LOUIS BLAIR

LOUIS BLAIR

Louis Helion Blair, who tried not to squander a minute of life, lost his on Sept. 5 after 81 years of cultivating future leaders, preparing French meals and inviting serendipity into his life. He died of pneumonia, a result of doing something he loved, kayaking the Maury River near his home in Rockbridge Baths.

Blair was a retired visiting professor at Virginia Military Institute; former mayor of Falls Church; a collector and lover of people, animals, mushrooms and birds; a 36-year survivor of stage 4 throat cancer; and, above all, beloved by leaders across the United States because of his 17-year direction of the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation.

Blair was born in Richmond on Feb. 9, 1939. His mother, Jean Blair Helion, was from a prominent Richmond family. His father was Jean Helion, a leading French abstract painter of the 1930s. His father returned to France, and his mother died when he was 5, leaving him essentially orphaned.

In a private reflection written in 2018, Blair wrote that he was shaped by two women: first, his great-aunt Jean, who became his formidable caretaker when he was 5; the other his wife, Suzanne Sessoms Lemon Blair, who brought him “unquestioning love” and taught him to share the same with others after they married in 1982.

Suzanne, he said in a 2009 interview, was central to his life and “the wind beneath my wings.” In the same interview he explained he relished helping people find a way to change their lives. “If you’ve helped one person outside your family, you’ve made a difference.”

Lawton Cummings, a lawyer, Truman Scholar and wife of Truman Scholar Craig Cummings, recalled one such story: “In 2009, I was diagnosed with cancer, and Craig just shut down and wouldn’t talk about it. Louis called him to ask how he was doing, and Craig said he had nothing to say.”

Blair got in his car and drove three and a half hours to their Northern Virginia home, took Craig by the hand, and the two went for a walk. “‘You’re going to have to open up, Son,’” he told Craig, she recalled. “When they came back, he was totally changed.”

Though Blair grew up in rather impoverished circumstances, a “proverbial rich uncle” sent him to the University of Virginia. After college and a master’s degree in engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he moved to Washington, where his jobs included staff positions in the Senate and White House. In 1971 he was elected Falls Church mayor after knocking on every door in the city.

Serendipity, Blair liked to say, led to his favorite job: A friend he played squash with introduced him to the scholarship honoring President Truman. In 1989, he took over as its executive secretary.

The foundation provides grants yearly to students planning graduate study to prepare for public service. When Blair arrived, it mostly wrote checks that helped promising students.

Bill Mercer, a Truman Scholar from Montana who went on to leadership roles in the Justice Department and worked with the foundation for years, said Blair recruited veterans of the program to mentor students in a way that created a community — an enduring network — of people dedicated to public service. “It was a revolutionary change.”

When Blair retired from the foundation in 2006, he moved to a white-fenced farm in Rockbridge Baths, where he rode horses and his mule, Molly, and created habitat to encourage nesting by the rare golden-winged warbler.

And again, it was serendipity that led to his appointment as Mary Moody Northen visiting professor at VMI after he wrote a letter about scholarships to the dean of faculty. For more than a decade he taught in the International Studies department, using his expertise to encourage cadets to win Truman, Marshall, Gates-Cambridge and Rhodes scholarships.

He also developed from scratch and personally funded a minor in national security, VMI professor Col. Howard Sanborn said. “It has become one of the more prestigious academic endeavors on Post. It is an important legacy: the promotion of critical thinking skills and the motivation of academically inspired work. He was an incredible champion, leader and friend, and a great colleague.”

“I called him Dad,” said Craig Cummings, one of the first two Truman Scholars Blair recruited from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. “If I were to take an inventory of what he gave me? To be a warm and loving father; patience; interest in other people’s lives; and to be successful – successful as a kind human being – as a way to honor him and to make him proud,” said the Austin, Tex., venture capitalist. “His patience and warmth have been a North Star for me.”

Many of Cummings’ favorite memories center around food and wine at Blair’s table. Trained at a cooking school in Paris, Blair was an inventive chef who so admired French cuisine he spent vacations working in the kitchen of a friend’s restaurant in Calais.

“I am a foodie,” he once told an interviewer. “It’s not that I’m obsessed with food, it’s just that I don’t think about anything else.”

His friends and his family of Truman Scholars recite Blair menus from memory. “Key to the experience was his discipline in the kitchen,” said Craig Cummings. “He was your personal trainer for cooking. It wasn’t a ton of fun while it was happening, but you’re going to love it when you get to the table to eat the food and drink the wine.”

Long after his throat cancer ended his ability to swallow and forced him to use a stomach feeding tube, Blair cooked gourmet meals for his friends, recruiting them as sous chefs in his kitchen to learn techniques and his topnotch dishes.

When the pandemic put these dinners on pause, Blair invited friends to pick up dinners-to-go or chanterelle mushrooms he had found.

“Yesterday I had a grand forage in Bath County and came home with 21 pounds of chanterelles ... and left hundreds,” he emailed on Aug. 10. “Just too tired to lean down and harvest them.

“Would you like a batch?”

In the 2009 interview on YouTube, a viewer hears Blair’s distinctive cancer-inflected voice share his reflections on life and work.

“Somebody asked me recently had I made any mistakes in life. And of course, everybody makes mistakes, but I don’t have any major regrets about where I am or what I’m doing or who I’m married to or who my friends are.”

And how would you like to be remembered? he was asked.

After a pause, he said, “With a smile.”

Louis Helion Blair is survived by his wife, Suzanne, of Rockbridge Baths; his daughter, Kate Blair of Los Angeles; his son-in-law, John Holmes of Rockbridge Baths; and his cousins Jean Matthews of Kentucky and Martha Blair of Oregon.

A celebration of his life will be planned in the future. No funeral service will be held.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to the Community Foundation for Rockbridge, Bath and Alleghany, P.O. Box 20, Lexington, VA 24450, or donate at cfrba.org. N-G

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