a voice I didn’t recognize intoned loudly: “AN ANNOUNCEMENT……. PETER ALMOND HAS BECOME AN AMERICAN CITIZEN.”

Upon which the newsroom erupted (well, a little bit anyway) in applause. I’m pretty sure I closed my eyes and my face felt red.  I just sank in my chair, to disappear, anything. I had asked the newsdesk not to tell anybody why I had to go over to the Federal Building for an hour that morning, and would not be available for work.

I really didn’t want to make a fuss of my naturalization. In standing there with my wife and 30 or so other people of all nationalities and repeating an oath that I was renouncing all other fealties for the United States of America, I know I had my fingers crossed behind my back.

Not that I was lying about my oath to America. Both Anna and I felt that after eight years here, being immersed in almost every aspect of the nation’s life and color – and, I’d like to think, providing a service to its citizens with my news reporting and analysis and Anna’s hard hospital work nursing Americans back to health – that we had earned the right to full membership of the nation. Not least to vote and to be represented. AND we were well advanced to receive our first adopted child, Cleveland born. Did Anna and I want to have children with American citizenship while we didn’t? 

It was just…..that I didn’t want to give up my British citizenship. An Englishman – a Brit – doesn’t do that lightly. For one thing he/she has to formally RENOUNCE British citizenship before a representative of Her Majesty the Queen. Why could I not be both? An Anglo-American, a representative of the ‘Special Relationship?’

Actually, I could, based on a Supreme Court ruling of 1952. But nobody at the US immigration office was going to tell me this. Dual nationality only seemed to become much more acceptable years later when international travel became vastly more accessible.

Years later, stuck in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, I called the relocated U.S. Embassy in Rome to ask for advice in getting the hell outta there. “Have you got another passport?” an official responded. I told him yes, British. “Then use it,” he said. “We’re not sending a gunboat for you.”

We’re still dual nationals, by the way – as are our kids.  

But heck, let’s not get defensive about this.  November 2 was the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Cleveland Press. Hooray! The Penny Press, Nov 2, 1878. The paper put out a special edition, a sepia-colored copy of which I have before me as I write.  It is a Metro edition, its front page presented in the same way as a century earlier: seven columns wide, each column led by narrow headlines and several sub headlines. All the stories are fresh.

There are only a couple of local staff by-lines on this special front page, whose ink-stained rubber printers’ mat graces a wall in my little office. One is about the city of Cleveland facing bankruptcy and payless paydays, by Peter Phipps, our City Hall reporter.

The other is by me, about the President of the Cleveland School Board, my old source John E. Gallagher Jr, sticking his bum out of a car window to ‘moon’ his brother in another car as they travelled along I-271; being arrested, fined $100 – and refusing to resign.

“It was just a silly, stupid mistake, one I obviously regret,” he told me, admitting to several sleepless nights since his arrest two weeks earlier. “But I think I can make a significant contribution to the school system. I intend to work even harder. I have talked to most members of the board. They have expressed sympathy. They have reminded me that a political official lives in a fishbowl. They have not demanded my resignation.”

As I’ve already noted, Gallagher was a breath of fresh air before and after he became president of the school board, and surveys showed the public liked him. So, in spite of the president of the parent-teachers association saying his act demanded his removal, John E. Gallagher Jr kept his job.

“He is a brilliant boy,” said the elderly Joseph Gallagher, no relation, but the former school board member on whose name John Edward got himself elected a couple of years earlier.

Ah, but assistant editor Herb Kamm couldn’t resist being among the first to launch bottom jibes at the bottom of that special front page.  In the small gossip spot he had regularly at the bottom of the regular front page – Herb Hears – the space was headlined ‘Hear ye, hear ye’  and the words: “The services of pollster Louis Harris have been retained to find out (a) how we see ourselves and (b) how others see us.

“Meanwhile, local patriots are aggrieved over the moonlighting activities of a certain School Board official. They resent Cleveland being made the butt of new jokes. As one gentleman was heard to say ‘It’s easy to find fault when you have the benefit of hind-sight. Let’s hope things have hit bottom.”

Memory Flash.   I-90, Ohio Turnpike, December ‘78

I’m in the cab of a Peterbilt flatbed truck on I-90 south of Cleveland. The truck is carrying a load of specialized steel from Pittsburgh to Gary, Indiana. I’m here because there’s been a lot of violence involving steel haulers and striking members of FASH around the country, including along this vital interstate. The Teamsters want Press readers to think they’re the good guys.

There have been snipers shooting out truckers’ windshields, individual beatings at truck stops, air brake hoses cut, fuel tampered with. In all since the start of the strike on Nov 11 more than 400 incidents of vandalism and violence. The Ohio National Guard has joined with the police and state troopers to keep watch.

Unlike in Northern Ireland or at a couple of United Auto Worker picket lines I’m not wearing a helmet or flak jacket.  The driver seems to be spending all his time talking on his Citizens Band (CB) radio to fellow truckers rather than talking to me.

But then I see why. Two cars and a pickup truck are following us, flashing their headlights. Eventually, one of the cars pulls alongside us. The front seat passenger winds down his window and shows us a revolver in his hand. The rear passenger is clearly carrying a shotgun.

It is a warning, a message that my driver, me, and his vehicle are not safe. Now that I have shared the driver’s personal experience of driving this route he finally talks to me and gives me his personal story of the last five weeks. It makes a decent spread.

Co-incidentally, a movie, Convoy, came out in 1978. Anybody remember “Rubber Duck?”

Let’s hear that truck blast.  C’mon!


  1. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,


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From Across the Pond by Peter Almond is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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