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Why I Came Back

These days, there’s much brighter lights in our little big city. Long-gone are the days of Columbus hemorrhaging creative talent, as the magic of Midwest hospitality and low cost of living has now merged with a vibrant entrepreneurial scene to create a renewed cultural hub drawing its former residents back to the roost. This, is [...]
Kevin J. Elliott

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These days, there’s much brighter lights in our little big city.

Long-gone are the days of Columbus hemorrhaging creative talent, as the magic of Midwest hospitality and low cost of living has now merged with a vibrant entrepreneurial scene to create a renewed cultural hub drawing its former residents back to the roost.

This, is Why They Came Back…

Ramble Jon Krohn, aka RJD2

Photographed by Chris Casella and Nick Fancher

Photo by Nick Fancher

A few days before my lengthy interview with hometown hero RJD2, aka Ramble Jon Krohn, his longtime friend Wesley Pentz, aka Diplo, was vamping on the Grammy stage with Skrillex and the chart-topping, cultural lighting rod Justin Bieber as Jack U, who had just won the trophy for Best Dance Performance. Many years ago, Diplo and RJD2 were peers in the same crate-digging crew of young deejays and producers in the emerging Philadelphia scene. The two chose different paths. But both have been mega-successful in their own way. I have to ask Krohn if there’s a tinge of “that could be me” when watching the carnival.

“It’s awesome to see that. And I’m proud of Wes,” says Krohn, “but you can’t put a dollar figure on being away from my son for seven days.”

In his words, RJD2 has “repatriated.” There’s certainly no ill will towards Diplo, or Mark Ronson, or the myriad high-profile names Krohn has worked with over the years—he’s as humble and prolific as they come, there is no muckraking—but his agenda towards fame and success has changed.

“It was a zero-sum game between my career and our kid’s ability to be near family,” says Krohn. “I felt like it would be irresponsible to stay in Philly for my career. As much as I love that city and as much as that city has given to me, it couldn’t give me what Columbus does now.”

But it’s much more than domesticity and familial norms that have guided RJD2 back to the capital city. Krohn can extol the reasons why he loves Columbus like a scientist, referring to sine waves and aggregates as to why the city is so consistent, and as a philosopher, perceiving gentrification with a Buddhist’s indifference. Every day the water touches the shore and retreats, the world turns, it all equals out in the end.

Don’t look to RJD2’s repatriation as a turncoat move or failure. It’s not opportunistic or by necessity—quite the contrary. It’s a chess move by someone who is wholly and genuinely invested in the city’s evolution and upward mobility.

RAMBLE ON…

Spanning genre, era, and locale, wanderlust has always been at the heart of RJD2’s music. It’s an impulse that has also informed Krohn’s life choices. As early as 19, he packed up his Honda Civic to travel cross-country to the San Francisco Bay with no direction and no job prospects. He soon found his way back to Columbus where, despite wanting to be a mathematician, he began producing beats for the now legendary MHz in between odd jobs. His collaboration with Copywrite, “Holier Than Thou,” put him in the good graces of the then nascent Definitive Jux label, who by 2001 were set to release Krohn’s solo debut, the critically acclaimed Deadringer. With success looming, another big move was imminent, and that year Krohn packed up and settled in Philadelphia where he’s made a home for the past 15 years.

“When I left, for people my age, Columbus was a place to get out of,” remembers Krohn. “It just didn’t provide the same resources for young artists that a bigger city could.”

When RJD2 was coming up into celebrity status, it was his location on the Eastern seaboard that certainly contributed to his rise. It gave him connections with other artists, many of whom he’d collaborate with. It produced a publishing and licensing deal, which has been lucrative from the beginning. It’s hard to watch TV on a Saturday afternoon and not hear his compositions in commercials for Miller Lite and Nissan. That strong foundation fostered in Philadelphia gave Krohn the freedom to follow his artistic muse wherever it roamed—from the beat-heavy mosaics of his DJ roots to the dark quixotic composition that begins every episode of Mad Men to the majestically arranged pop songs that appeared (with Krohn singing) on 2007’s severely underrated The Third Hand—but these days a fancy address doesn’t hold the same cachet.

“As far as being a musician or an artist now, knowing what I know now, I don’t need to be in a major city,” says Krohn. “In terms of the bread and butter, the day-to-day, in recording and making records and running my business, Columbus has the same internet and airport accessibility as anywhere else in America.”

3 A.M. CHINESE VS. THE PARK OF ROSES

“Of course, seeing Olympic Pool, or Vets Memorial being razed is nostalgic to me and not something that I want to see,” says Krohn. “But how do you know it’s not going to become a benefit for someone in that neighborhood?”

We are talking gentrification—the good and the bad. How cultural zealots in our town want to dictate to the masses what Columbus needs to “put it on the map.” I tell him I have family in Brooklyn. A perfect family. Yet there’s a delusion that their existence in that borough is slightly utopian, or at least superior to life in the fly-over states. The last time I visited I couldn’t quite wrap my head around that sentiment. I was bored. All of the sudden we have better beer, better coffee, better record stores—all of the raw materials that keep the young artistically minded staying put, creating inertia.

When I asked Krohn his reasons for choosing Columbus again, a lot of those same edicts were spokne with such a fluidity and enthusiasm that you’d think he were gearing for a mayoral campaign in 2020.

