The Walking Man Observes a Life

Lakewood's walking man; Vernon Bognar is a living legend. Barely a year old in 1914 when his family relocated from Cleveland's Westside to Olivewood Ave in Lakewood, Bognar has watched nearly a century pass. Except for time spent in military service he has lived his entire life in Lakewood. Doing his best to show respect for the city he describes lovingly as "the most densely populated living quarters from New York City to Chicago," he can be seen daily, walking and collecting refuse along Madison and Detroit Avenues.

Bognar is a proud product of Lakewood City Schools. He attended Grant Elementary School, Emerson Middle School and graduated from Lakewood High in the early 1930s. Early on he understood that Latin provided the foundation for the English language and continues to believe in the value of classical language. Not surprisingly, Bognar ranked in the top 10% of his class at LHS.

His continuing thirst for knowledge can be confirmed inside his humble one bedroom apartment in a classic turn of the century building on Manor Park. Thousands of books and hundreds of vinyl records are shelved, boxed and stacked on the floor. There is no couch in his living room, only books and a Grandfather clock, handmade by his maternal grandfather.

Reading is Bognar's life long passion. He credits Lakewood Public Library with giving him a taste for books and learning. "I've been going to Lakewood Public Library ever since I was 5 years old. I learned to read there. I loved Fairy Stories. They had a series of books called the Fairy Books. Then I gradually got interested in Astronomy, not astrology. I don't believe in [astrology] at all. I read mostly biographies- even though my favorite author is James Joyce. He writes books about the stream of consciousness that you have to read other books to understand," says Bognar.

Looking back, Bognar remembers the beginning of the Great epression. "It happened during Hoover's Administration. It wasn't his fault. It happened on Thursday, October 24th, 1929. I was in high school. There were bread lines all over, not so much in Lakewood but in Cleveland." Lakewood was a more affluent suburb during this time, according to Bognar, who credits closely knitted neighborhoods, so characteristic even to this day, with tempering the economic devastation. "People were quite human, they helped each other. They didn't lock their doors," says Bognar.

Following the stock market collapse of '29, Bognar spent several decades serving the United States Navy. He volunteered for service three times and was activated for duty during two wars - WWII and the Korean War. After completing his military career Bognar found employment as an advertising representative for Marshall Drug, which was eventually bought out. He retired in 1976 and receives a small pension.

As both veteran and walking man, Bognar is concerned about the war in Iraq. "The whole idea was an angle on more oil because we are just wasting oil. Tens of thousands of people each day are driving 6 passenger cars with one [occupant]. They should take public transportation. I always ddid, even though I had a car." There is something ominous, says Bognar "about these wars that we don't win."

Unlike most seniors, Bognar lives proudly without a television set. "I trashed it 12 years ago, I can't stand it. I read books." Though he tempered his statement with a humble acceptance that "there are good things on television", it's clear that this man doesn't groove with the tube.

At ninety-two, he has mastered the art of aging. Nearly every morning, Vernon walks a great circle from his apartment in central Lakewood, east toward 117th, then southbound around the circumference of the city to Kamm's Corner. From there, he takes the Metroparks back up to Detroit and back to his apartment. Sometimes he even, "walks to a bakery on Clark Avenue, and to the Westside Market". He continues, "I try to keep active. I get by, without a car of course. I don't miss it."

Bognar's service in the Korean War inspired him to keep the streets clean. He found clean streets and parks in foreign cities. Baffled by the American litter problem, Bognar picks up the trash that our refuse department misses. "I keep the city going with these refuse cans. I've filled every one many times all through Lakewood. They have a fine over here for littering, but I don't think they've ever collected on it."

Bognar is especially dedicated to clean parks. "I like seeing nature they way it was intended to be." Cleaning parks is less dangerous than sidewalk and curbside cleaning. "Sometimes I endanger my life. Traffic has to stop so I can pick up trash. I wish I could develop that technique in this apartment," he jokes.

"There's room for a young attitude in Lakewood," says Bognar. While not forecasting any drastic decline in the near future, he says "lot[s] of businesses [are] leaving Madison and Detroit Street, a lot of empty storefronts. A lot of people make the grade here; then they move to Westlake, Olmsted Falls, North Olmsted, Bay Village and Rocky River." He aattributes a large part of this problem to the fact that Lakewood is a bedroom community for Cleveland, a dying industrial city.

Bognar sees the 21st century posing many challenges to society. "[For] young people growing up today, it's much harder now. We lived in a closed society, now it's so easy to break the law. Lakewood police were feared."

With a life's worth of experience, Bognar possesses a vivid memory of the way things were and a clear sense that things in Lakewood still aren't all that bad. He remains a keen observer of Lakewood's changing ethnic and religious cultures. He looks back to a time when the common values that united Lakewood's ethnic populations hinged on a shared faith. Today he recognizes that Lakewood is a place of great religious diversity where communication about common values can be challenging. "It's kind of hhard to communicate," Bognar says. "I don't mean to be discriminatory. Different religions think differently. That's what makes
America, you know."

Like most people who avoid television, Bognar remains aware that relevant, pragmatic news reporting is essential. "I grew up with four newspapers...the news was great. It had Believe It or Not by Ripley and ggood comics." Naming the few newspapers that serve Northeast Ohioans, he remarked, "Editorial boards don't even attempt to gain readership." It rremains to be seen whether Bognar will give the Lakewood Observer
his stamp of approval.
Read More on Slife of Life
Volume 1, Issue 4, Posted 09.55 AM / 27th September 2005.