Cincinnati has been home to hundreds of luminaries covering every field imaginable.
From industry to the arts, science and technology to sports, Cincinnatians have influenced how the entire United States lives, works and plays.
Here’s a list of nine Cincinnatians, some of them household names, some of them surprises, who have influenced at least the last 100 years. We don’t claim them as the Top 9, but they're people you should know and appreciate.
J. Ralph (1896-1988) and Patricia Corbett (1912-2008): With Music Hall about to enter an 18-month, $125 million renovation, take a minute to remember its last big makeover. In the early 1970s, Music Hall wasn’t even air-conditioned, but combined gifts of $11 million — that’s $63 million in today’s dollars — from the Corbett Foundation made the venerable Over-the-Rhine facility a national showcase for more than a generation. That doesn’t include their gift to help build Cincinnati Opera's new offices and rehearsal space, which opened in 2004 in Music Hall's north wing.
The Corbetts built their fortune thanks largely to the post-World War II housing boom — and an innovation on an old idea. When you hear an elegant ding-dong instead of a grating BZZZZZZ after you press a doorbell, or when you turn on a combination ceiling light/exhaust fan in the bathroom, thank Ralph Corbett. His NuTone Co. built millions of the devices.
Like many of today’s tech entrepreneurs, the Corbetts cashed out (for $30 million in 1967 — about $214 million today) and spent the rest of their lives helping the arts, mostly in the Tri-State. Besides Music Hall, UC's College-Conservatory of Music is world-class thanks to facilities and faculty they paid for and endowed. Besides two theaters at CCM, there also are Corbett-named theaters at the School for Creative and Performing Arts and Northern Kentucky University. The Corbetts also paid $2 million toward the main pavilion at Riverbend Music Center.
Powel Crosley Jr. (1886-1961): When you reach into the refrigerator to grab milk, beer, soda or salad dressing from the shelves on the door, thank him. If you can go to a Reds game after work because they’re playing at night, he's responsible. He's also the root reason iHeart Radio still has such a huge presence in Cincinnati.
Powel Crosley was a serial entrepreneur whose pioneering companies brought milestone innovations to the automotive, consumer appliance and electronics, defense and broadcasting industries. Besides shelves on refrigerator doors, his companies developed the first reliable vehicle tire liner, first mass-market consumer radio receivers (Crosley Radio was for a time the world’s largest radio maker), a non-electrical refrigerator and the proximity fuze. In 1945, Crosley sold all his companies to focus on building his dream, an affordable compact car. Only about 75,000 Crosley vehicles were made despite innovations like disk brakes.
Crosley’s legacy lives on in the Crosley Telecommunications Center across Central Parkway from Music Hall (home to WCET-TV, WGUC-FM and WVXU/WMUB-FM), the Powel Crosley Jr. YMCA branch in Springfield Township and Pinecroft, his former Mount Airy estate. It and its land were donated to build Providence Hospital (later Mercy Mount Airy). Though not based in Cincinnati, the Crosley brand is still used on lines of appliances and electronics.
Lauren Hill (1995-2015): The Indiana high-school senior had just committed to play basketball for Mount St. Joseph University in October 2013 when she revealed to her future coach that she had been diagnosed with brain cancer. The diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma was fast-growing and resistant to treatment, and by the fall of her freshman year, she was showing the effects of what is invariably a fatal disease.
When word of her illness became public, the NCAA allowed the Mount’s game against Hiram College to be played early. Interest in her compelling story led it to be moved to Xavier University’s Cintas Center, where a sellout crowd of more than 10,000 erupted in cheers when No. 22 sank a layup and fulfilled a dream to score in college basketball. She died April 10, 2015.
Throughout her ordeal, Hill never sought sympathy nor wallowed in self-pity. Instead she used her plight to help raise more than $1.5 million to fight childhood cancers. She was steadfast in her belief that she would do good with the bad hand she had been dealt. Her efforts continue through Lauren’s Fight for Cure and the Cure Starts Now Foundation, nonprofits which raise money for pediatric cancer research.
James Levine (born 1943): From his professional debut at age 10 in a Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra youth concert, the Walnut Hills High School graduate became a classical music superstar and the most influential opera conductor in a generation. He has led New York’s Metropolitan Opera since 1972, first as principal conductor and, since 1976, as music director. In that time, he has conducted more than 2,500 performances and become the public face of opera to the nation. He inaugurated the “Metropolitan Opera Presents” series on television in 1977 and the Met’s “Live in HD” digital simulcasts 10 years ago to cinemas around the world.