“If you use 3 a.m. Chinese [food] as the barometric as to when Columbus has ‘made it,’ well, you’re never going to get that,” says Krohn when the conversation digs deep into the reason we are here. How do we tip the ratio of being more a destination rather than a launching pad?  “Being out of the city for 15 years and returning, I thought I had this unique perspective of the city, because I had empathy as a native and as a foreigner, or a transient or transplant. It might be rose-colored glasses speaking but coming back I see is a different entrepreneurial spirit.”

”A GENIUS IS THE ONE MOST LIKE HIMSELF.” — THELONIUS MONK

The quote above, repeated by Krohn, seems to sum up his hopes, dreams, and reasons for repatriation. Columbus is the “genius,” when it doesn’t try to replicate a more profound urbane experience. It doesn’t have to.

“Now I don’t see Columbus’ trajectory as trying to rival bigger cities like Chicago or Philadelphia,” says Krohn. “To me, success for the city of Columbus is being the best that it can be. Because of geography, Columbus is never going to be a proxy for New York City. Success looks like, and it may sound corny, being a unique and individual city, a place you can’t get anywhere else.”

It’s a sentiment that’s emblematic of Krohn’s latest artistic turn on the just-released Dame Fortune. His sixth and most ambitious album to date, it’s a deep and meaningful record, grand in scope and a culmination of Krohn’s years of Ramble. It’s both soulful and cosmic—a Nova soundtrack interrupted by modern renditions of Capsoul classics. With guest spots from other Columbus musical luminaries—long-time partner-in-rhyme, Blueprint, as well as Josh Krajcik—there’s a palpable longing for home influencing the grooves embedded on the album.

“The process of leaving and coming back has been cathartic,” says Krohn. “It’s relieved me of any preconceived notions I had about Columbus. I can see it for what it is. You can do anything here. It’s its own unique place, so it doesn’t sit in any hierarchy between New York and Youngstown. Here is a perfect environment from which to discern the differences between those experiences. If you want to be close to the Grand Canyon, get on a f*cking plane.”

And as for seeing a move back as an embarrassment or failure?

“We all have some sense of pride and ego,” Krohn says. “The question is: are you going to feed that, or are you going to shut it down? If someone reads this from, I don’t know, Oakland—it is going to be very easy for them to write a narrative that this is an indicator of failure. If you can come to terms with that, you can move beyond that. What sets me at ease with the whole thing is that I’ve done a lot of shit in my life. It is not an accomplishment that I’ve lived in a major metropolitan city. I don’t need to be proud of that, there’s a lot of other things in life to be proud of.” 


RJD2 will perform at the first PromoWest Fest, July 15-17 this summer. Dame Fortune is out now on his own label, RJ’s Electrical Connections. For more, visit rjd2.net

Barry Chandler

Photographed by Chris Casella and Nick Fancher

Photo by Chris Casella

  • Age: 37
  • Occupation: Founder of Storyforge, A Purpose Agency
  • Education: Qualified as a Hotel Manager
  • Other cities lived in: Cork & Galway, Stockholm, San Diego, CA
  • Years previously in Columbus: 6
  • Local spot you missed most while you were gone: The Rossi for the fries and pizza
  • Your vision of Columbus in six words: Keep growing. Don’t stop. Include all.

Barry Chandler has a story that you’re not likely to hear very often: from the shores of sunny California, he openly admitted to an ache to be back in Ohio.

Even more rare? Barry was born in Ireland.

“I realized Columbus was home,” he said, almost a little surprised himself at being called back to the Midwest. “When I left Columbus for San Diego, in my mind, I had drawn a line under the Columbus chapter of my life. I had sold my company, my house, ended a long-term relationship, and thought that my life would now be in California. Two short years later, I realized just how much I missed the people, the vibrancy—the sum of all the parts that I had come to love over the previous six years in the city.”

This is Why Barry Chandler Came Back:

“There’s a palpable sense of progress in Columbus. We hear it and feel it regularly, from the economic development targets from Columbus 2020 to the best places to live and work indices, Columbus is growing, rising, and achieving the goals it has set. It’s inspiring and infectious. When other cities are contracting, Columbus is expanding in all the right ways—culturally, economically, socially.”

“Everyone I’ve met in Columbus feels it’s their obligation to connect me with five other people. I love it. It’s almost an unwritten rule that if you live and work in Columbus, you must expand the circles and reach of everyone else, too! My network and business exist because of the generosity of spirit of strangers who want to share the amazing folks they already know with me.”

“I couldn’t replicate [Columbus] in San Diego and didn’t want to try and replicate it anywhere else. I wanted to come back to where the action was. I knew this was where I could start my next business, safe in the knowledge that there was a community that could embrace it, customers I could serve, and a smart educated workforce should I hire.”

“We often hear about how challenging it is to focus on the one thing that Columbus stands for that best represents the city. Is it football? Is it Midwestern values? Is it that we’re 10 hours drive from 50 percent of the U.S. population? Is it cost of living? The beauty and uniqueness of Columbus is that it is all these things. It’s not, one, two, or even three things. The sum of all these things makes Columbus the most attractive city to live, work and raise family in of any I have visited. Rather than worry about what the one thing we can hang our hat on, let’s celebrate the number of hats we need! It’s more than one!”


