Ben Stefanski Caretaker of the Lake, Neighborhoods, Gardens and History
Ben was born and raised in Garfield Heights and attended Sts. Peter and Paul Elementary school. High School for Ben was Gilmour Academy where he boarded the first year. After that he commuted back and forth from Garfield Heights to Gates Mills until his family moved to Shaker Heights and the commute became much shorter.
Ben is one of five children; he has two sisters and two brothers. He was in the graduating class of 1956 at Gilmour and 1960 at Case Western Reserve University.
He has the unique experience of being in the first American Studies graduating class from Case. His interest had always been American history and the American Studies program was put in place during his junior year. There were only six students in that first class.
Ben thinks his interest in American history may have come from his father. His father ran Third Federal Savings.
"They didn't have independent appraisers in those days. He [Ben's father] and two board members would go and drive around the neighborhood every Thursday. So he would pick me up after school and drive around and look at houses. This is when I was 8, 10 and 12 years old. This is where I first became interested in the city and what the city is about."
His aunts owned rental property in Slavic Village in the 1940's and 50's. He helped maintain the properties by painting, cleaning and generally keeping them in good repair. "That's where I was grounded, my early experience. All the things I do in my life go back 30-40 years because I did something with someone who was sort of a mentor. So it is easy to do things today based on those experiences."
As such, Ben had a myriad of mentors, rather than one or two. Going back to his grade school days he remembers the helpful Sisters of St. Joseph Third Order of St. Francis, and how they always directed him to go beyond the norm and reach out for something else. The pattern continued at Gilmore and at Case.
His experience at Case was with Archbishop Hallinan, the university's chaplain. "He pushed me into the Newman Club, made me President and had me go through all of these experiences." Experiences, Ben says, he would never had had otherwise.
Archbishop Hallinan went on to be Bishop of Charleston and then Atlanta. "[I had ] very significant people that mentored me to do things beyond the normal things you do and the normal experiences you have."
Both of Ben's parents were born in the United States. Both his paternal and maternal grandparents, however, spoke only Polish - no English at all. His mother was a graduate of Notre Dame College and earned a Masters Degree from Catholic University. Her Master's Thesis in Social Work was on Unwed Mothers in Baltimore. She studied in the Library of Congress.
In 1936 when his mother graduated she worked for the Welfare Office here in Cleveland. One of her first cases was an Italian family on Woodhill and 110th. The family had four children, but the father had recently been murdered in a Mafia hit. "These are the kind of experiences my mother had and brought home and discussed with her five children." It was stories like this that helped Ben get a better feeling for the world around him.
Ohio State Representative Kenny Yuko, Slovenian Consul Dr. Zvone Žigon, Ingrida Bublys and Ben Stefanski at Dr. Žigon's farewell party
His father was dyslexic, something the family did not find out until about ten years ago. As such, he never completed the 9th grade. Dyslexia, however, does not affect numbers and Ben's father was always good at numbers. "He had a number of people who took him out of manufacturing and put him into a Savings and Loan in the 1920's because he could speak the language."
A law firm had opened a Savings and Loan in Slavic Village that quickly failed because the manager could not speak Polish. He connected with that bank and that's where he learned the banking business. When the Depression hit and the banks failed he liquidated all of the mortgages and "Every depositor got $1.05 for every $1.00 they had deposited."
By 1937 Ben's father had a charter to open a Savings and Loan of his own; Third Federal Savings and Loan.
Education was a given in the Stefanski household. After graduating from Case, Ben's mother told him "Now it is time for law school.' He applied to, and was accepted at Michigan where he earned his law degree. "There was no question that we would go to college. It isn't like today where kids prepare for or five years in advance to see what they were going to do. We just did it."
When Ben came back he realized he didn't want to practice law, but would rather be in the banking business, so he went to work for his father. On Christmas, 1967, Ben received a phone call from Mayor Carl Stokes top advisor, Dr. Clement. He told Ben that the mayor wanted to see him, so he went to city hall and Mayor Stokes offered him the position of Utilities Director. Because of his interest in government, Ben accepted the position and that was how he ultimately got involved in pollution abatement.
