The annual Person of the Year cover story is always one of my favorite CityBeat issues. In many ways it epitomizes this paper's reason for being.
The choices we've made over the years for Person of the Year demonstrate a few things — our commitment to grassroots community building, our attraction to covering people and topics other media shy away from, our belief that one person can still make a difference in Cincinnati and our wide-ranging interest in politics, social issues, arts and culture.
It's a challenge to find one individual — and occasionally a group of people — who personifies all those qualities that set CityBeat apart from the local media crowd. And it's fun to terrorize them by putting their picture on the cover and calling them our Person of the Year.
You have to understand that our selections don't know they're being "honored." Part of the process, once we've identified our honoree internally, involves convincing the person (or people) that CityBeat simply is publishing a profile feature on them.
Most of the Persons of the Year fly under the mainstream media's radar or, in some cases, are categorized as outsiders or agitators. They're usually humble about their accomplishments and often don't trust the media to get their story right.
So we decided long ago that discretion was needed in order to share their stories with you. We didn't want to scare them away.
Plus the phone calls on the day the issue hits are priceless. "Why didn't you tell me?" is the first question. "Because you wouldn't have let us do it" is the usual answer.
Our newest Person of the Year, Jean-Robert de Cavel, is better known than most of the previous honorees. He's been the premier chef in town since joining The Maisonette in 1993, and his public profile grew as he opened three well-received restaurants in the past three-plus years. A fourth comes on line soon.
But as Rick Pender's story points out, de Cavel has more in common with previous Persons of the Year than you'd think. The French native has earned an international reputation that could land him a top chef position literally anywhere in the world, yet he and his wife Annette have decided to remain in Cincinnati.
And he has invested both physically and emotionally in his adopted hometown.
An unabashed urbanite, de Cavel has opened two successful restaurants downtown, one in Oakley and another to come in Covington. He, Annette and their infant daughter soon will move into a rehabbed house in Newport.
Although they took up community causes partially in response to a family tragedy — they organized a restaurant-industry benefit for SIDS, which claimed the life of their first child — the de Cavels have really warmed to their role as go-to charity fund-raisers. Jean-Robert modestly says that he gives back to Cincinnati because the city has given much to him and his family.
Sure, you could wonder what the big deal is about de Cavel. He operates restaurants that some of us can't afford or aren't interested in patronizing. And he isn't Cincinnati's first or best entrepreneur.
But he believes in the vibrancy of our urban center. He puts people to work. They in turn seem to adore him. He offers a first-rate dining experience that helps raise Cincinnati's civic profile. He supports worthy local causes with his time, his money and his sweat. He's authentic, humble, a team player.
Still, none of this Person of the Year stuff is precise or objective. CityBeat doesn't keep a running scorecard throughout the year that grades all prospective candidates. Jean-Robert didn't win a vote.
In fact, the process sort of epitomizes CityBeat, too. A few years after getting the paper off the ground, we began introducing what we hoped would be our signature events — Best of Cincinnati® and the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards, both of which involve the public picking winners.
I noticed that some of my favorite alternative newsweeklies — besides having "Best of" issues and music awards — named a local Person of the Year, which seemed to be a prestigious honor in their cities. So I thought we could give it a shot as well.
What really pushed me to get the concept going was the 1998 vote in Cincinnati that buried the grassroots campaign to locate the new Reds stadium at Broadway Commons. It's ancient history now, but the classic David vs. Goliath confrontation pitted Jim Tarbell and a ragtag citizen army against the corporate community and the Republican Party to see if the stadium would be built to help development in Over-the-Rhine or to help property owners on Third Street.
When the mainstream media branded the Broadway Commons folks "losers" for their ultimate stadium location defeat even though they — mostly young and politically naíve — seemed incredibly energized by their campaign, I thought these people needed to know that their efforts to improve their community trumped any election result. And so I whipped up a Person of the Year story and began a tradition.
A similar thought process led us to choose the Article 12 repeal organization Citizens to Restore Fairness last year. In our minds, a year's worth of behind-the-scenes effort to overturn Cincinnati's infamous anti-gay reputation was worthy of recognition no matter what the ultimate election results turned out to be. (Of course the good guys finally won one with Article 12, which made that Person of the Year choice even sweeter.)
And so, as with much of CityBeat, we keep trying to improve how we present Person of the Year without overthinking it. It's basically a few of us talking about potential candidates and me re-reading previous CityBeat coverage to see who stood out over the year. And then I make a decision.
I've noticed that some of my alt weekly brethren have taken to forming committees to select their Person of the Year — with committee members consisting of past honorees and community leaders. Maybe we'll go in that direction some day, too.
In the meantime, I think our informal process has helped us honor outstanding Cincinnatians for seven years now. CityBeat has been honored to tell their stories, even against their wishes.
Just don't tell Jean-Robert about this. He doesn't know yet.