William Niehous, an Owens-Illinois Inc. executive whose kidnapping and nearly 3½-year captivity by Venezuelan guerrillas made international news and whose later volunteer work for education earned plaudits, died Thursday in Sunset House, where he lived since July. He was 82.
Mr. Niehous of Ottawa Hills had Alzheimer’s disease, his wife Donna said.
He was barely recognizable on June 29, 1979, as he escaped during a gun battle that erupted as police unwittingly entered the jungle camp where he was held. The officers had been looking for cattle rustlers. He and his family were reunited less than 48 hours later at Toledo Express Airport.
He had been held for three years, four months, and three days.
A news conference had been arranged in a hangar, and he wanted to go through with it, recalled Jack Paquette, who was O-I vice president of corporate relations.
“He wanted to stay in his jungle garb,” Mr. Paquette said. “He looked like a wild man with his beard and the clothes he had been wearing.”
Mr. Niehous was drugged and kidnapped from his suburban Caracas home on Feb. 27, 1976, by seven gunman. A group, described in news accounts as leftist, issued a communique charging O-I with meddling in Venezuela’s internal affairs. The guerrillas issued demands, and the Niehous family appealed for his safety and release. O-I met one condition, publishing the guerrillas’ manifesto in a New York Times advertisement, yet Mr. Niehous remained a hostage.
Although no parades or rallies marked Mr. Niehous’ homecoming, then-Mayor Doug DeGood proclaimed July 29, 1979, as “Welcome Home William ‘Bill’ Niehous Day,” and Mr. Niehous received a U.S. flag that flew over the Capitol courtesy of U.S. Sen. John Glenn. By mid-September, he was back to work at O-I in Toledo, where he was appointed vice president of the corporate staff.
“He came back apparently emotionally unscathed,” said David Saunders, a friend since childhood. “I think it was a miracle, and so did most people.”
Mr. Niehous left O-I in the late 1980s to become an executive vice president with Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center. He later was coordinator of a plastics recycling program through Rutgers University and became vice president of work force development at the University of Toledo’s Edison Industrial Systems for Manufacturing Excellence.
In 2007, he was honored as a finalist in the local Jefferson Awards for Public Service. Judges cited his contribution to the founding of Toledo Technology Academy in the former DeVilbiss High School and his work with Partners in Education.
“If you got to talk with him, you felt his enthusiasm and zest for life. This was a person who treasured life and wanted to do more with it,” said Crystal Ellis, a former superintendent of Toledo Public Schools.
“Everybody who had a chance to meet or work with Bill were inspired by it. He was one of our community heroes we need to salute.”
He was born Aug. 11, 1931, to Ruth and Henry Niehous and grew up on Harvard Boulevard in South Toledo and attended Harvard School. He was a graduate of Libbey High School, where he played football and basketball. He received a bachelor’s degree from Miami University.
He was hired by O-I in the 1950s after he completed Army service that included duty as a stenographer during the talks that ended hostilities in the Korean War. In 1961, he became a department supervisor for Vineland, N.J., plant of O-I’s Kimble Products.
He was assigned to Mexico City in 1967 to be director of glass companies in which O-I had an ownership interest.
Mr. Niehous was president of an O-I affiliate in Spain from 1971-74, when the glassmaker presented an opportunity in Venezuela. He and his wife were hesitant. “We decided, ‘One more time.’ That was a big mistake,” his wife said.
Surviving are his wife, Donna, whom he married July 17, 1954; sons, Mark and Craig; sister, Judith Swayne, and four grandchildren.
Visitation will be from 4-8 p.m. Monday in the Walker Funeral Home, Sylvania Township. Memorial services are scheduled for 11 a.m. Tuesday in St. Michael’s in the Hills Episcopal Church, where he was a member. The family suggests tributes to the Alzheimer’s Association; YMCA; Partners in Education; the church, or a charity of the donor’s choice.
Contact Mark Zaborney at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6182.
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