Kelsey Hopkins

Photographed by Chris Casella and Nick Fancher

Photo by Chris Casella

  • Age: 28
  • Occupation: Actress/Creative and Theatre Educator
  • Education: BFA in Acting with Emphasis in Musical Theatre
  • Other cities lived in: Memphis, TN; Denver, CO; and NYC
  • Years previously in Columbus: 16
  • Local spot you missed most while you were gone: Surly Girl Saloon
  • Your vision of Columbus in six words: A hidden gem in the heartland.

Kelsey’s story is a complicated one.

The long-and-short of it: she returned to the “only place I ever called home”—which was also the place she swore she’d never come back to.

Simultaneously suffocated by that she felt was a “too-small” city and driven to follow her theatre dreams to NYC, she skipped town from her parents’ Short North home, where she had actually hand painted the whole skyline of the Big Apple in her bedroom.

It turns out, what New York had to offer was bedbugs, crime, and plenty of sexist producer creeps, a world with which her Midwest morals were constantly doing battle.

“In that city, I had to ask permission to do my art. It was dog eat dog, and ‘who do you know?’ ‘what have you done?’” she said.

So, she quit. The whole city. E-mailed all three jobs, and bought a train ticket to her parents’ current home in Indiana the next day, and later stuffed the entire NYC chapter of her life into a small SUV, and made her way to a new Columbus.

Not only did she return to a very different Short North, but also a thriving creative city where no permission needs granted for any artistic endeavor. Today, she’s started a band and works as a theatre/acting teacher at the place where she first caught the bug, Columbus Children’s Theatre.

This is Why Kelsey Hopkins Came Back:

Columbus was not the Columbus I left. It had a new sheen to it. Here, you don’t need permission to do what you love or your art. You are allowed to create and find your own opportunities for success. At your own pace even! Columbus isn’t a fast-paced or slow-paced city, it’s a go-at-your-own pace city.

What used to annoy me growing up is now the thing I hold most dear. Community. Before, I hated that I felt like this city was too small, but now I know that’s the best thing to feed your happiness. A sense of community and social relationships are so important. In NYC, I felt like I could disappear in a crowded subway and no one would bat an eye. I never feel alone here. I feel at home, with a huge family made up of the most random people I all love dearly and in their own way.

NYC was like a cancer…. in another sense it was like sugar and processed foods. It’s great for that quick thrill and high, but over time it was sucking my life blood away and everything I held true to me. I became sick. Columbus is like a healthy community garden. Yeah, there are times when it rains and pours, and a frost comes in, but with care and many tending hands it’s a soil where anyone can thrive.


Matthew Billingsley

Photographed by Chris Casella and Nick Fancher

Photo by Chris Casella

  • Age: 38
  • Occupation: Co-Founder & Chief Creative Officer, Visceral (thisisvisceral.com)
  • Education: BA, Central State University
  • Other cities lived in: Dayton, Xenia, Battle Creek, MI; Alexandria, VA; Fairfax, VA
  • Years previously in Columbus: 2
  • Local spot you missed most while you were gone: Rubino’s Pizza, Katzinger’s Deli, The Book Loft—German Village area in general
  • Your vision of Columbus in six words: Big-city opportunities, small-town friendliness.

For Matthew Billingsley, repatriating was a form or rehabilitation—from corporate and civic burnout.

“Flattened” by the work he and his business partner were doing and by the clients they were working for, the disenchantment of living in the nation’s capital for nearly a decade—with its punishing hours, commutes, and blindingly career-driven populace having taken a toll.

“My wife and I needed a change of scenery and we knew Ohio was it,” he said. “We made some great friends but as much as we tried it wasn’t ‘home.’ There was this unattainable feeling of settling down the way we wanted.”

This is Why Matthew Billingsley Came Back:

Choosing Columbus was a no-brainer. We wanted a place where we could decompress that felt familiar but still had some relatively unknowns. It’s a brighter feeling and more inviting city. Being an interracial couple, we felt like it was more progressive in welcoming diverse cultures. Perhaps that would easier on our eventual child. I knew this was a city we could thrive in. 

The decision to come back came at a pivotal and anxious time in my life. I was transitioning to start my company and a family simultaneously and felt I needed to do both in a place that was comfortable and inviting. I moved back from a very cynical place in the country—the D.C. area. There is a mental and emotional weight to living in an area like that for so long. After a while, it wears you down.

Columbus is growing and still finding its identity in a lot of ways. With so many diverse pockets, it has a bigger, transient-city feel, but with Midwestern principles I grew up with. There are no preconceived notions of how to pursue and achieve anything.

People are naturally cordial and willing to help. There’s a sense of “You need help? I know someone.” It sounds a little corny but in a place like D.C., this is viewed in a very opportunistic, negative way. You could be in debt to that person. But when applied to Columbus, it’s genuine.

In my quest to find greener pastures I lost sight of why this area was the best choice all along. My partner now lives in San Diego, along with our office and a few employees. His oasis was Southern California. Mine is here. In choosing to setup my own company, the country was wide open. Columbus had the mix of potential growth, professional opportunity, culture, and familiarity that made the choice easy.


