Tom Blair, who for decades told the city’s story in snippets as a magazine editor and “three-dot” columnist for The San Diego Union and Tribune, died Tuesday morning, his family said.
The popular journalist passed away at Oakmont of Pacific Beach, a retirement community, after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, his son, Thomas, told Times of San Diego on Wednesday.
Thomas Harmon Blair Jr. was 74, said his son, who lives in St. Louis.
His ex-wife, Wendy Butler Blair, said he tested positive for COVID but was completely asymptomatic. But Alzheimer’s had advanced to the point he couldn’t swallow and wasn’t blinking. Wendy returned to see him at Christmas time, but was allowed only a Zoom call.
“He really didn’t know who anyone was. It was more for us,” she said.
Kevin Leap, one of his former publishers at San Diego Magazine, said on Facebook that Blair “was the heartbeat of San Diego for years, a dear longtime friend and colleague. This city and I are better because of you.”
In a phone interview, Thomas Blair III said his father was Mr. San Diego.
“That’s what I’ll always remember him as,” he said. “Everything he did he did for his family. He just wanted to make people laugh, make people smile.”
Asked about plans for a memorial service, Thomas said: “100%” It will be held in San Diego.
Music was his passion, his son said.
His extensive record collection included Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and “we used to take weekend trips to record stores from San Diego to L.A. And just spend the day finding records he didn’t have. That was his thing — music,” Thomas Blair said.
In fact, he was a professional singer for years with a 16-piece band — the Ira B. Liss Big Band Jazz Machine. Wendy Blair said she and Tom sang with a jazz trio called Caught in the Act and a rock group called Cluck and the Chickens, begun as a fraternity band.
(Band leader Liss said: “Yes, Tom was indeed our featured male vocalist approx 30 years ago and recorded on our first CD, ‘First Impressions.’ On behalf of the band, I wish to offer the Blair family our heartfelt condolences.”)
The younger Blair — a 43-year-old real-estate agent and company owner — said his dad also acted in a vaudeville-style show in La Jolla.
Wendy Butler Blair — now of Roanoke, Virginia — met her future husband in 1970 when Tom tried out for the SDSU production of “Carousel,” with Tom playing main character Billy Bigelow.
“I sewed his costume for him,” Wendy said.
In those days, San Diego State had a better theater department than UCLA and USC, said the Burbank native. “I was going to be a serious actress. … I sang and danced my way into the hearts of tens.”
Tom was a master bridge player, she said. He loved to read. But could never remember a joke. She called him a totally visual learner.
“If I wrote something down, he’d remember it forever. But if I told him I was going to go do something, it was hopeless,” she said.
After college, he went to Hollywood to make his name in the music business — living with Wendy’s father in Burbank. He made milkshakes at McDonald’s and worked for a time at the Palisadian-Post, a tiny paper in Pacific Palisades.
After a year or two, he returned to San Diego and was accepted into the Copley Editorial Training program.
He took an interest in politics, but grew “discouraged” with covering a bickering county Board of Supervisors and bored with zoning issues. Then came a note from Neil Morgan, the legendary city columnist, inviting him to assist.
Blair gradually took over the column, writing much of it even with Morgan’s name on top. Later he got his own column at the rival San Diego Union.
“He said that he always investigated every story like any reporter would …. but then condensed it down to two or three sentences,” Wendy said in a phone interview. (If it was more important, another reporter would “run with it.”)
On rare occasions, Blair devoted an entire column to a single subject. Wendy says one dealt with disgraced former Mayor Roger Hedgecock.
“Yes, he did bring down Roger Hedgecock and earned his wrath,” she said. “And that continued forever and ever.” His work helped lead to the undoing of notorious pyramid-schemer J. David Dominelli.
Wendy says the day Virginia closed down bed-and-breakfasts, Tripadvisor informed her that her three-room B&B was in the top 1% in the world.
“I just laughed and cried at the same time,” she said, recalling her 14 years cooking gourmet breakfasts for guests. Now she caters to traveling nurses (who wash their own clothes) and has time to write poetry. A year ago, a San Diego book was in the works. But the publisher went out of business.
Son Thomas said Blair’s Alzheimer’s was noticed in 2016 and diagnosed in 2018. He moved from his home in Palm Springs to Oakmont for memory care, and “two blocks from the beach didn’t hurt.”
Tom Blair was born in the southern Michigan town of Adrian. The son of Thomas Harmon Blair Sr. (and grandson of Thomas Blair — without a middle name) and Virginia Blair.
Blair’s father was a doctor who died when he was 8 or 9 , and the family moved to La Jolla when he was 10 or 11, his son said, and he attended La Jolla Elementary and La Jolla High School. His mother eventually became a secretary for U-T publisher Jim Copley.
He married Wendy Rushelle Butler and had Thomas as well as a daughter, Amy. Wendy and Tom divorced after almost 30 years of marriage in 2001 but remained good friends, his son said.
