Interview with James Semsak concerning the public image of Cleveland and his work in the marketing of the city. Various marketing campaigns were discussed as well as the affect of some negative events such as the burning river, busing, and the Kucinich era.
Semsak, James (interviewee)
Souther, Mark (interviewer)
"James Semsak Interview, 23 July 2014" (2014). Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection. Interview 999121.
Mark Souther [00:00:02] Today is July 23, 2014. My name is Mark Souther, and we are at Cleveland State University as part of the Cleveland Regional Oral History Project. And I am interviewing Mr. Jim Semsak. Thank you again for agreeing to be interviewed for the project today.
James Semsak [00:00:23] Happy to be here.
Mark Souther [00:00:24] Can you state your full name for the record?
James Semsak [00:00:27] Jim or James Semsak.
Mark Souther [00:00:31] And can you spell your last name for the record?
James Semsak [00:00:34] It's S-E-M-S-A-K.
Mark Souther [00:00:37] Okay, thank you. And when and where were you born?
James Semsak [00:00:41] I was born in Cleveland in '45, I went to high school here and left for college, went to Ohio University in Athens, graduated there with the Electrical Engineering degree in '67, actually moved as part of a corporate move down to a small town in South Carolina for a period of time, less than a year, and came back and continued my career at Clark Control, which had an office in, or its factory, in Cleveland. I worked there about seven years. Research and development. Got into marketing as kind of a side issue. And my project was discontinued, so I moved on to a year where I was selling electronic components, Intel, Motorola, et cetera, for a regional firm. Their office closed regionally, so I was actually moved out to the Los Angeles area just for a bit and came back to get involved with my company at the time in '74, which was Western Specialty Company.
Mark Souther [00:02:10] Okay. Thank you. Can you go back then and tell me a little bit about the neighborhood that you grew up in? What your first recollections of it were?
James Semsak [00:02:20] Well, I was born in the Buckeye-Woodland area, which was a predominantly Hungarian neighborhood, as many parts of Cleveland was at the time. Went to St. Elizabeth's, great school there, until the beginning of my third grade and family moved to a house in Garfield Heights, so continued at St. Peter and Paul Parochial School, grade school in Garfield Heights, and grew up there for the most part until I went away to OU when I was 17.
Mark Souther [00:02:59] So your family moved when you were in what grade?
James Semsak [00:03:01] Uh, finished second grade in the summer of... so I was about I was actually six, I guess. I started school early for I don't know what the reason. I have a suspicion that my grandmother had something to do with it, but that's a long story and we probably don't want to get into it now, do you? [laughs]
Mark Souther [00:03:21] Well, I wanted to ask... I was curious about the circumstances surrounding the move. What was the neighborhood like and did you have a perception of it as a place that was... Did you enjoy living there or were too young really to notice?
James Semsak [00:03:35] We... I was pretty young. Even back then. This was let's see, of course, this was '45, '50, early '50s, '52, '53. Lived in actually a rented house. My grandmother and grandfather on my mother's side owned a four-family front-and-back, up-and-down configuration, and we were upstairs in one of the units, and I think the opportunity just presented itself. In the other section upstairs was my aunt and uncle who was my mother's sister—they were very close—and we actually moved jointly. They moved a couple of months earlier than we did. However, they bought a duplex in Garfield Heights, so again, they shared the same home and we moved. It was, I guess, an opportunity for both families to own a home at the time. So that's really the rationale for it.
Mark Souther [00:04:34] What connection, if any, did you continue to have to St. Elizabeth's?
James Semsak [00:04:38] Very little. I, you know, I don't really recall too much after that. You get involved in the new community to some degree, going to a different school. I don't remember. I think I recall going back to St. Elizabeth's, which was a very prominent and historical Hungarian church in regards to the entire country, quite frankly, but maybe several times for special masses or Sunday masses or events, but very little contact, I guess, back to the old neighborhood after that.
Mark Souther [00:05:19] Did your parents still attend another church regularly or no?
James Semsak [00:05:23] Well, St. Peter and Paul was about six, seven blocks away, and that became our basically our church, my school. And then my brother, I think, was five or so. I think he graduated from St. Elizabeth's, so he went on to College Cathedral Latin, which was very close, you know, in the University Circle area before it was closed down.