He is proud of the amazing turnaround Cleveland has done in the area of clean water and air. The problem at the time was a financial one, so he asked the mayor to put a bond issue on the ballot to clean up the lake. The mayor, and most other politicians, did not think people would vote to increase their water and sewer bills, but Ben was adamant and pushed forward.
With the help of Cleveland Press editor Louis Seltzer and David Blauschild, Shaker Heights car dealer, the bond issue passed two to one. The passage of the issue was so big that the story even made Time Magazine. "They wanted a clean lake!"
At the same time, some developers were building in the suburbs and not connecting with the Cleveland sewer system. For the builders it was a cheap way to build developments and not have to put in sewers. In 1969, Ben used his authority to say no permits could be issued unless they connected to the city water system. The mayors and city managers of the suburbs sued the City of Cleveland.
Judge Richard McMonagle, who was hearing the case, created the Regional Sewer District from the bench. He set up the Board with six votes to Cleveland and five to the suburbs and gave them the right to issue a sewer tax.
Ben Stefanski at a reception for Congressman Charles Vanik
Ben didn't realize at the time how powerful those decisions were, but knew only that it was the right thing to do. He acknowledges that the sewer rates are very high, but thinks it is essential to keep up the progress we have made in keeping our water clean and safe. Maintaining the environment is a high priority for Ben.
He often thinks about the people he meets and talks to and wonders about their stories. How did they get where they are? What choices did they make that brought them to the spot they are in now. He looks at his own life and realizes, in retrospect, how each choice he made had a chain reaction to the next and the next and the next.
Ben Stefanski, Councilwoman Shari Cloud, Congressman Dennis Kucinich and others at One World Day 2009
Ben is very active in the ethnic and cultural communities of Northeast Ohio. This interest is a natural offshoot of his affiliation with Third Federal, because they were an ethnic institution. In fact, when his father made the application for a charter, the people in Washington looked at the demographic of the location he chose and were unsure because there was no indoor plumbing. All of Slavic Village had outhouses at the time.
They suggested he go to 131st and Miles because those were all new homes. "As you know today, there is nothing at 131st and Miles, but Slavic Village is still functioning because there was always a lender in the neighborhood willing to finance the people."
His father was willing to loan to immigrants who had no financial credit reports and Ben saw early on how important that was and how much the ethnic communities needed the support. In turn, he also saw the community take pride in ownership and always repaid the mortgages in a timely fashion.
Ben's interest in the ethnic and cultural communities also stems from his own family, who were all ethnic. He had one uncle who was a Judge in the Common Pleas Court and one that was a priest. "Even though my education was outside of the community, it was always in the back of my mind."
About ten years ago the Cleveland Restoration Society was going to have a fund raiser for the restoration of St. Stanislaus church, but they were having some organizational problems. Ben had always had an interest in the Society and, of course, St. Stanislaus was a family parish, so he got involved in the project. "This is what rekindled my interest in the neighborhood."
Ben worked for the city of Cleveland from 1968-1971 and then went back and worked at the bank with his dad for awhile. In the late 80's he became president of a title insurance company until he retired in 2000.
Ben Stefanski with George Brown of Senator Voinovich's office
When asked if he uses his law degree Ben swiftly answers, "Every day, every second". He says he was not really aware of using it over the last forty years, but in looking back he sees that there were so many times that he made a decision, having gone through the legal process in his mind.
"People would tell me 'you can't decide that, you have to talk to a lawyer' but he could weigh risks and consequences himself. "It saved me hundreds of thousands of dollars."
He is now dealing in real estate, accumulating properties to build a new housing development of hundreds of units of town houses in Slavic Village. He relies on his experience as a lawyer as well as his family experiences and banking experiences to help him make wise decisions.
Ben has two children. His daughter lives in Cleveland and is the mother of his five year old granddaughter in addition to being an engineer and doing construction project management. His son lives in Santa Barbara where he is married and is vice president of a major company.
Ben Stefanski with granddaughter Bridget
Ben is looking to "take back neighborhoods" by filling them with good people, lots of lighting and porches. He knows that people intent on doing wrong will not go to a well populated area, or a well lit area, or an area where people are sitting on their porches watching them.
