Blair remembered for vision, integrity in building IndiGO
June 19, 2013 11:00 AM
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Jerry Blair, arguably, was as responsible as anyone for Indiana County residents being able to get from there to here.

In more than 20 years of heading up Indiana County Transit Authority, he found affordable ways to get folks from the rural outreaches to the heart of the county, and back again.

The authority expanded its routes, improved its bus fleet and moved to modern headquarters under Blair’s leadership, and grew in the numbers of people relying on IndiGo — the marketing nickname adopted during his tenure — to reach their destinations.

And anyone familiar with Blair’s devout Christian faith would be certain of the final route Jerry traveled Monday, when he died at Beacon Manor, in White Township.

“He knew he had a place …” said John Kanyan, director of Indiana Transit.

Blair was 68.

From 1985 to 2009, Blair served as executive director at ICTA and was honored soon after his retirement when the authority named its headquarters building in recognition of his service.

Beth Marshall, a former chairwoman of the ICTA board of directors, credited Blair for bringing the transit offices and garage along Saltsburg Avenue to reality. It replaced the authority’s less-than-modest home in a building now housing an auto repair shop along South 13th Street Extension.

“Our security system was a sign saying ‘beware of dog.’ No dog, just the sign,” Marshall remembered.

Marshall led the board that hired Blair.

“We were still trying to build our new building, trying to find a way to build it, and we needed somebody with strong leadership capability and we got it with Jerry,” she said. “He learned very quickly what was going on and became active on state level as well as local level on public transit.”

One of Blair’s earliest hires was Kanyan, brought on as a mechanic in 1986.

They grew close as co-workers and friends, and Kanyan said that Blair, as a mentor, helped to prepare him to succeed Blair upon his retirement.

Meanwhile, Blair touched public transit across Pennsylvania, helping to organize an insurance fund for other agencies like ICTA, Kanyan said.

“The State Association for Transit Insurance, SAFTI, was started by Jerry and two or three transit authority directors and a couple of insurance brokers,” Kanyan said. “He pushed for it and worked tirelessly at it. The fund has saved every authority that is in it millions of dollars. And it enabled IndiGo to be where it is.”

Upgrading the ICTA fleet from a set of used vans and school buses to coaches powered by liquefied natural gas was a sign of Blair’s forethought, Marshall said.

Setting up a transit center as a bus route hub at the Indiana Theater began under Blair’s watch. Balancing budgets and riders’ needs were an ongoing challenge.

Kanyan said Blair earned support from government decision makers, key to keeping the authority in operation.

“Jerry possessed a quality of leadership and had a way with people, to be able to talk to people, to help them understand and see things his way,” Kanyan said. “He dealt with the FTA (Federal Transit Administration) and PennDOT and there sometimes were some heated discussions, but in the end he was very good at securing funds.”

“I think the authority owes to him what it has become today,” Marshall said. “He made a huge difference. I can’t picture it going the way it did without him.”

For many years Blair battled medical problems, but also searched for and found spiritual strength.

He served as a pastor in Methodist churches, but with his wife, Ruth, as late-life converts to Roman Catholicism, had become active at St. Bernard of Clairvaux Parish in Indiana. Jerry and Ruth led the parish evangelization committee and took part in the church’s RCIA team, an initiation program required for adults joining the Catholic Church.

“Jerry was perfect, to be called right out of ‘central casting’ to that role,” said James Valletta, who with his wife, Claire, followed the Blairs as the evangelization leaders in 2008 when Jerry enrolled in a deaconate program at St. Vincent University.

“In the years that he ran the committee, he was inspirational about the whole process,” Valletta said. “He set the tone in meetings with a high level of sincerity about bringing people to Christ.”

Enrolling in the deaconate program fed Blair’s passion for his faith.

When he learned the program was available, “my heart lit up,” Blair said in a Gazette interview in 2008.

The program allows lay Christians to perform some of the same roles that priests serve in church services, just as transitional deacons serve during their training for the priesthood.

Blair anticipated reaching that level of service to his church.

“This really has changed me in a number of ways,” Blair said of his training. "One is not being able to do anything else at the time. I just cannot do for the parish what I would like to do. It seems odd; I can't behave like a deacon because I'm trying to become a deacon.

“There are a lot of things I cannot participate in. I have to stay home and work and study. But this is the possibility of being able to serve Christ and His church in a way that provides a deeper and, in some ways, richer area in which I can serve.”

But his health problems mounted and prevented him from finishing the program in 2009 as he had expected.

The effects of a stroke limited his activities in his years of retirement.

“I think I will remember him most for being a true friend,” Kanyan said. “There never was any doubt that he was your friend. And he was honest to a T.”

Marshall said she would most remember Blair’s integrity and courage.

“He still managed to get more things done than most people do in a lifetime,” she said. “And he did it with perfect integrity. He always treated people with respect.”

“I try to do the best I can but I think he was a hard guy to replace because he was totally committed to Christ in so many ways,” Valletta said.

The Rairigh-Bence Funeral Home, Indiana, is handling the funeral arrangements. A complete obituary appears on Page 4.

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