Mark Souther [00:05:51] Did you... As you went back over the years to Buckeye, what changes did you notice as the neighborhood did evolve over time.
James Semsak [00:06:01] IIt was a changing neighborhood even back in the '50s. Certainly, it was predominantly Hungarian. Yet toward the Woodland area—we were one block from the intersection of Buckeye and Woodland—it was... It was... it was a... I guess you consider a lower rent area in a sense. The housing stock was not terrific. A lot of rentals and things. It was a mixed neighborhood back then, even, and I think over the years since then, you know, different things happen from an economic standpoint that didn't favor the neighborhood. It kind of fell into a little disarray and wasn't considered a wonderful neighborhood to be a part of at that time.
Mark Souther [00:06:59] In terms of Hungarian businesses, do you have any recollection of ones that were on Buckeye and then left and established business elsewhere? I'm thinking of one in particular but I wonder if there are others.
James Semsak [00:07:11] Well, there was, I remember, just across the street there was the Hungarian paper offices was there. There was Szabadsag, I think they called it. There was a Blonder's or there was some home repair, home decorating, you know, paper paint stores, a place everybody called Uncle Sid's. I remember that for some reason. And there was a... That's about all I really remember, you know, small candy stores, et cetera, local movie theater, the Sun Theater on Buckeye between our house and the church. There was, well, there was a, I think they pronounce it Micelli's or Micelli's, Micelli's Cheese. They've been there for a million years and, quite frankly, probably to be applauded because they've grown there and expanded and have made a presence in the neighborhood. And as a matter of fact, I think... I think my wife actually went to school with one of the family members, two at St. Elizabeth's. So she has that connection.
Mark Souther [00:08:21] What about Balaton restaurant?
James Semsak [00:08:27] I... My only recollection is after they moved to Shaker Square. And we went up there several times. I do remember going up Buckeye and The Gypsy's Cellar, which was a popular place. There was a... And for some reason, I'm not even sure of the relationship, but I think my grandmother was somehow connected by a second cousin relationship to either one of the owners or the family that ran it or something. There was nothing real strong, but of course I think I was... I was 12 years old before I realized that all these people I thought were aunts and uncles were just family friends. Everybody was an uncle this or an aunt this. And that was the way people, you know, met people and responded and lived in that neighborhood, quite frankly.
Mark Souther [00:09:23] When you think about, you know, being a Clevelander, did your sense of being an Clevelander evolve when you moved to the suburbs or not?
James Semsak [00:09:36] I really had no sense of being a Clevelander or not a Clevelander living in the city. Of course, at the time, within our city boundaries, I was before and of course moved to, you know, Garfield Heights, which was still in the county, but outside the city. Had no feeling for it one way or another as a youngster growing up. I think my first recollection of who I was and where I was going or what I was doing, or my feelings about the city where I was born, was probably late in my junior or senior year. Back then, there was recruiters coming on campus and interviewing for positions after graduation, and there was an opportunity to go to several places, and I feel fortunate by comparison now, some of the people graduating now are struggling to get jobs. But back then in the late '60s, you know, with a degree that I had, we can just go to one of the halls in town and there would be six or seven employers, and in some cases, you know, it was a lucky situation, unfortunate situation to have multiple offers of jobs after graduation. So I was looking at balancing, you know, between Wisconsin, St. Louis, Chicago. Indirectly, coming back to Cleveland because I knew this particular company A. O. Smith out of Milwaukee had a factory, a new factory in South Carolina, but they also had a customs or custom engineered products division in Cleveland in the Five Points or Collinwood area. So I thought, well, I could, I could do any one of the... any one of four different situations. And I kind of... I kind of struggled with that a little bit because I had another situation. My father had died during my sophomore year at school. Mother was having a difficult time dealing with the loss, and I felt if my brother actually gave up a fellowship at Michigan State to stay home and kind of get her through this transitional period, and he was kind of an unspoken contract maybe or agreement between us that when I got out of school, I might take on that role for a while that he, you know, gave up quite a bit to stay home and make that make that sacrifice. So... And that was fine because so I chose the one that would ultimately get me back to the Cleveland area and not really sorry about it at all. But quite frankly, being out of town and then getting a chance to travel and getting over to Europe and going skiing in Switzerland and Germany and things like that, then having the opportunity to get to the West Coast and spend a little time there and everything. It took me until probably I was 22, 24 to say I have feelings now about parts of the country and how I feel about my hometown, Cleveland. And it was only then that it kind of solidified a little more to the point where it became somewhat meaningful and not to the point where I will guarantee that I will spend the rest of my life here. But I would not be terribly sorry if I did. I have some real feelings and there's some things about the area that I feel very attached to and very committed to and feel a part of. But it took a while. It certainly wasn't during my teenage years or early college years.
