From Paper to Politics

Tom Niehaus, it seems, has lived two lives. The 60-year-old New Richmond, Ohio, resident lived first the life of a lowly newspaperman. Then, in January, he was sworn in to the lofty position of president of the Ohio State Senate. A steep climb.

Niehaus’ ascent began at a weekly Community Press chain in Cincinnati, starting on the production staff and working his way up to reporter, editor, managing editor and eventually publisher. “I remember going to an annual editors meeting for Suburban Newspapers of America,” Niehaus says. “It was in Pittsburgh. I said to someone, ‘Where do the publishers go?’ The publishers went to Hawaii, and I said, ‘I want to be a publisher.’ ” Niehaus didn’t waste time. He caught the eye of the chain’s general manager, who created a management-training program that gave him the chance to learn every aspect of the newspaper publishing business.

Along the way, he earned an MBA from Xavier and crossed paths with former state Sen. Rose Vesper who helped him launch his political career, which began with election to the Ohio House of Representatives in 2001. He served two consecutive terms before earning a seat in the State Senate in 2005. He was chosen by his caucus colleagues to serve as president after he won reelection last fall and Republicans regained majority control.

Niehaus has since won recognition from his former media pals as well. Columbus Monthly magazine ranked him the best listener in the legislature and one of the 10 most effective legislators. So how did he become such a good legislator? By being a good reporter. “The newspaper experience was very helpful in terms of learning how to listen and ask questions, knowing where to go to get information and challenging people to defend their positions,” he says.

New in Theology

The Department of Theology is expanding its offerings by two this year, with a new course on The Religious Thought of Martin Luther King Jr. and a course on African Religions.

In the King course, the life and legacy of King is examined, as well as the intellectual influences on his life and theology from such religious and theological thinkers as Gandhi, Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich and others. The course stresses how students can use King’s legacy to promote activism on campus and in impoverished communities.

The African Religions course begins by exploring the religion of ancient Egypt and ends by discussing contemporary African religions such as Yoruba and Vodun. It also addresses the religious sensibilities of indigenous African cultures throughout the world.

Food for Thought

John J. Young labels himself a “meta-physical schizophrenic.” He laughs even as the phrase trickles out of his mouth, but nonetheless, you sense a grain of truth here.

The ebullient Young, a 1967 graduate, is touching on his lifetime philosophy, his affirmation that you should cast as wide a net as possible to discover your own personal mission: “The goal, the aspiration, is to find a way to improve other people’s lives. There’s a practicality in this that’s very appealing to me.

“It’s sort of the way that eight years of Jesuit education has made me this ‘metaphysical schizophrenic,’ ” he says. “It has broadened the way I see and serve the world.”

A philosophy of broadening horizons has carried Young throughout a diverse career, to his current post as CEO and president of what is possibly Cincinnati’s pre-eminent nonprofit agency feeding the hungry, the mammoth FreeStore FoodBank. The organization serves a quarter-million people scattered across three states, and supplies 18 million pounds of giveaway food each year. In the doing, the institution has become the region’s largest emergency meal and services provider.

Young came to the doors of the FreeStore in 2006, after a career path featuring no shortage of singular accomplishments.

He first migrated to Ohio from West Virginia when he was 11. The youth’s dad labored as a boilermaker in a steam plant, his mom taught elementary school. After graduating St. X High School and the University, Young went across town to teach history and civics at Ursuline Academy.

Then a professional divergence bubbled up: The young man stepped into the role as director for a number of halfway houses aiding ex-offenders and drug/alcohol abusers. “I’m sort of a serial job guy,” he readily acknowledges. “I got interested in addiction, and ran transition clinics,” especially one at St. Elizabeth Hospital. “The experience there was just marvelous, helping whole families.”

Finally winding up as an executive for Hamilton County Family Services, Young continued to embrace a single mantra: “I don’t think anyone should EVER feel badly having to ask for help.”

At the FreeStore FoodBank, there’s surely no shortage of folks desperately asking. “We’re so fortunate to have thousands and thousands of stakeholders,” he says of his agency’s donors and support networks. “This is not a company we own. The community owns it, in the richest possible sense.”

As the economy tanked during 2008 and 2009, Young stepped up to face an abrupt shift in the needs, and the needy. Average citizens became the destitute who were starving in the shadow of plenty.

“We see people today asking for help who used to be DONORS, who are now jobless and trapped in upside-down mortgages,” Young laments. “They’ve fallen down five or six rungs on the ladder of economic stability, a ladder that’s taken them five or six decades to climb.”

Young and his agency have responded in multilateral ways: Mobile grocery pantries, immensely successful canned-food drives, and a growing network of 300 affiliate pantries.

