SANDUSKY - Martin Janis, 91, a native Toledoan who was the first director of what was then known as the Ohio Commission on Aging and who many advocates in the state refer to as "Mr. Aging" for his devotion to senior citizens, died Thursday at the Sandusky home of his daughter, where he lived the last five years.
Family members did not know the cause of death.
Many of Ohio's senior programs or services - from mobile meals to the state's 400-plus senior centers to the Golden Buckeye card, which provides discounts for seniors - can trace their start back to Mr. Janis, said Ken Mahan, a former deputy director of what is now known as the Ohio Department of Aging.
"They just didn't have that stuff before Martin came around," said Mr. Mahan, who worked with Mr. Janis for 20 years. "He truly cared about the elderly people in Ohio. He was a great person, and he truthfully was Mr. Aging in Ohio."
Mr. Janis was the son of Polish immigrants, a Woodward High School graduate, and a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy during World War II who served in stateside assignments.
Although he attended the University of Toledo for only one year, he rose to become president of Toledo's Consolidated Foods, the maker of Kuehmann Potato Chips.
The Junior Chamber of Commerce named him young man of the year in 1942.
He was a longtime board member of the Toledo Zoological Society and served as president of the society from 1952 to 1963.
During that time, lion and tiger cubs occasionally populated the Janis home on Scott Street in Maumee because Mr. Janis' wife, Anne, was adept at hand-raising the animals.
In 1967, Consolidated Foods went bankrupt, but by that time Mr. Janis already had begun what would become an active career in state government.
He served one term in the Ohio House of Representatives and ran unsuccessfully in 1962 as a Republican candidate for the Congressional seat held by incumbent Democrat Thomas Ludlow Ashley.
Then, in 1963, Gov. James Rhodes appointed him director of the Ohio Department of Mental Hygiene and Correction, which ran all the state hospitals and prisons. He held the post until 1970.
Governor Rhodes appointed him as founding director of the Ohio Commission on Aging in 1975, and he served for eight years.
During that time, he was tireless in his work on behalf of senior citizens, said Billie Johnson, executive director of the Area Office on Aging of Northwest Ohio. She knew Mr. Janis for 30 years and considers him a mentor.
"He was a real giant in the field of aging in the state of Ohio and was also recognized nationally for his innovative programs," she said.
For example, he pushed for the creation of the Golden Buckeye card, a discount program for senior citizens that was the first of its kind in the nation. Today, the card has been mailed to more than two million Ohioans 60 and older and now includes a discount program for prescription drugs.
Also under his watch, the state began helping establish senior centers - 256 during his tenure.
The state's first multipurpose senior center, which opened in 1979, is named after Mr. Janis. It is located in the southwest corner of the Ohio State Fairgrounds in Columbus.
The tiny Department of Aging grew from an agency with a $250,000 budget to one dispensing millions of dollars in aid for seniors.
The state's Department of Aging now has a $380 million annual budget.
"He was the founder of our department, and he really was an enthusiastic advocate," said Joan Lawrence, director of the Ohio Department of Aging. "He was on the ground floor when it all began and was the original Mr. Aging."
Ms. Johnson said Mr. Janis "sort of fell into the aging field" after being asked to start the commission by Governor Rhodes.
"But once he started, I think he personally and immediately became interested in it. He knew so many people who needed assistance," she said. "He always promoted giving older people choices and helping them remain independent. He was so strong about that."
In an interview with The Blade in 1997, Mr. Janis remarked that "You should have seen what it was like 35 years ago. No one was paying attention to the elderly."
After retiring in 1983, Mr. Janis spent a lot of time volunteering and offering advice on senior issues, Ms. Johnson said, including helping her organization.
He also wrote a book, The Joys of Aging, in which he described, with humor, what it's like to get older. Mr. Janis was fond of saying, "There are not old people, there are older people."
Aging is "all in the attitude," he told The Blade in a 1988 interview. "Some people say it's pollyanna-ish, but it's true. Don't think old! The fun is just beginning."
Mr. Janis and his wife, who also lived on River Road and Carskaddon Avenue in Toledo and in Columbus, moved to Sandusky to live with their daughter, Marlana Janis.
"I had great respect for what my father did," his daughter said. "He was very selfless and was very concerned with doing things to make life better for other people."
"He was a very cheerful and trusting person and always anxious to help," his wife said. "He never saw bad in anyone. He believed in people no matter what."
Surviving are his wife, Anne, to whom he was married for 63 years; daughter, Marlana Janis, and one grandson.
A memorial service will be held at a later date. The Groff Funeral Home, Sandusky, is handling arrangements.