Gene Damschroder, who was killed yesterday when an airplane he was piloting crashed, was one of the state's most colorful legislators during his 10 years in the Ohio House of Representatives.
The 86-year-old from Fremont tried to make a political comeback this year, but he failed in the Republican primary. He lost to incumbent state Rep. Jeff Wagner (R., Sycamore), who said Mr. Damschroder "worked very hard."
"The two things Gene was really passionate about in his life were politics and flying, and he was involved in both in the last year of his life, right up to the end," Mr. Wagner said. "He was a one-of-a-kind individual."
Mr. Damschroder, a Republican and owner of Fremont Airport, served in the statehouse from 1973 to 1983. He said people kept asking him to run again. "People come in and tell me how bad things are and how good I did," Mr. Damschroder said earlier this year.
Justin Smith, the Republican Party chairman of Sandusky County, said Mr. Damschroder's involvement with the annual Lions Club pancake breakfast was a tradition. His views centered on saving the taxpayers' money.
"He was running to cut down spending in Columbus. I think that was his big issue. For his age, he was very energetic. He attended every Republican event we had, and he'd always bring a sense of humor when he was speaking," Mr. Smith said.
Mr. Damschroder was critical of the Seneca County commissioners for allowing the historic courthouse to deteriorate. And he was critical of Mr. Wagner for allowing creation of megafarms without a vote of the citizenry. Mr. Wagner said a law passed before he was in office and renewed during his tenure placed oversight of large livestock operations under the Department of Agriculture for the first time.
Mr. Damschroder's son, Rex, who held the same House seat from 1995 to 2003, said his father was in good health and was still running the airport and flying every day.
"He was a good pilot. He had just thousands of hours of experience," Rex Damschroder said. "He was not thinking of retiring."
He said he did not think his father's age or health was a factor in the accident.
When Mr. Damschroder ran in 1972 he used his farm and flying background to gain notice.
He suggested that every child on welfare be given a 20-foot-square plot of state land and a packet of seeds rather than a government handout, and he flew his plane with a trailing sign urging voters to support him.
As a lawmaker, he was known for his average-guy statements and anti-welfare views. Early in his first term he proposed requiring sterilization of fathers who refused to support their minor children and unwed mothers who were receiving state aid and gave birth to a third illegitimate child.
In 1977, he refunded $7,000 from a pay raise lawmakers had voted themselves two years earlier because he thought lawmakers were overpaid.
He was sometimes dubbed the "class clown" by fellow legislators for some of his actions.
In 1976, he apologized "to anyone who was offended" by a remark he made in several political appearances that "the Republicans got rid of Nixon for lying and got rid of [former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Earl] Butz for telling the truth." The reference was to derogatory racial remarks Mr. Butz made that cost him his job.
Former Democratic state Rep. Fred Deering, 85, said that as a member of the political minority and as an ultraconservative, Mr. Damschroder had little success getting bills passed.
"He always made a lot of friends with his humor. Most everything he did followed his conservative philosophy," said Mr. Deering, who served in a neighboring district representing Ottawa County from 1973 to 1993.
"Nobody took a lot of these things too seriously. I remember he came up with legislation to have farmers mow the median strips [of highways] for hay. He asked me to sign on the bill with him," Mr. Deering said.
He said Mr. Damschroder ultimately was unable to get re-elected because he was too conservative for his constituents.
U.S. Rep. Bob Latta (R., Bowling Green) did not serve with Mr. Damschroder in the statehouse, but said he spent many days campaigning with him for his father, retired Congressman Delbert Latta.
"Campaigning with him was always a treat," Mr. Latta said, recalling times that Mr. Damschroder and he would pass out literature at the Sandusky County Fair.
"One thing about Gene Damschroder was if he told you something, you never had to worry about him telling someone else something different," Mr. Latta said. "He stood by his word 110 percent."
State Rep. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green), who entered the legislature two years after Mr. Damschroder's term ended, said he knew him from political events in the 1970s.
"He was one of the staunchest, bedrock, conservative Republicans. He was kind of a political character. He lit up a room. It didn't take more than a few seconds before everyone in a hall of two or three hundred people knew he was there," Mr. Gardner said.
Mr. Damschroder was elected in 1972 to what was then called the 85th House District and was defeated in 1982 in the Republican primary.
He attempted several comebacks. He briefly ran in 1994 for the reapportioned 89th House District against incumbent Democratic state Rep. Dwight Wise (D., Fremont) but dropped out in favor of his son, who was elected.
Mr. Wise had kind words for the opponent he ran against in 1984 and 1986.
"He was always available for anyone who wanted to talk to him," Mr. Wise said.
"He was a real likable man, who could talk and relate to anybody."
In 1990, he ran for Sandusky County commissioner, but lost to Democrat John Battles.
He was also a square dance caller and banjo player, said Peggi Miller, 65, of Fremont, who knew Mr. Damschroder well and worked on his son's political campaigns.
"He played the banjo very well. He used to play it in the House of Representatives during breaks," Ms. Miller said.
Reared on a farm near Elmore, Ohio, Mr. Damschroder was a Navy pilot during World War II, although the fighting ended just about the time he received his wings and was ready for combat.
He ran a machine shop in Florida, worked on a factory in Detroit, and farmed in Kansas for a year before he moved to a 160-acre farm near Green Springs, Ohio, in 1949.
He cut out a grassy plot as a strip for landing his own airplane, but soon other farmers and some corporations were keeping their planes there.
He began selling gasoline and other services, then began dreaming of creating his own full-fledged airport.
He bought a 56-acre wood tract on State Rt. 53, southwest of Fremont, cleared the trees, bulldozed the land, and built cross landing strips.
Mr. Damschroder celebrated a grand opening in 1963 of the then-Fremont Progress Airport, later shortened to Fremont Airport. Today, the airport has one paved runway running east-west 4,137 feet, and a north-south grass runway.
Aided by loans from neighboring farmers and various corporations, he installed hangars, field lights, radio beacons, and other equipment.
Many of the investors got their money back on fuel, landing and parking fees, services, and charter trips. He was proud that it was built entirely without taxpayer assistance. The airport was constructed before the state government embarked on a program of building an airport in every county.
Operation of the airport was a family affair. Mr. Damschroder's wife, Lulu, and all five of their children were qualified as pilots.
Early in the operation, they lived in one end of the hangar and they were able to give 24-hour service, each one helping in pumping gasoline, handling radio communications with pilots, or washing and polishing some of the 45 or so planes housed there.
Mr. Damschroder is survived by his wife, Lulu, sons Rex and David, and daughters Dr. Bonnie Jones, Annette Williams, and Cheri Damschroder.
Staff writers Alex Parker and Jane Schmucker contributed to this report.
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