Sarah Black

Photographed by Chris Casella and Nick Fancher

Photo by Chris Casella

  • Age: 61
  • Occupation: Bread Baker
  • Education: Miami University, Oxford; Independent Studies at the Art Institute of Chicago
  • Other cities lived in: Chicago, New York City
  • Years previously in Columbus: Commuted to Columbus for one year after graduating from college.
  • Local spot you missed most while you were gone: Driving Olentangy River Road in my MG Midget (convertible!) in 1976!
  • Your vision of Columbus in six words: It’s the little engine that could.

In her recently published book, One Dough, Ten Breads, Sarah Black hinted at the inspiration for returning home with the quote printed on last page: “New Earths, New Themes Expect Us.”

The same sentiment expressed by Henry David Thoreau in 1857 resonated for the Marion native who has spent the last three decades not only living in New York City, but becoming one of its go-to bread bakers as well.

But, when faced with “casting about for a new direction,” Black’s compass pointed to the only other city that had ever found a place in her heart—that capital city just south of her, one that she watched from a far become entirely different than its 1960s version.

Finding that feeling of “home” again—not to mention the chance to start a new business, Flowers and Bread, a bread school, café and floral studio that will open in the summer of 2016—is Why Sarah Black Came Back:

In many ways I thrived in New York—the stimulation, the drive, the challenge all pushed me beyond my comfort zone, and I grew for it. Living there was about a love of learning, not unlike studying abroad, but never did I feel in step with the city or the lifestyle there, and never did it feel like home.

I’ve traveled to this big small city all of my life—to Lazarus Department Store downtown to see the Christmas windows as a six-year-old; to the Columbus Zoo as a sixth grade reward for being a school patrol, to a birthday lunch at the Christopher Inn before going to see The Sound of Music at a nearby movie theatre, to dinner to celebrate my parents’ anniversary at the charming L’Armagnac.

I chose to return for the people who live here. Ohio has always had my heart—for family, for friends, both old and new and for colleagues—the Midwestern values of kindness, consideration, hard work, and responsibility foster this connection for me.

There’s an intimacy here that still resonates as human, and keeping that element alive, with all its creativity and verve, is an important component of intelligent civilization. It makes the small big city of Columbus unique among cities, and like Dorothy said in the Land of Oz “there’s no place like home.”

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Midnight Son

If a tragic teen coming-of-age film doesn’t exactly sound like the kind of fare you’d expect to find starring a Schwarzenegger, it’s because you’re thinking of the wrong Schwarzenegger. Audiences eagerly awaiting Patrick Schwarzenegger’s first starring role in a feature film, in Midnight Sun, opposite former Disney star Bella Thorne, will see it first at [...]
J.R. McMillan

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If a tragic teen coming-of-age film doesn’t exactly sound like the kind of fare you’d expect to find starring a Schwarzenegger, it’s because you’re thinking of the wrong Schwarzenegger.

Audiences eagerly awaiting Patrick Schwarzenegger’s first starring role in a feature film, in Midnight Sun, opposite former Disney star Bella Thorne, will see it first at Easton Town Center at a premiere screening conveniently coinciding with the elder Schwarzenegger’s annual sport and fitness festival—including an in-person appearance by the new leading man.

“I’ve been coming to Columbus every year since I was born. It wasn’t until I was 10 or so that my dad put me in charge of his memorabilia booth at the Arnold Classic,” he revealed. “We had photos and t-shirts for sale. So it taught me some early lessons in business while raising money for his After-School All-Stars charity.”

Following his father into the family business also included cutting a little class, even at an early age.

“One of my first memories of filmmaking was visiting my dad on the set of Batman & Robin. It was initially frightening to see him as Mr. Freeze, all blue and bald. But it helped me realize as an actor, you get the chance to be someone else,” he recalled. “He’d come to my school, pick me up in the Hummer, and take me to the set where I’d watch him work—to see how he interacted with other actors and directors. We didn’t always tell my mom.”

Despite Patrick’s celebrity pedigree from both parents, Schwarzenegger has focused primarily on supporting parts until now. But a leading role doesn’t mean he isn’t still interested in working on independent projects with seasoned writers and directors to better hone his own craft.

“I wanted to get my feet wet, but I wanted to finish school. I was in both business school and film school, so I was trying out for smaller roles in smaller films that I could do during the summer,” Schwarzenegger said. “Midnight Sun was the time I took a break for a film, then went back to school. But those earlier films allowed me to watch more experienced actors work. That’s why I’m as interested in shooting a day here or a day there in a supporting role as I am in taking leading ones. That’s how you learn to be a better actor.”

Midnight Sun will premiere at Easton AMC 6:30 p.m. March 3.

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The Accidental Activist

You know Jim Obergefell. You may not have known until you read this article that he and his late husband John were the catalysts for the June 26 ruling granting equal marriage rights to LGBT citizens that were promised to them by the U.S. Constitution. But you know Jim. He’s unassuming and pleasant. Well-spoken, even-keeled. [...]
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You know Jim Obergefell.

You may not have known until you read this article that he
and his late husband John were the catalysts for the June 26
ruling granting equal marriage rights to LGBT citizens that were promised to them by the U.S. Constitution.

But you know Jim.

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He’s unassuming and pleasant. Well-spoken, even-keeled. Not unlike many you meet in this polite heartland we all call home.

