The Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber has announced the 2022 class of Great Living Cincinnatians: Donna Jones Baker, Jean-Robert de Cavel, Dr. Charles O. Dillard and Roger Howe. Inductees join a prestigious group of 163 previous awardees, all of whom have made lasting and significant contributions to the Cincinnati region in their respective fields.
“The 2022 Great Living Cincinnatians are an esteemed group of four individuals who have served their community selflessly and sincerely,” said Leigh R. Fox, president and CEO of Cincinnati Bell, Inc. and board chair of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber. “Their invaluable contributions to their respective fields of social work, culinary arts, medicine and civic service exemplify what it means to be a Great Living Cincinnatian.”
Great Living Cincinnatians are recognized for service to the community; business and civic attainment on a local, state, national or international level; leadership; awareness of the needs of others; and distinctive accomplishments that have brought favorable attention to their community, institution or organization.
The 2021 honorees will be installed at the 2021 Cincinnati Chamber Annual Dinner at the Duke Energy Center Grand Ballroom, Thursday, Feb. 24. Cocktails at 5 p.m.; dinner and program at 6:30 p.m.
Reservations: 513-579-3111 or cincinnatichamber.com/annualdinner
About the inductees:
Donna Jones Baker
Always act with integrity, be fair to everyone and do everything with intention. That’s the credo Donna Jones Baker has operated by over the course of her four-decade-long leadership career, most recently capped off by a 15-year run as president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio, a position she only just retired from in 2019.
“You don’t just do things – you have to have intention to create or to solve or to initiate. You have to have a reason for being and that’s my motto, if I’ve got one,” said Donna. “I like to think of myself in social justice, as strengthening the community, and you do that by strengthening institutions that strengthen the community, and so that’s how I saw myself.”
That path of intentionality started in 1989, in Baltimore, when Donna became executive director of the Associated Black Charities of Baltimore.
“That was my first big job, and I loved it,” she said. “It was Associated Black Charities of Baltimore – a half million dollar organization with one funder and three staff when I started and when I left, it was Associated Black Charities of Maryland – a twenty five million dollar organization, numerous funders and 50 staff. We were the little engine that could.”
When Donna took over leadership, she recalls the board chair telling her the organization was like a typical two-year-old that had to be raised correctly. By the time she left, the organization had given over $60 million in grants. Donna did much the same at the Urban League, going from a staff of 20 to 75 employees. Also under her leadership, the organization became the Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio after merging with the Dayton Urban League. Born in Paducah, Kentucky. Donna earned a bachelor’s degree in social work from the Murray State University, the first person in her immediate family to go college.
She also earned her MBA from the University of Baltimore, where she was honored with an Outstanding Alumnus Award. “I got the MBA because I wanted to be the person who made the decisions,” she said. “I felt that I could be a really good leader and when I looked around at those leading organizations, they had MBAs. That one decision, I believe, helped me throughout my career and was pivotal in my work.”
Donna cares deeply about the constituents the Urban League serves, speaking at graduations for programs like SOAR (Solid Opportunities for Advancement and Retention) and staying in touch with mentees. Among her most valued accomplishments at the Urban League are the creation of the Business Development and Entrepreneurship division, the merger with the Dayton Urban League and the publication of two significant Urban League regional reports, “The State of Black Cincinnati” and “The State of Black Dayton”.
Among many other civic endeavors, Donna has also served on several boards, including 13 years on the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber Board, which named her Woman of the Year – Nonprofit in 2014. She is currently on the board of Xavier University and Advocates for Youth Education and is a member of the Cincinnati chapter of the Links, Incorporated and of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.
In July of 2020, Donna underwent a rare dual heart and kidney transplant at University Hospital. She is currently focusing on her health recovery, grateful for her home base of Cincinnati. “I am not a native, and the city has embraced me,” she said. “I am now a Cincinnatian.”
