Doug Oplinger grew up in the 1960s in Springfield Township, in a working class neighborhood whose place in the Akron area was neither racially nor politically secure.
To illustrate Akron’s view of Springfield during this time, a local newspaper headline about the Springfield Spartans beating Akron’s Central High School in a basketball playoff game read: “Hicks beat Central.”
At the Summit County Historical Society’s recent annual meeting, Oplinger, managing editor for the Akron Beacon Journal, delivered a moving speech, at times fighting back tears as he candidly discussed the political and sociological climate in the ’60s and ’70s, from the infamous Kent State University shootings to the area’s strained race relations, whose coverage led to him receiving a Pulitzer Prize.
The Sawyerwood neighborhood of his youth was populated with mobile homes and tiny houses, and the highest concentration of residents from West Virginia outside of the state itself.
And the neighborhood did not even have its own sewer system, said Oplinger. “By the ’60s, the ground in Sawyerwood had become so saturated with sewer that some of my classmates would succumb to outbreaks of hepatitis, leaving their desks empty for months at a time,” he said.
Akron and Summit County offered to extend sewers to Sawyerwood, but residents resisted, which Oplinger noted was his first civics lesson and a taste of the bitter race relations that existed in the Akron area. The residents of this Springfield Township district did not want the subsidies that would likely follow the sewer extensions, which they assumed would lead to minorities moving into the neighborhood.
During the Historical Society meeting, Oplinger also discussed growing up during the Vietnam War as a high school student who faced the prospect of being drafted, along with the horrific shooting of Kent State University students on May 4, 1970.
“If (students) didn’t have a college deferment, they had to go to war,” said Oplinger, who remembers registering for ROTC when he attended college, as well as his draft number: “5.”
Oplinger was a politically active teenager, and after attending Springfield Township school board meetings, which he admits were less than exciting, a Beacon Journal reporter recruited him to cover the school board sessions for the paper. This was the start of a long and fruitful journalism career.
He was instrumental in winning numerous Pulitzer Prizes: one for covering the attempted hostile takeover of Goodyear by Sir James Goldsmith in 1986; another for a Beacon Journal series on race relations; and a third while writing about the events of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.
Many significant milestones have marked his journey; one being the massive recall of Firestone’s 500 series tires in the 1970s. Oplinger, a business reporter at the time, was contacted by a confidential source who shared documents stating that Firestone knew it was selling bad tires. The source was granted anonymity, and affectionately referred to as “Deep Tread” by Beacon staff and attorneys, he said.
“Within weeks, Firestone began the recall of millions and millions of tires. A few years later, 15,000 people would lose their jobs and the company was on the brink of bankruptcy,” he added. “That’s a pretty heavy burden.”
Oplinger also reflected on working with former Beacon Journal publisher John S. Knight, who would even help him gather quotes for stories.
At its annual meeting, the Historical Society also announced its Summit Awards – honors for those from Akron and Summit County who have done something on a national or global scale. They include: Dr. W. Gerald Austen (honorary chair), Shirley Fry Irvin, James Polshek, Ara Parseghian, Dolores Parker Morgan, John S. and James L. Knight, Fritz Pollard and Lewis Miller. A celebration for recipients will take place Oct. 8.
For more information about Summit awardees, visit http://www.summithistory.org/blog/?p=563.
The Society also announced newly appointed board members Tobin Buckner, Carla Chapman Sibley and William Hyde; and Lynn Metzger and Philip Franz received emeritus director designations. Franz, who died in 2001, received his designation posthumously.
Local Eagle Scout Dylan Schulz, 17, was honored by the Historical Society and Summit County council members Tim Crawford and Frank Comunale for replacing the white pocket fence at the John Brown House at 514 Diagonal Road. Schulz, a junior at Stow-Munroe Falls High School, said his project also involved raising money to replace the 376 pickets comprising the fence.
For more information, visit www.summithistory.org.