Young’s kitchen cabinet at the FreeStore includes a handful of Xavier grads in senior management positions. Young himself is a proponent of streamlined administration and balanced budgets: His executive suite is spartan, a cubicle-sized nook no more expansive than many kitchenettes. It’s a corner office, yes, but the view merely overlooks cracked asphalt parking lots in impoverished Over-the-Rhine, a gritty urban neighborhood still central to the FreeStore mission. (The food bank was founded here 40 years ago by a guy who routed around city dumps for reusables to give struggling families.)

Young admits to consuming a great deal of leadership literature, those corporate how-to’s and highly effective habit lists. But the chief executive’s all-time resource is a paperback copy of “Heroic Leadership: Best Practices From a 450-year-old Company That Changed the World.” “Chris Lowney writes about what a 16th-century Jesuit priest can tell us about 21st-century business.

“I think it is the most affirming book I’ve ever read about principles, leadership and service. It’s about listening to the people you’re trying to serve. That’s what Loyola did, and did pretty well.”

As Young continues on his compelling mission, he ticks off priorities: (A) Recover more overstock perishables from the big-box groceries, such as Biggs, Kroger, Wal-Mart. (B) Convey nutritional lessons. (C) Put meals on the table for hungry families or into the mouths of the homeless and helpless.

“This power of food as a connector has made us think differently (than some other agencies),” Young says. “We see food as the beginning of the relationship we have with people.”

What is truly perishable here are not so much fresh meals, he’s found, but bruised spirits and dilapidated dreams.

Children and young people are a special priority. His Kids Café program has surged, distributing 116,000 after-school meals in the past year. The Power Pack program shipped out 84,000 weekend and holiday food packs to 2,300 children in the same timeframe.

And Cincinnati COOKS! is a national model for employing the next generation. The training program welcomes the unemployed and underprivileged, and – for free – teaches them how to concoct stocks, roux and mirepoix. It may seem a strange brew to outsiders, but the program’s job placement rate is staggering: 80 percent of graduates immediately find work in the restaurant industry.

“When you think about it, we’re using food that was donated, we’re training people with a usable skill for the workplace, and we are producing 1,500 meals a day for kids who would otherwise go hungry.”

It’s a win-win-win all around, a recipe for hope and self-sufficiency with dignity. “You hit one single and score a lot of runs. Instead of going home to an empty cupboard, these students eat.”

While Young, 66, has announced he will retire in the near future, he is executing a well-placed succession plan that includes working with his successor for at least a year. Then he’ll spend more time with spouse Carol, his two children and four grandchildren.

Young confides that he secretly desires the University will find a way to invite him back, to guest lecture or perhaps whip up a favorite burrito in the student cafeteria.

“Wouldn’t that be wonderful?,” he hints.

Food Dude

When Brandon Graspointner was getting ready to graduate in 2006, two things kept running through his mind: spicy nachos and steaming burritos. Well, what college student doesn’t think about food? But Graspointner’s interest was more professional than prurient.

The business major was in a class on entrepreneurship and studying franchises. His family was in the fast food business, so that subject seemed like a natural fit. He decided to study Qdoba Mexican Grill. He, of course, conducted thorough research by eating there every day for a week, but in the end it paid off. He not only completed his class project, he found a career. Graspointner returned home to California and opened his first Qdoba franchise in central California—at the ripe age of 23. He now owns eight Qdobas in the valley regions near Fresno and Sacramento. There are plans for six more such eateries.

Call him the Sultan of Salsa. The Czar of Chiles. There is not really an average day, he says, though often it’s spent on the road with his operations and marketing managers. “On normal days, we go in and check in on all the stores.”

The Qdoba menu relies heavily on its fresh sauces and salsas—three-cheese queso, fajita ranchera, poblano pesto, roasted chile corn salsa and fiery habanero.

“We’re a company that’s not as well known as some,” Graspointner says of the Colorado-based chain. “So we try to do community service—fundraisers, supporting local high school teams.”

In California towns with names such as Turlock, Atwater, Modesto, Visalia and Clovis, Graspointner spreads the word—and the queso sauce. That’s how he’s found success in the midst of a great recession. “Competitive prices, and you let the customer know you care about them as a customer. We pay attention to our product, our prices and our customer service. Then the customer will come back.”

All this isn’t too shabby for the kid who, while in elementary school, handed out french fries at the drive-thru window in his mom and dad’s McDonald’s. In the family sense, he’s a chipotle off the old block.

Extra Credit: Bill Verbryke, S.J.

Bill Verbryke, S.J., is a new face on campus but a familiar one in Cincinnati’s Jesuit circles. The 58-year-old is a Cincinnati native and former president of St. Xavier High School. He joined Xavier in the fall after an eight-year assignment in metro Detroit.

