LONG-TIME TEACHER, SOCIAL ADVOCATE AND DEMOCRATIC PARTY LEADER DIED THURSDAY
Story by Carl Hunnell at Richland Source
MANSFIELD -- Joseph Mudra died Thursday evening knowing he had made a difference in the lives of others.
That's the thing his brother, Jim, said he took comfort in on Saturday morning as he recalled the life of the 71-year-old teacher, social advocate and long-time Democratic Party leader.
"Most of us don't know if we made a difference," the 69-year-old Jim Mudra said. "Joe knew."
Mudra passed away Thursday at the The Ohio State University James Cancer Center after a battle with cancer, according to his brother. He is survived by his mother, Nancy, 95; his "life-long love" and wife, Joanne; two sons, Joseph and Jason; and four granddaughters.
Funeral arrangements are pending with the downtown Wappner Funeral Home, according to Jim Mudra.
His father, Joseph Mudra, who brought his family to Mansfield from Cleveland in 1957, was the director of the local Social Security office. He died in 2004.
Praise began to pour in as news of Mudra's death spread across the community. One of the first was an email from U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Mansfield native who grew up in the same neighborhood as the Mudra brothers.
“Joe Mudra was a lifelong friend, a champion of civil rights and one of Mansfield’s best ambassadors," Brown said on Friday. "Joe was always on the forefront of the fight for social justice, and his legacy will live on through the work he did to make the Mansfield community a better, fairer place to live.
"I knew Joe for 50 years, from when I went to Mansfield Senior with his younger brother, Jim, and I will miss his friendship and counsel. My heart goes out to Joe’s family and friends during this difficult time."
Former Mansfield Mayor Lydia Reid knew Mudra for many years.
"Joe has always been a tireless worker, organizer, supporter and leader," Reid said. "His passing leaves a huge void for all that knew him."
Jim Mudra said his brother got involved in politics while working on one of Brown's early statewide campaigns and that he worked tirelessly in the effort -- just as later he did for many local candidates during four decades with the Richland County Democratic Party.
He served as the party chair from 2003 until he retired from the post in 2020, though his efforts in politics and government began long before that.
Richland County Common Pleas Court Judge Phil Naumoff said Mudra was his seventh-grade homeroom teacher at Appleseed Middle School. A 1967 graduate of Mansfield Senior High School, Mudra earned his bachelor's degree at Ohio University in 1971 and returned home to teach.
"He is the one who got me interested in history and politics and government," Naumoff said Saturday morning. "He was really excited about the topics. They were clearly passions of his.
"He wasn't someone who taught one political party or another. He taught the system, he taught government and politics. He always made it interesting. I can honestly say he was the force who put me where I am today."
Naumoff was elected to the bench in 2018 and remembers clearly receiving a congratulatory text message from Mudra after the final votes were counted.
"He said 'Congratulations. Well earned.' That meant something coming from Joe. He cared about people."
Mudra fought hard for local Democratic candidates, but was "old school" in the fact he was able to work with Republicans, as well.
"Joe came from a different era," Naumoff said, "when political parties still respected one another. Even if you had differences, you had the same goals -- to improve the community, the state and the country. He is definitely going to be missed.
"Joe was willing to work with people of different philosophies, to come together. I think that is something we have lost over the years. Old school is a good description," Naumoff said. "He was all about public service, regardless of the job."
Joe Mudra speaks during a meeting of the Richland County Democratic Party. (Richland Source file photo)
After years of teaching, Mudra became involved with the local Council of Governments, which brought together many local social service agencies under one umbrella, seeking to pool resources, eliminate duplication of services and provide greater care for young people in need.
The work allowed him to marry his two of his passions -- government and serving young people -- as the first executive director of the Richland County Youth & Family Council.
"Our mom and dad were great parents," Jim Mudra said. "They raised us to have a great social conscience. They taught us that there were many people less fortunate than us. Joe was someone who reached out to people and tried to help."
Deanna West-Torrence, former Mansfield City Council member and director of the North End Community Improvement Collaborative, said Mudra devoted his life to improving the north end of Mansfield, particularly with the Ocie Hill Neighborhood Center.
