Ben Shouse, Cultural Catalyst and Arts Advocate, 19152003


benBen Shouse never went to college, took music lessons, acted in a play or learned to draw. But he had an insatiable appetite for the arts and education. A labor leader by profession and a self-educated cultural maven, he devoured Shakespeare, Russian literature, classical music, ballet, films and the visual arts. He served two five-year terms on the Ohio Arts Council and sat on dozens of boards.

He attended hundreds of benefits, recruited countless new members for organizations he championed and spoke out boldly for causes that concerned him. “Ben had a little bit of theater in him,” said former Cleveland Play House managing director Dean Gladden. “He was ‘infamous’ for his eloquent oratory. He was a man of great passion and integrity, a philanthropist, a lover of the arts and the only male member of the Cleveland Play House Women’s Committee.”

Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1915, Shouse was the son of a Russian immigrant who taught Hebrew and Yiddish, peddled umbrellas and ran a grocery store. By age 12, young Shouse was reading Chekhov, Gogol and Dostoevsky. In his teens he hitchhiked or hopped a bus to New York to see plays and visit museums.

Although he was a straight-A student in high school, he had no opportunity to pursue a higher education. Instead, he found jobs in meat and fish packing plants where he earned $10 working 78 hours a week. During the Great Depression, he discovered his abilities as an organizer by writing leaflets and distributing them to the unemployed. He later got a job in an upholstered-furniture plant. At age 23, he was hired as an organizer for the upholsterers’ union

Shouse came to Cleveland in 1946 to head the Upholsterers and Allied Workers Local 48. During his long tenure as president, he earned respect as a tough negotiator of “rapier-sharp forensic skills and iron-fisted brinkmanship,” according to Plain Dealer reporter Diane Carman. Besides bringing union members bread, Shouse brought them roses. As co-founder and chairman of the United Labor Agency’s cultural arts and education committee, he provided discount tickets for events at Playhouse Square, lunchtime piano recitals in factories and gallery shows featuring art created by blue-collar workers.

After stepping down from his labor post in 1980, Shouse threw himself into his second career as a volunteer arts advocate. He initially shocked members of the cultural community with his overbearing manner, loud voice and bombastic rhetoric. But he soon won respect with his energy, enthusiasm and effectiveness. With his companion Hannah Morgenstern, he attended about 200 events annually. As an active trustee of 25 organizations, he often launched fund-raising drives by dramatically pulling a roll of bills from his pocket and making the first pledge. Breaking all records, he recruited more than 100 new members for the City Club of Cleveland and signed up scores of new members for Ohio Citizens for the Arts. Among his recruits was a doctor who was persuaded to join while treating Shouse’s broken wrist in a Columbus emergency room.

Shouse died on March 30, 2003. In a memorial celebration at the Cleveland Play House, he was lauded by representatives of labor, the arts and the Jewish community. “Ben was a bridge between labor and the arts,” said John Ryan, executive secretary of the Cleveland AFL-CIO. ‘He understood the power of organizing. He was one heck of a character.”

—Wilma Salisbury


Cleveland Arts Prize
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