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For over 40 years, Howard Wilkinson has been covering the campaigns, personalities, scandals, and business of politics on a local, state and national level. He's interviewed mayors, council members, county commissioners, governors, senators, and representatives.With so many years covering so many politicians, there must be stories to tell, right?Look for a new Tales from the Trail column every Friday.

Marge Schott, Cow Whisperer

marge schott
Tom Uhlman
In April 1994, then-Reds owner Marge Schott smoked in the stands, a violation of the law that bans smoking in the seating area of Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium.

This is the tale of how Marge Schott fell in love with a cow.

A 1,050-pound white Charolais cow, to be exact.

A love story that was to have an unhappy ending for Marge but a good ending for the cow.

If you have come to Cincinnati since the beginning of the 21st century, you may not know a great deal about Schott. If you were here in the 1990s, you probably already know the story, because the story – and Marge herself – was unforgettable.

To say that the late Marge Schott, owner of the Cincinnati Reds, had a bad side and a good side would be the understatement of Cincinnati history.

Racial slurs aimed mostly at her own ball players, her analysis of Adolf Hitler ("good at the beginning, but he went too far"), horrible treatment of her employees (at both the Reds and her car dealerships) and some unforgiveable talk about both Jewish folks and the Japanese.

She was such an embarrassment to Cincinnati and Major League Baseball (MLB) that MLB fined her $250,000 and banned her from day-to-day control of the Reds during the 1993 season.

Her remarks about Hitler landed her another suspension in 1996, and she never regained control of the team, selling her majority share to Carl Lindner in 1999.

It was a sad ending.

She was a woman who had inherited car dealerships from her late husband and turned them into major successes, making her an incredibly wealthy woman.

And she was generous with her money, giving millions over the years to the Cincinnati Zoo (Lord knows she would have loved Fiona), the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, the Dan Beard Council of the Boy Scouts of America, and helped finance the University of Cincinnati homecoming parade for many years (the ball park on campus where the baseball Bearcats play is called Marge Schott Stadium). 

For all her faults (and there were plenty; just ask anyone who ever worked for her), she had a streak of kindness that she mostly reserved for animals (such as Schottzie and Schottzie 02, her immense, slobbering Saint Bernards who regularly made unpleasant deposits of waste matter on the Riverfront Stadium Astroturf) and children (she had none of her own, but loved their company and went out of her way to make them happy).  

Adults – well, she could live without them.

Marge always sat in the same seat (you can see it at the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum), right between the Reds dugout and on-deck circle, where she had a telephone and sat chain-smoking cigarettes as a never-ending line of Reds' fans, young and old, streamed down the aisle to get her autograph or have a picture taken with Good Ol' Marge.

I was sitting in some of the Enquirer's season tickets on the field level one day, about 10-12 rows behind Marge. I had known her from a number of Enquirer stories I had done but, for the first time, I decided to walk down the aisle and approach her in her seat and ask a favor.

You're really not supposed to do that with people you write about, but this was a favor I was asking for a very sick little girl who was like a niece to me, whose family I loved very much.

Marge recognized me when I came down the aisle, although I knew she didn't remember my name.

She called me honey. In fact, she called everybody honey. A heck of a lot easier than remembering names.

Hey, there, honey, what can I do for you?, she said.

I began telling her the story of the 6-year-old daughter of some dear friends of mine, a child who was like a niece to me. She had lost a kidney when she was no more than a year-and-a-half old.

At the age of 6, it was discovered that her remaining kidney had developed a Wilms Tumor, the most common form of kidney cancer in childhood. It was treatable, and the chances of successful recovery were pretty high, but it was incredibly frightening for her parents. She would need chemo and radiation.

She was a very smart, very brave little girl and she went through the radiation treatment, which weakened her body, but not her spirit. The treatment, though, had left her without hair and it was my job to keep her well-supplied with baseball caps.

Mrs. Schott, this little girl has suffered so much, I said. I'm wondering if you could spare a couple of Reds hats for her. And sign them, too. She would be very happy, and her parents very grateful.

I looked down at her face, sitting there in her blue seat, puffing a cigarette, and was taken aback. There were tears running down her cheeks. She was crying over this little girl whom she had never seen.

Honey, I'll get her a hat for every day of the week; and some other stuff too, Marge said.

She whipped around and hollered at a couple of her nearby factotums.

Go up to the office. Get at least seven Reds caps. Some little kid shirts. And anything else you think a 6-year-old would want. NOT TOMORROW!!! NOW!!!! GO!!!!

The factotums scurried away and before long, they were back with a box full of Reds souvenirs, including the precious hats. She scribbled her name on each hat – along with her famous dog paw for Schottzie – and handed it over to me.

God bless the little darling, she said, her eyes still moist with tears. I'll be praying for her, honey.

I thanked her profusely and made sure the swag got to the patient.

And what about this little girl? Her parents ended up taking her to the Mayo Clinic, where they discovered that the tumor had disappeared! She has to be checked now and then, but there has been no problem since.

And today, she and her husband are successful lawyers in Washington, with two beautiful daughters of their own, ages 3 and about 6 months.

I wish Marge were still around so I could tell her that.

As much as she loved children, Marge loved animals of all shapes and sizes.

That's where the 1,050-pound white Charolais cow came in – the most famous cow in the history of this meat-packing city.

On Feb. 15, 2002, this particular cow, more than a little skittish, was lumbering down the slaughterhouse line at Ken Meyer Meats in Camp Washington, where a certain fate awaited her. A fate that would land parts of her in hamburgers on somebody's backyard gas grill, to be wolfed down with ketchup and mustard by some two-legged carnivore.

But this Charolais was having none of it.

From a dead standstill, she leaped over a six-foot fence, landed on her feet and high-tailed it away from the slaughterhouse and to freedom.

The cow was no dummy; she headed straight for the nearest forest and heavy brush she could find – making her way across the interstate and ending up in Clifton's Mount Storm Park. There was plenty of food to forage, and she could easily keep herself hidden from the dozens of SPCA officials and police officers armed with tranquilizer guns.

Every night, the local TV stations devoted long segments of their newscasts to the cow on the run; the story was picked up by the national media as well. It all came to an end just before midnight on Feb. 26 when the freedom-loving cow – who had become an international symbol of freedom – was cornered. But she didn't give up without a fight.

She was finally subdued with a tranquilizer dart. But, as one of her captors tried to put a rope on her, she suddenly jumped up and ran off into the woods. Three men grabbed the rope and were pulled along by the cow through the woods.

The cow ended up running across McAlpin Avenue in Clifton and holed up in a backyard until a veterinarian gave her a sedative. She was out like a light.

A small front-end loader was used to haul her out.

Then, it became a question of what to do with a world-renowned cow?

There was no way Ken Meyer Meats was taking her back; that company would have been vilified if, after all of this hub-bub, they had slaughtered this heroic beast.

The Cincinnati Zoo didn't want her.

Then Marge Schott stepped in. She was loud and clear: I want to take that cow home with me. She said she had plenty of room to keep it on her Indian Hill estate. But that idea was rejected by the animal experts.

Enter Peter Max, the world-famous pop artist whose work was the backdrop for the psychedelic period of the '60s.

Max, who was an animal rights activist, had read about Cincinnati's famous freedom-loving cow and fell in love with the story. He made the locals in Cincinnati an offer they could not refuse – he would give the Cincinnati SPCA $180,000 worth of his original paintings that they could auction off as a fundraiser.

In return, Max would see to it that the cow – which Max named "Cincinnati Freedom," or "Cinci Freedom" for short – was shipped to an animal sanctuary in Watkins Glen, N.Y., where Cinci Freedom could live free with a herd of about 50 other rescued cows.

It was decided that the formal handover of Cinci Freedom would take place at Marge Schott's favorite event of the year – the Findlay Market Parade, on April 1, 2002.

marge schott
Credit Courtesy of / Findlay Market Association
Findlay Market Association
Marge Schott speaks with then-Mayor Charlie Luken at the 2002 Findlay Market Opening Day Parade.

As the massive annual parade celebrating the return of baseball was forming around the Findlay Market area, Peter Max was on hand, signing autographs and talking with then-Mayor Charlie Luken, who presented him – and Cinci Freedom – with a key to the city.

Marge, of course, was there; she was no longer the team owner but she would never miss a Findlay Market Parade. And I was there, covering it all for the Enquirer.

The mayor handed over the keys to the city, and Max started in on a rather long speech, mostly on the subject of animal rights and the legend of Cinci Freedom.

I was standing nearby taking some notes, and Marge was standing right next to me. I could see her shaking her head. She turned and poked me in the side with her elbow.

Honey, that Peter Max fellow looks kinda funny to me, don't you think?

Well, Mrs. Schott, I said, he's an artist; they're always a little eccentric.

She snorted and blew out a cloud of cigarette smoke.

I just don't think that poor baby belongs with this fellow. She belongs right here! I'd take care of her.

Cinci Freedom was penned up in a wagon secured at the top, sides and bottom (no more escaping cows) and she was clearly agitated, banging her head against the rear gates and pacing in nervous circles around the wagon.

cinci freedom cow
Credit Courtesy of / Findlay Market Association
Findlay Market Association
Cinci Freedom sits in a wagon during the Findlay Market Opening Day Parade on April 1, 2002. She again became agitated after Marge left, leading organizers to decide not to have her participate in the parade.

Everyone was listening to Peter Max go on. I noticed Marge, by herself, walk over to Cinci Freedom's cage. She bent over, staring the cow in the face, and I could hear her whispering to Cinci Freedom.

This is too good, I thought to myself and I sidled over to the wagon and stood next to Marge. I could hear every word.

Oh honey, I'm so sorry, Marge told Cinci Freedom. I tried to get them to let me take you home with me, but they wouldn't let me.

You'd like it at my place, honey. Lots of room to roam. Lots of grass to eat. You could play with Schottzie.

You could tell the cow was becoming calmer and seemed to be listening to what Marge had to say.

You're a brave girl, honey. I love you so much. I'll come visit you, if they let me.

You'll always be my girl.

For the first time that morning, Cinci Freedom curled up in the corner and rested. Calm as could be, at least until Marge walked away and Cinci Freedom became rambunctious, so much so parade organizers decided not to let the cow in the parade.

But she was fine as long as Marge Schott, The Cow Whisperer, was around. 

tftt bio

  Read more "Tales from the Trail" here.   

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.