Outwardly, he bears none of the traits you’d typically associate with vigorous political advocacy, and you’d be hard-pressed to guess he has spent the last two years, the center of a long, drawn-out battle in the highest court in the land.

But—as the world just witnessed—there’s a helluva lot of fight in Jim Obergefell.

When John was diagnosed with ALS in 2011, they knew they wanted to be married and they were—two years later on the tarmac at Baltimore Washington International Airport in Maryland—June 26, in fact, a day that now carries twice the significance for Jim. John, too ill to leave the couple’s home for months, had to be flown via medical transport plane. The wedding was performed quickly on Maryland soil, as that state was nearby and only required one partner to acquire the license, with just a 48-hour waiting period.

Twenty-one years. That’s how long he and John had been together, and when faced with the passing of the love of his life, Jim couldn’t stand the notion that Ohio wouldn’t recognize his husband as John Obergefell on his own death certificate.

A single name. A singular love. A singular desire to ensure that the legal system wouldn’t rob him of honoring in full the two decades of his life he devoted to John.

That mission, fueled by the millions of gay activists and allies who have worked tirelessly before him, became the catalyst for what Fred Sainz, vice president of communications at the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), called “the largest conferral of rights on LGBT people in the history of our country,” a tidal wave of reform that washed up on the steps of the United States Supreme Court.

He fought for his marriage and his right to be united legally and in perpetuity with his husband, and millions fought with him.

And we all won.

“The Obergefell Ruling.” That’s the way it’s gonna read from now until the end of history. It’s got to be so difficult to even grasp the impact of something like that. It is. It’s surreal. On one level, purely intellectually, I get it. When people say this is historic, this is landmark, and all of that … I get it on that level. It’s still kind of the emotional, very deeply personal level where it hasn’t really hit me yet. I’m actually a little surprised that it still hasn’t, but I think that’s because I’ve just been constantly busy and going and doing that I haven’t really had the chance to sit down, relax, and reflect. I think that’s when it’s really going to hit me. At least that’s my thought. I could be completely wrong.

You’ve said very consistently and very humbly that you were just fighting for your marriage. Now you have this story that’s not only resonated with millions, but also the highest court in the land. I’m still struck by that. Oh, it’s been amazing. … Even just our story when it came out in the Cincinnati Enquirer. It’s amazing how it resonated with people and how people connected to it. I think a big part of that is that everyone loses someone they love, someone they care about, and I think it just brought the whole issue down to that very relatable level. It’s been amazing. It really has. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t have someone just touch me personally.

I think I was in Philadelphia when this happened … I was just walking down the street and a family, husband and wife and two kids, they stopped me and said, “Hey, can we take your picture with our children?” And then they tweeted it and just thanked me for creating a better world for their kids. Things like that happen all the time. It just really brings it home to me really how much all of this touches people across the country. Those are like my favorite things, those little moments that happen. It’s pretty incredible. [This] was really just fighting for what everyone says is important.

Can you take me back to the day of the ruling? Can you describe the way you felt when you heard the decision? The chief justice said, “Justice Kennedy will be reading the first decision.” And Justice Kennedy started speaking, and the first thing out of his mouth was our case number, and it startled me, and I kind of jumped and made a noise. For some reason I was just really stunned that ours was the first ruling that day. I don’t know why it surprised me, but it just did.

About two sentences into his summary judgment, I just started crying and I cried the whole time. It was tears of joy, tears of sadness because I missed John … bittersweet, but absolutely much more on the sweet side because I got to fight for my husband. I got to fight for our marriage, and here is a Supreme Court justice saying in court that, Yep, John and Jim, you guys exist. You matter. Your relationship, your marriage, is just as important, just as valuable as any other marriage. It was an incredible thing to hear and to feel. Joy … absolute, joy.

Such powerful words for many of us to read at home, let alone hearing them in a historic legal judgment with your last name on it…
I know. The last paragraph … I mean, in court, they don’t read the entire ruling—they’ll read a summary. But the last thing that he read was that last paragraph in the judgment. It just was beautiful. Just the feeling of happiness in that courtroom and the tears I saw all around the place; it was unbelievable.

We read a lot about you and John and him getting sick, but I don’t hear you get to talk as much about the man you loved. I want you to tell me about John as a person. What do you miss about him? Oh, I miss his wit. He was one of the wittiest people I’ve ever known. His ability to walk into any situation and understand it and kind of intuitively understand what’s going on—who the people are, the kind of characters involved … he just had this incredible way of reading situations and fitting into that situation perfectly. He could just—no matter what it was, where it was, who the people were—he could just jump right in, fit in, and just make people feel like they were important.

I think back, you know, he would make friends everywhere we go. We’d walk into a store and 15 minutes later we’d walk out, and we now suddenly had a friend. And the amazing thing was maybe a year later we’d go back to that store, and if that same person happened to be there, he would remember very small things that they talked about, and he would bring it up and ask about it. He just had this great way of making people feel like he cared. He paid attention. That always amazed me because I just don’t have that kind of memory. Even if I could remember something, I wouldn’t necessarily be able to bring it out the way he could. So he was just charming … charming and witty and incredibly generous.

