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Profiles in Service: John & Betty Seiberling

by Jane Walker Snider

We are pleased to recognize John and Betty Seiberling for their commitment to service to our country and community. The Akron Council on World Affairs is grateful to them for their many contributions to our mission, through their board service and active participation in our programs.

As our country faces new challenges, John Seiberling remains consistent in his view that citizens must join together in resolving critical problems.

In a recent conversation, he said, “Whether we like it or not, all of us are living in a new, global civilization. Separate societies are being drawn into ever closer interrelationships. This situation has, in large
measure, been brought about by modern technology, especially telecommunications. It is being driven by economic and political forces all over the world.”

World War II Military Service

John Seiberling is probably best known in our Akron community for his 16-year service in the U.S. Congress. However, he earlier served with distinction in the U.S. Army during World War II and was a corporate attorney with The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company. He is willing to talk about these earlier periods but in modest terms, crediting other people while minimizing his accomplishments.

I was present at one conversation between him and another octogenarian in which the two men compared their World War II experiences. Seiberling enlisted in the U.S. Army as a private and eventually rose to major. His story centered on his participation in the allied D-Day invasion of Normandy.

His commanding officer came to him one day, when John was only a 1st Lieutenant, and told him he was to plan the motor transport requirements for the upcoming invasion. As he tells it, Seiberling responded, “Gosh, Colonel, I don’t know anything about this.” His commander replied, “Neither does anyone else. You went to Harvard, didn’t you?”

John eventually was awarded the Legion of Merit for his work on the plan that transported Allied troops away from Normandy.

Internationalization of Akron

Seiberling is the grandson of the founder of The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, F. A. Seiberling. By 1918, Goodyear had become the largest rubber company in the world, 20 years after its founding.

Young Seiberling grew up behind this public facade learning about the relationship between risk and corporate progress. He told me that in 1912, F. A. Seiberling decided he needed to take a closer look at the rubber supply chain. Rubber plantations were based in Brazil, and that is where Seiberling went, accompanied by his wife Gertrude and one of their sons.

Their destination was Manaus, a city in the midst of the rainforest, where independent plantation owners brought rubber to market. Reaching this location required traveling by boat up and down on the Amazon River, a 1,000-mile trek each way. In time, Goodyear was able to expand its sources for rubber, setting up plantations in Asia.

The international outreach of Goodyear, along with other rubber companies in Akron, drew people from other countries to the city to run plants and manage international sales. Seiberling emphasized the importance of this international base in Akron to his later effectiveness as a U.S. Congressman. He gained further insights into international business by traveling as a Goodyear attorney to France, Germany, and Japan.

A Meeting in Paris

Betty, John’s wife of 55 years, entered his life through an introduction by his sister. She grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and graduated from Vassar College with German language skills. With these, she entered the Office of Strategic Service (OSS - forerunner of the CIA) and was posted to wartime London in 1944, translating and analyzing captured German documents. After Germany’s surrender in 1945, she was transferred to Wiesbaden, where she continued her counterintelligence work.

The OSS decided Betty and other staff members deserved time off, so Betty went to Paris for a week. John’s sister, a classmate of Betty’s at Vassar, had urged her to look him up, telling her that John had been assigned to Paris. That was the last they were to see each other for some time.

Back in post-WWII America, Betty moved on to the newly formed CIA, working in the Washington, D.C., area, while John went to law school at Columbia University. Meanwhile, they kept in touch. Later, Betty would recall part of what influenced her to accept his marriage proposal. “He, I felt, always had respect for women’s intellectual capacities, which some men don’t have.”

Political Service

In 1970, Seiberling entered politics as a Democrat, a departure from his family’s staunch commitment to the Republican party. In 1940, John had cast his first Presidential ballot for Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat.

Soon after entering Congress, he co-sponsored legislation with Rep. Charles Vanik, D-Cleveland, and Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Navarre, that started the process of securing the vast acreage of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The park is a 33,000-acre green-belt that runs from Akron’s back door to the outskirts of Cleveland, 30 miles to the north.

Seiberling’s willingness to join forces with Regula exemplifies his ability to work effectively across party lines. John is quick to point out that on the park, he and Regula were of one mind, working together on a non-partisan basis.

Seiberling’s bipartisan approach also supported his goals of environmental protection and equity for workers. It was also a factor in his being tapped by Tip O’Neill, then Majority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, for a Congressional delegation to the Middle East in 1975.

O’Neill invited spouses to go along, so Betty joined the group. The trip had two goals. The first was to learn whether the countries being visited were willing to work to normalize relations with other countries where differences existed. The second was to urge these countries, on behalf of the U.S. Congress, to take the necessary steps to do so. The most significant of these issues was relations between Israel and the Arab nations.

The delegation’s most memorable meetings were in Cairo and Jerusalem. During the earlier part of the itinerary, Betty and the other wives had been hosted in areas separate from where the delegation’s business was being conducted. In Cairo, she expected the same. However, during the initial greeting ceremonies, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat turned to his wife and said, “We would like the wives to join us in our discussions.”

One Congressional question to Sadat was, “When will Egypt normalize its relations with Israel?” Sadat responded, “Possibly the next generation. Not in this century.”

The U.S. Air Force plane on which the delegation was traveling flew on to Jerusalem. There the wives were excluded from the business session until someone told Premier Yitzhak Rabin of their Cairo experience. Rabin said, “We’re not to be outdone by the Egyptians.” The wives joined the meeting.

The Israelis were asked about normalizing relations with Egypt. Rabin’s answer was, “We will be ready when the Egyptians are.” Three years later in 1978, Sadat went to Israel to negotiate, and in 1979 the Egyptian-Israel Peace Treaty was signed.

Tip O’Neill said Secretary of State Henry Kissinger later told him that the Congressional delegation’s visit was a key factor in the peace process. They had carried the message to both leaders that the U.S. Congress would support a peace settlement.

Community Service

After leaving Congress, Seiberling became Director of the Center for Peace Studies at The University of Akron. Since leaving this position, John and his wife Betty have continued to support causes they believe in, including the Akron Council on World Affairs.

To quote John, “Governments, businesses, universities, and other institutions struggle to keep up with evolving globalization. Individual citizens, especially students, need to do likewise.”

“The Akron Council on World Affairs is one of over 80 such councils in the U.S. answering this need. It is open to participation by anyone seriously interested in learning more about the evolving world picture and how to live and work successfully in this complex new age.”

John and Betty continue to serve as Board members of ACWA. We express our gratitude for their commitment to our mission and the contribution they make to our organization.

This article copyright © 2005 Jane Walker Snider

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