An American Hero Dies – John F. Seiberling

Obituary from the Akron Beacon Journal that ran on August 3, 2008



‘An American hero’ dies


Retired congressman who represented Akron for 16 years praised for his tireless work creating Cuyahoga Valley park, preserving wilderness

By Bob Downing Beacon Journal staff writer

Published: August 3, 2008 – 12:02 AM


John F. Seiberling, the retired Akron congressman who helped create the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area, died Saturday morning at his home in Copley Township.


He was 89.


Mr. Seiberling, who was born in Stan Hywet Hall but represented blue-collar Akron in the U.S. House of Representatives for 16 years, was remembered by some as the conscience of Congress and by others as one of America’s great conservationists.

His death was attributed to respiratory failure caused by chronic lung disease. He had been hospitalized June 29 but was released to go home, where he died about 7 a.m. Saturday.


”Without John Seiberling, there would be no Cuyahoga Valley National Park,” said U.S. Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Navarre. ”He was a good person . . . and he left a great legacy in the Cuyahoga Valley park.


”He was the original environmentalist. He was green way back when. He really was ahead of his time. . . . He was a man of integrity and made his decisions based on what was right, not for their political value. And he cared deeply for the country and its people.”


Mr. Seiberling represented the old Akron-based 14th District in Congress from 1971 through 1986, frequently winning re- election with 70 percent of the vote.


He was a liberal New Deal Democrat, a supporter of wilderness, arms control, free trade, world peace and historic preservation. He was a fan of Shakespeare, poetry and bawdy limericks, as well as an accomplished nature photographer and a lover of The Wind in the Willows.


He was soft-spoken and reserved yet strong willed and at times feisty. He looked at the big picture, although he was a man of detail. Known for his calm, statesmanlike approach, he operated with caution and dignity, without flamboyance. He was known for his dry wit, intellect, idealism and integrity.


He was a loner and proudly operated outside the political system, refusing to be one of the boys, to join the congressional club. Behind his back, staff and supporters called him St. John.


Before Congress, during his 17 years as an attorney for the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. — the company his grandfather founded — Mr. Seiberling once took a leave of absence to avoid crossing United Rubber Worker union picket lines. That’s because he sided with the union at that time.


And in the wake of the May 4, 1970, shootings at nearby Kent State University, Mr. Seiberling ignored the political risks and warnings of advisers to speak at a rally at the University of Akron, advising students there to keep their protests peaceful.

It was his opposition to the Vietnam War that led Mr. Seiberling to run for Congress in 1970, defeating 10-term Republican incumbent William Ayers to become a 51-year-old rookie.


Mr. Seiberling served on the House Judiciary Committee that conducted the 1974 impeachment hearings that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.


And in his 1986 congressional hearings to probe the proposed takeover of Goodyear by raider Sir James Goldsmith, it was Mr. Seiberling who drew the loudest cheers from Akron when he confronted Goldsmith with the question: ”Who the hell are you?”

Part of Mr. Seiberling’s success as a congressman was attributed to his ability to work with local and federal officials in a bipartisan effort.


He got Akron a new federal courthouse and a new post office. He twice found federal money for the city’s now-closed trash- burning power plant, as well as funds for Quaker Square, the Akron-Canton Airport, the Goodyear Technical Center and various other projects.


”I’m not sure any of us can adequately measure with words the immense contributions John has made,” said Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic. ”The true value of his work will continue to reside in his legacy and will be enjoyed by and for many, many generations to come. His is the work of a remarkable public servant with a most generous spirit and creative mind. John Seiberling and his family have helped build and sustain this city.”


”John Seiberling was a darn good congressman,” Summit County Republican Party Chairman Alex Arshinkoff told a reporter after Seiberling retired. ”If I were a liberal Democrat, I’d say he was a great congressman.”


Mr. Seiberling also left his mark far beyond Akron, stretching across the American West and Alaska.


”John Seiberling stands as a giant in terms of managing public lands . . . an American hero,” said John Debo, superintendent of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. ”What he did was really extraordinary, and he truly was one of America’s great conservationists.”


Right man, right time

He was a key figure in Congress in the 1970s and 1980s and played a key role in preserving America’s wild lands — with his constituents not always aware of the issues and what was going on, said Dan Nelson of Bath Township, an emeritus history professor at the University of Akron and author of A Passion for the Land: John F. Seiberling and the Environmental Movement (to be published next year by Kent State University Press).


