Blair E. Cross Jr., 72, veterans-issues advocate

March 06, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Blair E. Cross Jr., a Korean War combat veteran and a founder of the Maryland Homeless Veterans Rehabilitation Center in Baltimore, died of a heart attack Sunday at his Port Deposit home. He was 72.

Mr. Cross was born and raised in Cockeysville and attended Towson High School until 1949, when he dropped out during his senior year to work for Acme Markets.

"He was impatient and just wanted to get out into the world and go to work," said his wife of 51 years, the former Jane Leeson, a retired secretary.

In 1951, Mr. Cross enlisted in the Army and was sent to Korea, where he served with the 45th Infantry Division. He was wounded during the furious fighting for Bloody Ridge, also known as Hill 983, near the 38th parallel. He was awarded the Purple Heart.

After returning home, he married, returned to work at Acme and raised a family. He held various jobs over the years and eventually became involved in veterans issues.

Mr. Cross worked for a small Baltimore chain of grocery stores. He also worked as a warehouse manager at the Dundalk Marine Terminal and as an auto salesman for Hinder Ford in Aberdeen. He retired in the early 1990s.

In 1970, Mr. Cross joined the Jarrettsville Post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and served five terms as post commander. He also served as state commander of the VFW's Department of Maryland in 1992.

"He was always a strong advocate for veterans. If anything ever came up on veterans issues, I heard from Blair," said Helen Delich Bentley, a former Baltimore County congresswoman. Mr. Cross served as an adviser to her on veterans affairs.

He founded Concerned Veterans of Harford and Cecil counties and in 1992 was named chairman of the Joint Veterans Committee of Maryland. He also served as chairman of the Harford County Commission on Veterans Affairs from 1988 to 1992.

"He was a very, very caring, proud and able person," Mrs. Bentley said.

Mr. Cross was a former president of the Korean War Veterans Association and at the time of his death was the group's national director of Washington affairs. He was also a member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, Disabled American Veterans and American Legion.

"Even during the last few weeks before his death, he was lining up buses to take veterans to the World War II Monument in Washington. He was never without a project," said Joe Brooks, a retired major general and longtime friend. "The things he set in place will continue."

In 1993, Mr. Cross joined with three friends to establish the Homeless Veterans Committee. The committee founded the Maryland Homeless Veterans Rehabilitation Center on North High Street. The center offers housing and job training for veterans.

"We have had more than 4,500 vets through here who are now on their way to a better life," said Charles Williams, a Vietnam veteran and the center's executive director.

The center's impact on veterans became apparent to Mr. Cross at ceremonies held in November honoring Mr. Cross and the other founders.

"I saw a resident walk up to Blair and say, `Mr. Cross, a year ago I was going to kill myself but I was sent here and got my life back on track.' It just tore Blair up and he broke down," Mr. Williams said.

Mr. Cross also established the Fort McHenry Restoration Committee, a volunteer group formed to restore the historic site. He served as committee chairman from 1985 to 1992, and as chairman he raised several million dollars to fund fort improvement projects. They included installation of an 80-foot flagpole to display the fort's 42-foot-long flag.

The Towson High School Class of 1949 Reunion Committee recently presented Mr. Cross with a high school diploma at a ceremony held at his Port Deposit home because of his poor health. He also was inducted into the school's hall of fame for his work with veterans and his voluntarism.

Services were held Thursday.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Cross is survived by four sons, Edward Cross of Hampstead, David M. Cross of Darlington, Robert L. Cross of North East and Roland C. Cross of Aberdeen; three daughters, Brenda C. Demnowicz of Red Lion, Pa., Sharon L. Cross of Port Deposit and Laura A. Cross of Perry Hall; a brother, Robert Neal Cross of Cockeysville; 16 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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