Those are three pretty great qualities to have, absolutely. What would he think of all this? Would he get a kick out of you having to be the person out in front? Oh, absolutely, he would chuckle [laughs]. Not that I was an incredibly introverted person because I’ve sung on stage, I’ve been in musicals, I was a teacher, I was a corporate trainer. Being in front of people and doing things is kind of who I am. But he would really find it humorous that here I am the one who’s going into these situations where in the past I would kind of let him be the one charming people and leading social interactions, and now I’m the one doing it. So he would find that really funny.

More than anything, though, he’d be happy. If he were here he’d be like, “Jim, you just keep doing all that because I’m going to hang out here behind a door or in a corner.” No matter how social he was and how charming he was, he didn’t want to be the center attention or feel like a spectacle, so if he were here he’d say “Jim, just keep doing what you’re doing. I’ll be back here and when you’re ready to go you let me know.”

I’ve seen you refer to yourself as an accidental activist. Before John got sick, what level would you say you were aware and involved? Well, [the case] was personal. It was about our marriage. We were not activists in any way shape or form. Our brand of activism was, “Where do I sign the check?” That was it. I really do think of myself [as an accidental activist] because it wasn’t something we ever did in any way other than financially. But suddenly, here was this situation, that kind of perfect storm, or things where the activist inside of me was awakened. So that’s why I consider myself accidental, because it wasn’t planned. It wasn’t who I was. It just was circumstances brought it out.

And, as someone who wasn’t previously an impassioned activist, how quickly did that feeling of fight come out of you? Was it something that surged to the surface immediately? Oh yeah, absolutely. Not once, even when John died and even when the Sixth [Circuit] Court of Appeals ruled against us, not once did I ever think, “Ohh, you know what, I’m gonna step back from this and give up and go back to the way things were.” Never once did I think that. Absolutely, something switched on inside of me and I had something that was so important to me that it didn’t matter. I was going to keep fighting.

Obviously, it takes on a much bigger perspective, like it isn’t just about John and me. It isn’t about just our marriage. It’s about so much more than that. I’m really happy that that’s happened to me, and I’ve discovered that it’s important to me to fight for something bigger than myself, and I’ll be doing that going forward.

To that end, can you point to any moments or interactions with people that kept that fire burning? There have been so many. Right now my brain is so full of things, and most of the interactions I can think of right now are the ones that have [come] after the decision. Just when we filed suit, I mean, the cards that we got from around the world of people thanking us for fighting for equality. We would get drawings, poems, pictures; it was really all of those kind of personal things where people actually went out of their way to track us down and to send something or to stop me somewhere and to just hug me because they couldn’t think of anything to say. You know, talking about someone that they care about and love and why our fight was important to them or that person that they love. There’s so many of those, and that’s honestly what kept me going all the time is just those small moments when people felt moved and went out of their way to tell me something; to tell a story, to thank me. There’s way too many of those to count.

The Ohio gay marriage ban in 2004 doesn’t seem like very long ago on the timeline. From a gay man’s perspective, was there a time when you felt that cultural shift in your own life to a higher level of acceptance? We started feeling that shift in really the early-2000s but especially in 2004. In the city of Cincinnati in 1994 there was a ballot issue that passed, and it amended the city charter that said no laws could be passed to protect the LGBT community. Cincinnati was well known as the most-unfriendly city in the country for the LGBT community because of it. But in the early-2000s the effort started to repeal that, and in 2004—so the same year the state amendment passed related to same-sex marriage—that same election, that was repealed in Cincinnati. And then a few years later, John and I, a friend of ours was running for city council. We threw a fundraiser for him—an openly gay man—and he was elected. So for me, even though it’s weird to say the year the state amendment passed, that’s the year my city started saying, “You know what? That was wrong. We’re gonna change things.” Chris was elected, he’s still a city councilman, and the city has just implemented so many laws and policies that protect the LGBT community and make our city a much more equal place.

When we filed suit, we filed suit against the State of Ohio and the City of Cincinnati. To be in federal court and to have the city solicitor stand up and say, “Your honor, we agree with John and Jim. That constitutional amendment is unconstitutional, and we will not fight them on that.” That’s a pretty incredible thing to hear in a federal courtroom. I know there’s local, there’s state, there’s national, but for me, a lot of it comes down to the place I live. So mid-2000s is really when Cincinnati kind of stood up and said, “This is who we are as a city, and it’s a pretty damn good place now.”

That’s something you don’t need as much time to reflect on: now, I am truly an equal in my own city…Absolutely. They proclaimed John’s and my wedding day—July 11, 2013—as “John Arthur and Jim Obergefell Day” in the city. Then oral arguments day [for the Supreme Court case]—April 28,, 2015—they were worried about John being forgotten so they proclaimed that “John Arthur Day” in the city. It’s incredible. You know, I’ve always loved Cincinnati, but I love it a whole lot more over the past 10 years.

Let’s transition there to your experience with Columbus. You worked a lot with Stonewall the last year and served as grand marshal in our recent Pride parade. Yeah, well, it’s funny. One of my brothers and his family lived in Columbus for several years … actually my niece grew up there. So we would be down there, but that was Gahanna, and I never really spent much time in Columbus. Then John and I started going up every so often to German Village, just started to get to know it. But for me, really it’s been this past year that I’ve really started to fall in love with Columbus.

