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Published: Saturday, 3/25/2000

Tony Nassr: Early aviator, the Daring Syrian wowed the world with his aerial exploits


Nearly a century ago, the young Anthony "Tony" Nassr dazzled the community - and even U.S. President William Howard Taft - with his daredevil aerial feats.

Dubbed the "Daring Syrian" by the local press, the pioneer aviator's aerial exploits in Toledo landed him on the front page of the New York Times in 1908.

Tony Nassr was born in New Orleans around 1880 and settled in Toledo with his parents in 1881. Michael H. Nassr, an affluent businessman and leader of the budding Arab community here, provided the financial support for his son's endeavors.

Tony constructed an airship and its engine. Shaped like a sausage, the flying machine was covered with Japanese silk sewn together in a quilted pattern, with linen cord drag ropes tying the balloon down. He operated the hydrogen gas-filled balloon from a spruce framework during flight.

Aviation in those days was dangerous, and Nassr had several close calls.

"He is lithe and agile in his movements, voluble in his conversation, and impresses one as being a rather extraordinary man, who not only knows what he is talking about, but has the nerve and courage to execute his plans," The Toledo Blade wrote about the aviator in 1906.

His aerial feats entertained thousands. Excited crowds came in horse-drawn buggies, or riding bicycles, and gathered in the area across from Walbridge Park. Nassr stored his dirigible in a large circus-style tent in the park and from here, launched the novel flights.

Spectators dressed in high fashion for the event; women sporting stylish hats with bows and flowers, some carrying parasols to provide relief from the sun, while men donned jackets and bowler and derby hats.

On a July, 1908, afternoon, the Toledo aeronaut completed a series of flights from Walbridge Park with hundreds watching. First landing on the roof of the former Salvation Army building on Perry Street, Nassr then flew until he landed on Spielbush Avenue near the courthouse. On the next attempt that day his craft became unmanageable, knocking a chimney off a Canton Street house and cutting telephone wires before it fell on Smith and Canton streets.

Nassr put his aerial expertise to use during World War I when he commanded at the air defense base in New York and was the official army balloon inspector in Akron. In 1927, he became the director of Toledo's first airport, on Stickney Avenue.

His relatives say Nassr, who died in 1960, had a flashy personality. Hundreds of boys eagerly tailed the pioneer aviator. Henry Glockman even talked of starting a group with the catchy name: Boys Who Used to Hold Ropes for Tony Nassr's First Balloon and Dirigible Flights at Bellevue Park in the Early Part of the Century Society.

"The boys today have Hopalong," [Cassidy], said Henry Glockman in 1951. "We had Tony Nassr."

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