Jean Robert de Cavel
Jean-Robert de Cavel is a first name-basis kind of person. There is a welcome, collective affinity in Cincinnati for the man even more people refer to, most appropriately in the service industry, as “Chef.” A mainstay in the local culinary world since his arrival in 1993, Jean-Robert’s rapid ascent through his adopted home city has truly made him a Great Living Cincinnatian. But he is quick to give credit to everyone he met along the way.
“That’s something I got very lucky without realizing, the support of everyone,” said Jean-Robert. “People adopted me very quickly and I think when people adopt you, you feel comfortable. It was easier in Cincinnati to become more myself than it was in New York City.”
Born in France and trained at Le Feguide culinary school in Lille, Jean-Robert made his way to the states as Chef de Cuisine at La Regence and La Gauloise in New York City before joining the Maisonette the day after Thanksgiving in 1993, taking over as chef de cuisine before leaving in 2003.
“I did the same thing I would have done anywhere else, which is not try to make the city better, but being proud of what Cincinnati is,” he said.
Jean-Robert’s dedication to the art of food means he has always been ahead of his time, and indelible markers of his personable restaurant legacy remain all across the city. Following his time at the Maisonette, over the years his portfolio of acclaimed restaurants has included Jean-Robert at Pigall’s, Greenup Cafe, Restaurant L, La Bar au Bouef, Jean-Robert’s Table and French Crust, among others. Just this year, Seventh Street at the corner of Seventh and Vine downtown, was renamed Jean Robert de Cavel Way.
When Jean-Robert and wife Annette’s infant daughter Tatiana died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS, in 2002, titans of the local service sector (including chefs David Cook, Jimmy Gibson and David Falk) pulled together for a commemorative brunch, raising SIDS awareness and funding for a scholarship in her name. The de Cavel Family SIDS Foundation now annually hosts the Friends & Family brunch at the Midwest Culinary Institute at Cincinnati State Technical & Community College.
In 2018, Jean-Robert was diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma, an aggressive soft-tissue cancer. In 2019, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the American Cancer Society Strider’s Ball. He fights with quiet grace and determination, just two of his many virtues.
“It’s another challenge in life,” he said. “It’s something like what we went through with our daughter – what are you going to do? Are you going to give up? Why? You cannot. Giving up is not part of me. You have to take your challenge and do the best you can.”
The story of how Roger Howe, an Ohio farm boy, became a CEO, university philanthropist and Great Living Cincinnatian can best be summed up in this one word: fortuitous.
The first instance of fortuity for Roger was going to Miami University, the place where he would meet his wife Joyce and which would decades later, become the subject of much of his public service and their philanthropic focus. The next was when he was assigned to the Cincinnati sales office of the Boston paper company he worked for after graduation and where he reported to a “wonderful mentor” who went on to become CEO of that same company.
“He was transferred to the headquarters, I was assigned his management job,” said Roger. “I did that for six years and then I was also promoted to the headquarters.”
Roger left the company and returned to Cincinnati in 1970, where he purchased U.S. Precision Lens, a small optics company.
“I’d long had a desire to have my own business,” he said. Indeed, Roger already had experience owning his own business – he and a partner had a successful bicycle business on Miami’s campus in the 1950s. “Not for everyone, but I liked the idea of working for myself. I wanted to build a business and have perhaps more control over my destiny than I might have otherwise.”
Under Roger’s leadership, U.S. Precision Lens grew to be a juggernaut in the optics world, expanding from a dozen employees to over 600 by 1986 and dominating production of video plastic/glass hybrid optics for every world maker of projection television systems. He sold the company to Corning, Inc., in 1986, remained as chairman and CEO until 1989, and was board chair until his retirement in 1997.
In 1977, in a then-uncommon move, Roger published a business philosophy – essentially, a five-part value statement. Part IV, Regarding Personal Performance, states in part: Our personal and corporate success requires that we not only adjust to change, but that we also help to bring it about.