Despite his Met duties, Levine has stayed dedicated to the concert hall, too. He has served as music director of the Boston Symphony, Munich Philharmonic, Cincinnati May Festival (he returned to lead a 2005 performance) and Ravinia Festival (the Chicago Symphony’s summer home). He instituted a concert series with the Met Opera Orchestra in Carnegie Hall and has taken that orchestra around the world — including to Music Hall in 1998.
Failing health finally forced his hand. He led his final Met performance as music director May 7. He becomes music director emeritus with reduced obligations next season.
Jim Obergefell: It’s a lot harder to pronounce than Brown or Roe, but, like those names (with Roe, it's an ersatz name), his is forever tied to a landmark civil-rights decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. In his case, Obergefell v. Hodges, the high court ruled that the right to marry is guaranteed equally to same-sex couples. The 5-4 decision, handed down in June 2015, cited both the due process and equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution. The ruling resolved conflicting decisions on gay marriage issued by different circuits of the U.S. Court of Appeals, including the Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit.
Obergefell is an unassuming rights pioneer. “I’m just Jim,” he told the Washington Post earlier in 2015. “I just stood up for our marriage.”
The marriage was to John Arthur, his partner of more than 20 years. Arthur, though, was dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — Lou Gehrig's disease. It claimed him just three months after their 2013 wedding. Because Arthur was already largely incapacitated, the couple had to hire a medical flight to go to a state where same-sex marriage was legal (they chose Maryland). Because it was not legal in Ohio, they had to file suit so that Obergefell could be listed as Arthur’s spouse on his death certificate in Ohio. A federal judge granted an injunction, the 6th Circuit denied it when Ohio appealed, then it went to the Supreme Court.
Now it’s the law of the land.
Albert Sabin (1906-1993): Born in Bialystok, imperial Russia (now in Poland) — the place the Bialy pastry is named after — Albert Sabin spent 30 years, the bulk of his professional life, in Cincinnati. The fruit of his research has saved hundreds of millions of children around the world from being crippled by one of mankind’s oldest scourges, polio. To do it, he had to overcome opposition by supporters of Jonas Salk, who developed the first, though less effective, polio vaccine in 1955.
He began working at what is now Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in 1939 and in 1946 also became head of pediatric research at the University of Cincinnati. His early work proved polio was an enterovirus — native to the gut. After fighting tropical diseases in World War II, he returned to polio. Salk’s vaccine used dead polio virus, had to be injected and blocked the effects of polio, but not the actual infection. Sabin’s used weakened live virus, could be taken orally and blocked the virus in the intestine.
Because he could not initially get approval for the vaccine in the U.S., many clinical trials were held in the Soviet Union. The first U.S. mass immunization using the Sabin vaccine was, fittingly, of Cincinnati school children. In honor of Sabin, Cincinnati’s convention center bore his name for 20 years, and Children’s Hospital named its new education and conference center for him. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1986.
Mamie Smith (1883-1946): Today, when Beyonce turns the lemons of her personal life into musical “Lemonade,” the entire music world pays attention. Until almost 1960, though, record executives relegated most music by African-American artists simply as “race music.” Most black performers hadn’t made even that small step toward commercial success in 1920, when Mamie Smith became the first black vocalist to make a blues recording.
Born in Cincinnati as Mamie Robinson, she was just 10 when she started touring. By the time she was 20, she was making a name for herself in dance shows in New York — including Perry Bradford’s “Maid in Harlem” — and as a club singer in Harlem. When Bradford wanted to record some of his songs, he asked Mamie, now married to William Smith, to stand in for white singer Sophie Tucker for a test pressing.
Major labels refused to buy a recording by a black artist, but bootleg copies began to sell, and so the OKeh label took a chance: The label had Smith re-record “That Thing Called Love.” It sold respectably, and OKeh brought her back for another session, this time cutting a real blues song, “Crazy Blues.” It sold an astonishing 10,000 copies in its first week, many bought for the first time by black consumers.
Mamie Smith’s celebrity was later eclipsed by another Smith, Bessie, who was no relation. “Crazy Blues” was chosen in 2005 to be added to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry.
Steven Spielberg (born 1946): The famed director’s family moved to Cincinnati at the turn of the 20th century, but Spielberg was still a boy when his parents moved, first to New Jersey, then to Arizona. He made his first films as a teenager. Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that his calling combines artistry and technology: His mother was a concert pianist, his father an electrical engineer.
Spielberg’s first theatrical release, “Amblin’,” earned him a contract at Universal and provided the namesake for his future production company. Successful work in television got him his first feature film, “Jaws.” It was his first blockbuster hit, followed by “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T.” and “Jurassic Park.” With commercial success came the flexibility to address more serious subjects in such films as “The Color Purple,” “Amistad,” “Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Munich,” “Lincoln” and “Bridge of Spies.”
