PERK, RALPH J. (19 Jan. 1914-21 Apr. 1999) a Depression-era ice peddler who organized and headed the American Nationalities Movement rose to the city's highest office with the support of blue collar, ethnic voters. He was born in Cleveland to Mary B. (Smirt) and Joseph C. Perk, a tailor. He graduated from eighth grade from Our Lady of Lourdes School, dropped out of high school, and later took correspondence courses to earn a high school diploma. He studied history, political science and math at the Cleveland College of Western Reserve University and St. John College.
As a teenager, Perk worked as a pattern maker before joining his brother, George, in operating the Perk Coal & Ice Co. During WORLD WAR II, each branch of the Armed Forces rejected Perk as a result of past problems with kidney stones. Perk returned to pattern making to help the war effort. Shortly before reaching the voting age of 21, he joined the 13th Ward Republican Club. He was elected a GOP precinct committeeman in 1940 and led the Southeast Air Pollution Committee to fight industrial pollution in the Flats in the 1940s. In 1953, he was elected councilman from Ward 13, which at the time represented the Broadway-E. 55th St. neighborhood. He served five two year terms on council. During this time, he organized the American Nationalities Movement, an umbrella agency for 35 nationality groups. In 1962, with his election as Cuyahoga County auditor, Perk became the first Republican elected to county office since the mid-1930s. He was re-elected twice and remained the only Republican county official until 1970. In 1971, Perk defeated James M. Carney and Arnold Pinkney, both Democrats, with just 38.7 percent of the vote and succeeded Carl B. Stokes as mayor of Cleveland (See Mayoral Administration of Ralph J. Perk). Perk was re-elected mayor twice: in 1973, when Carney, the Democratic candidate, withdrew two weeks after the primary and was replaced by Council Clerk Mercedes Cotner; and in 1975, when he easily won an election against Pinkney. In 1974, he ran for U.S. Senate and was soundly defeated by John H. Glenn. In 1977, Perk lost his bid for re-election as mayor, coming in third in a non-political primary behind Edward F. Feighan and Dennis Kucinich, who won the run-off. After leaving electoral politics, Perk set-up a consulting business, Ralph Perk & Associates. He advised small businesses and governmental bodies about federal grants.
As mayor, Perk was instrumental in negotiating the 1974 agreement between Cleveland City Council, Cuyahoga County, and suburban officials that created the GREATER CLEVELAND REGIONAL TRANSITY AUTHORITY as a replacement for the Cleveland Transit System. He also helped establish the Emergency Medical Services, the Police Department's Community Response Unit and the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District. He initiated a significant expansion of Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport and numerous downtown office, commercial, and public building renovations, including the Bond Court Hotel, the Willard Parking Garage, and completion of the Justice Center and the Park Apartments. Perk started the Republican Mayors caucus of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Perk and his wife of 59 years, Lucille Gagliardi, had six sons and a daughter: Ralph Jr., Thomas, Kenneth, Michael, Richard, Allen, and Virginia Bowers. Perk died from complications of prostate cancer at the Cleveland Clinic Hospice Unit of the Corinthian Skilled Nursing Center in WESTLAKE. He is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery.
Ralph Perk Papers, WRHS