Political operative to Fox founder to exile: Warren's Roger Ailes led tumultuous life

Staff report


Warren-born television pioneer Roger Eugene Ailes, the founder of Fox News who died Thursday at age 77, is remembered as someone who absorbed life in the heartland and created programs to appeal to those values.

“In my travels over the years, I’ve always taken Ohio with me,” Ailes, who grew up on Belmont Avenue Northeast in Warren, told The Vindicator in 2008. “Everywhere I’ve traveled, I’ve taken the traditions ... the values I’ve learned in [Warren].”

Ailes had returned to Warren that year to attend his 50th Harding High School class reunion.

During that visit, he told The Vindicator that Warren was “a part of everything I’ve done, including Fox News.”

Born May 15, 1940, Ailes has described his working-class upbringing with three words: “God, country, family.”

Afflicted with hemophilia, he spent much of his early years housebound in front of, and fascinated with, television.

Hemophilia is a genetic disorder that impairs the body’s ability to make blood clots.

Ailes told The Vindicator that he got his start in entertainment in the drama club at Harding High.

“I liked to get out of class, and I wasn’t a great athlete,” he said. “That left the theater.”

Ailes starred in productions of “Mister Roberts” and “A Man Called Peter,” among others, at Harding.

During that 2008 visit, Ailes spent time driving around his hometown. He told The Vindicator that it was “heartbreaking” to see all the closed theaters and stores downtown. He also stopped at The Hot Dog Shoppe with his son, Zach, who was 8 at the time.

Even as a youth, Ailes left a lasting impression on those who knew him.

His former classmates recall seeing in Ailes at a young age the same traits that made him a titan of the news media.

Gene Fowler was a childhood friend of Ailes’ from grade school all the way through graduation.

“I was real sad when I heard he died,” Fowler said in a phone interview Thursday from his Warren home. “I was going to a breakfast meeting when I heard it on the radio. He was always a real generous and nice fellow. Roger and I go way back. We were in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts together and went through school together from first grade at McKinley Elementary School to the end.”

Fowler joined the service after graduation and had contact with Ailes only three or four times since then. He also spent time with Ailes during the class reunion in 2008.

He never talked politics with Ailes, he said, adding, “I imagine he had his enemies, but I think he could get along with Democrats well.”

The scandal that brought down Ailes’ career weighed on Fowler.

“I felt bad for him,” he said. “I prayed for him and I thought about him a lot. That part of his life will always be there, shadowing over his legacy. It was in the news. I don’t feel that way. I don’t know how others feel about him, but I do feel that what he did in life he did well and he was very successful.”

Betty Cecconi Fluharty, who sat in front of Ailes in ninth-grade civics class at Turner Junior High in Warren, recalled that Ailes told her he was going to be president of the United States one day.

“He didn’t make it, but he probably has a better job now anyway,” Fluharty told a small gathering of Ailes’ friends at that 2008 high school reunion visit.

Steve Papalas went to school with Ailes from junior high in 1952 until they both graduated. He described Ailes as “always outgoing and friendly,” but noted that he could be combative.

“I do remember he was never shy to state an opinion or to verbally confront anyone who he thought had wronged him ... and I speak from experience,” said Papalas, a former Warren police officer and safety-service director, in a 2014 interview with The Vindicator.

“Roger knows he is a polarizing personality and takes a great deal of pride in being so,” said Papalas. “He has always been his own man and will still confront anyone who disagrees with him. ... Roger was always a step ahead of everyone.”

“Roger was a Warren guy,” said Dennis Blank, Warren G. Harding Class of 1967, in his blog warrenexpressed.org.

Blank, an unsuccessful candidate for Warren mayor, met Ailes in New York City through business, not politics.

“We were worlds apart in politics, but I can say that about a lot of people I like. We look for something more real, more personal, more enduring than politics, and Roger was a Warren guy,” Blank posted after learning of Ailes’ death.

