Wednesday, Apr 25, 2018
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John A. McWilliam, 1930-2011: Port Authority's clout grew under CEO's leadership

John A. McWilliam, who as chief executive of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority expanded the reach and reputation of the agency, died Wednesday in his West Toledo home of an apparent heart attack. He was 81.

He and his wife, Patricia, had returned hours earlier from Palm Springs, Calif., where they spent winters the last 20 years.

Mr. McWilliam, a port authority employee for more than 30 years, was hired as a staff attorney in 1958. He was president and chief executive officer when he retired at the end of 1988.

"The community and certainly our organization owe a debt of gratitude to John McWilliam," Paul Toth, now port authority president, said.

"When John walked into a room, he commanded respect," Mr. Toth, who was hired by the port as a project engineer in 1988, said. "He raised the reputation of Toledo as one of the top ports in the country."

During Mr. McWilliam's tenure, the port authority took over operations of Toledo Express Airport and Metcalf Field, as it was named then, and took on the mantle of economic development. The seaport set cargo-export records.

"He was out in front of all these things," Frank E. Miller, former seaport director, said. "He was never one to take much credit. He was always just getting it done."

The port authority came to play "an increasingly important role in our community," Dr. Richard Ruppert, a former port board chairman, said. "John was one of the major people who did that."

The port authority was the first in Ohio when it was formed in 1955, with the late Paul Block, Jr., co-publisher of The Blade from 1942 to 1987, as its first chairman. Mr. McWilliam came aboard as a relatively new lawyer and worked closely with such port authority founders as Mr. Block and W.W. Knight, Jr.

"I was hired because [the port authority was] looking for someone with real estate experience, and I had spent the first two years with Gulf Oil Co. after getting my law degree," Mr. McWilliam told The Blade at his retirement.

What became the Port of Toledo was a cattail-filled marsh as Mr. McWilliam carried out his first assignment: delivering a check to Cleveland for the first 800-foot section of what was to become the port's 4,100-foot-long general cargo docks.

He was appointed manager of development in 1967; director of development the next year, and general manager of the port authority in 1970. The port board added "chief executive officer" to his title in 1972, replacing Louis C. Purdey in the top managerial post. He often cited Mr. Purdey and E.O. "Archie" Jewell, the port's first manager, as mentors.

Mr. McWilliam became executive director in 1977. He was named president in 1979.

One strength was in navigating the strong personalities on the port's board of directors. "He was one of the most intellectually honest men I've ever known in his ability to work with the port board," Mr. Miller said.

He traveled to South America, Asia, and the former Soviet Union to win business for the port and was a leader in many professional groups. He was a former president of the American Association of Port Authorities and a delegate to the Great Lakes Commission. President Gerald Ford named him to a federal coastal zone management committee.

Born in Toledo, he was a 1948 graduate of DeVilbiss High School and received a bachelor's degree in 1952 from Dartmouth College. He received his law degree from the University of Toledo law school in 1956.

While working, he was able to play golf once a week at most. He made up for it in retirement. He had been senior club champion at Highland Meadows Golf Club and Catawba Island Club. He took jazz piano lessons and played "mostly for his pleasure and for the granddaughters. They enjoyed it," his wife said.

Surviving are his wife, Patricia, whom he married April 4, 1953; daughters, Ann Faris McWilliam and Amy McWilliam Thayer; son, John L.; sister, Janet McWilliam Smith, and two granddaughters.

Memorial services will be at 11 a.m. Monday in First Congregational Church, where he was a longtime member. Arrangements are by the Walker Funeral Home.

The family suggests tributes to the American Heart Association or the Rotary Club of Toledo.

Contact Mark Zaborney at: or 419-724-6182.

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