Alex Machaskee’s family history is a rich tapestry of immigration and adaptation, woven across generations of Serbian Americans. His paternal grandmother, Milica Uzelac, hailed from Glina, Croatia, and married Alexander Macesic upon their arrival in the United States via Baltimore. Their sojourn across the vast expanse of the Atlantic brought them to the shores of Baltimore, a gateway to the new land of promise. From there, their footsteps echoed through the industrial corridors of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, before settling amidst the rugged landscape of a coal mining town in Western Pennsylvania.
On his mother’s side, Maria Benet was born near Subotica in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She wed Jakob Marinkovic, a baker from the Serbian town of Aleksandrovac, who would endure the trials of having two bakeries burn down before settling on a farm in Southern Ohio. It was on this farm that Alex’s mother was born, in the quaint town of Powhatan Point. Meanwhile, Alex’s father was born in Western Pennsylvania before his family relocated to Warren, Ohio.
It was fate that brought Alex’s parents together – a chance encounter on a farm in 1936, where his father, a self-proclaimed “city slicker,” would purchase eggs and meet the love of his life. “And they eloped,” Alex reminisces, a hint of fondness in his voice.
But before that, his grandparents were already carving out a life in Western Pennsylvania, with his grandfather toiling away in a coal mine and his grandmother running a boarding house for Serbian and Croatian miners. It was a humble existence, one that shaped Alex’s father’s early years.
“Born in that environment, when he started school, he was seven years old, and he really couldn’t speak English very well,” Alex Machaskee recounts. “So a teacher asked him through an interpreter his name. He said, Djuro Macesic, and it came out ‘George Machaskee’ so they spoiled the name for the next 80 years.”
Within the walls of Alex’s Serbian-American abode, Alex’s parents didn’t speak Serbian. It wasn’t until his grandfather on his father’s side passed away and his grandmother, affectionately known as Baba, came to live with them that Alex was first exposed to the language.
“She was with us for 12 years before she passed away. In those 12 years, she spoke Serbian to me. And that’s why I first got my exposure to speaking Serbian,” Alex recalled with a hint of nostalgia.
In the earliest days of Alex Machaskee’s Serbian heritage, his Baba was a central figure in shaping his understanding of Serbian culture. In those times, there was no Serbian church in the Warren community, so they would be attending a Russian church near his parents’ home. But when his father wasn’t working at the steel mill, they made the journey to the Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Youngstown, where Machaskee was able to truly immerse himself in their traditions.
“It was a time when I was about 11 or 12 years old,” Machaskee recounted, “and for two years, every Saturday morning, I would make the journey from Warren to Youngstown.” This journey involved a bus ride to downtown Warren, followed by a half-hour train ride, and then another bus ride to reach the Serbian church. There, he spent half a day in Bible study, and half a day learning about Serbian culture.
During those two years, he became proficient in reading and writing Cyrillic, but as he later lamented, “you lose it if you don’t use it.” Nevertheless, he continued attending Saturday school at the Youngstown church.
“I remember being an altar boy, when maybe I was around 11 or 12 years old when St. Nikolai Velimirovich came to Youngstown one time and I served at an altar. I can remember him like it was yesterday. That’s where I first got grounded in our faith, and also in our language and our tradition. So then, of course, we celebrated in America, the Serbian way, our Easters, and our Christmases.”
Foray into sports journalism
At the tender age of six, Alex Machaskee’s parents acquired a new house, marking a new chapter in his life. He commenced his education in elementary school, but it wasn’t until his ninth-grade year that his passion for football emerged. Regrettably, an Osgood-Schlatter injury thwarted any future prospects of athletic involvement for Machaskee.
Recalling the past, Alex Machaskee recounted how the coach was cognizant of his affection for sports. “He said, ‘if you liked sports so much, why don’t you go down to the local paper, maybe they’d use some part-time help.'” Inspired by this idea, Machaskee put on his father’s Aberdeen topcoat and slicked back his hair, hoping to exude an air of maturity. He then ventured to the office of the sports editor, who extended to him the opportunity to report on basketball games twice a week, for a wage of around “50 cents a box, or whatever.”