Like rectors or superiors before him, Verbryke’s job is to lead the Jesuit community by managing the spiritual and personal needs of its members. Unlike most of his predecessors, however, Verbryke has the additional responsibility of consolidating several smaller Jesuit communities scattered throughout Cincinnati into a single community on Xavier’s campus.

With a flock of priests whose ages range from the mid-20s to early 90s, most of whom are accustomed to living on their own or in smaller groups across the city, it could be a challenge. “It’s hard for people to change. It is going to be different. Some will say, ‘Why didn’t we do this sooner?’ Some will resist.”

Verbryke is perhaps an ideal choice to lead the move. He hails from the Cincinnati suburb of Clifton and is a 1971 graduate of St. Xavier High School. In addition to serving as president of St. Xavier between 1991-2001, his other experiences as a high school teacher and leader among Jesuits-in-training in Chicago and Detroit have prepared him to rally the local Jesuit troops.

He says the consolidation within the Jesuit communities in Cincinnati is similar to what is happening overall in the Catholic Church, as parishes merge to accommodate the shrinking ranks of priests.

“The mission of the Jesuit community is a mission in itself,” he says. “It used to be thought that the Jesuit community was present for the apostolate, but now the Jesuits are an apostolate themselves.”

The plan is to nearly double the size of the current Jesuit residence hall by summer 2012 to provide enough space to accommodate as many as 35 priests. Currently, 16 live in the two-story house on campus, Verbryke among them.

“The sacrifices required will be worthwhile because the benefits, strengths and support of a combined community will anchor us all. Bringing together our different apostolates will create a sense of rubbing shoulders. Our worlds will be expanded.

“What’s exciting for me personally is helping to shape a community environment that will help us live as companions to help us in our ministries.”

Profile: Josh Spring

JOSH SPRING

Bachelor of Social Work, 2007

Executive Director, Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless

Cincinnati

The Making of a Social Worker | The son of a pastor, Josh Spring spent the first part of his life in the rural poverty of Kentucky’s Appalachian Mountains. When he was in fourth grade, his family moved to Louisville. There he saw the residual evidence of urban poverty. “I don’t think I knew the term ‘social work,’ but it was there that I decided I wanted to do something to combat poverty,” Spring says.

Country, City, Suburb | When he was in high school, Spring’s family moved to Cincinnati where he observed yet another part of society by attending a wealthy suburban school. “I was able to see the other side and realized that folks in the suburbs didn’t have any connection or knowledge of what was happening in the cities or the country. That’s when I was confronted by the attitudes that people who are poor brought it on themselves.”

Learning By Listening, Part 1 | After high school, Spring applied to Xavier’s social work program. Halfway through his degree, he got a second-shift weekend job working at the desk of a 16-bed transitional housing building run by Tender Mercies. Listening to the building’s residents was an invaluable learning experience. “It gave me the opportunity to hear the intimate stories of countless people experiencing homelessness. That’s when I started to learn what homelessness was. It wasn’t something people caused or something that was a result of bad decisions. It was systematic.”

The Science of the Matter | Around the same time, Spring wrote a research paper about a federal policy called the 1987 McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. By the time he finished, it was 119 pages long. “I had the stories behind homelessness. Now I had the science behind it. Homelessness became my focus from that point on in school.”

Learning By Listening, Part 2 | When Spring graduated, he was working as a social worker for the tenants of low-income community housing projects in Over-the-Rhine. He listened to the stories of the tenants, and it became clear that these people had not brought poverty on themselves, as his suburban high school classmates had assumed.

Empowering Work | In 2009, the position of executive director opened at the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless. Spring applied and got the job, in which he coordinates 50 organizations working with the homeless in Hamilton County. He enjoys the opportunity the job gives him to empower people who had previously been downtrodden and voiceless. The goal, he says, is to give people the resources to improve their own condition, and then step aside and let them do the work themselves.

The End | There’s plenty of work to do. “I am thankful that I’m young,” Spring says. “It allows me some energy and idealism to put into it. Our job is to end homelessness altogether. It is possible, and we know how to do it.”

Engineering a Career

Linda Bridwell’s career as a civil engineer took root as a child—in the backyard sandbox and on family vacations. “As a little girl I spent a lot of time in the sandbox building roads,” she says. “My dad was an engineer. On vacations he liked to take us on side trips to see new bridges and roads.”

The extra sightseeing paid off for the whole family. Not only did Bridwell and two of her sisters pursue a career similar to their father’s, but Bridwell also was honored with the Robert M. Gillim Professional Recognition Award from the Kentucky chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers earlier this year. She’s the first woman to receive the lifetime achievement award in its 45-year history. Her father received it 20 years earlier.

