McAuley Alumnae Blog

McAuley High School, Toledo, Ohio

Father of Bridget ’76, Molly ’79 and Cass ’80 McHugh passed away

Posted by mcauleyhighschool on January 31, 2015

John McHugh(1930 – 2015)

(News article) John McHugh, a former Lucas County recorder, treasurer, and Democratic Party chairman who capped a career in public life as a two-term mayor of Toledo, the last under the city-manager form of government, died Friday in the Elizabeth Scott Community in Springfield Township.He was 84.

He had cancer, but his illness was brief, relatives said.

After leaving office, he sold real estate for a time.

“He touched a lot of lives. A lot of people were glad to know him,” his son Jim said. “He had a lot of friends across the whole city, from all walks of life, for reasons other than politics.”

Mr. McHugh served two two-year terms as mayor, from 1989 through 1993.

He was succeeded by Carty Finkbeiner, who was elected to his first four-year term in 1993 under charter changes, endorsed by Mr. McHugh, that gave executive authority to the mayor and expanded the size of city council, with members elected by district and at-large.

“John will be known as one of the most outgoing and spirited Irish politicians in our city’s history,” Mr. Finkbeiner said. “He was a very gregarious, warm-spirited individual. He was one of the good guys.”

Mr. Finkbeiner said Mr. McHugh worked with Gene Cook, a longtime council member, to continue efforts for downtown revitalization begun in the 1970s by Edwin Dodd of Owens-Illinois Inc., Paul Block, the late co-publisher of The Blade, and the late Mayor Harry Kessler.

“John sustained the development of downtown,” Mr. Finkbeiner said.

Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins was a Toledo police officer and president of the Toledo Police Patrolman’s Association when Mr. McHugh was mayor.

“John’s legacy to the city was his level temperament,” said Mr. Collins, who noted that they are distant relations. Mr. Collins said that in his own experience as a government employee and elected official, Mr. McHugh ranked as the most worthy “to have been given that title of all the persons, including myself, who has held that office.”

For decades, Toledo had a city manager-council form of government.

Council hired the city manager, and the mayor, though elected separately, was but one vote on council. Mr. McHugh often said he was an advocate for the change, and he made the call explicit in his 1992 State of the City address, saying that voters needed “a real voice in how our city runs. … One leader, one point-person, the power to lead – not be led by the bureaucrats protecting their own turf.”

He liked an even keel – and a good laugh, said Sandy Isenberg, a former Lucas County commissioner, who said she was given her “first real job” in the county recorder’s office when Mr. McHugh led it.

“He’s a tough guy to explain because he had so many facets,” Ms. Isenberg said. “He caught on to being the [county] treasurer. He knew what to do and how to do it. He caught on to being mayor – and running the city, as Mike Collins will tell you, isn’t an easy job.”

During Mr. McHugh’s tenure, a downturn in the national economy was “hitting places like Toledo hard,” said Michael Beazley, administrator of the city of Oregon and a former chairman of the county Democratic Party. “In ’91 and ’92, from Portside closing, which was more of a symptom, to the auto industry recession, it was a tough time to be mayor. John kept a positive attitude throughout.”

As he left office Mr. McHugh touted many achievements, four typewritten pages’ worth, despite the economy and the limits of his office.

Among them were a seven-year deal with Chrysler Corp. to keep Jeep in Toledo; efforts with the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority to develop an air-cargo hub at city-owned Toledo Express Airport, and creation of joint-economic development tax districts with Rossford and Perrysburg.

Mr. McHugh oversaw the first stages of the former Portside Festival Marketplace becoming a branch of a Columbus-based science museum.

In an interview on the public affairs television program The Editors he also said that race relations had improved, as had regional cooperation.

“When I took over as mayor, nobody trusted and nobody wanted to talk to us,” Mr. McHugh said in January, 1994. “I think those barriers have been taken down.”

