Dan Moulthrop’s story is defined by doing new things.

He worked at a nonprofit, taught at a high school, taught behind bars and was a journalist.

Today, as CEO of The City Club of Cleveland, he is using skills and knowledge learned across those positions to teach what free speech means and the right to exercise it.

As a result of his accomplishments, Moulthrop will receive the Civic Leadership Award at the Cleveland Jewish News’ 18 Difference Makers event on Nov. 24.

“I taught in county jail in San Francisco, my first teaching job,” said Moulthrop, whose maternal grandparents were Ukrainian Jewish immigrants. “I taught in county jail in different locations for a year. I was constantly trying to figure out where I can make a difference – not saying that because we’re talking about Difference Makers – but that’s literally what I was trying to do. Asking, ‘Where is the place where I can help people and make an intervention in somebody’s life? Or how can I help people actualize themselves?

“Working in the jail, I was really driven by that. ... The folks I had been working with really hit kind of rock bottom. The question I started asking, ‘Is there a way you can be involved in somebody’s life earlier that they avoid this kind of rock bottom? What I came to understand about the population I was working with in the jail was that they mostly wanted to be good people, and mostly they were bad decision makers and mostly they were unlucky, mostly people of color.”

That experience led him to become a high school English teacher in San Lorenzo, Calif., which is where he met his wife, Dorothy Russo, who was an English teacher before becoming department chair one year after he was hired.

Moulthrop loved teaching, but said when he turned about 30 years old, he realized he couldn’t see himself teaching for decades. So, he pondered his future while reflecting on his past. He was editor of his high school newspaper, loved journalism and listening to public radio. He went to graduate school for journalism at the University of California, Berkeley and said he loved living in the Bay Area. After school however, he and Dorothy got married and moved to Cleveland, from where Dorothy hails. Her family owned Russo’s Stop-n-Shop grocery stores.

Shift to Northeast Ohio

In 2005, Moulthrop was hired at ideastream as host of “Morning Edition” He thanked Dave Kanzeg, former director of programming at ideastream, and his colleague, Mark Smukler, who took a chance on the newcomer.

In 2006, ideastream launched “The Sound of Ideas” and Moulthrop was its first host.

“I was 31 years old, had never done live radio before and they decided to take a chance on me and train me on how to do a live radio broadcast in the morning,” Moulthrop recalled. “I had never done anything like that before, but I loved it.”

Moulthrop would arise at about 3:30 a.m., drive down to the station on Chester Avenue, watch the sunrise from there, read the news and conduct interviews.

“It’s really hard to get up that early in the morning,” he quipped.

In 2005, Jim Foster, Moulthrop’s predecessor at The City Club, invited him to moderate the mayoral debate among Frank G. Jackson, then-Mayor Jane L. Campbell and others. His ideastream colleague, Mark A. Rosenberger, prepped him for the debate.

“I fell in love with The City Club and I fell in love with Cleveland,” Moulthrop said. “And I fell in love with the whole project of convening the needed conversation. So, it’s no surprise that whenever The City Club asked me to moderate a panel, I would say yes whenever my calendar would permit it. And when I had the opportunity to take on the 9 o’clock hour, (on WCPN) which we considered a town hall of the airwaves, I really just enjoyed that job tremendously. And that’s kind of what set me on this course.”

He eventually joined The City Club as a member, and then became involved with its committees.

In 2010, he left ideastream to work for The Civic Commons, a digital project to create a social environment for civic dialogue. By early 2013, Moulthrop became aware Foster was planning to retire and Foster encouraged him to apply for the job.

Moulthrop said he was impressed by the work of The City Club because of his knowledge of a similar organization, Commonwealth Club of California, which was founded in 1903.

“I was aware of how these kinds of organizations can have an impact on the communities they serve,” Moulthrop said.

In May 2013, Moulthrop was tapped as the next CEO of The City Club.

“I was thrilled,” he said. “There was a perception in the community that I was kind of a leader because of the public-facing roles that I have had. In reality, I never had had the responsibility of leading an organization. While I led some projects here and there, I certainly hadn’t led an organization like The City Club, and I felt somebody just handed me the keys to a vintage Rolls-Royce or something like that. I’m not the valet, I’m going to take it for a ride.”

Taking City Club into the future

Under Moulthrop’s leadership, The City Club has increased from 777 members to 909 members, or 17%. It has about a $2 million budget derived from ticket sales, private catering operations, contributions, philanthropic efforts and an endowment. The number and diversity of programs have increased, and programs have been created to reach a younger demographic.

He credits “brave leaders” like the late Stanley Adelstein, the late Mort Epstein, Art Brooks, Bob Lustig and many others who worked to grow the endowment. Many city clubs were launched before the Great Depression, experienced financial challenges and failed to survive. The City Club of Cleveland however, founded in 1912 by Rabbi Moses J. Gries and others, is the second oldest in the country.

When Moulthrop took over, he plastered his walls with sticky notes about ways he wanted to change the direction of The City Club.

“When I first got here, it was hard to say, ‘What’s the business of The City Club?’” Moulthrop remembered. “Are we a speakers series, are we a place for lunch, are we events? And my own point of view is that we were in the business of helping people participate in democracy, equipping people to participate in democracy, but in coming to the forum itself, that is an act of participating in democracy.”

Now, he wants to grow the organization’s profile across the state and country.

“Our democracy – this republic of the United States of America – is precious, and though it’s got longevity, it’s fragile,” he said. “We don’t get to keep it unless we work at it. We’re not entitled to this democracy. We only get to pass it onto the next generation. We do what it takes to make it strong and engage as many people as we can.

“I believe that what we do here is unique and is fundamentally important to the strength of democracy. There’s no place else in America (where) for the price of lunch you can be in a room with a presidential candidate, or a sitting president or some national-level thought leader who is shaping the future of policy and the future of our economy.”

Moulthrop considers himself a secular Jew.

“I joke frequently that I am not exactly Jewish, I am ‘Jew-ish,’ with the emphasis on the ‘ish,’” he said.

His father is not Jewish, and the family grew up in a secular household in New Jersey.

“We were like culinary Jews, we made latkes and applesauce and brisket when it was the right time of the year,” Moulthrop said. “We would have a seder at my aunt’s house.”

He never celebrated a bar mitzvah, and the family did not attend temple or church.

“But, I’ve had enough of my own personal religious experiences that have created in me a real commitment to that, I believe I see as a fundamental commitment or a religious or a spiritual commitment as a Jew to doing my part to improve the world, or repair the world or make it a better place to be a better human,” Moulthrop said. “Judaism talks about tikkun olam ... For me, it often comes back to my grandfather, who escaped from Ukraine on a freight train so he wouldn’t be cannon fodder in World War I. He came to the United States, eventually to New York, where a Jew could work as a tailor, and find a better life and be able to be a Jew and be free.”

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