Taking note of a good life

Tuesday, December 1, 1998

He was listed on the various letterheads of the institutions he served as Edgar J. Mack Jr. But if you were invited to do so, you could call him Buddy. Otherwise, it was Mr. Mack. There was no in between.

When I first met him, he was only 75, still clobbering much younger men on the tennis court, still riding his horse, still mowing his own lawn. About five years later, we met for lunch. After a few minutes, he asked me if I noticed anything different about him.

This was a hard question, because he was dependably, almost fanatically the same. Iron gray hair swept back from his face, he never looked like he had just gotten a haircut - or that he needed one. His dark suits had never hung on a rack but were tailored for him, as were his crisp cotton shirts. Silk ties, and you could be assured that they would not have hand-painted palm trees on them.

"I give up, Buddy."

Exercising power

He said he had quit smoking after more than six decades. And of course I should have noticed. Until that moment, I don't think I had ever seen him without a cigarette. No longer. He would not have the occasional cigarette after dinner. He would not be chewing Nicorette gum. No tobacco. No in between.

He said his doctor had insisted.

Ha.

His doctor might have convinced him of the wisdom of such a step, suggesting he might live longer or more comfortably. But I cannot imagine that his doctor "insisted." Buddy ran his own life and, occasionally, the lives of others as well.

After the riots of the late 1960s, he headed a city task force charged with rebuilding the West End. He was buttonholed by a woman from that neighborhood. "We need a stop sign," she told him. "It's a dangerous intersection, children coming home from school, somebody is going to get hit. The city won't listen."

Buddy told me he didn't know if the stop sign was important, but he knew it was important to show this woman respect and that he could get things done. "She had a lot of power in that neighborhood," he said.

He "made a few calls." The stop sign went up the next day.

"Dad had a wonderful ability to just cut through red tape, to make things happen," his eldest son, Edgar "Ted" Mack III, said. "And he was very good with people, particularly people who knew what they were doing."

When the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra was trying - unsuccessfully - to hire the brilliant and charismatic Thomas Schippers as music director, Buddy flew to Milan and brought back a contract. He saw what was needed and went after it. Simple. And complicated. A man of the world whose interests were centered in Cincinnati and its environs.

Opening doors

He grew up in Avondale, the privileged son of the German Jewish founder of Red Top Brewery. Cotillions. Private clubs. Then he went away to school, to Princeton. "Jews were very restricted there," Ted says. "And my father hated it."

Maybe that's why he opened so many doors to African-Americans and women, "making a few calls," twisting a few arms.

"He put me on staff at the brewery, as a salesman," says Ernie Waits, a long-time African-American activist, "when it wasn't so popular to have me around."

Buddy helped write his own obituary, which appeared in The Cincinnati Enquirer reporting his Thanksgiving Day death at the age of 89. Besides his family - the exquisite Elaine, his wife of 68 years, and their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren - he was proud of the doors opened, the legacies to strangers. He rolled up the sleeves of his handsome shirts, pushing for education and the arts and housing and, well, sometimes simple dignity.

"Buddy didn't measure the odds," Ernie says. "He just did what he thought was right."

There was no in between.

Laura Pulfer's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393. She can be heard on WVXU radio and NPR's Morning Edition. Her book, I Beg to Differ, is available at (800) 852-9332.

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