COLUMBUS: Diving into his antipasto salad at Tony’s in German Village, Jim Petro agreed that he could’ve been in one of those Life Comes at You Fast commercials.
It came at him fast in 1998 while running for re-election as state auditor, when he no longer could endure the pain in his hips. About a decade after they were surgically replaced, the fake hips wore out.
It came at him fast in 2009 when he was diagnosed with throat cancer, grateful that “grueling” radiation treatments appear to have killed the cancer and accepting the vocal cord damage that left his voice raspy.
Damn those cigarettes. Had Petro known life would come at him so fast, he might not have smoked them for 40 years — even while he wrestled at Denison University — before finally kicking the habit after “I tried to quit 50 times.”
Life came at him fast in 2000 when daughter Corbin, then 20, told him and his wife, Nancy, that she is gay. It came fast again last May when Corbin, chief operating officer of the Massachusetts Department of Medicaid in Boston, married Jessica Clare Gelman, vice president of the New England Patriots.
Life came at him fast after his son John, a struggling playwright, moved to New York City, married the woman of his dreams, landed a movie contract and now is well on his way.
Over 35 years in public offices — from Rocky River city councilman to state legislator to state auditor to Ohio attorney general to candidate for governor to chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents — life came at Jim Petro fast.
Through it, he stayed balanced. He and Nancy have had “a near idyllic” 40-year marriage: “I am blessed by more than a career that was pretty interesting,” he said. “I am blessed by the most wonderful wife and the most wonderful children I could ever imagine.”
Petro, a 64-year-old Republican, is one of the good guys, a strong performer in every office he held. He bowed to the political winds when necessary, but never so much that he sacrificed a lifetime of integrity.
Now Petro is prepared to slow down his life after retiring as chancellor. He and Nancy, a talented writer, will split time between Columbus and their condo in Naples, Fla., and are thinking about buying a place on Lake Erie to be closer to Nancy’s mom and dad, 89 and 92, who still live in the Tiffin home where she grew up.
In retirement, Jim and Nancy will pursue a newfound passion: exposing wrongful imprisonment. They are mulling a sequel to False Justice, the book they co-wrote in 2010 outlining common errors that cause wrongful convictions, and they will continue lecturing on the problem across the country.
Petro surprised many in 2005 when he joined the Innocence Project, becoming the nation’s first attorney general to devote the resources of his office on behalf of a convicted murderer. Using DNA evidence, Petro helped prove that Clarence Elkins was innocent of raping and murdering his mother-in-law in 1998.
Petro ran as a tough-on-crime attorney general. As he prepared to run for governor in 2006, he could have enhanced that image by letting Elkins rot in prison. When life comes at you fast, there are opportunities to act or to shrink, to grow or to regress. Petro chose rightly.
In 2004, the litmus test for GOP candidates was to support a state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Petro was the first statewide elected Republican to publicly oppose it. While saying he was against gay marriage, Petro said he supported legal benefits for same-sex couples. J. Kenneth Blackwell exploited Petro’s more tolerant position to beat him in the 2006 GOP primary for governor.
“At the time, I never announced that our daughter was gay,” said Petro, who has rethought his opposition to gay marriage.
“Even before she married, and as I got out of politics, I began to think it is reasonable and something that is good,” he said. “Our daughter was already living in Massachusetts and I came to realize that someday she was going to get married, and that I was going to support our daughter. And I do.”
Life has come at Jim Petro fast — and he has lived it well.
Hallett is senior editor at the Columbus Dispatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.