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Eugene 'Tex' Fondren, 1926-2011: WWII veteran dedicated life to repaying nuns

Eugene "Tex" Fondren, a Sylvania Township businessman who was brought up in a orphanage in Texas and worked for the Sisters of St. Francis Convent in Sylvania as a way to repay the Catholic nuns who raised him, died Tuesday in his home.

He was 85 and died of pancreatic cancer, his son Bruce said.

Mr. Fondren worked for the convent from 1954 to 1977 as its campus buildings and grounds maintenance manager. But that represented only part of his working days.

"Working for the convent was his 8-to-5 job," son Bruce said. "The before hours and after hours were spent doing side jobs."

His side jobs grew into Fondren Enterprises/King Road Storage, which includes three warehouses and trucking and excavating businesses.

His wife of 60 years, Naomi, was the bookkeeper.

The warehouses were a business incubator that provided jobs and opportunities for less fortunate people who needed a mentor or who would not have the chance to go into business on their own, Bruce Fondren said.

Some of the businesses included woodworking, a saw mill, body shop, and furniture refinishing, he said.

"If you wanted to start up a store or have a space for after-hours jobs, he would rent out part of the warehouse," Bruce Fondren said.

His father was born Nov. 3, 1926, in Texarkana, Texas, the youngest of 10 children. His father, Will Fondren, died when Mr. Fondren was 6 months old. His mother, Ethel, was left financially strapped and placed Eugene and three siblings in orphanages.

"He was disadvantaged as a child," son Bruce said. "His entire life was to pay back" the nuns who ran the orphanage in Dallas and the religious upbringing they gave him, Bruce Fondren said.

He began working as a welder in a shipyard and at an airport as a teenager. He got his pilot's license at age 17. He joined the Army and served as an ordnance technical sergeant during World War II.

He met his wife, Naomi, a Toledo native and Libbey High School graduate who served in the Navy, at a USO dance in Honolulu.

The couple married in 1946. They returned to Texas after discharge, but moved to Toledo after two years because she did not like the Texas heat.

Mrs. Fondren died in 2006, several months after their 60th wedding anniversary.

Mr. Fondren initially was employed by a local auto-parts manufacturer and a railroad shipping yard before taking the job at St. Francis.

After leaving St. Francis in 1977, he worked full time at his warehouse and excavating businesses until recently but maintained close ties with the convent, son Bruce said.

Son Mark said his father dedicated his life to his family and the Catholic Church.

"He was a servant," Mark said. "He set the example as a servant; he served his country and he served his community, whether through volunteer work or helping out at the church."

Mr. Fondren never lost touch with his siblings after their separation. As his own family grew, they spent vacations in Texas, visiting relatives and nurturing those bonds, his son Mark said.

In 1995, Mark, then serving aboard a naval destroyer, was able to bring his father aboard his vessel during a stopover in Hawaii as part of the Navy's Tiger Cruise program of allowing friends and family members to experience Navy life at sea.

The Hawaii trip allowed him to revisit sites from his Army days, his son said.

Mr. Fondren spent six days aboard the USS Merrill with his son.

Mr. Fondren was gregarious and enjoyed meeting new people, Mark Fondren said.

"In typical fashion, Dad had gone around and met everyone on the ship. I had been on it six months and he had been in places I've never seen. At the end of the six days, he'd met everybody, including people I'd never met," Mark said.

Mr. Fondren is survived by his sons, Larry, Bruce, Ralph, Brian, Patrick, and Mark; daughters, Linda Ross, Laura Fuchs, Jan Redman, and Mary Beakas; sisters, Sue Harris and Dottie Weston; 33 grandchildren, and 32 great-grandchildren.

A funeral Mass is to be at 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Joseph Catholic Church, Sylvania. Reeb Funeral Home is handling arrangements.

The family suggests tributes to the Sisters of St. Francis of Sylvania.

Contact Jim Sielicki at: jsielicki@theblade.com or 419-724-6050.

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