Mark Souther [00:13:28] When you reflect, do you... Do you remember many of the efforts to promote the city, such as The Best Location in the Nation? If so, when was the first time you heard that?
James Semsak [00:13:44] Well, yeah, I was probably, you know, I was probably gone for, you know, while I actually spent five years at OU ultimately and coming back and finally working with Clark Control in Cleveland was probably the first time I even remember too much. I remember the Forest City. That was a term that was used to refer to Cleveland. And I remember, you know, the Best Location in the Nation. Those were really probably the only two that I had recollection of early on, and I was kind of ambivalent about either one. I mean, didn't didn't make much difference to me or didn't make too much sense one way or another. I didn't think about it too much, quite frankly.
Mark Souther [00:14:37] When you think about the sort of the state of the city, from your vantage point in Garfield Heights at least, first of all, how often did you go downtown once you moved out there in what, 1952?
James Semsak [00:14:52] Yeah. We came downtown quite a bit. There were certain traditions. You know, shopping was still a focal point of downtown and then centered in downtown with many of the department stores. And coming down Christmastime, Higbee's was wonderful, as evidenced by the Christmas Story movie, you know, and Sterling Lindner and Higbee's and, what was it, May Company and everything, you know, it was really the mecca for shopping back then when I was really young. Easter was a time to get dressed up and come to Wade Oval and walk around the art museum and the lagoon there, and it seemed like everybody in the world was there taking pictures and just enjoying Easter. So there were things, and I think I didn't experience from the early days and Garfield Heights, the detached suburbanite mentality that I'm out of the center of core city, and I don't care if I have anything to do with it. We still... There was a lot of things you enjoyed about going down and, you know, as a young boy, my father taking me down to a Yankees doubleheader at the old stadium and walking up the ramp into the sunlight and with a sellout crowd of 75, 78,000 people, and it's like, I never saw anything like that before. So it was amazing, you know, so there was, there was opportunity and a lot of times we came downtown to just experience the core city.
Mark Souther [00:16:28] How often would you say that you went downtown for shopping?
James Semsak [00:16:31] Well, I mean, not myself, but I used to tag along, you know, probably not every week even. But I would say several times a month, maybe, is my recollection.
Mark Souther [00:16:44] Where... Do you remember where you ate, when you went with your parents?
James Semsak [00:16:50] There was a couple of... It was a couple of cafeterias back then. And it's kind of strange. There wasn't many restaurants downtown. And, you know, in the old neighborhood, boy, I... From the time I was born, of course, up until the time I was 10 years old, maybe, you know, it's almost like, or 8 years old, we maybe only went to two restaurants, you know, there was, there, first of all, there wasn't any restaurants like the fast food that you see, but there wasn't any other restaurants where you could sit down or tablecloth meal and the whole deal. They just didn't exist at that time. They had... They had a couple of cafeterias. I remember one being in the lower level somewhere. They also had something interesting that beforehand I only saw in movies about New York, and that's the little automated, you put money in and the food comes swinging around and the automat or whatever they call that, you know, they're dispensing sandwiches and salads and desserts and everything through a little machine. You open the door and you, you know, you watch it rotate and you stop it where you want and you pull it out and you sat down and ate it. And that was kind of, that was kind of a fun thing. I don't know how I envision that, but that was something different.
Mark Souther [00:18:06] Where was that?
James Semsak [00:18:08] I think it was somewhere on Euclid, close to 9th Street. I couldn't even begin to tell you.
Mark Souther [00:18:16] The cafeterias, I'm guessing, were Mills and Blue Boar? I've come across those.
