The Politician Who Gave Me A Literal Pain In The Neck

Dec 11, 2020

The older I get, the more likely it is that I wake up in the morning with aches and pains. I guess that's part of the deal.

One of the most frequent, though, is a sore neck. And that is one ache that I can blame on my work as a politics reporter for the Enquirer back in the 1980s. And I can, at least in my own mind, pin the blame on one specific politician - the late John A. "Socko" Wiethe, who spent 34 years as the chair or co-chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party.

When I say "I think" he may have been responsible for the cervical spine problems that I had years after he passed on, I mean that in a literal sense.

On a number of occasions – always in public and in broad daylight – he ran up to me from behind and put me in a headlock, his long arms wrapped around my neck, yelling at the top of his lungs about some column I had written that he took umbrage at.

I don't mean to sound like an old grandpa, but there are young reporters out there who lose their minds if a politician has a cross word to say to them. How do you think they would like it if they had a massive block of muscle like Socko Wiethe had wrapping his bear-like arms around their necks?

But that's what Socko did to me, God rest his soul.

Times have changed. I don't fear being assaulted by either of Hamilton County's current party chairs – Democrat Gwen McFarlin and Republican Alex Triantafilou – both nice people.

Socko was not often described as "nice."

Credit Courtesy of Xavier University Hall of Fame

Wiethe was an old man by the time I met him in the early 1980s, but he was still as strong as an ox. A big, barrel-chested man, with legs like tree trunks, he had been a remarkable athlete in his young days.

A star football player at Xavier University in the 1930s, he went on to play four seasons (1939-1942) as a guard and linebacker for the Detroit Lions of the NFL, back in the day of leather helmets and very little in the way of padding. He also played briefly in professional basketball and independent pro baseball.

Socko, a graduate of Roger Bacon High School, would have gone down as a famous Cincinnatian even if he had never entered politics because of his record as the University of Cincinnati Bearcats' head basketball coach from 1946 through 1952.

His Bearcat teams had an astonishing record of 106 wins and only 47 losses in his seven seasons as head coach – a winning percentage of .693.

But he turned to politics in the 1950s, as chair of the Democratic Party here. Democratic voters were a distinct minority in Cincinnati in those days, but for Wiethe, the party was his personal fiefdom and he ruled with an iron hand.

Socko survived at least two attempts by young liberals in the party to overthrow him. The second was in the 1980s, and Tim Burke – who ended up spending 24 years as county party chair before retiring in 2018 – was one of the young liberals who tried and failed in the late 1980s to oust Wiethe, who was seen by them as too conservative, too out of touch, too dictatorial and too willing to make deals with the Republicans.

"We tried, but he ended up beating the crap out of us,'' Burke said. "He really was an amazing man. One of a kind."

Socko fought off the opposition; and the GOP kept winning county elections.

And he kept jumping me from behind on the streets of downtown Cincinnati.

Only once did I win the confrontation and get an apology from him for trying to choke me.

It was somewhere around 1986 or maybe 1987. I had written what I thought was a kind of boring story for the Enquirer about the slate of newly endorsed Democratic candidates for Hamilton County judgeships. Boring, because the vast majority of these candidates were going to get beaten like rented mules by their GOP opponents and would never be heard from again.

It was a sunny day: I was walking down Vine Street from the old Enquirer building for the Friday fried fish lunch at the McAlpin's Department store restaurant.

As I approached Fountain Square, I could hear footsteps behind me, and before I knew what was happening, Socko had his arms around my neck, turning the air around us blue with every curse known to humankind and some that I think he made up on the spot.

You #@%!@& idiot; that story on the judges was all wrong!!! You got the wrong @#!!% list!!! What in the hell is the matter with you!!!

I got a glance at his face, all red and puffy, and started firing back with my own invective.

Let me go, you #^%!! Idiot! You're choking me!!!!!

I finally broke loose from him and let him have it.

Socko, try to focus your pea brain on this for just a minute! Why in the world would I intentionally list the wrong names in the newspaper? Tell me why? Because I like looking like an idiot in front of a few hundred thousand readers? Use your sense.

I could see him rolling this around in his head; and he seemed to be calming down. So where did you get that @1#!?

That's easy, I said. I got it directly from the person that you appointed to be the head of the judicial nominating committee. Now don't you think that should be a reliable source?

Socko grew pensive – or as close to pensive as he could get.

Yeah, that makes sense, he said. She's going to hear from me.

He turned and started walking away. Suddenly, he wheeled around and said something I had never heard him say before.

Sorry about roughing you up.

Well, I forgave him. Forgiving him didn't cost me anything. Except years later, when I started going to the spinal clinic.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

  Read more "Tales from the Trail" here.