Cornell McCleary: Calm Like a Bomb

1952 - 2009

Cornell McCleary: 1952 - 2009

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.

That’s all.

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2 thoughts on “Cornell McCleary: Calm Like a Bomb

  1. Well said and I couldn’t agree more with your assessment.
    I think back to 2003 when both you and Cornell invited the anger of the local Black community. Yourself for the commentary piece you penned in the Alive! castigating Bill Moss as a crazed and angry Black man and how McCleary attacked WVKO and Daunte Miller along with his family without provocation.
    But while yours ended with the Moss piece, McCleary’s was ongoing.
    I wasn’t here in the mid ’80s-early ’90s when McCleary was in his supposed activist prime but from all I’ve heard from other still active activists is more of his dubious nature.
    Such as the time he accompanied Bob Fitrakis and others to some small Ohio town to confront the KKK. What I’ve often been told is that McCleary left a good many of those activists behind to fend for themselves.
    McCleary to me was like a Stone Cold Steve Austin with a hyenna like laugh. He had no allegiances except to a few and was mostly an equal opportunity offender–as you’ve described quite well.
    I just also finished reading on the Free Press website Bob Fitrakis credit McCleary with getting you involved with the publication. I noticed you didn’t mention that. This seems to imply to me that perhaps you have a different spin on the matter.
    But for me if I were to sum up McCleary’s legacy here it’d be moreso tragic than heroic. Tragic in that he never sought to use his many skills and abilities to help further the cause of the local black community. He refused to in fact. He spent more time in his latter years on 610 criticizing, castigating and fault finding those whom he deemed as too militant, independent or liberal. He was over on hate radio–610 WTVN who never advertised his show being “outraged” with the system. Telling his story and giving his strategies to ignorant right wing white boys and drunk negroes instead. What a waste!

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  2. I was shocked to hear about Cornell’s death since he was someone I fully expected him to grow into one of those old men raising hell and shaking their canes at their opponents.

    Like you, I can’t say I knew him well but from a writer’s pov, he, along with Bill Moss, was pure gold. I always knew I’d get some memorable stories and quotes particularly during his time as minority outreach coordinator for the GOP. Covering that experience was priceless.

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