James Semsak [00:18:20] Well, Mills, I remember. I don't even remember the name Blue Boar. Mills, I do. I think they had a little, like a fan, or as part of their signage or something, like a little Dutch windmill, as I recall. I don't remember the other one at all. I remember going down to the lower level of the Terminal, and of course, they had the frosted malts. They had a little kiosk. There was little stands as you went toward the train platforms and so forth. And that was always kind of interesting. I mean, getting one of those, that was worth the trip even if nothing else happened. So those are... Those are kind of the recollections early on. But it's kind of funny, you know, we've talked among a lot of people when during the early portion of my life there, Cleveland was all offices and business. No residential, no residents, basically no entertainment. And it has not flipped entirely, but certainly to a great degree, it has flipped almost in the opposite direction. So it's a lot more fun. It's a lot more entertaining and a lot more interesting, I think, the way downtown is configured now than what it was before. I mean, quite literally, they used to talk about five o'clock, you roll up the sidewalks and you could roll a bowling ball down Euclid and not hit anybody or whatever. And that was largely true. There wasn't much more to stay around for back then. So luckily, that has changed dramatically.
Mark Souther [00:20:00] Mm-hmm. Do you recollect a time in which you became aware that downtown was not the same as it was? That it was losing some of its verve, some of its energy, at least with regard to shopping or the appearance? Anything along those lines?
James Semsak [00:20:17] Yeah, I think there are several things that stick in my mind when you realize, wow, we're not an emerging city, you know, gaining population and popularity. When some of the department stores closed down, when some of the businesses moved out, when, you know, they talk about losing population, they talked about, you know, the outmigration of people, you know, and even at that time there was a certain period, it seemed like within five years, tens of thousands, if not more, people, you know, moved south. I mean, if it wasn't for air conditioning, you know, that wouldn't have happened, but they had air conditioning. We had some dreadful winters during that period, too, where if somebody was on the fence about staying here or not, sometimes that was enough to have somebody said, I'm gonna leave. I just... [laughs] I can't stand another winter. I suppose that's understandable in some cases, if winter or weather affects you, like that. But yeah, there went through a period and even... Even late when I was going through this interviewing process, late in junior or senior year at school in the late '60s, I could... I felt that that was already happening, certainly. Okay? Cleveland was in somewhat of a decline. If you know you're... I've always thought that. And it just wasn't much happening and it didn't seem like anybody was even pushing in the right direction. And that was kind of a little discouraging thing. I've always had an image of the progress in a city when people say, you know, you have movers and shakers and they're pushing to do something positive. And I liken that to pushing a car that's not running, but on a level road. But a city isn't like that. A city is like pushing a car up a slight incline because when you stop pushing, you don't stay where you are. You go backwards. And I think that's what was happening. There wasn't the effort. It wasn't the programs. Or quite frankly, I think people moved from the core city and emotionally they just became detached. They just were not engaged whatsoever and they were happy to do that. They felt they didn't want to have anything to do with it. Okay? You know, certain things, probably images of crime, integration, busing, et cetera. So there's a lot of factors that people did not find particularly attractive. So they moved out into other areas of the county, other counties or out of state even to get away with it. But it's... I think it's classic. I mean, it certainly just doesn't happen in this area. You... And here's the other thing. You have to almost be away from the city... When I spent a lot of time in Los Angeles, they're reading their papers, looking at their 11 o'clock news. You think, Boy, this sounds familiar. Those people think every politician is a moron, just like we do. They think their weather is not so good most of the time, just like we do. You know, it's similar. Every story leads with a horrific crime, whether it's a murder or a fire or abduction or something. And you realize, you know, there are differences, but in a lot of fundamental respects, a lot of the cities are similar. Very similar. Okay? But I sense a lack of attitude and direction here. And there was a little discouraging because I wasn't... I couldn't say I was a big fan until later in life when I came back and I spent time in other parts of the country. My brother had been working. I'd spend time well, probably, had been in New Orleans four different times, up in Seattle—my brother was up there for about three years, so I visited him quite often. You know, Chicago, spent time there, New York, Atlanta. He had something going down there for a while. So, you know, we just... I had an opportunity to fortunately, a lot of people don't, and that's, it's unfortunate. But I came back, I think, with a greater appreciation of what we have, an appreciation of what we could be. Potential is a often-used word, sometimes meaning you