”Getting the Cuyahoga Valley park created in 1974 only whetted his appetite. He got involved in Alaska and wilderness lands. . . . He was the right man at the right time to get a lot accomplished,” Nelson said.


Doug Scott of Seattle, a wilderness author and policy director for Campaign for America’s Wilderness, said Mr. Seiberling should rank among the very top conservationists in the 20th century. Scott worked with Mr. Seiberling on wilderness measures while with the Sierra Club and wrote The Enduring Wilderness: Protecting Our National Heritage Through the Wilderness Act.


”Wilderness was his passion,” Scott said. ”And that legacy will touch all Americans for generations. . . . He truly was an American giant.”


Over the years, Mr. Seiberling served as chairman of the Interior Committee’s public lands and national parks subcommittee and pushed 33 bills for 250 new and expanded wilderness areas in 27 states.


In 1980, he and U.S. Rep. Morris Udall, D-Ariz., led the fight to approve federal protection for 103 million acres under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.


In all, Mr. Seiberling played a key role in preserving 69 million acres of wilderness — that included 54 million acres in Alaska — in addition to 59 million acres of other federal parks, forests and preserves.


Mr. Seiberling made his first trip to Alaska in 1975 and came away impressed.


In 1977, he held congressional hearings across that state, helping him develop a photo collection of more than 3,000 Alaskan shots. He exhibited his photos in the Capital during the 1978 debate and said the photos helped sway members of Congress.

He was widely saluted by national environmental groups for his efforts to save the American wilderness — efforts that earned him opposition from some Western and Alaskan politicians.


Bruce Hamilton, deputy executive director for the national Sierra Club, compared the significance of Mr. Seiberling’s efforts for Alaska to President Theodore Roosevelt’s creation of the national forests.


The Alaskan legislation was ”a tribute to Seiberling’s persistence and statesmanship,” he said.


”He was the expert and made quite the difference. . . . Every wilderness advocate in the country knew him and worshipped him,” Hamilton said in a telephone interview from San Francisco. ”Most considered John Seiberling to be their second congressman.”


Conservationist is born

Mr. Seiberling’s desire to save wild America may be traced to a childhood experience on a family vacation to an island in Lake Huron. On a return trip, the mainland forest near Hessel, Mich., had disappeared. The giant white pines had been cut to be turned into matchsticks.


Later, in a quote still cited by his ex-staffers, Mr. Seiberling said:

”We will never see the land as our ancestors did. But we can understand what made it beautiful and why they lived and died to preserve it. And in preserving it for future generations, we will preserve something of ourselves. If we all have an interest in this land, then we all have a stake in its preservation. There is no more worthwhile cause.”

His associates said the words were reflective of his goals. But Mr. Seiberling was proudest of spearheading the creation of the Cuyahoga Valley park in 1974.


In 1971, as a rookie legislator, Mr. Seiberling’s efforts to help sponsor legislation to create a national park between Akron and Cleveland went nowhere.


In subsequent years, though, he introduced the measure and worked to build public support for saving the Cuyahoga Valley.

Debo, the park’s superintendent, said Mr. Seiberling ”had the foresight and the ability to galvanize public support to preserve the valley. It was an incredible accomplishment.”


Not everyone supported the idea. The National Park Service didn’t think the Cuyahoga Valley deserved federal protection.

And even after winning approval in Congress, the legislation came perilously close to dying. With President Gerald Ford on a ski vacation in Colorado, federal officials, opposed to a high-cost urban park, were urging a veto.


Mr. Seiberling called Regula, who got an emergency phone call placed to Ford by Akron’s Ray Bliss, the influential former national chairman of the Republican Party. Other calls went to U.S. Sens. Robert Taft Jr. and Howard Metzenbaum, as well as former Goodyear Chairman E. J. Thomas.


Bliss told Ford that he should sign the legislation if he wanted to win Ohio and to veto it if he wanted to lose Ohio. Ford signed the bill on Dec. 27, 1974.


Mr. Seiberling called Ford’s approval a Christmas gift for people in Northeast Ohio. In later years, he said the park was far more than he ever expected.


Mr. Seiberling also protected the park from Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the interior, James Watt, who wanted to eliminate it as a federal park in the 1980s.


Mr. Seiberling also played key roles in the 1977 federal surface-mining reclamation act and a 1976 bill enlarging the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. He also pushed to eliminate acid rain in clean-air legislation.


He was unsuccessful in an effort to have federal judges selected on merit instead of political appointment, and to create a youth job corps.


