Part III: The Serbian Community of Cleveland

Serbian Community Leaders

Nikolaj Maric

Geco Kukic

Geco Kukic was one of the first Serbian businessmen in Cleveland. He came here from Lika in 1905 and shortly thereafter opened a pop shop on St. Clair Avenue. He also worked in the pipe factory on Hamilton Avenue near East 26th Street as did many other early Serbian immigrants. Kukic returned to Serbia for a time during World War I when he enlisted in The Serbian Army to fight Austria-Hungary.

When he returned to America, he continued to be active in a number of organizations. He served as president of St. Sava’s Church congregation and of the St. Sava Serbian Benevolent Society. Also, he was active in the Serbian National Defense Council of America and in the Serbian Benevolent Society Jedinstvo.

Bogdan Dragisic

Bogdan Dragisic came to Cleveland from Zrmanj, Yugoslavia in 1911 when he was 19 years old. Four years later he married Sophia Mikasinovic, a Serbian school teacher from Pennsylvania. They have two children, Milan, a draftsman for Warner and Swasey Company, and Vera Zugic, a music teacher in Cleveland School System. Dragisic worked for 40 years as an agent for the Prudential Insurance Company. He was also a translator and journalist.

Free time to Dragisic meant promoting one Serbian cause or another. Involved with many organizations, he was a founder of the Cleveland Chapter of the Serbian National Defense Council of America. Also, he was treasurer of the Serb National Federation for four years, secretary of the Serbian Sokol, president of the Serbian Benevolent Society Bratska Sloga of the Serb National Federation and a member of several other organizations.

Dragisic was quite outspoken about international politics and some Serbs and others sharply disagreed with him at times; however, nearly everyone agreed that he always put Serbian interests foremost and served his community well. Bogdan Dragisic died on November 2, 1967 and is buried in St. Theodosius Russian Cemetery.

Michael “Mile” Djakovich

Born in Sibinje, Banija, Yugoslavia in 1883, Djakovich came to Youngstown, Ohio at the age of 22 and continued his schooling there. He later took a position in the Foreign Exchange Department of Youngstown’s Dollar Savings and loan Company. Djakovich organized the first choir at the Serbian church in Youngstown and was active in other Serbian organizations there.

Djakovich moved to Cleveland in 1931 to work for the city. A year later he was appointed Deputy County Treasurer of Cuyahoga County, serving in that capacity until his retirement in 1965 at the age of 85. Politically active, Djakovich organized the first Serbian Democratic Club in 1934 and was a member of the Cosmopolitan league of Cuyahoga County.

In the Serbian community, Djakovich performed many services. He wrote the by-laws for St. Sava’s Church and served as president of the St. Sava’s Church congregation. He helped to set up the Yugoslav Cultural Gardens. From 1931-34 he published his own news-paper Pravda.

Djakovich lived for a short time in Pittsburgh, and there, at the Cathedral of learning library, he established a South Slav exposition featuring Serbian arts and crafts. During his stay in Pittsburgh, he was Executive Secretary of the Serb National Federation and editor of the daily newspaper American Srbrobran. For these and other accomplishments, he was decorated by the late King Alexander of Yugoslavia. After World War II the United States State Department offered Djakovich a position in the American Embassy in Belgrade, but he refused, fearful for his life because of his anti-Tito activities in America.

Nikola Uzelac

At the age of 85, Nikola Uzelac is the oldest Serb living in Cleveland. After Uzelac came to Cleveland from Lika in 1906, he worked at the American Steel and Wire Company near Hamilton Avenue. He lived within walking distance of his job and recalls being paid a dollar a day in wages. In those days, room, board and laundry cost two dollars a week.

One of the first presidents of St. Sava’s congregation. Uzelac still participates in church activities. He lives on Bidulph Road in Brooklyn with his daughter, Mary.

Misa Zoric

A German freighter brought Misa Zoric to America’s shores in 1913 from his native Lika. He clearly recalls his first experiences in Cleveland. He and other young Serbs lived in boardinghouses near Pershing and Broadway Avenue. Two men shared a bed; one worked days, the other, nights. The room was so cold that the water would freeze in the pitcher on the nightstand.

Zoric worked for the American Steel and Wire Company, Corrigan Steel Company and Republic Steel Corporation where many Serbs were employed. He is retired now and lives at 6401 Gertrude Avenue. During all his active years, he served as an officer of the Church Board, Serbian National Federation, or Serbian National Defense Council.

