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Published: Thursday, 8/11/2011

William J. Ensign, 1924-2011: Ex-mayor also led youth agency


William J. Ensign, who unseated an incumbent Toledo mayor and roared to victory in his first bid for public office, died Monday in Mother Angeline McCrory Manor in Columbus, where he lived the last four years. He was 87.

Mr. Ensign, formerly of the Westmoreland neighborhood of West Toledo, had Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease, daughter Maria Sulewski said.

His election in 1967 was an upset. He was recruited by the Democratic Party to challenge Mayor John Potter, a Republican in office since 1961 who in 1965 became the first Toledo mayor in decades chosen by direct vote. Mr. Ensign won over voters as he spoke about crime in the streets, an understaffed police force, and Mr. Potter’s role in City Council’s approval of a fair housing ordinance.

“He was a very strong contestant, but he had his position [on the housing law] and I had mine,” said Mr. Potter, a retired judge of U.S. District Court in Toledo. “He was a worthwhile person. He was a congenial guy, but he was strong for what he believed in.”

Mr. Ensign was re-elected by landslide in 1969.

“He wanted Toledo to be above it and be the community he felt it was,” his daughter said, “an example of what a middle-class, working community could be like, with people getting along.”

Money woes plagued his last months in office, and city workers were threatened with layoffs. He resigned in January, 1971, after he was named by Gov. John Gilligan as director of the Ohio Youth Commission. In a five-page statement, he listed his administration’s accomplishments, from new swimming pools to a handgun control law.

“He was bright and engaging and never had a bad word about anybody, including me, his political adversary,” said Andy Douglas, a former Ohio Supreme Court justice who was a Republican on council while Mr. Ensign was mayor. “He was fully and totally dedicated to the city.”

He was succeeded by Harry Kessler. In June, 1974, Mr. Ensign transferred to the Ohio department of administrative services. In 1975, he was hired by Ohio Dominican University in Columbus as director of its criminal justice program.

“I think that was his great love, shaping young minds to think in depth about things,” said Robert Savage, co-founder of financial services firm Savage and Associates, and vice mayor in Mr. Ensign’s first term.

He was born June 21, 1924, and grew up in Cleveland. He was a Marine Corps drill sergeant in World War II and served on Guam and in China. He was a sociologist and criminologist with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Notre Dame. A job as a probation officer brought him to Toledo in 1951. He was Lucas County welfare director from 1963 until his election as mayor.

He was a drummer and pianist, receiving his first drumsticks at 6. He played with the Cleveland Philharmonic and the Marine Corps band and was a college drum major.

Surviving are his wife, Joan, whom he married Nov. 18, 1950; daughters, Maria Sulewski, Kimberly Ensign, and Madonna VanFossen; sons, Christopher, Joel, and Thomas Ensign; 10 grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.

Services will be at 10 a.m. Friday in St. Joseph Chapel, Mother Angeline McCrory Manor, Columbus, where visitors may call after 8:30 a.m. Arrangements are by Egan-Ryan Funeral Home, Columbus.

The family suggests tributes to the Mother Angeline McCrory Home, Columbus.

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

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