To that end, Roger has given freely of himself to multiple corporate boards and charitable institutions. He served 47 years as a trustee of the Christ Hospital, including as chairman from 1989 to 1992. Today he remains a trustee of the Elizabeth Gamble Deaconess Home Association. He served nine years on the Miami University board of trustees, three as chairman. And since 1992, Roger and Joyce have been laser-focused on helping Miami University students become better writers and communicators through their Howe Center for Writing Excellence.
“[Joyce and I] believe that excellent writing is the common thread within highly successful people,” said Roger. “Every good leader and CEO I’ve known is an excellent communicator with the written word. It is a powerful personal tool to take into the workplace.”
Here again, Roger walks the walk. He has published two books, including A Farm Kid’s Journey, a memoir for his descendants. The other, a history of U.S. Precision Lens, shares a name with his unofficial motto.“
“That would be doing interesting things with interesting people in interesting places,” said Roger.
Dr. Charles O. Dillard
Dr. Charles O. Dillard is quick to point out the difference between his name and his father’s – their middle initial – but the similarities are otherwise hard to ignore. The son followed a close parallel to his father over the course of his life: serving in the military, joining him in the medical field, choosing to practice in underserved communities in Cincinnati, and both practicing for just about 50 years.
“His practice was in the West End at that time, and he made care available to everyone, and I’ve done the same thing,” said Dr. Dillard. “I wasn’t going to come back home because he was a doctor here. I said, ‘Oh, well, he’s already done it, I’ll go somewhere else.’”
For Cincinnatians, it’s a good thing he came back. Dr. Dillard has continued to help underserved and disadvantaged communities over the course of his nearly 50-year career, and even now, after retirement, he’s not quite done.
“Well, one of the main things I do now is purchase fruit and give it to areas where kids can’t afford fruit,” said Dr. Dillard. “I’ve been giving it to the Boys and Girls Club, a couple inner city schools, some of the food pantries. [This work] ties into something I do with the military [organization] called Mission Readiness – our aim is to provide food and lobby the politicians to put more money in early childhood education and nutrition.”
A graduate of Fisk University, Dr. Dillard (again following his father’s wisely-tread path) went to Meharry Medical College, an historically black medical school in Nashville, Tennessee. (In his youth, Dr. Dillard attended Frederick Douglass Elementary School and Walnut Hills High School, and is now in both of their alumni associations.) After graduation, he served two years via the doctor draft in the army, leaving in 1964. He finished his residency in Detroit in 1967 and returned to Cincinnati, opening an office in Avondale.
“In medicine, I’ve always advocated that healthcare should be a right, not a privilege,” said Dr. Dillard. “I just felt that the poor and disadvantaged need quality healthcare and unfortunately, to those without the means, it’s rationed. Money talks and buys the best healthcare. I was instrumental in setting up a neighborhood health center where we didn’t turn away the people without health insurance or other resources.”
In the late 1970s, Dr. Dillard decided to give military service a try again and joined the Ohio National Guard. He became one of the first African American medical officers in the country to attain the rank of Brigadier General. Through his work with Caring Partners International, both as a doctor and as a board member, Dr. Dillard serves as a medical missionary (something he has also done through the military in 15 countries) and collects much-needed medical supplies. He remains active in the civic sector, working with A Few Good Men, an organization that supports the Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, a hundred-year-old organization that helps the poor in the city. He also serves as a backup physician for the MRDD center in Batavia. Dr. Dillard is also an active member of the NAACP, the Zion Baptist Church, Alpha Phi Alpha, Sigma Pi Phi.
In 1980, Dr. Dillard purchased a building in Walnut Hills to transform into a medical center, which eventually became the community and business center it is today. Once more, his father’s influence lives on. “I named the building after my father, the Charles E. Dillard Memorial Building,” he said. “I tell people I’m not vain, it’s not named after me, it’s named after my father.”