Ilija Zegarac

Zegarac’s grocery store at the corner of East 36th Street and Payne Avenue was an oasis for many years to Serbian immigrants in Cleveland. They spoke little English but they understood the word benefactor. To them it meant Ilija Zegarac, for it was he who found many of them jobs and gave them food before they had the first paycheck in hand. Even the bus drivers knew what a rider meant when he said, “Stani kod Zegaraca.” Stop at Zegarac’s.

Ilija Zegarac was president of the oldest Serbian society in Cleveland, the St. Sava Serbian Benevolent Society. He and his wife, Melanija were active in many organizations. They cherished the Serbian traditions, but they valued the freedom they found in America and always found time to help other Serbs who sought a better life in a free country. The Zegaracs recently moved to Gary, Indiana, but Cleveland Serbs still like to recall how, on such and such a day, the Zegaracs helped a Serb in need.

Trisha-Tom Simic

Like many Cleveland Serbs, Simic came to Cleveland from the province of Lika, which was part of Austria-Hungary prior to World War I. And typically, he brought with him neither skills nor diplomas. In Cleveland he worked off and on with contracting companies, and during the depression years, supported his family by collecting scrap metal.

Today, Simic owns Tom Simic and Son, Contractors, Inc. and employs a number of Serbs in his company. A street in Seven Hills is named after him. He is a success. But to a Serb, success is more than economics. A successful person is one who has served his community well. Trisha-Tom Simic and his late wife, Milka, did just that. Milka was president of the Circle of Serbian Sisters and Trisha-Tom was president of the St. Sava’s Church congregation. Both contributed countless hours and financial support to many other organizations in the Serbian community. To the Serbs, they were, indeed, successful.

Trisha-Tom and Milka Simic
Trisha-Tom and Milka Simic
Ilija and Melanija Zegarac
Ilija and Melanija Zegarac

Milan Naperta

Milan Naperta came to Cleveland at the age of 11. His wife, Mimi, recalls that she saw him for the first time running along St. Clair Avenue shortly after his arrival here in 1921. Mimi, who was born here, is the daughter of Geco Kukic, owner of one of the first Serbian businesses in Cleveland–a saloon and pop shop.

The Napertas were active members of St. Sava’s Church. Milan was president of the congregation when the split occurred. He died before it was settled. Mimi worked with the Serbian Sisters and helped to organize the youth summer camp which was held at the Serbian monastery at Shadeland, Pennsylvania. The Napertas have two daughters and a son who continue to be active in the Serbian community.

Dusan Yovich

Yovich is one of the few Serbian immigrants who came to America with not the least intention of returning to Yugoslavia to live. He came to Cleveland from Lika for economic reasons. There were seven in his family and they were poor. Yovich’s brother in America paid his way.

His brother lived at 2495 East 86th Street and Woodland Avenue, then a Czech neighborhood. He had married a Czech girl and remained with her people. Dusan, however, was homesick for his Serbian folk and so sought out a Serbian community and found and married Milka, a Serbian girl who had also come from Lika. Milka participated in St. Sava’s Church activities and was secretary of the Serbian Sisters Circle. Dusan’s special talent was preparing the meats at the many St. Sava picnics. For many years, he owned a grocery store at 1534 Waterloo Road. Their children, Martha, Natalia and Milan, are now grown with families of their own. The entire family is active in the Serbian community.

George S. Voinovich

George S. Voinovich’s parents immigrated to the United States from Serbia in 1902 and he was born six years later in Beaver, Pennsylvania. His mother died when he was six years old and his father brought him to Cleveland to be raised by his aunt and uncle. He grew up on the South Side of Cleveland, near Harvard and 78th Street. He attended Warner Elementary School, South Junior High and South High graduating in 1929.

His aunt and uncle wanted him to quit school and go to work when he was 16 but his high school principal convinced them that he should stay in school. His classbook predicted that someday George Voinovich would be an architect and would design buildings under-ground in Yugoslavia.

His friends used to call him lithe professor because he never had time to play. In spite of his busy schedule he found time to participate in school activities and in affairs of St. Sava’s Church at 36th Street. (Many years later he would design the new St. Sava’s Orthodox Church in Parma, where his funeral services were held in 1974.) He was a great benefactor of the Serbian Monastry in Shadland, Pennsylvania.

Upon graduation from high school he received a Kroger Foods partial scholarship to Carnegie Institute of Technology, now Carnegie Melon, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His friends remember seeing him off at the train depot, carrying a burlap bag full of food. With the scholarship, part-time work and help from friends in the Serbian Community in Pittsburgh, he graduated from Carnegie Tech’s School of Architecture. He was registered to practice architecture in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Illinois.

