It would be a gross exaggeration to describe Cornell McCleary as a friend of mine. We weren’t friends at all. In fact, over the last few years there were times when I couldn’t stand the guy.
Yet he believed passionately in things and wasn’t the least bit interested in tailoring his principles to be popular or well-liked. Cornelll was the type of guy who wasn’t the least bit shy about calling you a dumb ass if he thought you were one and that might include anyone from the mayor of Columbus to the President of the United States.
He hosted a radio show for six years Sunday nights on WTVN (610) radio. The format was to talk about whatever was on his mind, take phone calls and interview guests while Cornell would play old school soul music, rip into whatever politician that had got on his nerves and not take any of it, including himself too seriously.
Cornell was the first person I’ve met who could dominate a room through the sheer force of their outrageious persona. The other was Don King.
We sparred verbally when I was a reporter and then the editor of The Columbus Post newspaper. I invited him to write for The Post because I wanted a Black conservative voice, but it didn’t last more than a few columns because McCleary had butted heads in the past with The Post’s publisher, Amos Lynch.
That was Cornell’s way. For him there were no sacred cows. He ground them all up like hamburger. He didn’t care if he was ticking off Democrats on Monday, Republicans on Tuesday and a good portion of the Black community on Wednesday. He’d laugh at all the drama as if he was enjoying a private joke nobody else quite got.
McCleary was an activist in the community, but he was also the quintessential political gadfly. He could form alliances with liberals like Bob Fitrakis, the publisher of the progressive Columbus Free Press and then turn around and with Ohio GOP chairman Bob Bennett, standing by, announce he would be leading minority outreach efforts for the Republicans.
Cornell’s seemed to delight in biting the hand that fed him. In 1999, he publicly backed the Democrat, Michael Coleman over the endorsed Republican candidate. Local GOP officials were furious with McCleary, but he could have cared less.
Still, with his prodding, the paper did become more receptive to the Republican Party and when we endorsed Pat Tiberi for Congress in 1999 it was largely due to Cornell’s introduction of the unknown Tiberi to the paper’s editorial board.
I appeared on Cornell’s radio show once and he worked me over pretty good with his questions and biting sarcasm. But I didn’t get mad about it because I knew that was just how Cornell rolled. I listened to his program and when he left in 2006 over a dispute with the station manager, I sat in one night as a possible replacement. I flat-out sucked and when I ran into Cornell a few months later on the set of Columbus On the Record, a public affairs tv show, he didn’t fail to mention how bad I was.
Losing the show really seemed to throw Cornell off his game. When he appeared on On the Record he would often show up dressed head-to-toe in black, wearing combat boots and an attitude. Cornell’s “mad as hell and ain’t gonna take it no more” Angry Black Man persona was made for radio. It didn’t thrive in a structured 30-minute television program where he was sharing the spotlgith with three others. Where once Cornell was entertaining, now he was merely cranky and abrasive.
It got so unpleasant finally I asked the program host to stop scheduling me with Cornell.
I don’t think Cornell meant to be so in your face. It was just his way. He always had to show he was the Alpha male.
With his profile diminished by the loss of his radio show, Cornell tried internet radio and a blog with middling success, but it lacked the impact and reach he had enjoyed before. Every so often, he’d sent out a mass e-mail blast to everyone in local media about what his thoughts of the day were, but now it seemed more to remind us he was still hanging around.
Cornell passed away at his home from complications due to high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.
I didn’t know Cornell well enough to mourn him. I do know that he did things to bring about changes, improve the lives of others and shake people awake even as he was shaking things up. He cared about people and he cared about the causes that were important to him. If that means stepping on someones toes hard and repeatedly, he’d do it.
Cornell was liked by many, disliked by others, but respected by all. If he ever changed his ways to please anyone but himself I never caught him doing it.