On Sunday morning, Dec. 22, almost 1,000 people crowded into the rotunda of the Museum Center at Union Terminal to honor William Mallory, Sr., who died two weeks earlier. In the course of 82 years, Mallory transformed himself from a black child born into the poorest Cincinnati neighborhood into a person who served 28 years in the Ohio House of Representatives, rising to majority leader. He was also the father of a two-term Cincinnati mayor (and two-term Ohio senator), a member of the Ohio House of Representatives, two judges on the Hamilton County Municipal Court and a leader at the Hamilton County Board of Elections.

In 2003, I conducted a systematic oral history with Mallory that resulted in almost 22 hours of stories and reflections. What I learned from this “Citizen of the West End” was the power of certain institutions and movements that are popular to dismiss and disparage today.

The West End of Bill Mallory’s youth always remained vivid in his imagination. He had an amazing mental map of the old West End including the nearly 2,700 structures that were destroyed in the early 1960s, but for Mallory, what was really important were the people. That included teachers at Bloom Middle School like Mary Elizabeth Broxterman and Virginia Burton, who gave him the first sense that people beyond his family saw something special in him.

A high school counselor suggested that he go to college, an absurd idea for a young man whose father had died and family was on welfare. But that counselor took the next step of enlisting the head of the Cincinnati Urban League to connect Mallory to the leaders of Central State University, who arranged jobs to help him earn his tuition money.

Mallory could have come away from that experience thinking it was his hard work and perseverance that earned him a college diploma. Rather, he understood that each of us needs advocates and supporters to achieve our goals.

It was in the old West End that Mallory first observed community leadership. As a preteen, he listened at the edge of the parlor of the racially segregated Ninth Street YMCA to the professionals and businessmen who gathered there to discuss the affairs of the community. He came to understand that the Ninth Street Y was one of the few places they could talk frankly, confident that the white power structure could not listen in.

But like 40,000 other residents of the West End, Mallory’s family was displaced in the early 1960s. Over the next few years, he described himself as “losing his way, wasting his time unproductively.” That changed when his mother convinced him to move back to the West End, to Parktown, the experiment in affordable, cooperative, racially integrated housing at Linn and Liberty.

Mallory became so enamored of Parktown that he became a salesperson for the development and was soon known as the “Mayor of Parktown.” It was there, Mallory said, that he found purpose in his life.

Buoyed by the spirit of the Civil Rights movement, his newfound confidence propelled him to step into the public space as president of the West End Community Council, which opened up the opportunity to run for the Ohio House of Representatives in 1966.

The man I came to know a decade ago put all the lessons of his early life into practice. He was there to help others, not only for citizens through legislation and court fights, but for kids through the Mallory Center in Millvale, and for senior citizens as an enthusiastic supporter of the annual Senior Citizen Prom. He embraced the rights and responsibilities of citizenship through his commitment to public service.

And what are the public policy lessons that we might draw from Mallory’s life?

First, never judge schools only on the narrow basis of standardized test scores and never underestimate the power of a few great teachers to have lasting impact.

Second, we should be careful about judging and destroying communities that, from the outside, appear poor and dilapidated. The old West End may have been poor and filled with substandard buildings, but it also was a community rich in institutions—churches, small businesses, the Ninth Street Y—that supported meaningful lives for thousands of residents. Destroying the West End put tens of thousands of people adrift. Mallory was one of the fortunate who reassembled the broken pieces and created a sense of purpose.

Finally, we should be open to approaches that don’t fit standard categories. As a cooperative housing effort, Parktown didn’t fit into either the individualized private ownership model or the public housing model, but it provided affordable housing and an experimental community.

Dan Hurley is an historian and the Director of Leadership Cincinnati for the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber.