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Stan Aronoff's legacy surrounds Cincinnati

a white haired man in a black suit sits in an office with the ohio river and the roebling bridge in the backgroun
Elizabeth O'Neill
Courtesy The Deciding Factor
Aronoff in an undated photo. He died Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024, at the age of 91.

Look around you, Cincinnati.

Take a good look at your Downtown, your riverfront, your college campus at the top of the hill.

Everywhere you look, you will see the mark of Stanley J. Aronoff, the former Ohio Senate president who died Wednesday at the age of 91.

Adam Sonnett
Flickr Creative Commons

Not just on Walnut Street downtown, where the magnificent Aronoff Center for the Arts delights us every year with live performances of Broadway shows.

Without Stan Aronoff, the entertainment venue that now bears his name wouldn't be there, nor the entertainment district that has built up around it. The powerful Republican politician secured $40 million of the $82 million it cost to build it.

And don't stop looking there.

Look at Garfield Place. Look at the convention center's last expansion. Look at the conversion of the abandoned Union Terminal into the Cincinnati Museum Center.

Bicentennial Commons at Sawyer Point. A refurbished Music Hall.

All because of the power and passion of one man — Stan Aronoff, who served in both chambers of the legislature, ending his 36-year legislative career in 1996 as Ohio Senate president.

That, friends, is what leaving a legacy looks like.

RELATED: Longtime Ohio lawmaker and former Senate president Stanley Aronoff dies at 91

Aronoff was a Republican leader more interested in getting things done than partisan in-fighting; he understood that, as president of the state senate, he could achieve nothing without working with the Democrats who then controlled the House.

It would make him an outlier in today's political climate, where even speaking to the other side is considered political treason.

Aronoff was the last of the trio of politicians in the Ohio Statehouse whose power equaled and often exceeded that of Ohio governors. Two Democrats, Ohio House Speaker Vern Riffe, House Majority Leader William L. Mallory Sr. and Aronoff. All no longer living.

Back in 1992, Ohio voters passed a term limits law for state legislators. That means there will never again be a power trio like Aronoff, Riffe and Mallory.

Now, we just have an endless parade of speakers and senate presidents and majority leaders who are, for the most part, unmemorable and not around long enough to get much done.

Stan Aronoff was, from his teenaged years, destined to make a mark.

He was born in North Avondale and went to Walnut Hills High School, before going off to Harvard to earn a bachelor's degree and a degree in law.

I do volunteer work as a mentor for journalism students at Aronoff's old high school. I was there the day after Aronoff's death. Samantha Gerwe-Perkins, the journalism teacher, pulled a 1950 Remembrancer yearbook off the shelf and we flipped through it, finding photos of Aronoff throughout.

Aronoff was named best dressed of his class in 1950.
Walnut Hills High School Yearbook
Samantha Gerwe-Perkins
Aronoff was named best dressed of his class in 1950.

He was named The Best Dressed Man of the class of '50; and that was completely in character for the adult Stan , who was always dressed to the nines in tailored suits.

Aronoff said many times that his first career dream was becoming an actor, and there are plenty of photos of him performing in school plays.

It seemed right that a kid who wanted to be an actor ended up in politics. Politics, after all, is in large part a performative art. You adopt a role and you play it for an audience.

So it was not surprising at all that 11 years after graduating from Walnut Hills High School, young Stan Aronoff was elected to an Ohio House seat, where he served two terms before moving on to the Senate in 1967.

I was the Cincinnati Enquirer's politics reporter in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the triumvirate of Aronoff, Riffe and Mallory was at the peak of its power in the Ohio General Assembly.

Aronoff, top, in an unknown school play in 1950.
Walnut Hills High School Yearbook
Samantha Gerwe-Perkins
Aronoff, top, in an unknown school play in 1950.

I spent a lot of time in the Statehouse in those days. Riffe, from Scioto County in southeast Ohio, took a liking to me, maybe because I knew how to speak the southeast Ohio dialect, where words like fish are pronounced feesh. Reporters can do performance art, too.

Mallory was in Riffe's office a lot, as was Aronoff. I listened for hours as they talked policy, politics and gossip.

Riffe's chief concern was getting state money to southeast Ohio, a place with chronic unemployment, deep poverty and few ways to climb their way out.

Mallory was there to speak for the inner cities — particularly Cincinnati — and be the advocate in the room for Ohio's African American population. The development of Cincinnati State as an urban college is a big part of the legacy of Mallory, who died in 2013.

Aronoff's job was to look out for Cincinnati's development and as a prime mover for the arts in Ohio. While still in the Ohio House, he sponsored the legislation that created the Ohio Arts Council in 1965.

RELATED: How Union Terminal Was Brought Back To Life

My job was being the fly on the wall.

The experience led to a lot of stories I could write. And some off-the-record stuff I could not.

And what I learned about Stan Aronoff was this: He would never let a political party label stand in the way of getting things done for his city.

Many years ago, Gov. Jim Rhodes, one of Aronoff's contemporaries and fellow Republicans, said something to me that I have never forgotten. In his southeast Ohio, Jackson County drawl, Rhodes said this about politics:

Never build anything underground. You won't get credit for it.

It's an idea Stan Aronoff knew intuitively.

And the evidence of that is all around us in Cincinnati.

Corrected: February 4, 2024 at 5:57 PM EST
The caption of the photo has been corrected with the date Aronoff died.
Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.