Former Columbus Institute for Contemporary Journalism Board Chair and community activist Cornell McCleary died February 11 at the age of 55. Cornell recruited me to run for the NAACP Board in the early 1990s. He was one of the few black leaders in Columbus that reached out the white community surrounding the Free Press, as well as to the gay community. When I began co-publishing and editing the Free Press in 1992, my co-publisher and now U.S. Congresswoman Mary Jo Kilroy suggested we tap McCleary as Chairperson of our Board.

McCleary spearheaded a Free Press outreach toward African American writers like Jeff Winbush and Jerolyn Barbee. McCleary got the Free Press involved in a long-running investigative series to “out” white supremacists in Ohio. The Free Press began to print the names and addresses of known Klan and neo-Nazi members, and also began to publish “Wanted” posters with their photos and vitals attached. All of this culminated with buses of anti-racist activists demonstrating outside the homes of the white supremacists. McCleary used his extensive ties with black private investigators and police officers to gather intelligence. Five white supremacists left the state rather be “outed.”

In 1995, McCleary brought together a slate of reformers to run for Columbus School Board. I had the pleasure of being one of them. While we didn’t win, much of our agenda advocating multicultural diversity and more transparency by the School Board succeeded. Just last year, I participated with Cornell in a project to screen local political candidates for office and publish our ratings and the interviews on the internet.

Cornell and I occasionally disagreed over the issue of police brutality and the approach of the Columbus Police officers in dealing with black youth. His position was far more sympathetic to the police than mine, probably due to his military background and his business Pro-Private Police Training Academy that trained private security guards. Still, Cornell and I remained friends. I remember our last joint appearance on the WOSU TV show “On the Record” where we engaged in a heated debate, then went outside and laughed about it.

Cornell embodied the style of the “new jack activism” – one that was both highly intellectual and simultaneously street-wise. His commitment to the inner-city and to equality for all people: blacks, Hispanics, gays, and whites – set him apart from most of the more traditional leaders in the community. His voice, his vision, and his laugh will be greatly missed.