I’ve always been comfortable in Cincinnati, more comfortable than any other city in the world, and my fortunate life has taken me to many of them. That comfort, I suppose, should not be so surprising. I have lived in every corner of the city. My Uncle George used to say we moved every time the rent came due. And he was not exaggerating—for once. The Great Depression lasted longer in some households than others, the Clooneys and the Guilfoyles, my mother’s family, among them.
We lived in Evanston and I started school at Hoffman—still an impressive edifice. We lived on Eastern Avenue and I went to Our Lady of Loretto—now gone as a school. We lived on Clinton Springs and I went to what we then called Avondale School, which I loved because we got out not only on Christmas but also Yom Kippur. We lived in the only small house on Indian Hill Road and I went to St. Gertrude School in Madeira, though I did not believe then and remain unconvinced now that there ever was a saint named Gertrude. We lived in Newtown and I took the bus every day to St. Xavier High School downtown on Sycamore. I succeeded in making a parking lot of that school.
In the summer of 1946, just a year after my Uncle William returned from the fetid jungles of New Guinea and Uncle George came back from the flak-torn skies over Germany, I was making some post-war readjustments myself. We moved to the Vine Street hill, one block east on Loth Street, and I spent part of my sixth and all of my seventh grade at St. Francis Seraph School at Liberty and Vine, in the heart of Over-the-Rhine.
Over-the-Rhine has always been an entryway into the city for disenfranchised people. Today, many of them are African-Americans. More than a century ago, it was German immigrants, then Irish. Some Eastern Europeans and Italians followed, too. Then it was Appalachians. I was at the tag-end of that group—my family and I.
These days, architects go into raptures over the 19th century buildings in Over-the-Rhine. We didn’t see it that way. The buildings were old, hot in the summer, cold in the winter, always in disrepair. We lived there because we couldn’t afford to live anywhere else. The dominant smells in the dank doorways flanking Vine Street above Central Parkway were cabbage, layered with beer and urine. A heady brew for a 12-year-old.
At the center of my experience was St. Francis Seraph School, led by tough nuns and priests who were always digging to find potential in each of us to help us climb out of our hardscrabble backgrounds. One nun thought I had a fair speaking voice and above average articulation. She ordered me to become the Bingo announcer on Wednesday night and sat me down in front of my first microphone.
I was terrified and had every right to be. Those hard-eyed women took their bingo very seriously. A five-dollar cover-all could make a huge difference to their family, so they cut me no slack for my youth. “Hey, kid, get the mush out of your mouth!” “Didn’t you hear me yell ‘Bingo!’? What are you, deaf?” “Slow down. You have a late date?” They taught me to be accurate, to speak clearly, to take the time to get it right.
They were, of course, exactly the lessons a future newsman needed to learn. I had no way of knowing it then, but that nun set me on the path to my life’s work.
Veteran journalist (and television host, political candidate, Emmy Award winner, and documentary filmmaker) Nick Clooney has lived in Augusta, Kentucky, since 1974.
Originally published in the October 2011 issue.
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