Thursday, May 30, 1996
Who's culprit in El Rancho evictions?

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Everybody has stopped laughing now. The gigantic purple fiberglass bull is in storage, the extravagantly peculiar Colonel Rankin Harrison is dead. El Rancho Rankin Motel is empty. Or nearly so.

On Tuesday morning, the day Judge Fred Cartolano ordered the place vacated "right now, immediately," there were about 200 men, women and children - lots of children - living there.

Built in 1940, the unlovely two-story landmark sprawls over seven acres of prime commercial hillside land, just off the Anderson Township end of the Beechmont Levee. People still joke about "hourly rates," but most who lived there were long-term residents, the working poor. Waitresses, construction workers, dishwashers, a nurse's aide, a mechanic, a truck driver, a grocery clerk.

Evicted and angry

In the parking lot, you could find people angry with the judge, with the township fire department, which declared the place a hazard, with the "yuppies who just don't want us here." But no one had a word to say against the Colonel.

The late Rankin Harrison claimed to be a Kentucky Colonel and founder of the Honorable Order of Ohio Colonels. I asked once for a list of the other Ohio colonels but he refused, calling it a "secret, fraternal organization."

He died in August at age 85, and whatever kind of colonel he was, his command post was his office at the motel. A small guy, he liked to live large, riding around in Cadillacs towing Airstream travel trailers. "I like to go first class," he said.

He called his matching white Cadillacs with matching life-sized mustangs mounted on back "The Show Stoppers." He tossed silver dollars, painted gold, to spectators along parade routes. He scorned common dining utensils - "I don't use silver, I want gold."

Living large.

Once he gave me a business card that said, "The Colonel & his award-winning team," which pictured the Colonel. Five times. He liked to talk about his charitable donations to the Shriners and the Masons. He bought a pew, he said, in the Rev. Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral.

The Colonel's charity

Once during the 1980s, he sent all of his employees' cars out to be tuned, lubed and oiled. Another time, he had a tenant's dark blue car repainted white. She worked nights, and he thought it wasn't safe. One employee said, "If a man needed a pair of shoes, the Colonel would buy them for him. I've seen it."

It appears that he could well afford some very nice shoes. For all his employees. Heck, for all of Anderson Township. Col. Harrison bragged for 20 years that he owned the motel, free and clear. No mortgage. Not much upkeep, either.

So, let's say that 100 units were rented for the minimum - $340 a month. That sounds like close to $400,000 a year. It is clear that Col. Harrison was not, as they say, reinvesting in the company. He had 15 employees, some of whom took lodging as pay. Some of them were given the impression that they would get their reward when the Colonel went to his.

The place has been valued at $1 million, and heirs include about a dozen employees, a brother-in-law and the Rev. Schuller.

Out in the parking lot and inside the rabbit warren of tiny rooms is misery. Pure misery. A waitress, just home, sits on the hood of a car, holding the yellow notice to vacate. "I am on the street," she says. She and the 3-year-old in a pink nightshirt. A car leaves, stuffed. You can see an Uncle Ben's rice box, a basket, some clothes. At least two people slept in their cars Tuesday night.

There was gossip - "Somebody wants this land. It's gonna be a shopping center. No, I heard it's gonna be a school."

There was a little swagger - "They can't treat us like this."

Well, they can and they have. Judge Cartolano said he weighed the "inconvenience" to residents against their safety. If the people aboard ValuJet had their choice, he said, they'd have chosen to be inconvenienced.

So, the Colonel, the little big shot with the Cadillacs and the plastic farm animals left a big mess. And nobody is laughing anymore.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.