He was with the City of Cleveland Architect’s Office in the early 19301s. He was the Assistant Chief Architect in the Cleveland Office of the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation and worked for Walker and Weeks, an outstanding architectural firm. In the late 1930′s he went into business for himself and during the war he was the Project Planner for the Federal Public Housing Authority in Northern Ohio. After the war he went back into the private practice of architecture in partnership until 1951 when he formed George S. Voinovich and Associates.

During his early years Voinovich worked on the Shaker Heights Town Hall; Malvern, Ludlow, Fernway and Lomond Elementary Schools; the Administration Building to Hopkins Airport; the Administration Building at Hudson Boys Farm; the Cleveland Public Library and was the consulting architect for the Main Avenue Bridge in Cleveland.

The buildings that he did in his own right in the State of Ohio are the Educational TV and Theater Building and the Life Science Building at Ohio University, Athens, Ohio, the additional classroom building at Kent State University, and the largest correctional institution ever built in the State of Ohio, the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility at Lucasville, Ohio. He was also architect for the Hawthornden State Hospital in Macedonia, Ohio and the Ohio Correctional Institution at Marion, Ohio.

Locally, he was the architect for the Parma Community General Hospital, the Garfield Heights City Hall, the Garfield Heights High School, the Maple Heights and Richmond Heights City Halls, the preliminary design work for the Illuminating Building, the Alexander Graham Bell School for the Cleveland Board of Education and the Westside and Eastside Health Centers for the City of Cleveland.

Voinovich was elected president of the Architects Society of Ohio. He also served as a member and president of the State of Ohio Board of Examiners of Architects and served on the City Planning Commission of Cleveland. He received many national awards for his architectural work.

He distinguished himself in civic affairs and believed strongly that those with Eastern European backgrounds should take leadership roles in the community.

He was president of the Builders’ Exchange (the first architect to receive this honor), president of the United Churchmen of Cleveland, president of the Cleveland Alumni Association of Carnegie Tech and a member of the Village of Bratenahl City Council.

He was a member of the Kiwanis Club of Cleveland; United Torch Board of Trustees; Board of Managers, Addison Road YMCA; Secretary, Urban League of Cleveland; Treasurer, Lake Erie Girl Scout Council and a member of the Executive Board, Boy Scouts of America. He was holder of the Boy Scouts of America Silver Beaver Award and holder of the Girl Scouts of America Outstanding Service Award.

In 1935 he married Josephine Bernot, a Slovenian girl from Collinwood, whom he met at the Yugoslav University Club, a club of first generation Slavs who had gone to college. He was devoted to his family and constantly stressed the importance of keeping the family unit strong. He was proud of his wife and his four sons and two daughters. His wife was president of the Lake Erie Girl Scout Council. His son George is an attorney and politician; Michael, a teacher and Assistant Supervisor of Special Education for the Cleveland Board of Education; Paul, a planner and developer; Victor, an accountant and C.P.A.; JoAnne, a teacher; and Maryanne, one of the first women salesmen for the IBM Corporation. Three of his children have masters degrees and one has a doctorate.

Dobrosav Milisavljevic

Milisavljevic was recently elected president of the St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church and it was largely through his efforts that the two feuding Serbian groups finally agreed on a settlement in dividing the church properties. He and his wife Helen have worked hard for the Serbian community in the last twenty-five years.

Milisavljevic was a brilliant student in the prestigious Kragujevac Gymnasium (high school in Yugoslavia) and was supposed to gear his education toward the highest ranks in the military command of Yugoslavia, but his education was interrupted by World War II when he was attending the Higher Military Academy of Belgrade. He was taken prisoner in Sarajevo as an officer of the Yugoslav Armed Forces and wound up in a German P.O.W. camp in Nurnberg. After the collapse of Hitler’s Germany, Milisavljevic, like thousands of other Serbs, refused to return to Communist Yugoslavia but instead came to the United States in 1950. Here he married Helen, a Serbian girl, and together they have devoted countless hours to the Serbian community of Cleveland, Dobrosav as member and officer of various organizations, Helen in the Serbian Sisters Circle. When Milan Naperta died shortly after the split within the church occurred, Milisavljevic took over his duties as vice president, later to be elected president in the court-supervised elections.

