Wednesday, May 22, 2002

Local leader had 'Red Scare'

Tells story in new book

By Howard Wilkinson,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        “Communist,” Wallace Collett learned in Cincinnati 53 years ago, is not a word to be used lightly.

        For many, the word is an almost archaic term; a word that belongs to their parents and grandparents' youth, spit out in the staccato crackle of a newsreel announcer's voice or a politician's bellow.

        But for Americans of the early 1950s, there was no more powerful word in the dictionary.

[photo] Wallace Collett (top right) recounts in a new book how he and two colleagues were marked as Communists, and how it affected their lives.
(Enquirer photo illustration)
| ZOOM |
        It was the height of the era of “McCarthyism,” when the merest hint of a tie, however tenuous, with an organization believed to be “communist” could ruin lives, destroy careers and make outcasts of hard-working loyal citizens.

        Mr. Collett, a former Cincinnatian now living in Philadelphia, knows this well. He heard the word directed at him.

        “It was a shock to the system,” said Mr. Collett, a 87-year-old retired businessman and Quaker activist.

        Now, 53 years after the fact, he has written and published a small book, McCarthyism in Cincinnati: The Bettman-Collett Affair, which outlines an episode in the city's political history that must seem bizarre to those who did not live through it.

        In it, he details an experience that subjected him and his family to months of abuse and suspicion. It also may have contributed to the suicide death of another Cincinnatian, Henry Bettman, tarred in the scandal.

        And, in the end, it created a backlash at the polls.

        It also inadvertently launched the political career of one of his defenders — John J. Gilligan, who went on to become Ohio governor and still holds office today on the Cincinnati Board of Education.

        Mr. Collett survived the ordeal; he went on to a successful business career in Philadelphia and years of service as chairman of the American Friends Service Committee.

        His friend, Mr. Bettman, was not so fortunate.

        Five years after being tarred as a communist sympathizer, the body of Mr. Bettman, a 48-year-old architect, was found on a 16th-floor ledge of the Carew Tower.

        HThe coroner ruled the case a suicide.

Rising stars

        In the early fall of 1953, the future looked bright for both young men.

    Wallace Collett's book, McCarthyism in Cincinnati — The Bettman-Collett Affair, is available at a local bookstores and through mail orders.
    Joseph-Beth Booksellers in the Rookwood Pavillion began carrying the book this week. Mr. Collett hopes to have the book placed in other local book stores soon.
    Copies can also be ordered by mail, e-mail ( or telephone, (800) 742-3150, from Pendle Hill Publications and Bookshop, 338 Plus Mill Road, Wallingford, PA 19086.
    The price is $12.95, plus $3 shipping and handling for the first copy and 75 cents for each additional copy.
        The two held seats on the city planning commission. They took the lead in hiring a new city planning director. The man they came up with was a Navy veteran from California, Sydney Williams. ,Mr. Williams was on the job by mid-April 1953.

        Then, in late September, the lives of the three men were turned upside down by a memo that landed on the desk of City Manager William Kellogg.

        The memo, which appeared to come from an FBI file, claimed Mr. Williams was a former member of the Communist Party.

        Mr. Kellogg marched the memo over to Republican Party headquarters to a meeting of GOP council candidates.

        One of those candidates was an incumbent councilman, Douglass Allen, a former World War II fighter pilot who also was a columnist for the Cincinnati Times-Star.

        On the afternoon of Sept. 28, the headline screamed from the top of the Times-Star's front page: “Trio Asked to Quit Planning Posts,” the “trio” being Mr. Williams, Mr. Bettman and Mr. Collett. “Planner Bared as Ex-Commie,” the sub-head said.

        Mr. Allen claimed that Mr. Williams told Mr. Bettman and Mr. Collett that he had been a member of the Communist Party and that they had hired him anyway.

        “There was no truth to that whatsoever, but the truth didn't seem to matter,” Mr. Collett said.

Unrelenting pressure

        For the next several days after the Times-Star article, the city's other daily newspapers, The Cincinnati Enquirer and The Post, joined in a barrage of front page stories.'

        Soon after, the Republican majority on City Council was demanding that Mr. Bettman and Mr. Collett, Charter Committee members, resign.

        Both men refused.

        Cincinnati voters, they said, could decide by electing the Charter Committee slate.

        Thus began a Cincinnati City Council campaign like no other before or since.

        “No one talked about anything else,” said Mr. Gilligan, who was then a 32-year-old Xavier professor and first-time council candidate on the Charter ticket.

        Republican Councilman Potter Stewart — later to become a U.S. Supreme Court justice — was among the most vocal accusers; he gave the keynote speech at a televised Republican campaign rally where he said he was “properly shocked” that the two Charterites would hire a communist.


       In October, the Republican Party began running full-page newspaper ads aimed at Charter and Democratic voters telling them they had been betrayed by Mr. Bettman and Mr. Collett.

        The Charterites responded with their own full-page ads, saying that “an evil thing is happening in Cincinnati.”

        On Nov. 3, 1953, 152,766 Cincinnati voters went to the polls and replaced the Republican majority with a Charterite one.

        The lesson from the ordeal, Mr. Collett said recently, was one that has stayed with him a lifetime.

        “I learned a lot about human nature,” Mr. Collett said. “And, in the end, I learned that truth will overcome lies.”


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