Willie Runyon, 76, owned ambulance firm, major contributor to politics, charities

November 22, 1999|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

Willie Runyon, the owner of a private ambulance company in Baltimore and a major financial contributor to Democrats from City Hall to the White House, died Thursday of complications from Parkinson's disease. He was 76.

Mr. Runyon, the son of a West Virginia coal miner who owned American Ambulance and Oxygen Service Co., died in Brightwood Nursing Home in Lutherville, said his wife, Patricia Runyon.

Among recipients of Mr. Runyon's largess during the past 30 years were Govs. Marvin Mandel, William Donald Schaefer and Parris N. Glendening, and the Clinton-Gore re-election campaign.

A shrewd businessman and campaign financier, he made headlines not only for his political contributions, but also for his financial relationships with public officials and others.

In 1995, Mr. Runyon, his company and one of his daughters gave $95,000 to Governor Glendening's legal defense fund. That money represented more than half the amount raised to defend the governor against the legal challenge to his 1994 election by Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey.

Mr. Runyon, his family and company also contributed $16,000 to the governor's 1994 election effort.

He contributed nearly $235,000 to the Democratic Party for the 1996 Clinton-Gore re-election campaign and was a guest at the White House coffees attended by the president and vice president.

Mr. Runyon employed former state Sen. Larry Young and furnished him with a $24,800 luxury Lincoln Town car at a time when the legislator was a key figure in overseeing health care issues.

Born in Delbarton, W.Va., Mr. Runyon's mother died when he was 4 months old. He was raised by a grandmother and other relatives while his father worked in the coal mines, said Mrs. Runyon.

"He never lost his West Virginia roots," his wife said. "His favorite words were, `I'm just a poor country boy trying to make a living.' And he did a good job of it."

He moved to Baltimore in 1940 and worked at the Glenn L. Martin aircraft plant in Middle River before joining the Army during World War II. He later became a Baltimore police officer, working in Northern District.

In the 1950s, he took a job at American Ambulance and eventually bought the company.

There he met his wife, the former Patricia Little, who answered phones and typed bills in the office.

Mr. Runyon bought several competing ambulance companies and operated a near-monopoly for ambulance service in Baltimore.

Before his illness, Mr. Runyon often played cards with his friends, millionaire businessmen John Paterakis Sr. and Lou Grasmick, both of whom are also generous political contributors.

Mr. Runyon was "a unique individual who told wonderful stories about his upbringing," Mr. Grasmick said.

Mr. Runyon also gave generously to charities, Mr. Paterakis said. "We all know how he helped the governor. Anytime we would call for multiple sclerosis or another charity, he was always there," said Mr. Paterakis.

In 1972, he contributed so generously to Jewish charities that he received a two-week trip to Israel, paid for by the Jewish National Fund.

Mr. Runyon also helped coal miners suffering from black lung disease receive their government dispensation, and served on the board of the National Bank of Washington, which was owned by United Mine Workers of America in the 1980s.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Runyon is survived by three daughters, Mary Ziegler, Marjorie Boyer and Janet Schultz; a son, George W. Runyon, all of Baltimore; 13 grandchildren; and 17 great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 10: 30 a.m. today at Christ Lutheran Church, 701 S. Charles St.

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