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Winton Blount, 81; U.S. Postal System Chief, Philanthropist

October 28, 2002|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Winton M. "Red" Blount, billionaire contractor, philanthropist and the last Cabinet-level postmaster general of the United States who stripped the postal system of political patronage and established the more businesslike U.S. Postal Service, has died. He was 81.

Blount, who was named postmaster general by President Nixon in early 1969 and chaired the Postal Service from its inception in 1970 through 1971, died Thursday at his summer home in Highlands, N.C., after a long illness. His official residence was in Montgomery, Ala.

"It was quite a wrench. One day I was a Cabinet officer; the next I was a has-been," Blount joked in an Op-ed article he wrote for the Washington Post in 1995. But he was clearly proud of his achievement in restructuring the post office and was citing that as an illustration of the benefits in privatizing some public enterprises.

Blount's stature in public service was immense. Before taking the Nixon appointment, he had served as president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce under President Johnson, warning businesses and corporations to police themselves or face increasing government regulation. As a conservative Republican in Alabama in a time and place, a colleague once noted, that Republicans could fit into a phone booth, he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1972. Despite his failed bid for office, he virtually established the party in his state.

For 32 years, Blount served as a trustee of the University of Alabama, including throughout the historic confrontation in 1963 when Alabama Gov. George Wallace defied federal court orders and tried to block racial integration of the university. According to Culpepper Clark's history of that debacle in his 1993 book, "The Schoolhouse Door: Segregation's Last Stand at the University of Alabama," Blount put aside his personal feelings and worked closely with the Democratic Kennedy administration to help end the crisis and integrate the school.

Two years earlier, when white supremacists were openly beating civil rights freedom riders in Alabama, Blount worked with the federal Justice Department and urged state business and civic leaders to take a strong stand for law and order. In 1964, although he personally opposed the Civil Rights Act, he urged compliance with it.

When Nixon appointed Blount to his Cabinet, critics noted that the conservative businessman employed no blacks, was active in an all-white church and had backed local segregationist candidates. Yet Blount believed staunchly in obeying laws and realized integration was happening. "I suppose that you would basically call me a conservative," he told Nation's Business in 1968, "but I try to think of myself as a progressive."

The 6-foot-3 redhead stood even taller in his chosen career than in public service. His Blount Inc., which he sold in 1999 for $1.35 billion, constructed the launch pad at Cape Canaveral that sent Apollo 11 and man to the moon in 1969. It also built the first nuclear power plant in Tennessee, the first intercontinental missile base in Wyoming, the New Orleans Superdome and the $2-billion King Saud University in Saudi Arabia.

After Desert Storm in 1991, Blount and his company rebuilt the superstructure and literally turned the lights back on in Kuwait. In Southern California, he built projects ranging from solar energy fields in the Mojave Desert to major facilities for Lockheed and other aerospace companies.

As a philanthropist, Blount donated $10 million to the National Postal Museum, a part of the Smithsonian, and served as president and backer of actor Tony Randall's National Actor's Theater in New York. He was a major supporter of the National Endowment for the Arts, and urged other businessmen and state and federal governments to support artistic projects.

But he primarily concentrated on Alabama and particularly on Montgomery. He created the now 300-acre Blount Cultural Park, where he built the $21.5-million Carolyn Blount Theater to house his pet project, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. He named the theater for his wife.

"His legacy is that Shakespeare theater, one of the glories of our nation," Randall told the Montgomery Advertiser after Blount's death.

Blount also made room in the park for the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts and donated his corporate art collection, valued at some $15 million, to the museum. His adjacent Georgian style mansion, Wynfield, eventually will be donated to the park.

Among his gifts were $5 million to Rhodes College in Memphis, where he was also a trustee; $5 million to Huntingdon College in Montgomery and some $8 million to the University of Alabama.

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