Paul Block, Jr.,: Love of Toledo drove his desire to improve city

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

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Continuing over the next few weeks, The Blade will look at the significant events of the last 100 years and earlier and consider what the future might hold. Included will be a series of profiles about influential Toledoans of the 20th century. Today’s story is another of these profiles.

In hindsight, it seemed so easy, a simple request.

At an August ceremony, former Gov. James Rhodes described how it came to pass that the Medical College of Ohio was built in Toledo.

“Paul Block asked me to make this school,” Mr. Rhodes, 89, said. “He called me and said, ‘Do you want to do something for this city?’ I said yes.”

The former governor was speaking at the unveiling of a portrait of the late Mr. Block, the longtime Blade co-publisher, on the campus of the medical school he helped create.

It actually wasn’t that easy to get MCO built – it took more than a decade of Mr. Block’s editorials and lobbying to actually get the first permanent buildings under construction – but Mr. Rhodes gave the shy publisher all the credit for thinking up the project and getting it done.

“Paul Block was a different editor,” he said. “He was concerned about what went on in the community. He wanted to help build it and construct it and cultivate the best of it. That was his whole work. He loved Toledo.”

For four decades, Paul Block, Jr., controlled the newspapers that hit Toledo’s doorsteps every day. Considering the power of the position, it’s no surprise that he made a few enemies along the way; more than a few Toledoans have joked that the city has a “strong publisher” form of government.

But his track record of accomplishments is as worthy as any local mayor’s or congressman’s this century. Through the power of his editorial page, Mr. Block led the efforts to create MCO, the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, Government Center, and a host of other Toledo landmarks.

“He seemed to be 10 years ahead of everybody else,” said Harry Kessler, Toledo’s mayor from 1971 to 1977. “His vision was remarkable. I had the greatest respect for him. I can’t begin to say how much I liked him.”

Since the turn of the century, Mr. Block’s father, Paul Block, Sr., had been an advertising representative for dozens of newspapers around the country, and when he saw a newspaper for sale at a reasonable price, he tried to gather together the money to buy it. At various points, he owned or had control over 13 major newspapers. In 1926, he bought The Blade.

The elder Mr. Block ran his newspapers from his New York offices, but when he wanted to train his two sons to take over the business, he sent them to Toledo to work at The Blade, one of his prized properties.

Born in New York City and raised in suburban Connecticut, Paul Block, Jr., attended Yale University. After graduating in 1933, he trained in nearly every department of The Blade, living here from 1935 to 1939.

But years later he said his favorite experiences were in the back shop, using hot lead to make the printing plates that produced the day’s paper. “It involved some principles of chemistry,” he said, revealing the shadow career he kept up throughout his decades at The Blade: an organic chemist.

Chemistry was his first love, not newspapering. Throughout his years at the newspaper, Mr. Block maintained a second life as a scientist, doing research and publishing his results in respected scientific journals. He became perhaps the world’s foremost authority on a subset of chemical compounds produced by the thyroid gland.

Even though he was named co-publisher of The Blade soon after his father’s death in 1941 and made the paper’s major decisions, Mr. Block did not take day-to-day control of the paper for three more years, after he had completed his PhD in organic chemistry at Columbia University and served two years as a research fellow at the Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh.

While he held a faculty position at the University of Toledo, he did most of his work in a small lab next to his South Toledo home. Mr. Block had a special phone connection laid between The Blade’s downtown offices and the lab so he could do research as he directed newspaper policy.

“He had his lab at home, but he was no amateur,” his son, Blade co-publisher and editor-in-chief John Robinson Block said. “He could be watching a melting point or doing whatever he needed to while talking about political skulduggery and what the next editorial would be.”

“When he had a research project, sometimes he’d be in his lab seven days out of the week,” said John Willey, who spent 35 years at The Blade and retired in 1981 as president of The Toledo Blade Co. and associate publisher of The Blade.

In 1944, Mr. Block moved to Toledo and took over as active publisher of The Blade. (For the next 43 years, until his death in 1987, he was listed on the masthead as the paper’s co-publisher, alongside his younger brother, William. In reality, William Block was in charge of the company’s other newspaper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and The Blade was controlled by Paul Block, Jr. On major issues affecting either paper, though, the brothers usually made a joint decision.)

It took only a year for Toledoans to see evidence of Paul Block’s vision for their city.

Mr. Block conceived of a plan that would inspire Toledoans to look ahead to what the second half of the 20th century might hold. He contacted Norman Bel Geddes, an internationally known designer, and asked him to create a 61-foot model of the “beautiful, efficient city” Toledo would become by 1995.