Dobrosav Milisavljevic took the leadership of the troubled congregation at the time when feelings on both sides of the conflict were the strongest, and when it took patience and intelligence to avoid possible bloodshed and still be the kind of leader to accomplish as much as possible for his followers. He resigned in 1968 for health reasons. Milutin Ristic took his place until 1974, and when he resigned, Milisavljevic was again elected to lead his people. He has retired from his regular job, but is still working full time for the church and community.

Dobrosav and Helen Milisavljevic
Dobrosav and Helen Milisavljevic

Father Branko Kusonjic

At the regular Annual Assembly of St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church of Cleveland on June 3, 1951, Father Kusonjic was elected spiritual leader of Cleveland Serbs over the other two candidates. Father Dazgic from Lebanon, Pennsylvania, and Father Skaljac from Chisholm, Minnesota. Since that time, a period of more than twenty years, Father Kusonjic played a crucial role in the Serbian community of Cleveland.

Father Kusonjic survived the Second World War fighting on the side of General Mikhailovic’s chetniks, and when he, too, chose voluntary exile over Communist Yugoslavia, he devoted all his energies to his fellow Serbs. In the true tradition of a Serbian priest, Father Kusonjic was a father, friend, teacher, advisor and a helping hand to everybody. His personal tragedies (the death of his son, and his wife’s return to Yugoslavia) had to be pushed aside as hundreds of Serbs came to him daily for guidance and comfort. And when it looked as though the hard work was to be rewarded by serving in a beautiful new church, tragedy struck again: Father Kusonjic had to choose sides in the split within his own church.

Although it was a great hardship for Father Kusonjic to leave so many close friends and good Orthodox Serbs on the “other” side, he went against the Patriarch directives and led his followers through the most troublesome times in the history of the American-Canadian Diocese of the Serbian Eastern Orthodox Church. He saw brother going against brother, friend against friend.

Tired, and weary of the struggle and not in the best of health, he recently resigned and moved to the St. Sava Serbian Monastry in Libertyville, Illinois, leaving St. Sava Church to a younger priest, Father Djuro Majerle, the present pastor of the church. Father Majerle came here from Canada where he served the Serbs for more than three years following his escape from Yugoslavia to Trieste, Italy.

Milutin Ristic

Former career military officer, a World War II immigrant, he came to Cleveland from Germany, where he spent the war years as a prisoner of war. Very active and a leader in various local organizations, he was also president of the church congregation from 1969 to 1974.

Djordje Djelic

Djordje Djelic was born in 1932 and grew up in Banat, Serbia. His father came to the United States in 1951, became a citizen five years later, and then tried to unite his family after years of separation, war and loneliness.

American immigration laws of the 1950’s allowed a naturalized citizen to bring his wife, but not children over twenty-one. Therefore, in 1957, when Djordje Djelic came to the United States as a visitor, he had to go through much red tape before he was permitted, in 1960, to stay with his father in Cleveland. He volunteered to join the military service, but was refused due to his age. His struggle to stay in the United States was given full coverage in a series of articles by the now defunct Cleveland News, and ABC Radio Story.

Ever since he became a permanent resident of Cleveland, Djelic has worked tirelessly at both church and community endeavors. Depply concerned with the plight of the Serbian immigrant, in 1957 he organized the St. Sava Serbian Youth Club to help newcomers adjust to their new life in Cleveland. The Youth Club provided them with a social outlet in addition to sponsoring sports and cultural events. Djelic’s work with Serbian youth was significant enough to merit a Voice of America interview which was subsequently broadcast to Yugoslavia.

The Serbian community benefited greatly from his efforts on behalf of the St. Sava Church in Parma. When the rift in the church occurred, Djelic initiated the Serbian National Radio Program to help explain and clarify the controversy for both Serbians and the general public. With a fellow Serb, Milan Vukadinovic, Djelic formed the Serbian Broadcasting Corporation, in 1974, which broadcasts a Serbian language program daily.

In 1972, he succeeded in bringing 12 groups together into the Council of Serbian Organizations of Greater Cleveland, which he served as executive vice president. He has long been active in the Nationalities Services Center, a member and founder of the American Nationalities Movement of Greater Cleveland, Executive Committee member of the Serbian National Defense Council of America and the Cuyahoga County Republican Party, founder of Serbian Republican League of Ohio, and involved in many other organizations.

In private life, Djelic has worked as a farm hand, a hospital technician, a lab technician in a chemical plant, a county inspector and a realtor. He is married to Miroslava Vladisavljevic.