After a mere three months of service, Alex Machaskee, by then a sophomore in high school, had gained sufficient experience to write a few stories from what he received over the phone. At that juncture, the number two individual on the sports news desk, a person with whom Machaskee was familiar, departed for the Korean War. Consequently, young Machaskee was afforded the opportunity to arrange his high school schedule in such a manner as to allow for twenty hours of work per week during his sophomore year. By his junior year, he was logging thirty hours per week, and as a senior, he was toiling a full forty hours weekly.
How could he manage such a feat, one might ask?
“I would work at that paper from seven in the morning until quarter to one. And then I would go to school from one o’clock until four. And I took summer school classes. And they also gave me credit for working at the newspaper. So I spent, you know, three years like that,” he recalled.
Upon graduating from high school, Machaskee spent an additional couple of years at the newspaper, where he advanced to the position of a general assignment reporter, covering a wide variety of topics except for society news.
Initially, Alex Macheskee had aspired to pursue a legal career, but his family’s financial situation made this seem like an insurmountable goal. He reflected, “And the idea of going to school for nine or ten years to get the undergraduate work done. Where’s the money gonna come from to go to law school for two, three years?” With these factors in mind, Alex Machaskee enrolled at Youngstown College, which later became Youngstown University.
Unfortunately, his political science professor, a columnist for the Youngstown Vindicator, was lackluster and uninformed. “There was this guy. He was the columnist for the Youngstown Vindicator. And kind of in those days, it was like in the dungeon in his old house that the class was being taught political science. And he was kind of toothless. And he was smoking a cigar. And he would say, ‘Now, I’m gonna type out something about Ohio politics.’ He didn’t know anything about politics, you know. So that was discouraging,” recalled Machaskee.
“I said, ‘I’m not gonna go through all this and end up being one of sixteen pages of attorneys in the Cleveland Yellow Pages,'” Alex Machaskee recounted, reflecting on the pivotal moment that would shape the course of his destiny. The year was 1960, and a profound realization dawned upon him. The newspaper, where he had been working diligently, seemed to offer limited avenues for advancement. A young city editor held sway over the proceedings, leaving everything else seemingly out of reach, beyond his grasp.
“So I decided I’m either gonna go to Pittsburgh, I’m gonna go to Cleveland. So I came to Cleveland, and I got a job in the public service department at the Plain Dealer.”
The Plain Dealer days
At The Plain Dealer, Alex Machaskee toiled away in circulation and advertising before ascending to the position of director of labor relations and personnel in the 1980s. During this era, The Plain Dealer boasted a workforce of 1,800 employees, with two-thirds of them distributed across ten challenging labor unions.
“We made a mark, we straightened out a lot of things from 1980 to 1985,” he fondly reminisced. Towards the end of 1985, he was appointed as the vice president and general manager, taking on the crucial responsibility of overseeing all financial matters. By 1990, he had ascended the corporate ladder to become the publisher, president, and CEO of the company, a position he held until his retirement in 2006.
Alex Machaskee attributes his go-getter spirit to his roots, harking back to his entrepreneurial inclinations from a young age.
“I was about six or seven years old when I became entrepreneurial. Not far from my home, there was a baseball diamond where, on Sundays, my mother taught me how to make popcorn and chill soda. Armed with a big red wagon, I would make multiple trips to the ballpark, selling my popcorn and drinks.” He credits his grandparents and parents for instilling in him a strong work ethic, and the core values he imbibed from attending the Serbian school in Youngstown remained deeply ingrained. “You have to treat people right, you have to deal with integrity,” he emphasized.