Don Bauder of Colorado, the former U-T financial editor, said he worked with Blair in print journalism and to a lesser extent TV, and called him a legend in San Diego media .
“He was witty, friendly and articulate — perfect qualities for a three-dot columnist in a metro daily who also did TV and radio,” Bauder said. “He built up a large following. … (As) editor of San Diego Magazine … his ability to build readership and an audience served him well.”
Retired Los Angeles Times veteran Tony Perry, who worked for years at the U-T, called Blair a San Diego treasure — “a journalist of great warmth and insight. He mastered a form that looks simple — the three-dot item column — but is devilishly difficult. “
Veteran San Diego freelance writer Thomas K. Arnold met Blair in the early 1980s — feeding him 50 tips for his column — and remained friends. They worked together at San Diego Magazine.
“He could talk about anything,” Arnold said. “He was probably the most famous person San Diego had for a while. Just a great guy. He knew how to live, he knew how to write.”
He hailed Blair’s “secret sauce” at the magazine — being a “damn good editor” with a “great eye for talent.” He hired Ron Donoho as managing editor.
Arnold said Blair led a high-powered social group called the Tom Club — including public relations exec Tom Gable, SDG&E Chairman Tom Page and “a bunch of other Toms” who’d go out for dinner and drinks.
“One time, we ended up at a strip club. I think it was [Blair’s] suggestion,” he said. (The minutes said “attendance was called. Present were Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom and Tom. The motion was called by Tom and seconded by Tom.”)
Arnold recalled Blair as always being frazzled about deadlines.
Once in the mid-1990s, Blair sent email intended for publisher Helen Copley. Instead it went to the entire staff. The note griped about his pay — but it was more than anyone else was getting.
“So that hastened his demise from there,” Arnold said.
David Kusumoto, a public relations executive and former KOGO radio editor, recounted Blair’s career in a 2010 blog post, saying it “reads like a page out of an Horatio Alger short story.”
Blair began work at the San Diego Evening Tribune in 1968 as a resident “gopher,” an unpaid intern, Kusumoto wrote.
After graduating in 1971 from San Diego State University, Blair joined the paper’s editorial training program.
“He steadily climbed the newsroom ladder as a reporter, later becoming a ghostwriter for columnist Neil Morgan at the Evening Tribune. He then, in 1982, in good-natured journalistic parlance, “turned traitor” — moving to the rival San Diego Union — and continued writing his stand-alone column after the two papers consolidated their operations in 1992,” Kusumoto wrote.
In 1995, he left to become editor of the monthly San Diego Magazine, where he shaped the iconic city publication for 15 years and continued his column.
In 2010, he left the magazine — where he also appeared on local TV and radio — and eventually returned to the merged San Diego Union-Tribune.
He left the paper a final time in 2012, and that April told former U-T colleague Bauder, who was now at the San Diego Reader: “I was fired on Monday without a lot of explanation,” adding that he was dispatched with a clear message: “The Tom Blair Era at the U-T is over.”
“I left the next day,” Blair was quoted as saying.
In August 2012, Brad Graves of the San Diego Business Journal reported that Blair had joined Sacramento-based California Strategies LLC, which specialized in public affairs, government relations and media relations.
“The business was founded by Bob White, a longtime aide to Pete Wilson, who served as California governor, senator and San Diego mayor,” Graves wrote.
California Strategies said Blair would work with company principals Ben Haddad and Craig Benedetto “in nurturing and maintaining day-to-day contact with members of the media, providing communications insights for clients and when needed, quick response crisis communications.”
Blair teamed with the Morgan to write a pictorial history book — “Yesterday’s San Diego.”
Gary F. Kurutz of the California Historical Society said in 1977: “Rich in anecdotal material, the authors in the introductory narrative have presented the reader with a splendid psychological analysis of San Diego.”
Kurutz added: “Morgan and Blair eloquently reflect on the town’s efforts to surpass Los Angeles and San Francisco as the great Pacific port, its failure to achieve that cherished goal, and its happy realization that mushrooming growth would most certainly destroy its enchanting environment.
“Morgan and Blair tantalize the reader by interjecting vignettes of a less serious nature. The story of the alluring and exotic theosophical center of Katherine Tingley, the heart-warming account of San Diego’s faithful but alcoholic dog Bum, the debacle of C. H. Towler’s 250-foot-long air machine, and the campaign to clean up the Stingaree red light district illustrate a few of the episodes that served to enrich the city’s character.”
On his own, Blair wrote “San Diego: World Class City,” published in 1998.
Besides his former wife, Blair is survived by his partner, Ed Schuppert of San Diego; a sister, Karen Maynard, his son and daughter; and three grandchildren.
Thomas Blair said his dad wrote no memoir.
“His life spoke for itself, you know?” he said, and referring to his columns: “They’re all available.”
Updated at 9 p.m. Jan. 27, 2021