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Read articles and learn more about the Cincinnati Chamber through our related news articles

Introducing United Way’s 2024 Campaign Co-Chairs
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Recognize & Celebrate businesses & people

Great Living Cincinnatians: Honorees

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.

Oliver Birckhead

Awarded In 2004
1922 – 2012

There was no mistaking the competitive fire in Oliver Birckhead’s eyes, tucked behind distinguished horn-rimmed glasses. The spirit that led him to be named “best freshmen end” in all of New England football in 1940 was alive in Mr. Birckhead well into his 80s – complemented with a hearty laugh and a knowing twinkle in his eye.

Ollie Birckhead was the first to admit that his life had been good. “I’ve been awfully lucky,” he said. “It’s never been a sweat doing the things I have done.”

And the things he did have touched virtually every corner of Cincinnati – from banking to the arts, from higher education to helping launch the Cincinnati Bengals.

Born June 20, 1922, in Brooklyn, he graduated from Trinity-Pawling School, Pawling, New York, Nichols College, Dudley, MA, in 1942, and later the Stonier Graduate School of Banking at Rutgers University. He entered the banking business in 1937 with the Peoples National Bank and Trust Co. in White Plains, NY. “My father was a banker; he originally worked in President Taft’s administration as the first Supervisor of National Banks,” Mr. Birckhead said. “It was always in my blood.”

Following service with the U.S. Air Corps from 1942-46, he was appointed assistant national bank examiner in the Second District of New York by the Comptroller of the Currency. He worked for Chemical Bank from 1948-51, then joined the Central Trust Company in Cincinnati (now PNC Bank). During his first few weeks in the Queen City, he stayed at the YMCA at Elm and Central Parkway for $12 a week.

At Central Trust he was elected an officer in 1951; assistant vice president in 1955; vice president in 1958; and executive vice president and director in 1967. In 1968, Mr. Birckhead was involved for and with Fletcher Nyce in the founding of The Central Bancorporation and CEO of the company’s lead bank, The Central Trust Co., positions he held for 17 years.

When he became the president of Central Bancorporation, later CEO, total assets were approximately $500 million; at his retirement in February 1988, the company had assets in excess of $5.2 billion. Following the 1988 merger of Central Bancorporation into PNC, Pittsburgh – resulting in a $43 billion regional banking company – Mr. Birckhead was vice chairman and director of PNC Bank until he retired in December 1989. PNC is now in the $70 billion range, and in 2002 earned $1.2 billion.

Mr. Birckhead was a director of The Union Central Life Insurance Company in Cincinnati for 27 years and served on the Executive Committee. He retired in November 1994 as director and member of the Executive Committee of The Cincinnati Gas and Electric Co., now Cinergy, after 17 years. He is a director of Glimcher Realty Trust, a Columbus-based REIT. Additionally he is past director and executive committee member of the Manhattan National Corporation. He was also director of the Manhattan National Life Insurance Co., New York; the West Shell Co.; and served a full term as director of The Federal Reserve Bank, Cleveland, Cincinnati Branch, ending in 1982.

Mr. Birckhead was a trustee, vice president and executive committee member of the Cincinnati Art Museum for 15 years. He served on the Salvation Army’s Advisory Board, was vice chairman and remains a life member. He has served on the boards of the Cincinnati council on World Affairs, the Boy’s Club of Cincinnati and the Cincinnati Association for the Blind. In 1968 he acted as a group chairman, Division A, of the united Appeal and in 1977 acted as group chairman for Division D.

In 1986 he served as vice chairman of the University of Cincinnati’s Annual Business Campaign and was leadership chairman for the university in 1987.

Mr. Birckhead served on the Advisory Policy Committee on Interpersonal Relations at UC in 1985 and chaired the subcommittee for the Community Chest Capital Needs Committee. He is a former director and chairman, Children’s Dental Care Foundation.

He was active in the United Fine Arts Drive and participated as a group leader for Xavier University’s Capital Funds Campaign. In 1978 he was dinner chairman for the National Conference of Christians and Jews, now the National Conference for Community and Justice. Among other activities: treasurer and trustee, Cincinnati Junior Chamber of Commerce, 1952; trustee, treasurer and member of the executive committee, Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber; first Cincinnati treasurer and later chair of the United Negro College Fund; Cincinnati chairman of the Statue of Liberty Centennial Celebration 1985-86, raising more than $1 million; founding member and treasurer of the Cincinnati Business Committee until 1988; and committee member to select the architectural firm for the Aronoff Center for the Performing Arts.

His accolades are numerous and diverse. In 1973 Ohio Gov. John Gilligan awarded Mr. Birckhead the Governor’s Award for Community Action. In 1976 he was honored by President Ford for leadership in the National Alliance of Businessmen. The Urban League in 1984 recognized Mr. Birckhead for civic involvement. In 1986 he was awarded the Israel Peace Medal by the State of Israel and acted as dinner chairman for the 1986 Israel Bond Campaign, raising $4.2 million.

Some landmark business projects stand out in Mr. Birckhead’s illustrious career. Together with Ralph Burchenal and John Sawyer, Cincinnati Bell, CG&E, the chamber and others, he led the original financing with Paul Brown, forming the Cincinnati Bengals in the mid-60s, then in the American Football League.

And in 1970, in cooperation with the City of Cincinnati, Mr. Birckhead initiated the project Block E, a 158,000-square-foot development between Central Bancorporation and the Gerald D. Hines Interests, Houston. That led to the completion of the Central Trust Center, now PNC Bank Center, and later the second building on the block, the Chemed Center. He also helped spearhead financing for Riverfront Coliseum, now US Bank Arena.

On being named a Great Living Cincinnatian, Mr. Birckhead said, “I want to say how much an honor it is.” When asked why so many good things have come his way, he replied simply, “Cast the bread upon the water and it shall be returned to you,” a phrase he borrowed from a very important individual.

Mr. Birckhead lived in Indian Hill with his wife Jane. He died April 27, 2012 at 89.

Nominate a Great Living Cincinnatian

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