Blogs > Jim Collins' Editor's Notebook

Jim Collins is editor emeritus of The News-Herald and also serves as executive in residence at Lakeland Community College. His popular weekly column appears each Sunday in Comment in The News-Herald.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Fond memories of Tony Ocepek, a man who lived a full life

I was going to write that Lake County lost one of its brightest, most innovative and most creative minds with the passing of Tony Ocepek of Waite Hill.
But that doesn’t scratch the surface in describing the far reaches of his thought process.
His memorial service a week ago yesterday at the First Presbyterian Church in Willoughby was a huge outpouring of friends who wanted to pay their respects to a man they knew so well — and for so many different reasons.
He did so many things for so many worthwhile causes. Yes, he owned a lot of radio stations all over the East Coast, including the former WPVL in Painesville. It would be difficult to list all of them. And he was a naturalist and nature lover beyond description. That’s why he and his wife, Peggy, gave their old schoolhouse home in Kirtland Hills to the Lake Metroparks District — so that young people could be taught in the ways of nature.
He was a bank director, college trustee, investor in Cleveland Magazine and wore so many other hats that it would take a book, a rather good-sized book, to describe all of them.
But when someone would ask me how Tony accumulated so much wealth, I didn’t attempt to describe his many ventures. I would merely say “vertical real estate.”
That was what Tony called it. He would approach land-owners all over the country east of the Mississippi and tell them he wanted to buy just a tiny plot of land — just a few square feet. No problem. They were willing sellers. And on those tiny specks of land he would build transmission towers for cell phones and other signals that must be relayed because the signals travel in straight lines, they don’t follow the curvature of the Earth.
The three speakers at the service — Steve Madewell, Walter Tiburski and Jon Rowley — all did masterful jobs. Steve is the former director of Lake Metroparks and he and Tony had many dealings that revealed the inner nature of Tony’s deeply-held feelings about the outdoors. Jon was general manager of the former Painesville Telegraph. He and Tony were close buddies. And Walt was his business partner. He knew the inner workings of all of the many dealings they worked out.
And there were a lot of them. They demonstrated Tony’s mental toughness, his unwillingness to take “no” for an answer, and his powers of persuasion to get a deal done.
If you ever knew Tony, you would get the point of a story that Walt told, when they were in New York City working on yet another business deal and were staying at a hotel owned by Donald Trump. As they stepped off an elevator, the guests were being greeted by The Donald himself. He was taking an off-the-cuff survey. He asked if anything could be done to serve them better.
Tony’s response, in Walt’s words, elicited a roar of laughter from the packed church. “As a matter of fact, there is,” Tony told Trump.
That was Tony, all right. He had a better way of doing everything, and he never hesitated to express his feelings.
I did a series of television interviews with 15 of Lake County’s top business executives about six years ago. The setting was the beautiful Mooreland Mansion on the campus of Lakeland Community College. I gave a lot of thought about whom I wanted to interview first. A lot of names flooded my mind. Tony Ocepek, Jim Zampini, Bill Sanford, Dick Muny and his family, the Milbourn Family, Harry Allen, Nancy and Ed Brown, the Crocketts — who would I lead off with?
I picked Tony. It was a great choice. He explained the inner workings of his multitude of business dealings and brought along a couple of devices which I didn’t understand at all that were essential to how some of the electronic things work.
Copies of the interviews — all of them — are still available, and I suppose I could provide some if I can get a price from Phil and Sam in our TV department. I don’t know how much they would charge to recover the cost. But I will tell you this — those two beautiful, large, color photos of Tony that were displayed at the altar during his service were taken from that tape of my interview with Tony, I sent them to the family as tiny attachments on an email, and they had the enlargements made. Technology is amazing these days.
But I digress.
At a service the size of Tony’s, with hundreds of people waiting in line to pay their respects and say a few words to family members, there is never enough time. One doesn’t want to hold up the line. So I shook hands with his children, Mark and Paul and Beth. I wanted to say to Paul, “I remember you as the star football player at Kirtland High School,” but I didn’t want to hold up the line.
And I wanted to recall with Tony’s wife Peggy the days when she taught third grade at Grant Elementary School in Willoughby and I told her at the time, “Don’t you dare retire until my grandsons have had you as their teacher.”  And she did have Bryan and Louie in class, but she missed Kenny.
Peggy often asked me about Bryan and Louie. She loved them and they loved her. In her own way, Peggy was every bit as tough as her husband. And that is saying a lot. Because if you were ever going to enter into a business dealing with Tony, you had better bring your “A Game” with you or else you would come out second best.
If you don’t believe me, just ask Walt Tiburski.
He’ll set you straight.


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