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Blair Made a Name for Everyone Else

By Ken Denlinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 16, 1995

In sports, the publicists are the people who put everyone else ahead of themselves, who push others toward and into the spotlight, whose best work almost always means that someone else basks in applause. They are paid to do that, of course, but the best ones gravitate naturally toward charity. That's why most of the prominent athletes in the Washington area over the past 45 years today mourn a man who almost never got his name in the papers, Joe Blair.

Blair, 72, who died yesterday of a stroke-related illness in a Pittsburgh hospital, was a pioneer in sports publicity, first and last (1950-62 and from 1983 on) with his beloved University of Maryland and in between with the Washington Redskins. So thoughtful was he that one of Maryland's most prominent athletes, former quarterback Jack Scarbath, named his second son Blair.

"He was born in 1954," Scarbath said over the phone from his home in Rising Sun, Md. "I was with the Redskins at the time, on a trip. We were living in College Park. Labor started sooner than expected and Joe {who had helped Scarbath become an all-American two years earlier} took Lynn to the hospital. Over the years, Joe spent most of his holidays with us -- and lots of time each summer."

A bachelor, Blair considered players and coaches his family. Many stayed at his Silver Spring home, which he bought in 1967 from former Redskins tight end Pat Richter, now the athletic director at the University of Wisconsin.

He received hundreds of cards in the hospital. Former Maryland football coach Bobby Ross and former Redskins general manager Bobby Beathard were among those who sent flowers.

"I've left messages for Billy Kilmer and Len Hauss," said former Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen. "Joe was like a mother to all of us, because he took care of us for so long. When there was turmoil, Joe always stayed calm. He'd say: Don't worry. I'll take care of it.' "

Blair was distinctive in many ways. Each news release was a "pulitzer." Nothing in those releases, even proper names, was capitalized. He wore a bow tie, smoked much too much, loved tomatoes and managed to work with such enormous egos and eccentrics as Jim Tatum, Vince Lombardi, George Allen, Joe Don Looney and Duane Thomas. Last week against Virginia, Maryland quarterback Scott Milanovich and linebacker Kevin Plank each had a piece of tape on the back of his helmet with the script: "joe."

At Maryland and with the Redskins, Blair helped lead the way for generations of publicists from the days of making the rounds of newspaper offices into an era often dominated by television and events that drew worldwide attention. The NFL often asked him to work its Super Bowls. Yet Blair also took time to get attention to the less-heralded teams at Maryland.

Blair combined the formal and the personal, such as the time he said he enjoyed his working relationship with then-Redskins coach Jack Pardee and also the fact that Pardee's wife, Phyllis, "makes terrific spaghetti."

Sometimes, Blair's tunnel vision was costly. He once was driving a reporter to the site of an exhibition game in Raleigh, N.C., when he noticed a police roadblock about 75 yards away. Blair suddenly realized he hadn't renewed his driver's license for at least two years and suggested he and the reporter exchange places. After the front-seat squirming had taken place, Blair looked in the rearview mirror -- and saw two policemen in the car behind. Laughing.

Fittingly, Blair was never much for mechanical innovations. He would peck away at a computer, but do his serious work on a typewriter. Cyberspace messages were okay. A phone call always was better.

There will be a service Nov. 30 in the Memorial Chapel at Maryland. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to the Joe Blair Scholarship Fund, P.O. Box 295, College Park, Md., 20741.

© 1995 The Washington Post Company

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