Moving through obstacles
Alex Machaskee learned a lot about overcoming obstacles in life from his family, particularly from his grandmother. He recounted, “My mother’s father died of tuberculosis. And six weeks later, Martin, the oldest son, had an epileptic fit and passed away. They found him in the outhouse since there was no indoor plumbing. He had the fit at two o’clock in the morning, and there was nobody there to help him untangle his tongue. That’s how they found him.”
Despite facing the loss of her husband and son and being left with a large farm and seven children to care for, his grandmother managed to keep things together and provide for her family. Alex’s father also played a role in assisting the family by introducing modern amenities such as indoor plumbing and electricity.
Alex recalled how his grandmother maintained a positive outlook on people regardless of the hardships they faced. “Her favorite saying was that it’s not really that bad. She always looked for something good to find in a person, no matter how flawed they were. Those words stuck with me as a young kid, and they have stayed with me ever since.”
A pathway to excellence
One of the biggest lessons Alex Machaskee learned from running a media business is the importance of creating a positive and collaborative work environment, where employees feel heard and valued.
“You have to be very clear in the objectives of what you set for the entire company, and we developed something called a pathway to excellence,” Machaskee declared, his words ringing with a commanding tone that demanded attention.
“It didn’t matter whether it was a pathway to excellence through customer service in the circulation department or in the way we treated advertising customers. It applied to those in the accounting department, in production, and especially for those in the editorial department, where we were always striving for excellence,” revealed Machaskee.
In his reflective tone, he further expounded, “To nourish that kind of philosophy throughout all the departments,” he continued, “I was never much for performance evaluations. There’s always a question as to who’s evaluating the evaluators. From my experience in labor relations and human resources, people doing the performance evaluation will say Joe was good, good, good, good, you know, and then something happens and Joe turns out bad. When you go to fire him, there’s a handful of notes that say Joe was good, good, good, good. It makes it very difficult to get rid of somebody when you have, maybe not necessarily accurate evaluations of a person.”
As a leader of The Plain Dealer, Alex Machaskee understood that communication was paramount, so he implemented attitude surveys instead to keep the conversation open with employees.
“Once a year, we ask all our employees to voice their concerns and share their thoughts on the overall process and objectives of the company,” he explained. “We ask them questions like ‘Do you have any concerns on your mind?’ and ‘Where do you see yourself fitting into the overall process and objectives of the company?’ We give them an open-ended time to really say what they feel about the product and the city that we serve. This way, we learn a lot more than we would from some formal personality evaluation. That’s how we did it.”
Tambura music and the Serbian Garden
Alex Machaskee was always very much interested in church life. He even took his oldest son Lex and Mike on one of his eight trips to Mount Athos. To keep his sons immersed in Serbian culture, he exposed them to Tambura music.
“My original group was the Continental Strings from Cleveland, Ohio. We played for 42 years until the two brothers who were in the orchestra, both Serbian brothers and one Italian who played cello, passed away. And then eventually, the two brothers died, the Italian died. And then shortly, maybe three, four years after, we reconstituted the group so that my son Lex could play and a couple of other people,” he said. Machaskee was on the board of the Tamburica Association of America for 24 years and the president of TAA for 12 years.
In the midst of his extensive engagement within the American news industry, Alex Machaskee remained resolute in his pursuit of avenues to celebrate and elevate Serbian culture.
Enter the Serbian Cultural Garden.
The Serbian Cultural Garden was originally started by Slovenia in the mid-1930s. However, before the end of the decade, in 1940, the Serbians and Croatians joined the initiative, which was renamed the Yugoslav Gardens. The name persisted until Yugoslavia’s breakup. “When Yugoslavia broke up, the Serbians and Croatians were out,” Machaskee recounted.
“At the time, I was still the publisher of the paper, and I said, we’re going to have a Serbian garden.” He then rallied supporters and petitioned the city to secure a prime plot of land. Through fundraising efforts, they raised about $100,000 and secured basic landscape plans to get the project started.