There are literally hundreds of prominent Serbs who served and are serving the Greater Cleveland Community in many different capacities. While we might seem unjust to mention one and not another, we believe it to be appropriate to mention at least some:

Dan Backin, NASA Engineer

Steve and Gene Trukalo, Executives, Newman & Stern Company

Milan Dragisic, Warner and Swasey Company

Milan Sekulic, Cleveland Trust Company

Borivoje Karapandzic, Surveyor, Author

Milan Vukadinovic, Teacher, Radio Producer, Writer

Mike Zuber, Insurance Company

Nick Rad1ick, Politics, Councilman of Parma Heights

Mihailo Minich, Author

Paul Mitrovich, Lake County Prosecutor

Alex Zugic, Cleveland Trust Company

Ratko Laoboja, M.D.

Lidia Ljuboja, M.D.

Predrag Nastasic, M.D.

Bosko Pop-Lazic, M.D.

Milan Radivoyevitch, M.D.

Olga Radosavljevic-Gradojevic, Cleveland Institute of Music

Vera Zugic, Teacher, Cleveland Public Schools

Martha Mirich, Teacher, John Marshall High School

Dorothy Winovich, Dean of Girls, Thomas Jefferson Junior High

Mary Visnic, Teacher, Parma Schools

Joanne Pavicic, Teacher, Parma Schools

Mihajlo Mesarovic, M.D., Ph.D., Case Western Reserve University

Aleksandar Petkovic, Engineer

Milos Milenkovic, Engineer

Dusan Citovic, insurance company and travel agency

Miodrag Panic, Continental Travel Agency

Slavoljub Rajevic, Yorktown Tavern

Vasilije Komnenic, Teacher, Author

Vladimir Mitich, Teacher

Paul Cosic, Cosic Realty

Dan Cosic, Family Discount Shoe Store

Tom Rakic, Tom Rakic Tailoring, Inc., Diamond Men’s Stores

Misa Jokanovic, Lake Erie Diecasting Company

Milojko Perisic, Architect

Dragisa Krstovic, Era Machines

Ljubisa Zivkovic, Cabinet Maker

Slobodan Borovica, Broadview Drapery and Carpeting Company

Milovan Cicin, Cicin Wood Produets, Inc.

Zvonko Petkovic, Kvarda Cleaners

Sofija Simovic, beauty salon

Vidoje Nikolic, Europe at Night Restaurant

Bata Dimitrijevic, dry cleaning

Tom Simic, Simic & Son Contractors

Petar Topalski, Lada Construction Company

Milan and Rose Yovich, bankers

Alex Machaskee, Assistant to the Publisher, Plain Dealer

George Borato, imports

Joe Lapshevich, real estate broker

Mirko Sholjaga, Cabinet Maker

Marinko Petrovic, tailor

D. Petkovic, Tailor

Meleta Damjanovic, Tailor

Sava Popov, Butcher

Milan Turajlic, Photographer

Rajko Matovic, Auto Salesman

Stanko Sarcevich, Auto Salesman

Steve Opalich, Industrialist, Politician

Steve Babin, Investor

Boza Nedeljkovic, Tavern

Steve Dale, Drapery

Mr. Rafailovich, Teacher

Branko Uzelac, Tavern

Milan Bozickovic, Tavern

 Spasenije Zegarac, Tavern

Veibor Vasiljevich, Tavern

Milan Stojisavljevic, Industry

Dr. Milan Vukcevich, Research Dept., General Electric Company

Vera Diklich, Banker

Vojin Gradojevic, Physicist

Paul Voinovich, Architect

Vladimir Scherbin, Electrical Engineer

Konstantin Malesevich, Technician

Miladin Pejic, Electrician

Rade Stojisavljevic, Management

Aleksandar Cukic, Management

Robert Medic, Management

Sava Djurka, Welder

George Bozickovic, Electrician

Drago Savich, Cooling & Heating Specialty

Mila Vukadinovic, Banking

Zivka Petkovic, Banking

Radmila Ilic, Banking

Vladimir Lazukic, Machinist

Steve Coso, Management

Strahinja Ilic, Die Maker

Mladen Beros, Technician

Mrs. Mladen Beros, Biologist

Ljuba Mijatov, Biologist

Miroslava Ristic, Banker

Miroslav Ristic, Engineering

Vojislav Spasic, Teacher

Milorad Karcic, Engineer

Aleksandar Karcic, Engineer

Milan Kecman, Art


Serbian Americans and Their Communities of Cleveland Copyright © by Nikolaj Maric. All Rights Reserved.

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