Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Cincinnati's Uncle Carl: Carl Lindner

Uncle Carl has passed.  Cincinnati's greatest benefactor was 92, proving again that even though some might come close, nobody in fact lives forever.  I've never met Carl but I've been in his presence a few times and those encounters, such as they were, left quite an impression on me.
Encounter number one occurred around 1992.  Sue and I were living in Avondale, near Xavier, and would frequently go to Norwood to shop, eat, etc.  One afternoon, we decided to attend the Norwood parade.  We parked on a side street near City Hall and walked up to Montgomery, passing, along the way, a beautiful white Rolls Royce.  Sure enough, standing on the steps alongside average "Joes" (including Joe Dippong, aka "Mr. Spoons") was Carl.  Just watching and smiling.  Standing among the "common folk" enjoy his hometown's parade.  One of the guys.
Only a few years later, Uncle Carl purchased the Cincinnati Reds.  Although there have been critics who accuse him of not spending enough of his money on the team during his tenure as owner, as I recall there was a strong possibility the team could have gone to an out-of-town owner when Marge decided to sell.  In essence, Carl wanted the control of the team to stay in Cincinnati and I'm sure he felt he was doing the city a favor (and I agree with him) by keeping the ownership in town ala Powel Crosley of 1935.  Anyway, one of his first big acts was to trade far and sign Ken Griffey Jr. to a long term contract.  I was there at the press conference when Junior was introduced.  I'm not sure if Carl was a huge baseball fan, but he sure beamed with pride by pulling off the seemingly impossible--bringing arguably baseball's best player back to his hometown.  Nobody could have predicted how things would turn out for Junior and the team, but at that one shining moment, Carl gave Cincinnati sports fans a gift of the same calibre of the gifts he gave to Cincinnati's arts communities (his many gifts to the Symphony and Ballet) and to academia (the buildings at local schools and universities.)  Now even sports fans could share in his largess.
My most recent encounter came just last February.  Sue and I decided to celebrate the anniversary of our engagement with dinner at the Palace restaurant, where I originally popped the question a couple decades earlier.  Obviously we don't dine at the Palace often--or ever, for that matter--and the economy obviously has taken its toll on this upscale dining establishment because, in addition to the out-of-place couple from Indiana, there were exactly two other tables with customers--one in the corner by the window occupied by a solitary, elderly Carl Lindner.   I was surprised he sat alone (the waiter and maitre'd certainly fawned over him and I think there was a driver/bodyguard who came and went).  I so much wanted to walk over and shake his hand and thank him for all he'd done.  Even as he passed my chair on his way out of the room, I wanted to make eye contact and smile, but I didn't.  Too intimidated, I guess.  Instead, I felt kind of sorry for a man with a billion dollars who probably gets harassed with a steady stream of false kindnesses camouflaged as donation requests.  "Leave the poor man alone," I thought. 
It must be lonely being very wealthy and having a reputation of being very generous.  I think I sent a letter his way many years ago when Media Heritage as just getting off the ground.  I mailed it to his home and never heard anything.  I wondered even then how many letters like mine he must receive and how unfair it was that he should be annoyed at home.  I felt guilty.
The Cincinnati arts community must really be in a tizzy.  I had heard from those on various "Boards" that whenever the Symphony or the Opera needed "an additional 50" (and I'm not talking $50) to top off a successful public fundraising campaign, they'd call Uncle Carl.  The Lindner name is on several buildings around town for major million dollar gifts, but people may never realize just how many "little" checks of "50" or "25" (add some 000's) Carl would write whenever one of these organizations would ask.   Is there really anyone in the bullpen ready to write those checks in the future?
A good friend told me a story about Carl, who worked his way up from practically nothing on his daddy's dairy farm.  As Carl's bank account added zeroes over the years, he approached Indian Hill's most exclusive country club, Camargo, about joining.  They turned him down in a not-so-polite slap-in-the-face to Norwood's most famous high school dropout.  So as Carl added to his wealth, he purchased a piece of property right next door to Camargo's front drive and building a beautiful white mansion.  He also joined rival Kenwood Country Club, who was more than happy to have his name adorn one of their lockers.  Eventually, perhaps they passed his home enough times, Camargo's leaderships came crawling (if they actually "do" that in Indiana Hill) to his front door and an amused Carl reluctantly capitulated.   Mental note to myself: It's amazing how a billion dollars changes one's attitude.
Goodbye Carl.  I wish I would have been able to sit down with you and chat at the Palace last February.  I had so much to ask you.  And it wasn't because I wanted money, either.  But it was my anniversary and you've shown all of us in Cincinnati how important "family"--personal and community--should be.  I hope you understand and may you rest in peace.

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