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I was in D.C. in early March for an HRC conference and I met a group of people from Columbus, and they kind of adopted me and I just made all these great friends. … I actually feel kind of bad that I never really understood or discovered just what a great city Columbus is for the LGBT community. I feel like I’ve missed something for years, but I’m glad that I finally realized it and discovered that. So yeah, I really have gotten to like Columbus. I’m going to be up there on a pretty regular basis now, which is kind of fun. I love how there’s been this much more frequent cross-pollination between businesses in Columbus and Cincinnati. I love that there’s more of a relationship, like Bakersfield and The Eagle from Cincinnati going to Columbus, Homage going to Cincinnati … only good can come of that. 

So what’s next? This is a battle won, but it’s not the whole battle. I think this is the closest thing this generation has had to a civil rights-type movement. Can you speak to that? I think this ruling, but then also what happened in Charleston and other things, it’s just this unfortunate illustration that as a country, as a society, we can take a step forward but unfortunately we also continue to take steps backward. Even though marriage equality is a great thing to celebrate, it’s just too clear that we’re still not living up to the ideals of our Constitution and those ideals of equality and everyone being guaranteed the same rights. We’re still not there, and it’s not just the LGBT community. It’s still racial. It’s still gender. It’s absolutely exciting when good things happen, but it also, I think, just illustrates how much more work we have to do in all aspects of equality. 

Because this fight goes beyond just legal paperwork and financial benefits. This is the court stepping in and making it 100 times harder to discriminate… Here’s the highest court in the land again saying, “Our constitution is what governs our country.” It’s what says all of us are equal, and we need to live up to that. We need to reinforce that. We need to say, “Yes, that’s actually the case,” and it’s good when that happens. I think it helps everyone because, you know, here it is again saying, “Every American, we’re the same. We’re equal.” We can’t hear that enough.

How many people do you think know that this started in Ohio? I don’t think it’s common knowledge at this point that a name people will be reading about in a history book will be that of a man born in Sandusky, Ohio. You know, I don’t think so either. Even in my hometown. “Obergefell” is not an incredibly common name, and there are a lot of us in Sandusky, and it wasn’t until somebody even like specifically told my hometown newspaper, “You do realize Obergefell of Obergefell v. Hodges grew up here and graduated from Sandusky High School?” They had no idea, and I’m fine with it—it doesn’t bother me one bit. But I think it just illustrates how, to your point, I don’t think people really completely grasp yet or really think about Ohio when they think about this case.

Outside of Columbus, I don’t believe too many people connect this state with any fight for LGBT rights whatsoever. It’s not the state’s reputation, that’s for sure. No they don’t. Not at all. And I know a lot of people in Cincinnati love it because Cincinnati did have such a conservative, such a narrow-minded reputation. So many people love it. They’re like, “This came from Cincinnati!” It makes them laugh, and it makes them proud.

Of all the things we ever thought would be an export from Cincinnati—or Ohio—it probably wasn’t the fight for marriage equality. Definitely not in 1994 or 2004… So true.

Obergefell will tell his story in full thanks to a deal for a new book, tentatively titled 21 Years to Midnight: The Promise That Brought Marriage Equality, co-authored by Washington Post reporter Debbie Cenziper. It’s slated for a June 2016 release—the one-year anniversary of his landmark case. Fox 2000 Pictures has also recently secured rights for a film about Obergefell and the case.

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Love at the Top

Everyone needs love, and so there’s a reason why certain people are gonna need people like Nicci Sprouse. Despite the wellspring of dating apps and websites over the last decade, Sprouse has remained unplugged, searching for love offline for the city’s most connected individuals. With Tinder, Match, OkCupid, eHarmony, and others out there offering dating [...]
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Everyone needs love, and so there’s a reason why certain people are gonna need people like Nicci Sprouse. Despite the wellspring of dating apps and websites over the last decade, Sprouse has remained unplugged, searching for love offline for the city’s most connected individuals.

With Tinder, Match, OkCupid, eHarmony, and others out there offering dating connections at your fingertips—for a minimal cost—traditional matchmaking services like Sprouse’s might appear to aim at a dwindling market.

Except hers isn’t an everyday clientele.

A far less brutal version of Bravo’s Patti, Sprouse is Columbus’s “millionaire matchmaker,” and between Cincinnati and the capital city, she has interviewed more than 500 people in an attempt to match up the busiest successful business professionals.

She took some time out from running her A-List Connections outfit to school (614) on love at the top:

How did you get started doing this? When was the moment that it clicked that this was what you wanted to do? Before moving to Columbus five years ago, I ran a millionaire matchmaking service in Cincinnati. I always had an intuitive nature and natural skill set for connecting people, whether it was professional or personal. I found their stories/struggles incredibly compelling. I wanted so badly to help them fall in love…yeah, I’m a hopeless romantic.

What are the unique aspects of dealing with A-list clients? Anonymity is a big one. Many clients that I work with are very successful so being profiled on an online dating site simply won’t work. My clients definitely value the fact that my service is confidential, customized, and offline.   

Are there more women that need this service than in years past? Successful single women are savvy and aren’t afraid to pursue different modes of finding a partner who matches their relationship contributions (spiritual, emotional, mental, physical, financial). Like men, women also value the importance of finding someone who not only matches their search criteria but also possess the ambition, awareness, and emotional connection they desire.

