CINCINNATI - Only one of the publicity photos I've seen since Oliver Birckhead's passing captures the man I first met on a Bengals charter flight in 1986: It is the one of him looking you right in the eye with a big smile. To me, that was the man who offered his substantial right hand across the aisle of a Piedmont 737 and proclaimed, "I'm Ollie Birckhead. I don't believe we've met."
I had of course heard of the President of the Central Trust Bank. Somehow though, his gregariousness and outgoing nature didn't square with the staid, buttoned down world of banking in those days. Hence some of the other pictures of Ollie, who is being eulogized upon his death at age 89. I prefer the warm smile. Undoubtedly others share that sentiment.
Ollie was a guest of Paul Brown on that flight. It was standard procedure that Paul, then retired as Bengals Head Coach, would invite one of his business associates to join the team on the road. Business associate doesn't do justice to their relationship. Mr. Birckhead was one of the people who helped structure the financing of the fledgling franchise.
He saw the team, construction of Riverfront Stadium and the development it would engender, not solely as business for his bank, but more importantly good for his adopted city. He carried himself on those Bengals trips with a pride, of while not ownership, certainly authorship. He after all, had helped chart the team's financial course which is one of the most fiscally sound in NFL history. But Ollie's keen mind and head for numbers benefited the Queen City in countless other ways beyond professional sports.
But in that mid '80s setting, he was just a buddy of the boss going to an out of town football game. Paul Brown later reinforced that ‘off the clock' atmosphere when he strolled back the plane aisle to check on his guest and asked if we'd been introduced. Cordial though he'd already been, the fact PB referred to me by name was the imprimatur Ollie needed to treat me, as my dad used to say, "like a Dutch uncle."
From that day forward whenever I'd see Ollie downtown or at an art opening or ballet, he treated me like I mattered. And for that I will always remember him with great fondness. A thought that Mike Brown reiterated in a statement he issued today which read in part:
"He supported us at the old Central Trust, and he stayed with us as a fan and supporter all these years. He was a friend we all admired, and I'm saddened at his passing."
My personal condolences to Ollie's family and many, many friends.