A mainstay in the Ohio Statehouse: Alumnus’ gift to support college’s leadership scholarships
William Blair ’70 was raised in Canton, Ohio. He still owns a house there as well as one in the Columbus suburb of Upper Arlington. But Blair is most at home when he’s roaming the great halls of the Ohio Statehouse.
For nearly 50 years, Blair has worked within the state’s legislative hub in various capacities, which are highlighted by the past four decades as a lobbyist.
A Statehouse tour with Blair won’t be quick. Nearly every passerby knows him, and more want to stop and chat. People compliment him, calling him a “great Ohioan” and “true American.”
While standing in the rear of an Ohio Senate hearing, Blair can provide instant biographies on just about everyone in the room. From memory, Blair can rattle off educational backgrounds, what they did before being a legislator, and how they voted on bills three years ago.
“It’s just part of the job,” Blair said. “It’s my job to know about these people.”
Since 1976, Blair has lobbied on behalf of seemingly countless art-related ventures within the state, such as symphonies, art institutions, museums, playhouses, ballets, and operas. Other clients include social service agencies, public broadcasting, zoos, and historical societies.
And Blair will be the first to tell you that his job – one that, as a student, he never fathomed he could even be paid to do – has been more than he could ever dream.
Blair entered Ohio State as an undergraduate keyboard major, but his initial goals changed. And early in his undergraduate career at Ohio State, Blair began to work at the Statehouse for a Canton senator. Blair was slowly doled increasing amounts of responsibility.
“I loved everything about being at the Statehouse,” he said. “I would hang out down here as much as possible.”
Blair even joked that – as he progressed through his education at Ohio State – he “may” have missed classes here and there while working in the state legislature. Spending time with legislators, Blair learned the prominent role of attorneys and he went on to enroll in law school.
By 1970, he had earned a master’s degree in political science in addition to his law degree and undergraduate degree. After graduating, Blair began work as a prosecutor in Canton and also assisted on the 1974 campaign of John Glenn, who would win a seat on the U.S. Senate.
He stopped prosecuting and opened a general practice law firm in Canton in the mid-1970s. However, the general practice work was not something Blair particularly enjoyed.
“Then I started to get a few questions from people about help that they needed down in the Statehouse,” he said. “People would say, ‘You’ve spent a lot of time down there, do you think you would be able to help us out?’”
Blair said that he initially was doing the work pro bono, but then the organizations he was lobbying for offered to pay him for the work.
“That was probably the first time that I actually thought “Maybe this was a way that I could make a living,’” he said.
Blair and his business partner, William Joseph, started the lobbying organization, Ohio Citizens for the Arts, in 1976. Blair splits time between a home in Canton and Columbus. He also spends some time in Washington, D.C., lobbying for many interests including a consortium formed to reduce the price of titanium, of critical importance to the nation’s defense which could also benefit the northeast Ohio economy.
He admits that lobbying for arts organizations comes naturally because of his interest in the field.
“The arts have been a very important part of my life,” he said. “I want nothing more than for everyone to have the benefits of these great gifts. I am not a very selfless person, and this is the most selfless thing that I can do.”
Blair was the founding president of the Ohio Foundation of the Arts, Inc., another statewide arts service corporation. He also is a past chairman of the American Arts Alliance in Washington, D.C., and is the founding chairman of the Alliance of Arts Advocates, the nation’s first arts political action committee.
“The high parts of my life have been made better by great art and music and the low parts of my life have been made bearable by the arts as well,” he said. “Support for the arts is always on the chopping block and we hope to maintain the fabulous fabric of art that already exists throughout the state and nation.”
He has also been chairman of the Ohio State Advocates, which educates OSU alumni on issues of importance to the University and how to contact their state and federal representatives.
In 2009, Blair showed his appreciation to The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law by making a generous gift to the College’s Leadership Scholarship initiative. Blair’s gift will be used to provide financial assistance to Moritz students with demonstrated leadership potential.
“My goal was to help students,” he said. “I hope that this allows a really qualified person who could not otherwise come to law school have the opportunity to do so. If it can go to a student who would come out of law school and go into some sort of government service that would make me quite happy.”
Blair said that he is continually and pleasantly surprised at how far OSU has come since he was enrolled. The College – and University as a whole – have taken substantial strides over the past several years, he said.
“Ohio State is just so much a better school than when I went,” he said. “Gordon Gee has been terrific. I am so happy he is back leading us. Alan Michaels has done a great job as dean. The school is getting better and better.”