"His heart and soul was that neighborhood center," West-Torrence said, crediting Mudra with developing funding streams that helped turn the former school into a hub for activity and home to many agencies serving the local community.
"He kept Youth & Family Council meetings in that building so the heads of all the agencies had to come in there every month to see the children they were serving."
Beyond that, she said, Mudra was her mentor.
"Joe and I were incredibly close," she said. "He spent countless hours with me, talking to me about everything. I can tell you there would not be an NECIC if there was not a Joe Mudra. He was so committed to the north end.
"He told me, 'I will teach you everything I know if you want to learn.' He was a master strategist for the neighborhood. But he never wanted any of the credit."
Long-time local Republican Bill Freytag, who served for years with Mudra on the Richland County Board of Elections, said he was deeply saddened when he heard Mudra had died.
"I worked with Joe for eight years as the deputy director of the board of elections and for the last two years as fellow board members. We always worked very well together and our board meetings will not be the same without him," Freytag said.
"I want to send my deepest sympathy to his wife, Joanne, the entire Mudra family and to all who knew and loved him. Rest in peace, Joe," Freytag said.
Larry Weirich, a Perry Township trustee, succeeded Mudra as local party chair. Mudra nominated Weirich to replace him and the vote was unanimous.
"I really don't even know where to begin," Weirich said of Mudra's passing. "Joe served Richland County Democrats as chairman for 18 years. For many more years then that, he worked for the principles of Democrats nationwide.
"Joe was my go-too guy when I had questions, challenges or just wanted to talk," Weirich said. "He worked tirelessly behind the scenes producing our monthly news letter, working with candidates and creating campaign handouts for candidates.
"There was not one thing Joe Mudra would not do to help a Democratic candidate. Joe was a good man and Democrat in every sense of the word," Weirich said.
Mansfield 3rd Ward Councilman Jon Van Harlingen said he and other Democrats knew they could count on Mudra's experience and leadership.
"It was a pleasure and an honor knowing Joe," Van Harlingen said. "His soft-spoken ways and strong beliefs for our community were very inspirational.
"He was always ready to share his experiences and assist his friends any way possible. You could always count on Joe for advice and encouragement. He will truly be missed," Van Harlingen said.
Alomar Davenport, who represents the 4th Ward on Mansfield City Council, said Mudra's death is a "tremendous loss to many in our community, including myself."
"Joe was one of the first to embrace me for for who I am. He gave me the confidence to be myself in the face of adversity. He was always a phone call away with advice whenever I needed it. He will be greatly missed," Davenport said.
Richland County Democratic Party chairman Joe Mudra (right) swears in the Shelby Area Democratic Club's 2018 officers. They are president Garland Gates, secretary Rita Scheurer, and vice president Ted Clabaugh. Treasurer Vickie Eichof was absent and will be sworn in later. (Richland Source file photo)
Garland Gates, president of the Shelby Area Democratic Club, said "without a doubt" that Mudra was the most respected chairperson of the Richland County Democratic Party in the past 40 years.
"He brought together the varied components of the local party into a unified whole," Gates said.
Gates, also a member of Shelby City Council, said Mudra fought for free and fair elections as a member of the Richland County Board of Elections.
"Proof of this are the 4-0 bipartisan votes against the sham recall of Mansfield Mayor Don Culliver and the sham challenge of (Mansfield) Law Director Jon Spon's residency.
"Joe was a faithful friend and supporter of the Shelby Area Democratic Club - always attending our Truman-Kennedy Society Breakfasts. Joe was a personal friend, too. I feel a void in my heart with his passing. Grace and peace to all who knew and loved Joe," Gates said.
Richland County Board of Elections Director Paulette Hankins also praised Mudra.
"Joe was our longest-serving party chairman, and has served on the board of elections for over 16 years. I've worked closely with him in both positions, serving as the executive committee secretary and of course, the director of elections.
"So he's always been 'my Boss,' as well as my friend. He was not always the loudest voice in the room, but always was steadfast on his positions, and his word was everything to him," Hankins said.
"Even though he stepped down as chairman and didn't run for the position, he was still the unofficial head of our party and will be missed in ways we haven't even considered yet. His love of his family, his 'Dem' family, politics, good governance, and serving others less fortunate were some of his most profound traits," Hankins said.