Longtime Montgomery County Recorder Willis E. Blackshear, a Montgomery County Democratic Party stalwart who friends say worked to increase black voter participation and protect citizens from predatory lenders, died Monday. He was 57.
“He had the largest impact getting people to recognize the value of diversity and to make sure African Americans are engaged on just about every level in this community,” said Dayton City Commissioner Chris Shaw, whom Blackshear urged to run for office.
“When decisions were made he was regularly at the table and was certainly not afraid to speak up. That will be his legacy,” Shaw said.
Born and raised in Dayton, Blackshear continued to reside in the city with his wife, Regina. He also leaves behind an adult son, Willis Blackshear Jr.
Blackshear loved to help people and loved politics, said his widow Regina Blackshear.
“He was doing his dream job. He would help people with stuff that wasn’t even involved with his office” she said. “He was just a good guy. He never met a stranger.”
Doctors had been treating Blackshear’s cancer for about a year, his wife said. He died about 1 a.m. Monday in hospice care.
Blackshear worked his way up the ranks during 22 years in the county’s treasurer’s office from an entry-level to managing the Tax Delinquency Department as the assistant county treasurer. In 2006 he was appointed county recorder. In 2008, he was elected to his first full term and was re-elected in 2012 and 2016.
Only three African Americans have ever held non-judicial Montgomery County seats, and only two won election to office, including Blackshear. He’s the only one to win at the ballot box in more than 20 years.
A fourth-grade student council race — which Blackshear lost — whetted his appetite for politics, his wife said.
But yardwork ran a close second to public service, she said.
“He cut grass as early as April and as late as December. It was relaxing for him,” Regina said. “If he could do it sun up to sun down he would. And it showed in our lawn every year. He enjoyed it thoroughly.”
Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley called Blackshear’s work in the community helping young people become involved in the political process “transformational.”
“Willis has been an extraordinary advocate for the city, to the county, and for leadership on voting rights,” she said. “His leadership around creating black elected Democrats is something that has changed the face of local politics and made west Dayton and the city of Dayton have a stronger voice. We are definitely going to miss that.”
When county residents sought relief from predatory lenders and home foreclosure, Blackshear was there to help, said Montgomery County Auditor Karl Keith who started working at about the same time as Blackshear about three decades ago in the treasurer’s office.
“He tried to be an advocate for people who got caught up in those problems,” Keith said. “He tried to use the resources of his office to help protect people so they could stay in their homes.”
Blackshear entered the primary race for state treasurer in 2002, but the results were much like the fourth-grade council race.
In 2009, he received the National Association of Social Workers Public Official of the Year Award and in 2016 was elected as the first African American president of the Ohio Recorders’ Association. He also served as board member for the Miami Valley Fair Housing Center and Sinclair Paralegal and Tawawa Community Development Corporation.
Shaw said Blackshear had taken on the Democratic party roles passed down to him by the likes of mentors Ohio legislator C.J McLin, who died in 1988, and Robert “Bobby” Turner, who died in 2010 after finishing his career working with former U.S. Rep. Tony Hall.
“In his short life, he really became an old lion, He really did, with respect to bringing many of us up over the years,” Shaw said. “He just had so, so much of an impact on us that will be felt into the future.”