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"My grandmother taught me there was always enough time to be kind." -- Russell Pry
Akron -- Nearly 1,500 people gathered at the John S. Knight Center Aug. 13 to celebrate the life of Summit County Executive Russell "Russ" Pry, who died July 31 at the age of 58.
From Congressman Tim Ryan, whose 13th District includes parts of Summit County, they heard how Mr. Pry loved to brag about what was going in Summit County.
Congresswoman Marsha Fudge said with Mr. Pry's knowledge of history, he was the best Washington, D.C. tour guide there was.
But it was the personal stories from political leaders and friends that explained why so many people would spend a summer morning reminiscing about a man who is best known by the public as the leader of county government for the past nine years.
Former Akron mayor Don Plusquellic began his remarks by wishing he could be somewhere else, or that he could pick up the phone and call his "longtime best friend." At times fighting back tears, he vowed to set aside his grief, if just for awhile.
"I want to do today what Russ would want," he said.
He talked about Mr. Pry's many smiles, a common theme for the morning. There was the formal smile, like the one on the poster above the podium. Plusquellic described Pry's joyful smile when talking about those he loved, and a smile that was more of an "unforgettable smirk" that Plusquellic knew well and hoped to bring to Mr. Pry's face, as he imagined his friend watching the gathering from heaven.
Apologizing to clergy in the audience, Plusquellic said he still asks why God took Mr. Pry.
"Maybe God needed someone to sit on a certain stool in a certain establishment," Plusquellic said. "Maybe God needed someone to do shots of Goldschlager with. Maybe God needed someone in charge who would care more and do more about young people, preschoolers, veterans and former addicts. Maybe God needed an Irishman who could keep the others under control, or someone who could bring people together and find solutions to complicated issues. Maybe God just needed a good, honest lawyer. Maybe He needed a good Democrat who could balance out all of the others.
"Maybe He knew Russ had such a gift he needed to share it with more people."
Plusquellic ended with a message for his friend and a prayer.
"Russ, for your leadership and especially for your friendship, I thank you," he said. "You are greatly missed. Thank you, God, for sharing this exceptional man with us."
Mr. Pry's friend of more than 30 years, Summit County Domestic Relations Judge Carol Dezso, said Mr. Pry lived his mantra of "Just do good" in his career and personal life.
"He would want us to stop mourning today to get on with life," Dezso said. "He would want us to take on his legacy."
She commented on what an amazing county executive and a shining example of a public servant that Mr. Pry was.
"I could tell you how much he cared about kids growing up in poverty and the struggle of the mentally ill," she said. "He was the perfect man at the perfect time to be our nine-year county executive."
More than that, Mr. Pry excelled at friendships and relationships, Dezso said.
She acknowledged longtime friends of Mr. Pry, including some he first met in grade school, and others he met as he walked his adult path.
"Rusty gave loyalty and received it from his friends," Dezso said. "There were things he did small and large that showed you matter to him. He'd remember your birthday, even when your spouse didn't. In a personal crisis, he was there. It didn't matter how busy he was. He gave wise counsel. He dedicated his life to mentoring other people."
Mike Cassetty, Mr. Pry's friend and former law partner, built on Dezso's comments, and gave a glimpse into Mr. Pry's unpretentious nature, born from small-town upbringing in Mogadore.
He talked about dining with his friend in the congressional dining room, in the U.S. Capitol in D.C., and how Mr. Pry couldn't believe the two of them -- he from Mogadore and Cassetty from Hartville -- were dining among members of Congress.
Cassetty recalled being in the courtroom, representing a client against high-dollar lawyers from Cleveland who would see Mr. Pry walk in, wearing ring dusters, cowboy boots, "and that famous corduroy blazer," and think they already won.
"They were not prepared for what a brilliant attorney he was, and how he represented each client as if they were the only client he had," Cassetty said.
He recalled a time when he was going to drive Mr. Pry in a parade.
Mr. Pry suggested Cassetty bring his 5-year-old son, Thomas.
"I told Thomas to call Russ 'Mr. Pry,' because he was an important person," Cassetty said.
When young Thomas met the county executive, he said, "Thank you for inviting me, Mr. Pry."
"Russ said, 'Just call me Russ,'" Cassetty recalled. "Thomas said he couldn't, because his dad told him Mr. Pry was very important. Russ said, 'Then I need to refer to you as Mr. Cassetty, because you are just as important.'
"Russ Pry was the smartest, most loyal, grounded, regular person and finest man I've ever known," Cassetty said. "I pass on to my sons the lessons he taught me."