“I joked that I wasn’t old enough to receive the award,” the 44-year-old Bridwell says. Her crowning achievement—to date—has been a new water treatment plant outside Carrollton, Ky. The $163 million facility, which took 20 years to get regulatory approval, supplies up to 20 million gallons of water a day to the Lexington area. “Dad says he would have shown us more bridges and roads if he had known we were all going to be engineers,” she says.

Bridwell has no regrets on her career choice, although she considered switching to finance after earning her MBA from Xavier in 2000. “Engineering is a pretty fun profession for anyone,” she says. “It’s especially fun for girls. There is a lot of flexibility and opportunities, if you have the abilities.” She’s been trying to plant the seeds in her own daughter’s mind but, so far, the 5-year-old remains set on becoming a veterinarian. “Katie recently asked me what engineers do, and I told her we play in the dirt all day. She said, ‘I don’t want to get dirty, Mom.’ I’ll keep working on her.”

Driving Ads

Every weekday, Michael Ries strolls into his suburban office park, pulls up a desk chair and, well, calls it a wrap. Ries isn’t snoozing on the job. It’s just that wraps are his business—as in vehicle wraps. As vice president of Advertising Vehicles Inc. in Blue Ash, Ohio, Ries creates, sells and positions a huge array of billboard promotional campaigns, only these “billboards” boast wheels. It’s called mobile advertising, and it’s one of the latest salvos in the outdoor marketing industry.

“It’s a cool, cutting-edge thing. Very visual,” says Reis, a 1999 business graduate. What it amounts to is this: He can outfit any moving object with a customized, cut-vinyl exterior. Computers are used to simulate the vehicle’s geometry, then technicians adhere the plastic graphics to the exact shape of the auto. (Think Matchbox toys slipped inside Saran Wrap.)

The options for this form of outdoor advertising are so limitless that it now drives Reis crazy to see any white van or cargo truck lumbering down the street. White means blank. An empty side of a truck or car is a glorious opportunity wasted—a canvas without art.

City buses, tractor-trailers, buildings, helicopters (a Reis personal favorite)—any surface, in short, on which he can slap a sticky-back vinyl graphic is fair game. “Whatever you’d want to wrap,” he says. A client favorite: The series of six Metro buses that combined to picture a slithering 240-foot-long snake to help announce Kings Island amusement park’s new Diamondback roller-coaster.

Beleaguered mass transit systems are becoming particularly steady customers. “As budgets get tighter, cities are having to figure out other ways to offset the cost of public buses, drivers and gas—while keeping their fingers out of the taxpayers’ pockets.”

The revolving banners promoting signature products can be swapped out in 15 minutes.

“Making an impression on the eyeballs,” is how Reis likes to put it. And so far, the eyes have it.

Cooks and Crooks

Michael McDaniel got his bachelor’s in philosophy and history at Xavier in 1965, but he earned his gastronomy degree off campus—in the basement kitchen of a house he shared with 14 international roommates.

“My mom was a stay-at-home mom,” he says. “I hadn’t so much as fixed a can of soup until that point.”

But hunger and frugality—important influences on all students—steered McDaniel to the stove, where he sought inspiration from his German, Polish, Lithuanian, South Korean, Chinese and Indian roommates. On Fridays they each put in a dollar and bought half a barrel of Burger beer (priority No. 1) for $12.10. With the remaining three dollars, they purchased enough ingredients to make a big pot of something to feed them through the weekend.

Drawing from the diverse culinary traditions of the house, McDaniel was soon cooking Sicilian spaghetti sauces and Eastern European onion dumplings. “I learned to cook all sorts of cosmopolitan stuff. I even started sneaking looks at Ladies Home Journal for recipes,” he says.

And his passion for cooking has been simmering ever since. Now a criminal defense lawyer with his own practice in Southern Indiana, his life is busier than when he was a student. But he still finds time to cook. “It’s a tremendously relaxing thing to go into a kitchen, get your ingredients out, make a martini and sip it while you put a meal together,” he says. “And there’s a reward at the end, if you do it well.”

Lately, McDaniel has made a Hungarian goulash that earned the praise of his 91-year-old mother, boeuf bourguignon and chicken Kiev stuffed with Swiss cheese, parsley and spinach. If you start simply, it doesn’t take much time or know-how to eat well, he says. “Don’t start with Julia Child’s French cookery. Start with what you already like and feel your way along.”

McDaniel enjoys digging up old family recipes, although they often come with ambiguous measurements. His Dutch grandmother’s chicken and dumplings recipe calls for a “walnut-sized” scoop of lard.

But the more McDaniel cooks, the more he learns. “Hell, I still read Ladies Home Journal to see what they’re doing,” he says. “Every time I go to the dentist I come back with a new recipe.”