Mark J. Price
Russell M. Bird didn’t mind being a lame duck.
As the shortest-serving mayor in Akron’s history, he still managed to accomplish the goals that he wanted — and do more than what most constituents expected of him.
Bird, a Republican from Goodyear Heights, was the city executive for only six months in 1953. It was a caretaker’s post, to be sure, but he refused to be just a ceremonial mayor.
“That’s a big responsibility and you can’t take the job lightly,” he explained.
Bird completed the term of Mayor Charles E. Slusser, a fellow Republican who resigned after 9½ years when President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed him as a public commissioner in the Federal Housing Administration.
As president of the Akron City Council, Councilman-At-Large Bird automatically succeeded Slusser. It was a job he had long coveted, although he had hoped to win it fair and square at the ballot box.
“I believe Mayor Slusser has given Akron an efficient administration,” Bird said. “But I think there are a few things here and there that can be improved.”
Bird was a salesman for Lea Drug before buying the Heights Service Store at Goodyear Boulevard and Newton Street. The drugstore featured a soda fountain and specialized in “patent medicines, cigars, candy, film and baby supplies.”
He and his wife, Nyda, and their son, Roger, lived nearby at 460 St. Leger Ave.
Friends thought Bird was too nice for politics, but he ran for City Council in 1945. He was elected Sixth Ward councilman and re-elected twice before winning the at-large race in 1951.
Bird wore glasses, a mustache and closely cropped hair. A meticulous dresser who owned six suits and a never-ending rack of colorful ties, he enjoyed politics but disliked being called a politician.
He was a meat-and-potatoes guy who expressed a fondness for melted cheese.
The Summit County Republican Party and Chairman Ray C. Bliss thought Bird was too easygoing to win a mayoral race, so they backed another candidate, attorney J.P. Riddle, in the November 1953 election.
Crestfallen but loyal, Bird announced he would seek a second term as at-large councilman in the fall.
“I would like to run for mayor at some later time,” he said.
Bird, 54, took the mayor’s oath June 30 at City Hall before a small gathering of relatives, friends, officials and reporters.
His first act was to sign a letter for his son, who was serving in Guam with the U.S. Navy.
“Roger, just a few moments ago I was sworn in as Mayor of the City of Akron,” he wrote. “This is an honor that few men enjoy. Since circumstances would not permit you to be present for the ceremonies, I thought it appropriate that you have my first official signature as Mayor for a keepsake. Loads of love, Dad.”
Bird went to work July 1. He made weekly visits to every city department, talking with employees and supervisors “to see if they have any ideas on how to better the efficiency.”
He promised the public that he had an open-door policy. “No secretary will have to make excuses that the mayor is too busy to see anyone,” he said.
One of his first edicts was to keep City Hall open during lunch hour. He discovered that offices were closing while employees ate. He ordered lunch breaks to be staggered so offices were always staffed.
“A number of Akron residents working downtown can only come to City Hall on their lunch hours,” he said. “We should accommodate them by remaining open.”
Bird’s goals in office were to campaign for a new bridge on Mill Street, set up an Akron Civil Defense Office, arrange for construction of a fire station in Firestone Park and study improvements in Akron Transportation Co. bus service.
He also urged public officials to stop “bickering and feuding” so the city could move forward with construction on the Akron Expressway.
“I understand there is a bad feeling about the city’s highway program,” he said at one meeting. “I’m not too much interested in why. But we won’t get anywhere if it continues.”
Akron residents wanted the highway program completed as fast as possible, he said.
“Now let’s start at the ground floor, forget the past and do the job,” he said.
The mayor’s effectiveness surprised local politicians. He was getting things done.
In one month, Bird was credited with a 37 percent reduction in the number of complaints in the garbage department by meeting weekly with employees and working to solve problems in service.
After receiving complaints about a numbers racket in Akron, Bird appointed police Lt. Carroll Cutright to oversee a “special detail squad” to crack down on illegal gambling.
“I told Lt. Cutright simply and directly that anything which resembles a numbers operation in this city must be stamped out immediately,” Bird said.
The mayor even presided over the marriage of Barberton couple Peter Chesmar and Katherine Kachur at City Hall.
“This was the biggest thrill for me since taking office,” Bird said. “I always wanted to perform a marriage ceremony.”
Political kingmakers seriously miscalculated the mayoral election that fall. Democrat Leo Berg trounced Republican J.P. Riddle by a vote of 43,529 to 36,180.
Meanwhile, Bird easily won re-election to City Council with 44,750 votes — the most in the election and 1,221 more than Berg.
If Republican leaders had stuck with Bird, they could have kept the mayor’s office. Bird’s term expired Dec. 31.
“It’s going to be tough to come back into council after sitting in the mayor’s chair these past several months,” he admitted.
He returned to the council for six months, but was appointed to an unexpired term as clerk of Akron Municipal Court in 1954. The following year, he ran for the clerk’s post and won it outright.
In 1956, Bird was elected Summit County sheriff. The tumultuous four-year term included jailbreaks, a riot and strife with deputies. He actually felt relieved after being defeated by Robert Campbell in 1960. It was his first loss.
Bird served for two years as a deputy clerk in municipal court before a heart condition and respiratory issues persuaded him to move to Sarasota, Fla., with his wife.
“I’m under a doctor’s orders to retire,” he told the Beacon Journal in November 1963. “I just can’t imagine myself doing nothing. I’ll be stirring around down there — and I’ll find something to do.”
In 1976, the couple moved to South Bend, Ind., to live closer to their son, Roger. Bird made yearly pilgrimages to Akron to catch up with old friends and talk politics.
He was a great-grandfather when he died of cancer Aug. 4, 1979, at age 80. He is buried at Northlawn Memorial Gardens.
Today, Russell M. Bird’s photo looks out from a gallery of Akron mayors on a wall at City Hall.
He didn’t have the job for long, but he made history in the time that he had.
Copy editor Mark J. Price is author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or email@example.com.