He called the project Toledo Tomorrow, and it went on exhibit at the Toledo Zoo on July 4, 1945. Half a century later, some of the project’s predictions – express highways, manicured business parks like Arrowhead Park, and relocation of heavy industry away from downtown – have come true. But others were still sci-fi fantasy, like the network of small airports used for traveling around town.

Toledo Tomorrow was featured in Life magazine and The New Republic, and Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in her syndicated column that “the kind of foresight shown in Toledo Tomorrow” would inspire other cities to sponsor similar projects.

After showing his vision for Toledo, Mr. Block started moving into specific projects. There was no uniting ideology to the projects Mr. Block pushed; he did not favor either Democrats or Republicans exclusively, and his ideas were neither particularly conservative nor liberal.

“He got involved in projects that were hard to accomplish, that involved complicated ideas, and that other people could not see the value of,” said his son, Allan Block, now vice chairman of Blade Communications, Inc., The Blade’s parent company. “There were always a large number of people who didn’t get what Father was doing.”

In the early 1950s, the editorial page began featuring calls for the creation of a port authority to control the city’s seaport. He believed that having a separate agency would give the port the attention it needed to succeed. Eventually, after pressure from Mr. Block in Columbus, the General Assembly passed a bill allowing the creation of port authorities.

When the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority was founded in 1955, it was the first in Ohio, and Mr. Block served as its first chairman. With the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, bringing Atlantic shipping traffic into the Great Lakes, Mr. Block’s efforts paid off, as Toledo became one of the most active ports in America.

His next major project began even before the port authority fight was concluded. After reading stories about a national shortage of doctors, Mr. Block began to believe it was unfair that northwest Ohio was the only major region of the state not to be served by a medical school.

“He read an article by [then Blade writer] Tom Reynders quoting a visiting doctor saying Toledo would be a good place for a medical school,” Mr. Willey remembered. “He brought the article in to me and said, ‘Would you like to get a medical school in Toledo?’ I said sure.”

To bring such a school to Toledo, Mr. Block used The Blade’s power in state politics. In a state dominated by neither of the two major parties, winning northwest Ohio was often the key to winning statewide office. And an endorsement from The Blade could bring tens of thousands of votes to a statewide candidate.

State politicians, like Mr. Rhodes, valued The Blade’s endorsement, and when Mr. Block asked Mr. Rhodes to give Toledo a medical school, he agreed.

(Some, including Mr. Kessler, say the publisher hinged the paper’s endorsement in the 1962 governor’s race on the deal. Others, including Mr. Willey, insist there was no quid pro quo and that “Paul was going to endorse him anyway.” In any event, The Blade felt strongly enough about Mr. Rhodes, who ended up being Ohio’s longest serving executive, to endorse him over the only governor Toledo has ever produced, the incumbent Michael DiSalle.)

Again, Mr. Block was the first leader of an institution he helped found, becoming the first chairman of MCO’s board. In this case, it was an excellent match for a chemist like Mr. Block, and he was the dominant force in MCO’s early years. He selected the college’s first president, chose its location, and advised on the campus’s architectural design.

In the 1970s, Mr. Block shifted his attention to downtown development. At a time when many Toledo business leaders were happy to abandon downtown for the suburbs, Mr. Block focused on rebuilding the city’s core. Mr. Kessler persuaded Mr. Block to head the Toledo Development Committee for four years, during which the 22-floor Government Center was constructed.

“I had to convince him to take the job, which he didn’t want,” Mr. Kessler said. “But I knew that if we wanted to get something done, we had to get Mr. Block involved.”

Mr. Kessler said before he made a critical decision at city hall, he asked Mr. Block his opinion.

“More often than not, I already knew what I was going to do, but he often had very valuable things to say,” Mr. Kessler said. “If he trusted in you and believed you had the courage to make a decision that might not be popular, there wouldn’t be a problem no matter how much he disagreed with what I did.”

His sons said Mr. Block had a keen eye for judging the abilities of others. “He was exceptionally astute with people,” John Block said. “He often befriended people who were initially his enemies,” such as local union leader Richard Gosser and current Ohio Supreme Court Justice Andy Douglas.

Throughout his decades as publisher, Mr. Block was committed to a progressive policy on race – The Blade routinely refused to identify the race of criminal suspects long before other newspapers around the country did the same – and an unstinting stance against civic corruption.