In the present day, the Serbian Garden proudly displays twelve sculptures honoring notable Serbian figures, among them the illustrious inventor Nikola Tesla and physicist Mihajlo Pupin. This remarkable ensemble serves as a tangible manifestation of Machaskee’s unwavering commitment to championing and safeguarding his rich heritage.
The Fall of Yugoslavia
Alex Machaskee reflected on the coverage of the Yugoslav War by The Plain Dealer, at the time when he was the publisher. He mentioned the newspaper’s foreign correspondent who ventured into areas where the conflict was happening.
“She didn’t just go to the Holiday Inn and mingle with the rest of the reporters. She went to Pale and different places and really tried to find out what was going on,” recalled Alex Machaskee.
“The truth of the matter is that there, this country [United States] made an awful lot of mistakes during that breakup. And unfortunately, like when I was a young boy, my mother used to always say ‘Hush, hush, do not say anything.’ Well, unfortunately, a lot of Serbs grew up with that same ‘hush, hush’ mentality. So during the breakup in the 1990s, we were silent, while the Croatians were smart enough to hire Ruder and Finn, paid a big ton of money, and Ruder and Finn put out all the plus stuff for Croatia and the hell for Serbs. And that’s just unfortunate because we just don’t get it even today,” he said.
“When I first started going back to Serbia on a kind of regular basis, the first person, the first person, I was not even looking to meet with anybody, but somehow I ended up with some friends of mine in Belgrade after coming out of Santorini in Greece. We got there on Sunday afternoon, and by Monday, my phone is ringing. One thing led to another, and on Tuesday, I met with the finance minister Labus. And then I met with President Kostunica, who had graciously given us over an hour, even though he had been up until four o’clock in the morning negotiating something,” he said.
“I’ll never forget what President Kostunica told me,” said Machaskee.
“He said one of my major challenges is how much of my personal values do I have to give up for the sake of political expediency? And how much of your soul do you sell to be able to get things done politically? Then I met Djindjic, same day, all three in one day. I met Djindjic that afternoon. This was maybe about three months before he got assassinated. Djindjic reminded me a lot of Bill Clinton. The way he dressed, the way he acted. He had a real foxy gal that I guess they call her the communications director sitting in when I’m meeting with him. Now, I’m not there at that time as a reporter, going to ask any bombastic questions of anybody. You know, my first things were to say, ‘Congratulations, what you did for the Serbian people, you got rid of Milosevic. And you know, things are going to be better.’ You know, what were the first words out of Djindjic’s mouth to me? And I never raised the question. He said, ‘I just want you to know, I had nothing to do with the cigarette smuggling.’ So he, you know, came and went. And then after that, I had met with Tadic—he was actually here. He came here for one of the dedications at the Serbian Garden. But my experience with Serbia is a long list of missed opportunities,” he said.
“Tadic comes here, and there are two hundred people who have come to a reception. He’s very gracious, takes a lot of pictures with them,” Machaskee continued.
“Then they had a private dinner with, at that time, Senator Voinovich, the head of the Ohio National Guard, and a number of other leading Serbs. And the next day, I held a lunch at the Union Club, a very prestigious club here, with about 45 CEOs. Tadic did a good job with an overview of what he saw for Serbia today. So as the thing went on, one person said, ‘We are thinking about putting up a plant either in Serbia or India.’ And another person said, ‘We’re thinking about putting up a distribution center, maybe in Serbia,'” he revealed. “You know what, there was no follow-up.”
But there was more. “That same morning, I had in the private room at the Union Club, the governor of Ohio, Strickland, Tadic, myself, and the governor brought the Ohio Supreme Court justice, Tom Moyer. So after the pleasantries about a student exchange and tourism and all that stuff, I said, ‘Mr. President, how are you doing on judicial reform? We’re doing very well. We pass a lot of laws.’ And just for a moment, my reporter instinct, you know, surfaced. ‘Well, how are you doing on implementation?’ I asked. ‘Oh, there we have some problems,’ said Tadic. To which the Ohio Supreme Court Justice said, ‘I will send six attorneys to Belgrade to help you with implementation.’ So what happens? Nothing happened. Tadic gets voted out of office. Governor Strickland is voted out of office, Tom Moyer, the Supreme Court Justice, dies, chalk it all up to a missed opportunity. I can’t tell you how many times that’s happened,” revealed Machaskee.