Spielberg has won three Academy Awards and has been chosen to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1994, after “Schindler’s List” was released, Spielberg, who was raised an Orthodox Jew, founded the Shoah Foundation to record the video testimony of Holocaust survivors and witnesses. The foundation conducted nearly 52,000 interviews in 56 countries.
Ted Turner (born 1938): Derided as the Mouth from the South, Robert Edward “Ted” Turner moved with his family to Savannah, Georgia, when he was 9. He was 24 and a recent Brown graduate when his father committed suicide, leaving him in charge of his family’s billboard business. Using its cash flow, he bought a string of radio stations in the South, then sold them to buy a UHF television station in Atlanta. He bought rights to broadcast Atlanta Braves baseball games, filled the schedule with syndicated, second-run shows and struck gold when he got the Federal Communications Commission to allow him to beam his station’s signal to the nation’s cable systems, then eager to offer the additional programming. The “superstation” was born.
In 1980, Turner changed reporting forever when CNN, the Cable News Network, came online and created the 24-hour news cycle. Since then, TNT and Turner Classic Movies were added to the mix, and Turner outright bought the Braves and Atlanta Hawks basketball team.
Turner became a billionaire when he sold his media empire to Time Warner in 1996, but that company’s ill-fated merger with AOL cost him an estimated $7 billion. Now a fervent environmentalist, renewable energy advocate and peace activist, Turner pledged $1 billion to United Nations causes through the UN Foundation, which he created. He also owns more than 2 million acres of land.
Follow Thomas Consolo on Twitter: @tconsolo_news.
They didn’t make the Top 9, but plenty of other Cincinnati natives have made waves through the years. Here are nine more of them:
Daniel Carter Beard (1850-1941): The official namesake of the “Big Mac” bridge founded the Sons of Daniel Boone in 1905 to keep frontier traditions alive. He merged his group in 1910 into the new Boy Scouts of America and went on to be one of scouting’s first national scout commissioners and editor of Boys’ Life magazine. He served the organization for 30 years.
Charles Manson (born 1934): Manson’s unwed mother went to prison when he was about 5. He turned to crime before becoming a teenager and, in the late 1960s, founded an apocalyptic commune dedicated to surviving (and helping start) a race war. Members of the so-called Manson Family committed nine murders, allegedly to help spark the conflict, dubbed Helter Skelter after the Beatles song.
William Procter (1801-1884) and James Gamble (1803-1891): A tribute to the power of marriage, Procter, a candlemaker, and Gamble, a soapmaker, married sisters named Norris. Their mutual father-in-law, Alexander Norris, suggested that they combine their businesses, and the rest is corporate history.
L.A. Reid (born 1956): The “X Factor” judge started as a drummer in local bands Pure Essence and the Deele. He and a Deele bandmate founded LaFace records in 1989. Since then, he’s been a behind-the-scenes force in the careers of Toni Braxton, Mariah Carey, Outkast, Rihanna, TLC, Usher and even Justin Bieber.
Roy Rogers (1911-1998): Born Leonard Slye in the rough riverfront neighborhood where Riverfront Stadium would rise, the future King of the Cowboys headed west to look for work in the Great Depression and was picking peaches when he first performed in public, on an amateur radio show, in 1931. He went on to become a top western singer (with the Sons of the Pioneers), TV performer and movie actor, making more than 100 films — many with his third wife, Dale Evans.
Joseph Strauss (1870-1938): The civil engineering graduate of the University of Cincinnati revolutionized the design of bascule bridges (commonly known as drawbridges). If that sounds dull, his achievement led to his serving as chief engineer of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, now listed as one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
William Howard Taft (1857-1930): The protégé of Theodore Roosevelt is the only man to have served as both U.S. president (1980-1912) and U.S. Supreme Court chief justice (1921-1930). On the court, he served with two justices he appointed. His descendants (so far) include two U.S. senators, an Ohio governor and a Cincinnati mayor.
Charles Henry Turner (1867-1923): He was the first African-American to receive a graduate degree from the University of Cincinnati and the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. (in zoology) from the University of Chicago. His groundbreaking work proved that insects can hear and can distinguish pitch; that honeybees can see color; and that cockroaches can learn.
Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004): From a psychology degree at UC and studies at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, he went on to become a leading figure in the Pop Art movement (think Andy Warhol), using everyday objects to create his aesthetic. He’s best known for his Still Life and Great American Nude series; several of his works are in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection.