Willie Carden-5Long Days, Long Dreams

Success and the Search for More

By Greg Hoard

He’s Cincinnati’s land baron, overseeing approximately 10 percent of the entire city’s land base—5,000 luxurious, well-tended, well-groomed acres: forests, streams, pathways, bike trails, beds of flowers, houses of flowers, memorials and monuments, all places where nature speaks to those that lend an ear. Each year thousands upon thousands visit these grounds and each year Willie Carden, Jr., tries to improve on what’s already a national treasure.

He smiles broadly when he sees a visitor or passes someone jogging or riding a bike. He says hello, wishes them a “blessed day.” They smile and push on, oblivious to how much he has contributed to their day and their pleasure.

“There’s so much to be proud of,” he says, walking through Theodore M. Berry International Friendship Park. “So many people have worked so hard and given so much.

“Look at this,” he says, referring to the glistening Castle of Air (the creation of Peter Heimlr and a gift from Cincinnati sister-city, Munich Germany). “Look at how beautiful it is. Look at how clearly images are reflected. It’s an incredible piece of workmanship, an incredible piece of art…And there are things like this—just as impressive in different ways—throughout our city. You know, I don’t think people truly understand how fortunate we are. Do you know that our city park system is ranked among the top urban park systems in the country? You bet! Right there with Boston, Seattle and Minneapolis.”

It’s a ranking bestowed annually by the Trust for Public Land in its Excellent City Parks report, just one feather—among many—in the dark fedora Carden wears with double-breasted suits, crisp shirts, smartly-knotted ties and shoes that shine like Mirror Lake in Eden Park.

Willie Carden has been Director of Cincinnati Parks since April 2000 and is currently charged with raising $40 million dollars for the Riverfront Park, and he’s far ahead of The Banks project, which it will front. “I’m just about there,” he says, smiling. “Just a couple more things to do. Wait ’til you see this park. It will knock your socks off.”

He travels the city and the world raising funds, soliciting involvement and contributions, from art to ideas and is regarded as one of the city’s finest, young leaders, an energetic, disciplined and effective executive.

“Willie was simply the best department head we had while I was there,” said Charlie Luken, mayor of Cincinnati from 1984 through 1991 and again form 1999 through 2005.  “He has a remarkable ability to raise money and he built a financial network to support the parks without relying solely on tax dollars. I think part of that ability comes from the fact that people just like to be around him but he’s also incredibly efficient and persuasive, and has a fierce belief and devotion to what he does.

“He did—and continues to do—a remarkable job as a department head…The proof of his ability is our system of parks,” Luken continued. “My God they’re wonderful, some of the best in the country. I don’t think everyone knows that or appreciates that fact, and he does it on a pittance of a budget ($15 million)…He’s a special guy, one of the sharpest young leaders the city has ever had. He’s a spectacular talent and I don’t pass those superlatives on easily. I wouldn’t say that about most people I met in public life.”

But for all he has achieved, Willie Carden never stops working, the very thought—for now—seems to frighten him. In the end, Willie Carden, Jr., is working for something universal and something, sadly, yet to be achieved, something that may never be achieved. It plagues him. It drives him. It makes him a better man. That’s why he seldom sleeps.

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He gets up every morning at three o’clock. He’s in the gym by 5:30. He hits the weights for an hour and 15 minutes—been doing it for years—and follows that with a 30-minute run. (“When I was in office, I used to kid about challenging Willie to an arm-wrestling contest,” says Luken. “What a joke. He would have killed me. He’s massive. Benches over 300 pounds.”)  In fact, Carden presses 360 pounds. He is 47-years-old.

He is in the office by eight—often seven days a week—and sometimes doesn’t leave for home until 7:30 or 8:00 in the evening. “I get home, check to make sure the kids homework is done, talk with my wife (Tonda) for awhile, and then, I pass out.” Carden says. “Next day, I do it all over again…In many ways, I remind myself of my father.”

Carden is one of five children. He has two brothers and two sisters. His father, Willie, Sr., was the disciplinarian; his mother, Lamarr, was the spirit. “Dad was very conservative,” Carden says. “He would get up, go to work, come home, put the paycheck on the table and go to bed. Next day—same thing. He was strict about being a man, not bringing any children in the house and getting an education. If you didn’t do well in school, he would break you in half. He believed you couldn’t achieve anything in life without being responsible and having an education.

“My mom was totally different. She was flash. She sang and played music…Played organ and piano…We would go to Second Liberty Baptist Church, where my grandfather (Thomas Goshade) was pastor—and I mean we would be there all day—and the music would just blow the doors off the place.”

For the first years of their children’s lives, Willie and Lamarr Carden lived in Avondale just off Vine Street, but the neighborhood began to change.  “They did a good job keeping us on the straight and narrow, making sure we understood right from wrong,” Carden says. “When we moved from Avondale, I thought everything was fine but my parents saw something we kids didn’t. We moved to Mt. Healthy. Again, it was Dad. At the time, Mt. Healthy was regarded as one of the best school districts in the city.”

Four Angels of Mt. Healthy

By the time Carden reached high school, he was beginning to strain against his father’s rule. He was a gifted student, but preferred the status of “class clown.” He joined the football team but didn’t play much. “I was like 10th string,” he says, laughing. “I played with Billy Doran (former Major League All-Star.) What an athlete. He played football, basketball and baseball. He was our quarterback. Man, I loved to watch him run that option and I watched a lot.”
While he watched and searched for other voices, other guides, he found Bill Friedman, the football coach. “What he said back then has a lot to do with the way I approach my job and my life today,” Carden says. “He used to always talk about emptying the bucket by the end of the game. ‘If you want to win,’ he’d say, ‘you have to empty the bucket. But to be a champion, you not only have to empty the bucket, you have to wipe it dry.’ I always remembered that. I talk to my staff about it all the time.”

He remembers a day in Trigonometry class. He was cutting up, acting a fool but getting laughs from his classmates. He thought that was what he wanted—acceptance, popularity. “After class, my teacher Ms. Depling, I can’t remember her first name, pulled me aside and said, ‘You are an absolute idiot. I am so disappointed in you…If you ever applied yourself…you could do something special.’ I looked at her and promised, ‘I will apply myself. I will never be a class clown again.’ I kept that promise.”

Late in high school, Carden caught the eye of Lester Ward. Ward’s son had played football at Mt. Healthy and there was something about Carden the man liked. He asked Carden to come to work for him at his Kroger’s store in Seven Hills. “Store number 372,” Carden remembers. “It’s not there anymore. Nine aisles. Clean as could be. He paid me $9.72 since an hour. I’ll never forget that. He had two rules. ‘When you are in school, you can take as much time off as you want. When you are not in school, your behind is mine.’ And he would work the dog crap out of you…15-hour days: stocking shelves, cashier, produce clerk, stock clerk…I did everything.
He’s another reason I finally got my degree. He kept whippin’ my tail to get that piece of paper.”

Breaking Away and the Benefactor
At 18, Carden was tired of his father’s rules. They argued. “He said, ‘If you don’t want to do what I say, you got to get out,” Carden says, somberly. “So, I went.”

He had graduated from Mt. Healthy and was working hard for Lester Ward, not knowing what his future held. Maybe, he thought, he would be there forever, bagging groceries and stocking shelves. He hoped not because he saw how Kroger management treated Mr. Ward, its first African-American store manager in Cincinnati. “I always felt sorry for him because he worked so hard and they treated him like crap,” he says.

So, he wondered and he worked, and then one day Ms. Norma Lane came through his cashier line. She was a frequent customer at the store, an administrator for the Cincinnati Public Schools system. She knew about him through her associations with Mt. Healthy High School.

“She said, ‘Now that you are out of high school what are you going to do with yourself?’” Carden said. “I said, ‘If I had the money,  I would love to go to college. But I don’t, so I will probably work here for awhile.’”

Carden remembers the stern look that came his way and the shocking words. “She said, ‘If I gave you the money, would you go to college?’ She made sure my tuition was paid.” He doesn’t remember if she had children of her own. He only remembers her largess and a phone call that came over a year later, when times were bad, when he was working three jobs and had dropped out of school at the University of Cincinnati. The phone rang late one night.

Norma Lane had tracked him down. “All I said was, ‘Yes, ma’am! Yes, ma’am. She was angry. She said, ‘You have to get back in school and when you graduate, you have to contact me and I will be at your graduation. Is that clear?’”
He found a way to return to school. Ms. Lane made sure his bills were paid. He graduated with honors and weeks later, Ms. Lane died of cancer.

Everyday of his life, Willie Carden, Jr., wakes up and goes to the gym and goes to work, and everyday he thinks about Coach Friedman, Ms. Depling, Lester Ward and Ms. Norma Lane. Each day he offers thanks. He is not necessarily a religious man, but he is deeply spiritual. He knows who he owes and everyday he works a little harder because of those them. He repeats their names softly, with reverence: “Coach Friedman, Ms. Depling, Lester Ward, Ms. Norma Lane. Yep, they were my angels.”

Angels, Devils and Hurdles

Even with angels on his side, it has been a tough climb for Carden. He went to work for a rental car company and when he was promoted over two white co-workers, they attempted to beat him up. When their attempt failed, they pressed assault charges against him. He fought the charges, which were eventually dropped.

After being named assistant manager of Riverfront Stadium, a lawsuit was filed by other applicants claiming that because of his race Carden had received preferential treatment. The suit was thrown out of court. His first day on the job at the stadium a manager said: “I don’t want you here. We’ve never had a black before. I won’t help you but I will answer your questions.”

He used that one small crack of opportunity, asking questions every day, and was later named manager of Riverfront. In his 21-year career with the city, other hurdles kept coming up and Willie Carden, Jr., kept clearing them, moving forward following his own mantra. “Life is about attitude, energy and work—work, work, work!  If you take that approach to life, you will be successful because it instills ethic and vision.”

He plans to retire in nine years. “Then,” he says, “I will spend every single moment doting on my wife and showing her the world. In 21 years of marriage, she has never complained once—been nothing but supportive of what I wanted to do or needed to do.”

Until then, he will attack each day, emptying the bucket then wiping it dry. “This,” he said, touching the fingers of his right hand to the skin of his left hand, “will never change…All I ever wanted was opportunity. I knew I could do the rest. I hope I am opening doors for my son and other young men like him.

“I am working for validation. I hope there will be a day in Cincinnati when CEOs look at a man of color and understand that if you give them an opportunity and look beyond the stereotype, we aren’t half bad.”

He smiled and gazed around Theodore Berry Park. Then, he laughed. It was a good laugh, full and rich. “Sometimes,” he said, “we are a whole lot better than that.”