Enter then Governor Kasich.
“I arranged for Governor Kasich—his background is Croatian—and his whole cabinet to meet with Dacic. Dacic, comes in as Prime Minister, brings about 20 people with them. So what do they want to do? They have no ideas about how to work with Ohio! They want to regurgitate the last sixty years. Finally, Governor Kasich leans over to me and says, ‘I know what Ohio can do for Serbia, but they’re not telling me what Serbia can do for Ohio.’ And then, with a lot of these contingents that come over here, half of them would rather go to Walmart and shop than come to some academic or political meeting with something constructive, good,” he observed.
Asked about what can explain this, Machaskee said that in his experience “it doesn’t matter one regime to the next” things do not have the follow-up.
“I’ve also met with President Nikolic and before he became President, Vucic—it was a short meeting of a half an hour because he had the flu or something. But they just don’t get it.,” he said.
“One time I went to Belgrade, with about 25 pretty well-to-do businessmen from all around the country and all around the world. Businessman from Germany, very successful, but from Serbia, from France, from Austria, from Australia, from Canada. And we said, first of all, we know that you have a public relations problem. I mean, the world looks on you like a pariah. So at that time, we said, ‘Look, some of us spoke before the Parliament,’ and it got to the point where they actually drafted a memorandum of understanding to codify the relationship between the diaspora and the motherland. But then nothing happened on the Serbian end. Then the next regime comes in. And it starts all over, I mean, it just dies,” he shared his disappointment.
“And you know, in this country, we’ve got two political parties, neither one of them can put the good of the country above their own agenda. In Serbia, you have 18 political parties, and none of them can put the good of the country above their own agenda. Then they have these stupid coalitions of four and five together, and you still have traces of this group from communist days, you’ve got this group that goes far left, this group goes far right. And it’s sad. Because you know what, what eats me up is that the people, the people themselves are good people. They are very good people. And when I go to Serbia, and I go to places that I like to go to, let’s say, to restaurant Madera, or to Frans or some of the nice restaurants, everything looks beautiful. Well-dressed people, people eating and drinking, having a good time. You think everything is wonderful. But you go and you talk to average people, you know what are the responses that I get? “Bilo je bolje prije”, they’re telling you it was better under Tito than it is now under what they think is democracy.”
Machaskee then went on to speak about another lost opportunity. “Brnabic was promoting the fact that Serbia is the largest European grower of raspberries. Okay, so a meeting was arranged with the Smucker’s company here, the largest makers of jam,” he said.
“So you would think that maybe there’s a chance Serbia could sell raspberries. So there’s a meeting in the governor’s office. In Columbus, I go to it. The head of the Smucker’s company is there, a number of Cabinet members are there, Brnabic is there. It was a good exchange, a good meeting. And the question that the Smucker’s people really had was one of sustainability. Can you keep producing year after year after year? So they had the meeting, and maybe six months later, I’m in Belgrade, so I go to see Prime Minister Ana Brnabic. And I said to her, ‘Hey, how’s things going with Smucker’s?’ She said, ‘Oh, we turned it over to the Chamber of Commerce.’ I then told her, ‘I gotta tell you something, I said, That’s not the way I would operate. If it was me, I would have got two first-class tickets, come out to the headquarters of Smucker’s, here are two first-class tickets, come out to Belgrade, spend two days with us, see what our people are like, see our facilities because maybe then, they would not only buy raspberries, they might even set up a processing plant in Serbia.’ There’s a right way to do things. They turned it over to the Chamber of Commerce, nothing’s happening. And nothing did happen, and nothing will happen.”