Blank said he met Ailes in 1988 after reading a story about him in the Wall Street Journal, which noted that he was from Warren. “I had no idea,” Blank said.

Ailes, known to help Warren and Warren people, helped Blank, who wanted Ailes to speak at a Fortune magazine conference, but couldn’t get a response to his telephone calls.

He called then-Mayor Dan Sferra and asked “who knows this guy,” and Sferra said Papalas, who told Blank to call Ailes’ office and leave this message.

“If you don’t call me back immediately, Pappy is going to come to New York and kick your fat ass all the way down Fifth Avenue.”

“Five minutes later, my phone rang and a laughing Ailes asked, ‘How do you know Pappy?’”

Warren was at Ailes’ heart.

“When we met, we talked about the business we were both in, but the conversation always drifted to Warren – people we knew, old stories, places we loved,” Blank said.

Some of his Class of ’58 classmates said the private Ailes was a different person from the public Ailes.

The private Ailes was generous in many ways, including financially, to his hometown.

“He loved Warren and knew where he came from,” said Pat McLean of Howland.

McLean said he helped finance an addition to Monument Park & the Trumbull County Veterans’ Memorial in downtown Warren, and gave $10,000 for handrails at W.D. Packard Music Hall in Warren, among other gifts that aren’t generally known, she said.

Bernice Marino was in homeroom with Ailes from seventh grade at Turner Junior High School through Harding, and got to know him well.

“Roger was conscious and hard-working. He was always involved in drama and emceed the Harding Frolics talent show. He had that charm and charisma, but I think he also had a fiery temper. He was outspoken and powerful and said what he wanted. Roger had confidence ... he was all business, and he had goals and worked toward them,” Marino said.

In 2008, when Ailes came back for the reunion, he hosted an informal social event with a few friends and former classmates.

With so much negative written about him, he was worried about what his son was going to learn about him. He wanted his son to have good memories. He cared a lot about family, Marino said.

Gabriel Sherman, author of the Ailes biography “The Loudest Voice in the Room,” talked about him in a 2014 interview with The Vindicator.

“From the time Ailes was a boy in Warren, he possessed a bottomless ambition to succeed and acquire power,” said Sherman. “Warren is central to understanding Ailes. In the 1940s and ’50s, when he was growing up, Warren was thriving and presented an idyllic face of postwar American prosperity. Ailes imbibed the values and the frustrations of Americans who live in heartland towns like Warren. In interviews, Ailes has talked about how he programs Fox to appeal to those values.”

In an email exchange Thursday, Sherman reflected on Ailes’ death.

“While sudden, Ailes’ death did not come as a surprise,” said Sherman. “Perhaps because he was a hemophiliac, death had been a preoccupation for much of his life. Shortly after helping get Richard Nixon elected president in 1968, Ailes told a reporter he didn’t think he’d live past 35.”

A lot happened to Ailes since the publication of Sherman’s book, particularly in the past year as his career spiraled out of control.

Ailes’ downfall, in fact, was marked by the same bombastic style of his career.

Asked if Ailes’ spectacular career implosion was a fitting end to a larger-than-life career, Sherman said yes.

“[Ailes’] passing today is the tragic final chapter in a life that became consumed by his quest for power and control,” said Sherman. “In a certain sense, it was inevitable.”

Dan Rivers, talk-show host and programming director at Newsradio 570 WKBN in Youngstown, lamented the fact that Ailes was a Valley native whose career ended in disgrace.

“It’s kind of a shame that a guy from Warren who is world-famous, a local guy who led one of the top news organizations in the country, would go down in flames,” he said.

But Rivers believes that Ailes’ legacy of Fox News will continue.

“I think Fox News is bigger than Roger Ailes,” he said. “It will resurface with the underpinnings [that Ailes built] and with Rupert Murdoch’s kids [in charge], but it will be a much different company.”

Rivers said Fox News likely will have more competition going forward.

“All the other cable networks copied their formula,” he said. “But the one thing they don’t have is the ability to reach middle America. Fox News talks to middle America.”

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