just didn't do it. So there's a negative and a positive aspect to potential, but it was there, quite frankly. And the old guard... I had friends too that were very involved in things and many of the leaders from the early '60s, '70s, the Herb Strawbridges of Higbee's and all these other people, Whitehouse and them from BP and so on and so on and so on. They were gone or they weren't involved. And people did not see an emergence of younger leadership, I think. Quite frankly, now I see that on a much, much larger scale. I can't even tell you a particular one single name or not, but you read about them, you hear them, you see them on TV, you see them on, you hear them on the radio. There's a lot of insightful, intelligent conversation going on now about the city, its direction and what could happen. And it's terribly exciting. Now, whether I'm here or not, I will always be a part of the city, and it's exciting, especially for the younger generation now, people in their 20s, 30s and 40s that are here, like we discussed before. I think they have a much more positive attitude than somebody who is in their 60s and 70s and 80s who have lived through this, kind of this plateauing out and decline and a lot of the negativity that went on in the late '50s, '60s and early '70s, and then it became a little cyclical. It seemed like we were on a high when we opened the Rock and Roll Museum and everything. And then it kind of... There was never any real momentum that was consistent. And I feel differently now. I think, you know, not really sure, but I think there's different driving forces, different people and with that different personalities, and they think differently, which is good because it's the... It's what the city needed. And as all young cities, you put it, in the hands of the younger generation and the way it should be. So...
Mark Souther [00:27:02] What do you remember about Carl Stokes's election and did that have any impact on how people, including yourself, perceived Cleveland?
James Semsak [00:27:14] Well, I don't know if we discussed this earlier. I was... I was living in Lancaster, South Carolina, at the time, and this is the small-town factory that was run by A. O. Smith, Clark Control that I spent time in. And when that happened, of course, all the... There wasn't too many people living there, you know, it was a very small town. They all knew three of us were from Cleveland. And when that hit the news, I can't tell you, these people were so flabbergasted, they were so amazed, they were so distraught, they could not believe that happened. So this is a small town, South Carolina. This is, you know, 40 years ago or whatever, more, 50 years ago. They just couldn't imagine that. So I caught a lot of grief, I guess. Quite frankly, I mean, I was... I was somewhat proud of the fact that Cleveland was the home of the first African American mayor of a big city. I mean, if you understand our our legacy in racial relations, major events in diversity even, you know, you talk about Mayor Stokes, you talk about Robinson or, you know, being our first Black manager of a Major League Baseball team, okay? Of course, Larry Doby had the misfortune of follow[ing] Jackie Robinson by two months or six weeks or something, but he was the first Black player in the American League. John McLendon, with the Pipers, first Black manager of a professional basketball team. You know, there's just a lot of events in Cleveland that really supported their idea and, you know, and there the elements that fight it yet. But we are a diverse community, as evidenced by MLK or old Liberty Boulevard. And as I mentioned to you, you know, you knew too, the Cleveland Library, has more foreign language books than any other library system as of a few years ago. I'm not sure if that's the case. It probably could be yet. So I was... It was kind of a difficult, crazy period for me because I didn't want to get everybody in town there terribly upset and burn the factory down, but I was... I was rather proud and I was fortunate, I guess. My father, who was a mailman and worked in University Circle, was, it was at the time that Blacks were integrating the post office. And I don't remember his grandfather, quite frankly, at all, or his grandmother or his father and mother. I was pretty young when they died, but he was... he was a wonderful man, racially tolerant, and I suppose I got a lot of that from him to the point where he moved... When we moved to Garfield Heights. He moved and got transferred to the Garfield Heights Post Office, and if I could share a story with you, it just says it all, I think. So he had been probably 15, 20 years out of the UC or university Circle station here, and he was a big supporter and was kind of a mediator in some of the skirmishes that started as the Black employees started coming in and there was friction in the post office. So when he died, of course the funeral was in Garfield Heights, and close to the end of the day, the viewing day, the doors open up and about 25 Black men come marching in and nobody, like what is going on here? I didn't know what was going on, and they come up to me, and these were, these were fellow workers from 20 years ago. They came back and, you know, it kind of tears me up a little you know, brings tears in my eyes right now when I think about it. But that kind of respect that he had in his efforts down there and, you know, it just blew everybody away. But anyway, so, I think, you know, I saw that part of him and I probably share that part of him with, you know, in my personality, I guess, too. But anyway, he did that.