In Cleveland, there are twenty honorary consuls and one Consul General of Slovenia, each following a distinct protocol. Machaskee recounted an encounter with a previous Romanian consul who shared a detailed three-and-a-half-page document outlining their authorities and limitations.
“He one time showed me his protocol, three and a half pages long, what he can do and what he can’t do. And some of them have stationery. Some of them have flags, some have their business cards. I’ve been an honorary consul probably 18, 19 years, I have nothing. Nothing,” said Machaskee.
“Here’s the sad part of it. Okay, if all they expect from me is to promote Serbia, which I would do whether I was Honorary Consul or not, then why only have a couple of us? There’s one in New Orleans, and myself plus the Consul General in New York. Why not then have 25, 30 honorary consuls all around the United States, and have everyone promote wherever they can in their communities? But anytime I get a serious question about something, I have to turn it over to the Embassy or turn it over to Chicago. That’s it. They can’t produce anything. But that’s the way it is.”
Remembering the late Senator George Voinovich
In the recollections of Alex Machaskee, the late Senator George Voinovich’s father was a Serbian architect of note. He crafted the exquisite Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in Cleveland, and his skilled hand was also responsible for the design and construction of numerous other Serbian churches. Though born to a Slovenian mother and raised in the Catholic faith, Senator Voinovich held fast to his Serbian heritage.
“I’ll just tell you one quick story,” Machaskee begins. “He was campaigning for governor, and like I said, I had a tambura group for 40-plus years just to keep my sanity from running the newspaper. So one time, there was an Oktoberfest going on in a suburb of Cleveland called Painesville. The guy was German, but he was raised in Ruma, Serbia, he knew Voinovich, he knew me, so he prepared a nice lamb, and Voinovich and his entourage, they had a nice time. And so we’re having some ‘sljivovica’ [a Serbian traditional drink], we’re playing some music, it’s the point when Voinovich is running for governor. And he says, ‘Boy, this is great fun.’ And I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, Governor. When you become governor, if you become governor, I will bring the tambura, and I will bring the ‘sljivovica.’ If you want to have a lamb roast right in the governor’s mansion.’ You know, that was in September. The following January, after the swearing-in ceremony, the next day, he called me up and said, ‘Are you serious about coming down?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ So we picked the date in June, and we’ve been down there. And he had about 100 ethnic leaders from all around the state. And we had a great time. We had a barbecue. We played tambura. And when everyone had left, George and I had a couple of beers. And he said, ‘Hey, let’s do some of those songs I remembered from my father.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, well, you name whatever you want. We’ll play it.’ How about this one?”, ‘Spremite se, spremite…’
Freedom to Thrive
Macheskee has been honored with several awards for his humanitarian efforts, such as the Whitney M. Young Humanitarian Award presented by the Urban League of Greater Cleveland and the Nonprofit Board Executive of the Year Award by Inside Business magazine. In recognition of his outstanding contributions to journalism, he was inducted into the Cleveland Journalism Hall of Fame in 2006 and the Cleveland International Hall of Fame in 2010. Furthermore, in 1999, he received the esteemed Ellis Island Medal of Honor from the National Ethnic Coalition Organization. The American Dream, in Alex Machaskee’s mind, embodies the freedom to thrive.
“The American dream means to be able to be blessed and take advantage of the fact that we live in a free society. And by living in a free society, that if you get a good bearing and whatever your faith is, and you’ve got a good work ethic, you can achieve,” he said.
“I mean, nobody handed me the publisher ship of the paper. I started at the very bottom in the public service area and worked my way up. And if you’re willing to work hard and have integrity and treat people right, you’ll make it,” he shared.
“The American Dream also means that if you do make it, then if God’s been good to you, then you have an obligation to give something back to people,” Machaskee added. He suggests that giving away 10% of one’s earnings is a commendable act, but for him, it usually amounts to 25%. “That’s just the way I am. I want to help as many people as we can.”
the balkan voice
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