Mr. McHugh said that historians would look back and comment, ” ‘You know, he didn’t do a bad job after all under very, very difficult conditions.’ When I sought the office, I figured I could make a little bit of a difference or I wouldn’t have done it, and I think I have.”

Peter Silverman, a Toledo councilman during Mr. McHugh’s tenure, said the mayor gave him good advice because he worried a lot.

“He’d always say, relax, 99 percent of this stuff never happens and you’re just giving yourself heartburn. It was some of the best advice I ever got,” Mr. Silverman said. “They were very tough times. L-O-F wanted to leave. Owens-Corning wanted to leave. The takeovers had hit Toledo. He was just very level-headed trying to work with people to get things done.”

Jack Ford, another Democrat – and a successor, though under the strong-mayor system – recalled that as a member of council, he crossed swords with Mr. McHugh on several issues.

“He was more of an old-school politician than folks today. He came up through the party,” Mr. Ford said. “When you say John McHugh, I tend to break into a smile, because he was always smiling.”

Keith Wilkowski, who was city law director when Mr. McHugh was mayor, said the former mayor was “the epitome of the type of good-hearted person that we would all like to have be involved in government.”

Mr. McHugh was criticized early in his first term, mostly with humor, for renting formal wear to attend black-tie events.

A local shop donated a tuxedo to the mayor – he held it up at a council meeting – and council formally expressed its gratitude “that head officials of this city shall be properly accoutered for even the most august ceremonial happenings.”

Mr. McHugh came to the mayor’s office by what the late Chase Clements, The Blade’s politics writer, called “a circuitous route”: jury assignment commissioner for Common Pleas Court from 1956 to 1971; county recorder from 1971-1979, and then county treasurer from 1979-1985, when he became chairman of the Lucas County Democratic Party.

He resigned in 1989 to run for mayor. He defeated Republican incumbent Donna Owens in 1989 and Republican challenger Paula Pennypacker in 1991.

He ran unsuccessfully for city council in 1959 and for sheriff in 1968.

Former Lucas County Commissioner James Holzemer said he and his wife, Janice, had dinner with Mr. McHugh and his wife, Connie, almost every Friday night for the last 15 years. He said the former mayor continued to be active in Democratic politics but never contemplated a return to office.

“He was one of a kind. He was a genuine character. He would talk to anyone at any place, any time,” Mr. Holzemer said. He said Mr. McHugh was a good administrator who managed offices well.

As Democratic Party chairman, Mr. McHugh aimed to bridge factions in the party between what was popularly referred to as the A Team and the Court House Gang, or B Team.

“John wanted to bring people together and develop more by consensus,” Mr. Beazley said.

Mr. McHugh was born Oct. 1, 1930. His mother, Catherine, grew up poor in Ireland and married his father, James, in 1928. Mr. McHugh once told The Blade that his first job was setting pins in the neighborhood bowling alley. A longtime South Toledo resident, Mr. McHugh later had an appliance store on Broadway, his son Jim said.

Mr. McHugh was a graduate of Central Catholic High School and attended the University of Toledo.

He and his wife spent winters in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and he was a marshal at the PGA National Golf Resort there.

He was preceded in death by daughters Cindy and Kelly, who died in childhood.

He and Kathleen “Connie” Feak married Jan. 8, 1955. She survives as do sons, Tim and Jim McHugh; daughters, Bridget Cassady, Molly Branyan, and Kathleen Beach; sister, Margaret Gibney; brother, Tom McHugh; 11 grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

Visitation is 2-5 p.m. Sunday and 3-8 p.m. Monday in Coyle Funeral Home.

Services will be at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday in St. Joan of Arc Church.

The family suggests tributes to the Old Newsboys Goodfellow Association, of which he was a former president, Hospice of Northwest Ohio, St. Joan of Arc Church, or Open Door Ministries.

Blade staff writers Tom Troy and Lauren Lindstrom contributed to this report.

This story was written by Blade staff Writer Mark Zaborney. Contact him at or 419-724-6182

Published in Toledo Blade on Jan. 31, 2015

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