Commentary: What We Discovered About Youngstown

By Louis A. Zona

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – My nephew Nick Rich has been a TV news videographer in Youngstown for many years. And because he has been behind the camera lens whenever a celebrity or even a little-known person visits our city, Nick has become an expert on studying the reaction of visitors new to our town.

Sharing his unofficial study with me, he convinced me of something that I too believe to be true: Youngstown may have the warmest, kindest and sweetest people in all of America.

At the Butler Institute of American Art, we bring to town thousands of visitors who come to view our exhibits. In fact, last year nearly 100,000 visitors came to The Butler. So many of them commented to museum staff and our volunteer docents that a friendlier town does not exist.

Not even the fictitious town of Mayberry can hold a candle to the warmth pictured nightly on our TV sets in Mayberry USA.

Youngstown, with all of its limitations, is truly special in its treatment of visitors as well as our neighbors.

Nick shared with me that people experiencing Youngstown for the first time comment on how nice everyone is and how genuinely kind and caring everyone seems to be.

We recently had a visitor, Anne from New Zealand, come to The Butler. Anne studied the Bermant Collection at David Bermant’s house during her early college years.

She became a friend of the family and made a trip to tour The Butler and view the Bermant works on display. She and her longtime friend originally from Manchester, England, met a couple of Butler staff downtown for a drink on a Saturday evening. They both commented they couldn’t believe how friendly and kind the people of Youngstown are. 

I am not a native of Youngstown, nor is Nick, but the decades that we have spent in this very special place taught us that it really is the people, not the buildings or the roadways, that make Youngstown so very special.

It was my late friend John Sumansky who urged me to attend Youngstown State University. John and I ended up commuting from New Castle for those four years. And because there was no student center or cafeteria at that time, students often studied or ate lunch in their cars.

One day, while I was studying in my car, there was a knock on my window. I rolled it down and saw that an elderly woman was knocking on the glass.

“Ma’am, can I help you?’’ I asked.

“Honey, would you take me shopping?’’ she answered.

I agreed and drove her to a supermarket on East Federal Street in the downtown. I even ended up carrying her groceries into her house.

That experience, grocery shopping for that woman, taught me about trust and offering a hand to those in need.

It is when serious issues befall our town that Youngstowners demonstrate their true colors, as when the horrific gas explosion occurred in the heart of our city.

We saw total strangers helping as they risked their own safety for others. The residents of this town care deeply.

When I discussed this topic with a friend from New York City, he gave it a smirk instead of a smile. His response to my bragging about Youngstown folk and the kindness that seems to be a part of who we are, was to say that people are people no matter where you live.

But as Nick and I discussed the intrinsic goodness and friendliness of the folks who call this place home, it became obvious it is special.

I have always believed that playing sports at any level helps to bring about a positive attitude that carries through to all aspects of life. And I firmly believe that team sports like baseball and football build respect for one’s fellow teammates.

There’s a sculpture in downtown Youngstown that speaks volumes about the special nature of our city. It shows that famous handshake between Jackie Robinson and George Shuba. It has been called the “Handshake of the Century” since it shows a famous Black player shaking hands with a teammate after he hit a home run.

At the time, it was an unexpected gesture. But it helped to break down the barriers between Black and White. And it was a Youngstowner, Shuba, who was in the vanguard way. We would expect nothing less.