Mark Souther [00:32:03] But then once you returned—I know you came back in... came back in '68? Or '67 to Cleveland. Originaly, I thought '67 but maybe...
James Semsak [00:32:13] Well, I graduated in '67 and then I was away for a while. I really came back... Oh, boy, I forget what year. I was going, I was here most of the time. Like I said, my stay in South Carolina was less than a year, so I was probably back in '69, certainly, full time.
Mark Souther [00:32:38] And by which time, you know, so you missed the Glenville shootout in '68.
James Semsak [00:32:45] Right?
Mark Souther [00:32:47] Weren't in town for that.
James Semsak [00:32:48] Right.
Mark Souther [00:32:48] Were you back in town by the time the river infamously burned for the last time?
James Semsak [00:32:54] Yeah, I think I was. I think I was. Quite frankly, you know, to me that was not such a big deal. And if, you know, if the media wasn't there in the right moment to catch that image at the right time and, you know, media spin is everything and you could take, you could take any event, and I'll write it up two different ways and two people read it and they wouldn't know they're talking about the same event, you know. I'm always reminded of the story about the... What is the Russian national newspaper, Pravda or something? There was an article. For some reason, I guess some engineering societies, I hea,r got together and they were testing certain new engines and transmissions, and so they had a friendly competition between the U.S. version and the Russian version. I don't know where it was, maybe neutral ground. So they went in, they raced around this track and everything like that. So the U.S. version won, okay? In Pravda, it says, We're very proud of our engineers. We placed... We placed second. And didn't mention that they lost and there was only two cars in the race, you know. Okay? So it's the spin of putting them in a very positive vein there, you know? But I didn't... I didn't think any of that. I knew, you know, that was part of, that was part of... Another thing that was... I was very ambivalent about in a way, because our industrial past was tremendous in a way. I mean, okay, it's a little dirty and gritty, but it produced an enormous economy. It produced a gazillion years and, you know, very famous people. It made the city what it is as far as a diverse manufacturing city and everything. I don't know if you could even name a city back, you know, during that period of their heyday where we were big in automobiles, we were big in steel, we were big in machine tools, we're big in ore, we're big in mining, we were big in clothes manufacturing. We were a big, big clothes manufacturing city here. There was there was nothing that we weren't, you know, involved in, almost in a very, very prominent level, too. That's the amazing thing. And you would think we were much, much larger than we were, although, you know, we were the fifth or sixth largest city at one time and at its peak. But so the burning of the river had, you know, like, you know, who cares? I mean, we know there was industrial waste down there and a lot of people I knew had been like well they should've took pictures of this. That's nothing, you know, that sort of attitude. So that didn't make... That didn't make... And I had friends, though, that had this and they had this kind of negative attitude about events, how it portrayed the city in such a negative way. And I said, Well, you're harsh on yourself. I mean, you know, things happen in cities, okay? I mean, some of them are accidents, and I said to them, I said, Let me ask you a question. What would happen, and what would happen, what would be the attitude among Clevelanders if President Kennedy got assassinated in Cleveland? They said, Ohhhh. I said, Yes, oh, it's the blackest day, it'd be a black mark on Cleveland's history. People in Dallas consider it the site of a historic event. That's it. They don't take any blame for it. They don't feel, you know... And that's, that's the difference as far as your attitude toward your city and other people around there and, you know, your surroundings and everything. And that's what I didn't like in a sense. I would like to see the other attitude say, Hey, we're sorry about it. You know, I wish it could have been prevented or whatever. But, you know, the city wasn't responsible. Cleveland wouldn't been responsible. Just like the fire, it happened here but, you know, it wasn't, it wasn't a policy of City Hall to say let's dump some more gasoline and garbage and oil on the river, and let's see if it starts on fire. No, I mean, it's just... It was industrial accident and they happen all over the place. And, you know, there's been greater industrial accidents and nonsense going on in other parts of the country. If it doesn't get the press, it goes away, and it never stays in people's memory or psyche. But here, you know, I don't know why. I don't know why.
Mark Souther [00:37:36] I was going to. Ask you that. Yeah. What is it in the water, or what is
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.