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Celebrating the leadership, vision, tenacity, and love of community shared by the recipients of the Great Living Cincinnatian Award, presented annually by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber since 1967.
1896 – 1988
Corbett was born Dec. 5, 1896, in Flushing, Long Island, N.Y. He attended Dwight Preparatory School in New York City during the evening and worked as a mail clerk at J. Walter Thompson, the country’s premier advertising firm. He was awarded a scholarship to New York Law School where, in 1923, he earned his bachelor of laws degree.
Initially after law school, Corbett worked as a law secretary to the attorney who assisted Clarence Darrow in the Scopes trial. However, poor wages and, as he recalled later, “the lack of a circle of social friends” kept him from opening his own practice.
Radio was in its infancy in the 1920s and, like Powel Crosley, it attracted people who possessed imagination and an innovative spirit. Corbett wrote radio scripts until he had enough money to organize his own advertising/merchandising firm that specialized in radio presentations. He became actively involved in writing and producing programs for radio stations not only in NYC but throughout the nation. In 1931 he caught the attention of executives at Cincinnati’s WLW, the most powerful transmitting station in the country. WLW asked him to move to Cincinnati and act as marketing consultant to the station. This relationship lasted until 1937. High atop his Carew Tower office, Corbett produced many successful scripts. One of Corbett’s early successes at WLW was originating and producing the show, “Hymns of All Churches.” Later he sold it to General Mills.
In 1934-1935, during the height of the depression, Powel Crosley suggested that Corbett produce a show to “buoy up courage,” give Americans some confidence despite their economic plight. Corbett agreed, and decided to produce a series dramatizing business opportunities. He titled the show, “New Ideas in Business.” It is not known whether it impacted anyone else’s life, but it certainly changed Corbett’s life dramatically. During some preliminary work for the show a man from Dayton, Ohio, who had invented a musical door-chime, approached Corbett for ideas on how to market his new, unique invention. The inventor needed backing and Corbett, who liked the idea, invested $50,000 in the operation. It was not long before Corbett realized that the chime was too costly ($16.50 to $125) and too bulky. Soon the company went broke.
Corbett would not accept defeat. He believed the melodious door chime was a more welcoming sound than the obnoxious door buzzer. In 1936 Corbett took over what was left of the operation and moved it to Cincinnati. He continued to operate his consulting agency but also founded, in partnership with wife, Patricia, a new company called NuTone Chimes Inc. The company employed only four people and operated in a one-room building downtown. It did not move formally to a more extensive facility until 1940, when it opened manufacturing operations at Third Street and Eggleston Avenue.
In 1949, to meet the growing demand for NuTone products, Corbett moved the company to its current location at Red Bank Road and Madison Road; a facility that expanded several times during Corbett’s tenure as president and chairman of the board.
Corbett’s formula for success was based on five basic tenets: recognize the consumer’s needs; invent new products; insist on quality production; and be dedicated to sales and marketing excellence as well as customer service excellence. Adhering to this business philosophy coupled with the continued demand for the company’s products enabled NuTone to expand its operations not only in Cincinnati, but in seven states throughout the U.S. and in Canada. By 1967 NuTone employed 2,500.
In 1967, at age 71, Corbett decided to sell his and his family’s interest in NuTone to Scovill Manufacturing Co. of Waterbury, Conn. Freedom from daily business decisions enabled Corbett to devote time to the much-beloved foundation that he and his wife had founded in 1955. It soon evolved into a second career that kept him busy for the rest of his life.
Whether in the performing arts, medicine or education, it is through the foundation that most Cincinnatians have become familiar with J. Ralph Corbett. “It is such as joy to help the community lift itself up,” Corbett stated in 1974. “The best reward for a lifetime of work is to help your community.” Indeed he did. From the time of its inception until his death at age 91 in 1988, the Corbett Foundation contributed over $30 million to numerous causes; 70 percent of it within Greater Cincinnati. In 1967, the foundation contributed to the construction of the 750-seat Corbett Auditorium on the campus of CCM. Corbett Pavilion, containing the Patricia Corbett Theatre, was completed in 1972. In 1969 Ralph and Patricia led a drive to renovate the deteriorating Music Hall. The $11 million they had donated by 1975 enabled Music Hall to remain a showplace for the performing arts.
Corbett persuaded the foundation’s trustees to donate regularly to organizations that supported the handicapped, and to help finance Dr. Henry Heimlich’s research in cancer, emphysema, and cystic fibrosis. In 1973, the foundation contributed $114,000 toward the construction of the surgical research unit at the UC Medical Center, and gave $200,000 for the purchase of special equipment for cancer research.
Recognized nationally for his business and community involvement, Ralph Corbett was selected as a Great Living Cincinnatian in 1970; was inducted into the Housing Hall of Fame in 1982, and in 1984, along with his wife, were the first recipients of Ohio’s Cultural Honor Award.
Article from Cincinnati Business Courier, Jan. 13, 1997
Recipients are selected from candidates by the Cincinnati Chamber’s senior council based on the following criteria: – Community service – Business and civic attainment on a local, state and national or international level – Leadership – Awareness of the needs of others – Distinctive accomplishments that have brought favorable attention to their community, institution or organization