He aggressively fought President Reagan over federal budget cuts in the early 1980s.


His influence was felt beyond U.S. shores. He played key roles in Congress in the birth of nations: the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Republic of Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia.


His staff saw Mr. Seiberling as ”this cuddly distinguished college professor whom we all loved,” said Andrew Wiessner, a one-time staffer and now a retired public lands consultant in Colorado.


Issues instead of politics

Mr. Seiberling was different: He was the nonpolitical congressman, a good and dedicated public servant, Wiessner said.

”He looked at the issues, not the politics,” Wiessner said ”There was a gentle way about him. He was so scholarly and so thorough”


Long-time Seiberling staffer Loretta Neumann added: ”He really was a Renaissance man, an amazing man, a giant. . . . Everyone who ever worked for him said it was the best job they ever had, and that was true for me, too. . . . He was the right person at the right place at the right time to do the things he did.”


Neumann, who came to Mr. Seiberling’s staff from the National Park Service, said he hired her mainly to get the park established.


”At the time, I knew nothing about the workings of Congress.” she said. ”When I first met him, I told him so. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘I need you to teach me about parks. I can teach you what you need to know about Congress.’ ”


State Sen. Tom Sawyer, D-Akron, who succeeded Mr. Seiberling in Congress, said he knew Mr. Seiberling ”virtually my entire political life.”


”He was a commanding figure throughout this community and as soon as I got to Washington, it was clear as it had ever been that he was beloved by the people who knew him best,” Sawyer said.


He had an ”enormous respect for the rule of law and love of nation,” Sawyer said, and his respect for the environment went beyond Northeast Ohio in a way that ”will be remembered for generations.”


After serving in Congress, Mr. Seiberling returned to Akron to practice law, teach law and direct the University of Akron’s Center for Peace Studies for 51/2 years, until mid-1996. He also returned to enjoy the Cuyahoga Valley from his long-time home at the edge of the park in Bath Township. He and his wife later moved to a Copley Township condominium.


He earned countless honors over the years, including the Bert A. Polsky Humanitarian Award from the Akron Community Foundation in 1999.


He attributed his love of nature to his father, John F. Seiberling Sr. But he frequently said the most influential person in his life was his mother, Henrietta, who died in 1979.


His mother was described as a formidable woman of strong moral conviction — a churchgoer who introduced Bill Wilson of New York and Dr. Robert Smith of Akron in 1935. They went on to found Alcoholics Anonymous in Akron.


Getting an education

Mr. Seiberling attended King Elementary School and Buchtel High School in Akron before going to Staunton Military Academy in Staunton, Va.


He graduated from Harvard University in 1941.


During World War II, he served in the Army from 1942 to 1946, fighting in Europe. He enlisted as a private and attained the rank of major. He earned the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star and three Battle Stars. He also earned the Medaille de la Reconnaissance Francaise (France) and the Ordre de Leopold II (Belgium).


After his discharge, he earned a law degree at Columbia University in New York in 1949. From 1949 to 1954, he practiced law with Donovan, Leisure, Newton and Irvine in New York City. He joined Goodyear in Akron in 1954 and remained here until he went to Congress in 1971.


Locally, Mr. Seiberling was a member of the Akron Regional Development Board and the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority. He was a three-term president of the Akron-based Tri-County Regional Planning Commission.


He was a member of the United Community Council of Summit County, the Stan Hywet Hall Foundation, the United World Federalists of Akron and the Akron Bar Association’s World Peace Through Law committee.


He was a founder of the Summit County Committee for Peace in Vietnam and a member of the local Sierra Club and the Cuyahoga Valley Association.


In 1949, he married Elizabeth ”Betty” Behr, a Vassar graduate. They shared the same interests, the same priorities, the same outlook for 59 years of marriage.


She actually met her future husband while at Vassar through his sister, who was a student there. They had their first date in Paris in 1945 — at an officer’s mess.


He proposed during his last year of law school in New York. She later told reporters she accepted his proposal in part because he had respect for women’s intellectual capabilities.


In addition to his wife, he is survived by their three sons, John B. of Washington, D.C., David of Akron and Stephen of Chapel Hill, N.C.; and one grandson, Evan. He also leaves sisters Dorothy Seiberling of Long Island, N.Y., and Mary S. Huhn of Pennsylvania.


A memorial service is planned for late August or early September. Billow funeral home in Fairlawn is handling arrangements.

Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or


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