He also credits the police department who has been "extremely conscientious in the last few years in Slavic Village" enough so that the area around St. Stanislaus has quieted the crime. That success is now moving onto other streets. "There is a task force, this Fugitive task Force with the Sheriff and the FBI and Cleveland Police Department and they chase these bad guys. You do have men and women with records that have proven themselves to be bad citizens. We're not talking about first time offenders. We're talking about really bad guys… Cleveland police are arresting people all over the place. Let them go somewhere else."
Short video of Ben Stefanski speaking at the Madame Curie rededication about the Polish Cultural Garden
One of the steps they have taken is to ring the bell at St. Stanislaus Church every hour, twenty-four hours a day. This used to be the way it was at every church years ago, and at St. Stanislaus it's back!
Landscaping is another extra touch Ben has helped put into effect. They put up 36 hanging baskets around 65th and Fleet and numerous trees. The landscaping helps make the neighborhood because "people see that someone cares".
Ben was also instrumental in the purchase of the Polish Cultural Center at 65th and Lansing. "It is a museum and cultural center" and it attracts many people. "It is a gathering place for mostly people from the suburbs. They come in groups of 10-12-15 and it's a cheap way to eat, be entertained and be with other ethnic people."
Often people tried to hide their ethnicity. If a child's parents had an accent or spoke another language they would not invite their friends over to meet them. Often times women from the ethnic neighborhoods would leave the neighborhood to find husbands in the general community. They never talked about their background or the time they spent growing up in "the old neighborhood". That has changed tremendously. Ben believes we have not only become more tolerant and open, but have finally realized the value of heritage and neighborhoods.
Ben has no desire to run for political office. "Not a chance. I can do more good as a citizen involved in the process than being an elected official. But people do need to get involved in local government." He suggests people go to City Hall and take their building inspector by the hand and show them where there are problems and what needs to be taken care of. "Make them [city officials] do their job."
Ben is also active outside of Cleveland. His keen interest in American History has involved him in Mount Vernon, George Washington's Estate and Gardens. The first vacation Ben ever went to was in Washington because that's where his mother went to school. He has a picture of himself at age 3 on his father's knee sitting in front of the sign at Mount Vernon.
"When we were kids we had George Washington up on the corner of the bulletin board and Lincoln. You go to any school today you don't see that. The basic principles of our democracy and the freedom we have and the ability to live in our cities and to speak openly is all the result of what George Washington set up. As a military man, as a farmer, as a businessman and so we need to get that message back in the schools."
Rev. Eric Orzech, president of the Polish American Priests Association and Ben Stefanski
Ben belongs to many organizations including the Cleveland Restoration Society, The Early Settlers Association. Nationally, he was vice chairman of the Polish National Center in Washington DC, and involved in the Kosciuszko Foundation in New York City.
Kosciuszko, who was from Poland, was one of the major generals in the Revolutionary War. He believed not only in democracy but in freeing the slaves. Thomas Jefferson was the executor of his estate and Kosciuszko left his property to educate blacks so they could be able to be free. Ben is excited about the new book that has recently come out about Kosciuszko by Alex Storozynski. The book is titled "The Peasant Prince."
Ben is also very involved in the Cultural Gardens. He is looking forward to the time, just a few years from now, when Pope John Paul II will be made a saint and the Polish Garden will erect a larger-than-life size bronze statue of him.
Cultural Gardens president Paul Burik, Cleveland Councilwoman Shari Cloud and Ben Stefanski
He is a busy man with a plate full of exciting and challenging tasks. Most of all, he finds them all to be satisfying and fulfilling because he sees the impact he and his various organizations and plans are having. People know him as the man who cleans up and plants flowers at the Polish Gardens and the man who sits on the Board of multiple major associations. He is comfortable in both positions because he is an honest man doing honest work, regardless of the circumstances.
He believes in his country and his city and steps up to do whatever it takes to keep them great. "I believe that Cleveland is going back to the best location in the nation."
Some people are dreamers. Some people are doers. When you get a combination of both, like you do in Ben Stefanski, there is nothing that can't be accomplished.