Oh, Susanna!

Throughout Cleveland Heights’ 101 years of existence, perhaps only Frank C. Cain has had as great an impact on our city as the woman who will retire as city manager later this month: Susanna Niermann O’Neil.

Cain, first elected mayor of the village of Cleveland Heights in 1914, spearheaded the adoption of the manager/council form of government when the city was incorporated in 1921. Until his retirement in 1946, and even afterward, Cain was known as Mr. Cleveland Heights.

Niermann O’Neil has served the city in various staff positions even longer [than Cain], though with a somewhat lower profile.

As a young married couple, Susanna and Dennis Niermann moved to Coventry Village and joined Coventry Neighbors Inc. (CNI). Dennis served as president of CNI for many years. By 1972, Susanna was working for Heights Community Congress (HCC), the fair housing organization, where she coordinated a rental program.

Inspired by the desegregation ideals of Heights Citizens for Human Rights, and charismatic HCC director Harry Fagan, Susanna was aghast in 1976 when Fagan encouraged her to accept a job with the city’s new housing service. Over her protests of, “But I don’t want to work for city hall—I want to fight city hall,” Fagan urged, “Try it for a year. Maybe you can do some good there.” And so she has, in many roles and capacities, for 46 years.

“Who is Ms. O’Neil?” Susanna laughed when asked about her two last names. When her father was dying, she wanted him to know that the family name would live on after him. She legally changed her last name back to O’Neil in his honor and memory. Some assumed that she and Dennis had divorced, but they remain married today, still living in what used to be the Coventry school district.

Early in her tenure with the city, Susanna helped to develop and implement the Nine-Point Plan, a road map to maintaining a diverse, racially integrated community. It has been her constant guide. As community services director for several decades, she created programs to advance racial, cultural, and religious diversity in the city. She recounted the city’s long-term efforts to train real estate professionals in providing bias-free service: “I said, you sell the house; we’ll sell the community.” It was a winning slogan.

Judith Miles, a resident since 1995, recalled, “When I wanted to purchase my first home, I called Cleveland Heights City Hall to get some information and was referred to Susanna. She gave me a mini-history and arranged a tour of the city for me. I was impressed that the city had empowered someone as knowledgeable, patient, welcoming and warm as Susanna. It made me want to live here!”

In 2020, after serving as vice city manager under City Manager Tanisha Briley for several years, Niermann O’Neil was appointed city manager following Briley’s resignation. She led the city through the transition to the mayor/council form of government.

More than any job title, responsibility, or honor could possibly convey, Susanna is the institutional memory of Cleveland Heights.

In an oral history archived at Cleveland State University, she recalled decades of attending block parties: “I’ve always been respectful of the opinions of the residents. Don’t ever say to a resident ‘Yeah, but . . . ’ Listen to them; and when you’re done, you can piece it together and figure out what’s the culture there. What does that street need?”

Despite consistently shining the spotlight on her staff and colleagues, deflecting credit from herself, Susanna Niermann O’Neil really is Ms. Cleveland Heights. We are honored to acknowledge her as such, and wish her the best in her well-earned retirement.

Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg

Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg are writers, editors and longtime residents of Cleveland Heights. Contact them at heightsdemocracy@gmail.com.

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Volume 15, Issue 5, Posted 11:20 AM, 04.29.2022