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In Memoriam: Phillip L. Blair, Former AAAS Chief Operating Officer

Phil Blair around 2013

AAAS today expressed profound sadness at the loss of Phillip L. Blair, the association’s long-time chief operating officer and director of administration, who died following a sudden illness, not long after his retirement in 2015.

Blair, 73, was described by AAAS CEO emeritus Alan I. Leshner as “a beloved friend and colleague” as well as a “superb chief operating officer” for the association.

“Phil was such a wonderful friend to so many of us,” Leshner said. “He had a wonderful personal style and he genuinely cared about everyone with whom we worked. He was a wonderful partner for me throughout our time at AAAS, and we remained good friends throughout.”

Blair joined AAAS in 1997 – an era when AAAS had just moved into a new state-of-the-art headquarters building at 1200 New York Avenue, N.W., in Washington, D.C. He announced his plan to retire on 17 April, 2015. During his 18-year tenure with AAAS, Blair oversaw seismic organizational changes, which included the increased use of technology, and later, a shift toward a “digital-first” mindset in managing all association affairs and facilities.

AAAS CEO Rush Holt, executive publisher of the Science family of journals, commended Blair as “a caring, humble, and outstanding leader of our organization.” Holt said further that “Phil’s personal touch contributed greatly to making AAAS such a good place to work. In addition to the many lasting contributions he made as our chief operating officer (and previously as chief financial officer and chief administrative officer), all who interacted with Phil knew of his personal interest in the success and well-being of his colleagues.”    

Blair’s colleagues cited his unusually caring management style, his ability to build and encourage diverse teams, and his unwavering loyalty to AAAS as keys to his legacy with the association.

“From a financial-management perspective, Phil brought many thoughtful insights to every task, and he always emphasized integrity at all levels,” said Colleen Struss, AAAS chief financial officer and chief legal officer. “From a personal perspective, Phil was a kind and gentlemanly man. He put family first, and was extremely supportive of his staff. He was genuinely nice – an undervalued trait these days.”

Struss recalled how Blair, her supervisor for many years, leapt from his chair to congratulate her after she had passed the legal bar examination. “He was extremely supportive of his staff, and gave me the freedom to work on things at AAAS that have been tremendously enriching,” Struss said. “He is missed.”

A native of Michigan, Blair held an M.B.A. degree as well as a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Michigan and a B.A. degree in accounting from Kalamazoo College. Before joining AAAS, his work history had included service as the chief financial officer for the National Association of Home Builders; chief financial officer for START, Inc.; senior vice president and controller for the Artery Organization, Inc.; vice president and controller for a division of the Marriott Corporation; and staff auditor and consultant for Arthur Andersen and Company. Blair had been a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, where he served on the staff of Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, who oversaw the development of naval nuclear propulsion.

Blair’s former AAAS associates today remembered him as a gracious and exceptionally caring colleague. “Phil was a man that everyone at AAAS knew and loved,” said Bill Moran, publisher of the Science family of journals. “Phil’s leadership, hard work, and dedication to AAAS went beyond reproach. Phil was truly an individual that cared about the staff at AAAS. We will all miss our mentor and friend.”

Monica Bradford - Phil Blair - Beth Rosner
L-R: Monica Bradford, Phil Blair, and Beth Rosner, in their early years of working together | Lisa Donavan / AAAS

Monica Bradford, executive editor of the Science journals, described Blair as “a genuine, kind, and thoughtful person” and “a quiet leader” whose subdued style – usually leveraged behind-the-scenes, to help others accomplish their goals – complimented the more extroverted, public-facing persona of his friend and supervisor, Alan Leshner. She said that she frequently sought Blair out to serve as a safe sounding board, whenever she was evaluating a difficult work issue. “He was a really good listener, and I found myself telling him more about myself than I shared with others at AAAS,” Bradford said. “He was loyal and dedicated to AAAS and to the staff, in a manner that is often not seen any more.”

Blair’s commitment to the association, and his positive view of its future, were frequently cited by former colleagues.

Ginger Pinholster, chief communications officer and director of public programs, said that Blair was a booster of individuals, too, which allowed him to promote a team-focused environment at AAAS. “He always said `please’ and `thank you’ and `good job.’ If Phil wanted me to serve on some special project or committee, I never turned him down, no matter how much extra work it meant because I admired him so much. He knew how to motivate people.”

At his retirement party in 2015, he shared a characteristically sunny message that emphasized both the value of AAAS to society, and the importance of his personal relationships with colleagues: “I am pleased to have played a small part in a very special and meaningful organization,” he said. “I am also honored to have been part of an outstanding group of senior leaders who individually guide the many facets of the organization. You and your staff have been a wonderful, talented and dedicated group with which to work, both individually and collectively, through these many years.”

In his personal life, Bradford noted that Blair was fascinated by technology and engineering. He also continuously sought to push himself toward new achievements, by learning to play the piano relatively late in life, for example, or by taking yoga classes and listening to books on tape during his daily commute to AAAS.

Blair leaves behind a beloved partner, Dawn, two daughters, Bethany and Aimee, and four grandchildren. A memorial service and celebration is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 17 at 11 a.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax.

At his retirement party last year, Blair expressed gratitude for his colleagues, and optimism for AAAS, going forward. He said that he hoped to devote his retirement to more travel, volunteer work with Habitat for Humanity, time for reading and learning, and most importantly, more time for his grandchildren.