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Published: Monday, 4/14/2003

Ex-mayor sold candy with Danny Thomas

Michael J. Damas, a former mayor of Toledo who had been a state legislator, city councilman, and member of the Toledo Board of Education and was an early advocate of establishing a state medical college in Toledo, died yesterday in Toledo Hospital. He was 90.

Mr. Damas, who'd been ill for several months, died of congestive heart failure, his nephew, James Damas, said.

Mr. Damas was credited with being the first Arab-American mayor of a large city.

His 1989 defeat for election to a third four-year term on the school board ended his career in public office, 50 years after his first unsuccessful run for City Council.

Mr. Damas, always given to colorful forthrightness, kept himself in the public eye. He owned commercial properties and operated Erie Parking Co. and was at loggerheads with city planning officials, City Council, and Mayor Carty Finkbeiner in 1996 because he wanted to level the former Junior Achievement building downtown and make it a parking lot.

He took out a series of small newspaper ads in 1997 to criticize Mr. Finkbeiner - some in verse, some in prose, but all scathing.

Throughout his career, he didn't hesitate to make a point through letters to the editor. In 1984, after two years as school board president, he took out an ad in The Blade, a full-page long and several columns wide, to refute one of the newspaper's editorials. He closed by telling the editorial writers “to take a good jump in the Maumee River.”

He retired in 1980 as administrator of the former Toledo Health & Retiree Center, where he worked for 25 years.

Mr. Damas was born in Charleston, W.Va., the son of Joseph and Hulda, who had fled their village in Lebanon so Joseph would be spared service in the Ottoman military. The family moved from coal country to Toledo because of the city's good-paying factory jobs.

He grew up on Huron Street in a section of North Toledo sometimes called “Little Syria.” He delivered The Blade, the former Toledo Times, and the former Toledo News-Bee. He and another neighborhood boy, Amos Jacobs - later known to the world as Danny Thomas - sold candy and boxes of taffy kisses during intermission at the Empire Theatre downtown.

He championed his heritage before pride in ethnic identity was in vogue.

“I was never discriminated against,” Mr. Damas told The Blade in 2000. “Everybody liked the Arab people. We knew everyone, and they knew us.”

A graduate of Waite High School, Mr. Damas attended the University of Toledo. He left college during the Depression to take a job at the former Electric Auto-Lite Co.

A Democrat, he ran unsuccessfully for council in 1939. Later, while he was an Army staff sergeant in Italy during World War II, he ran again for council in 1945, with his sister Frances co-ordinating the campaign in Toledo, but he lost.

He was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives in 1948. Early on, he submitted a bill to create a state fair employment practices commission to monitor employers and unions for signs of racial or religious discrimination. He chaired a state study commission on chronic alcoholics.

He was re-elected in 1950, defeated for City Council in 1951, and elected to his third legislative term in 1952.

He was elected to council in 1953, when mayors were councilmen chosen by their council colleagues. In December, 1959, Mr. Damas became mayor by a 5-4 council vote, defeating Republican Max Reddish, who supported the city manager system. Voters the month before had returned Mr. Damas to council, but they had kept the city manager system intact by defeating a measure to permit the election of a strong mayor, which Mr. Damas supported.

As mayor, he appointed members of the Toledo Medical School Study Committee after a visiting Chicago hospital consultant suggested that a town of Toledo's size should have a medical school. Paul Block, Jr., co-publisher of The Blade, had reached that conclusion several years earlier.

Mr. Damas was a charter member of the Medical College of Ohio Foundation. He was appointed in December, 1971, to a term on the MCO board of trustees. The college later awarded him an honorary doctor of science degree.

He formed the Toledo Cultural Commission, which later became the Arts Commission of Greater Toledo.

Mr. Damas was elected to the Toledo school board in 1981 and was the unanimous choice of the board to be its president in 1982. Though he worked for the UAW-initiated health and retiree center, he often was at odds with school employee unions.

In 1983, he broke ranks with fellow Democrats and, with the support of two Republicans, was re-elected board president, a breach that cost him the party endorsement in 1985. The party endorsed him four years later, but he was defeated.

Mr. Damas was a leader of his church, St. George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral, which began in his old neighborhood. He was a former parish council chairman and was honored for exceptional service by the archdiocese.

A collection of 26 short stories he wrote, The Day Israel Died ... And Lived, was published in 1974. He said its intent was to show through vignettes that there was a solution to the strife of the Middle East.

Mr. Damas received the Distinguished Citizenship Award in 1984 from the International Institute of Greater Toledo and was honored in 1990 by the Greater Toledo Association of Arab-Americans.

He and the former Rose Ann Farris married in 1948. She died in January, 1989.

Surviving are his brothers, Fred and Larry Damas.

Services are pending. The Ansberg-West Funeral Home is handling arrangements. The family suggests tributes to St. George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral.



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