“He was honest, and he made sure that the politicians were the same,” Allan Block said. “They knew that if they did anything wrong, The Blade would be on top of it, no matter who they were.”

Despite his attention to Toledo, Mr. Block’s interests were always much broader than just newspapering. Along with his chemical research, he was a regular traveler to Europe, spending part of most years there. He was a particular admirer of French culture, and he spoke the language fluently.

In part because he spent so much of his time on chemistry out of the public eye, Mr. Block was almost unknown to most Toledoans. They knew the name, from his occasional mention in the newspaper, but they rarely knew the man.

“There was a certain mystery about him,” John Block said. “I imagine he reveled a bit in the mystery.”

Despite his privacy, his position made him a lifelong target of criticism from those who opposed his goals for the city. Whenever anyone disagreed with some bit of news coming from city hall or the state legislature, it was easy to point to Mr. Block as the force behind it. For some, he seemed to be the “man behind the curtain” who pulled the strings of Toledo.

A 1959 article about The Blade, published in the Midwest Journal of Political Science, detailed the power the paper held.

“The Blade is by all odds the most potent political force in Toledo,” author Reo Christenson said. “It certainly does not run the city in arbitrary, single-handed fashion. No newspaper could. But it wields immense influence. It has made, broken, and chastened many a politician. It has pushed through or blocked many a public policy. When it gives the word and applies the heat, council is normally quick to respond.”

He explained that Toledo’s weak political parties, unimpressive government leaders, and politically disinterested unions and business community leave a political power void in the city, which The Blade is left to fill.

Mr. Christenson lists many of the paper’s accomplishments in achieving reform and civic progress, then asks: “Why, then, is Block regarded with something short of affection in Toledo, at least in political, professional, and business circles?”

His answer is that Mr. Block “doesn’t appear to care whether he is liked or not. Rather, he seems to prefer being respected and, perhaps, feared.”

Mr. Block was never far from the center of public discussion. In 1975, he even became the centerpiece of the city’s mayoral race. Pamela Daoust, a council member, ran against Mr. Kessler, the incumbent, on the strength of a single issue: Paul Block, Jr.

“There is no question The Blade has the power to make or break politicians,” Mrs. Daoust said, in one of many attacks against Mr. Block. “I think the time has come for people to take the decision out of the hands of party bosses and publishers.”

Mrs. Daoust lost by 17,000 votes, of 103,000 cast.

Some of the most potent criticism Mr. Block faced was from those who believed a newspaper publisher should not get involved in civic matters such as the port authority or MCO. The newspaper’s job, they argued, is to be a neutral referee, not an active participant.

During his lifetime, Mr. Block agreed that he would have much rather stayed on the sidelines. But he said he entered the fray only when it seemed that the city’s leaders seemed unwilling or incapable of fulfilling an important goal.

“A resident publisher who lives where his newspaper is will be much more active in community affairs than an absentee publisher,” Mr. Willey said. “Paul, as a newspaper publisher, was exceptionally interested and devoted to his community, and I think that made him fairly unusual.”

When he believed his involvement was necessary, he made it as brief as possible. He was the first chairman of the board of both the port authority and MCO. But in each case, he served for only a few years and then left the board, even though he could have stayed on and run both organizations for years if he so chose.

“He wanted to get the ball rolling and then get out,” Allan Block said. “He knew it was a conflict of interest, and he got involved in things only reluctantly.”

Mr. Block was married three times. His first marriage, to Eleana Barnes Conley in 1940, ended in divorce seven years later. The marriage produced a son, Cyrus, a cinematographer who splits his time between Santa Barbara, Calif., and Pender Island, British Columbia.

In 1948, Mr. Block married Marjorie McNab Main, a Blade reporter. John Robinson and Allan Block are the children of that marriage. Mrs. Block, who used the first name Marge in her byline, was on The Blade Co. board of directors before her death in September, 1960.

In 1965, he married Mary Gall Petok, with whom he remained until his death in 1987. She lives in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Mr. Block was unable to accomplish some of the objectives he set in his lifetime. For example, for decades, he pushed for Toledo to change from a city manager to a strong mayor form of government. He believed that having an unelected city manager running the city led to the lack of civic leadership he saw as one of Toledo’s biggest problems.

But voters rejected the strong mayor form every time they were asked during Mr. Block’s lifetime. It wasn’t until 1992, five years after his death, that Toledoans supported the change.

As Mr. Block himself said in 1979: “It’s The Blade. I don’t do things as an individual. The Blade has been doing things around here for 120 years.”