With the way online dating services have lowered the entry point cost-wise, does it make a service like yours make more sense? I don’t consider dating apps or online dating sites to be competition. I personally meet, thoroughly vet, and hand-select each person I work with. There is real value and comfort in knowing that everyone is on the same page in terms of relationship goals, core values, and emotional receptivity—you don’t have that with apps and online sites.

Have online dating services made it tougher to recruit clients or matches? Online dating services have actually made my efforts easier. Historically, online dating sites have been a rite of passage—some find success, many don’t. Knowing that, I personally interview and assess everyone I work with, people know they are meeting a legitimate person who is a true potential match for them.

Have online dating services created any bad habits for your daters? I believe they’ve created more horror stories than bad habits. My clients find it comforting to know that working with me eliminates the fear of that first meeting.

Do you feel “offline” matchmaking has a better success rate? Why? Are people getting too caught up in the instant gratification of Tinder dates, or perhaps the lack thereof? Everyone measures success differently in the dating world. Some feel that meeting someone worthy of a second dates deems success, while success to someone else could mean exclusivity or marriage. My clients know they aren’t wasting their time meeting the wrong people. You don’t have that with online services or apps—you’re left to do the vetting and filtering yourself. And many people do not have the gauge or intuitive nature to be unbiased and recognize what works and what doesn’t. Many also find that their lifestyle is not conducive to online dating as the time requirement can be equated to a part-time job.

What is your definition of “high-end?” For my company, high-end means first-class—high-caliber members, supreme service, and unsurpassed personalization.

You have years of experience giving dating advice. Do you feel that it’s more that people don’t know how to date, or don’t know what they want? It’s definitely both. Many singles could use a simple refresher course on the basic dos and don’ts. But, knowing what you want is essential. I advise my clients and my friends to make a list of exactly the qualities they want in a partner (i.e. outgoing, affectionate, open-minded, fit, financially independent, etc.). This list should be very long, detailed and consist of positive characteristics. By creating this list you’re self-actualizing what it is you want, and for those who understand the law of attraction it can bring you one step closer. Singles who are open and receptive to learning and evolving within themselves will be successful in finding a partner.

Over all the years of experience you have, how has dating changed, either in general, or how was your personal philosophy about it changed? For the first time, there are more single adults than married adults in America. That, in and of itself, is redefining what it means to be single—not to mention the implications on our economy and society. While innovation is leading us forward, there is something to be said for old-fashioned, tried-and-true dating philosophies.

Do you ever have a lasting relationship with people you’ve matched? I mean, when it’s a friend, the story “I met him/her because of so-and-so” becomes part of the narrative.  Absolutely! Countless singles I have worked with have turned into dear friends. Befriending clients is inevitable for me, especially those I’ve connected. I hosted a huge singles event with the Columbus Blue Jackets last spring, and a couple I introduced (who are now married) came to the event together just to say hello.

Do you get invited to weddings? I do. It’s an incredibly rewarding experience to know you were a conduit for two people meeting.

What is your romantic life like? Is that something you share with clients? My romantic life is just like everyone else’s, actually. Although, I have learned it’s best to leave my dating advice/relationship expert/introduction service owner’s hat at the office each night. I am a business professional, so I tend to keep my personal life private from my clients.

What are the specific challenges of dating in Columbus? I mean, it’s not small, but it’s not NYC, and it seems that, especially with this method, you might have a smaller pool to work with… Sure, Columbus could be perceived as a “small town” in the sense that people tend to know each other and run in similar circles. However, I probably have my finger on the pulse of our city’s amazing eligible singles more than most, and I assure you there are no shortages.

You never want anyone to settle, but do you find some clients are just too picky? Specificity and knowing what you want is key, sure, but do people get in their own way by wanting too many boxes checked off? People can definitely be too picky and superficial. When this happens, it’s a great opportunity for me to ask questions, dig deeper, and discover why it is they feel the need for specificity. Typically, once I have a better understanding of them, it’s not that they’re picky; I find that they are repeating patterns or simply have a comfort level with a certain type. It’s my job to bring this to the surface and push them outside their comfort zone.

For the people who have seen Millionaire Matchmaker, in what ways does your service differ? First and foremost, I am not as brutal as Patti—that is all for television. While I do ask tough-love questions and host mixers tailored to attract and identify select matches for my clients, what ultimately differentiates me is my methodology. It is true that there is science behind creating chemistry and fulfilling our emotional needs, and by aligning science with emotional intelligence I’m able to customize and measure an introduction strategy for each client.

I think the show loves to portray wealthy men as this stereotyped version of a guy who has everything—just not love. Is part of your goal to remove that stigma a little? For lack of a better term, I think some see the Type-A executive guy as a little douche-y or someone who only cares about material things…. This is real life, not television. While I have met some “DBs,” I am very selective with whom I choose to work with. Part of the mutual fit I look for in a client relationship is authenticity.    

The show’s clients often came across as spoiled. Doesn’t having someone else do the work of filtering through potential matches for them just further that sense of entitlement? People hire financial advisors to manage their investments, realtors to sell their homes, personal trainers to become healthier, and so on. Enlisting an expert who connects and introduces the city’s most eligible singles each day is smart.

For more about Nicci, visit alistintroductions.com.

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