Alexander H. Russell V, who transformed his family's venerable Baltimore brick-making business into a masonry products and chemical company, died of a rare Merkel cell skin cancer Saturday at his Green Spring Valley home. He was 91.
Born in Baltimore and raised in Roland Park, he attended the Johns Hopkins University before forming Commuters Aviation Corp., flying small planes out of the old Harbor Field in Dundalk.
When his father died in 1940, Mr. Russell took over management of his family's brick-making business, founded in 1790 by his great-great-grandfather as Burns, Berry & Russell. Its employees had used clay from the banks of the Patapsco River at Spring Gardens in South Baltimore to make bricks for Baltimore rowhouses, the Shot Tower, Johns Hopkins Hospital, the U.S. Naval Academy and Old St. Paul's Episcopal Church.
His grandfather supplied brick and terra cotta tile used in the construction of New York's Flat Iron Building. Russell Street in Southwest Baltimore is named after the family business, once located on the current site of Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Mr. Russell's work at the brick plant was interrupted by World War II service in an Army engineering division in the Aleutian Islands. Mr. Russell, who attained the rank of captain, worked with his division to help recapture the Japanese-occupied islands.
After the war, Mr. Russell returned to Baltimore and took additional training as an engineer and salesman. He revamped the company, which had seen sales plummet during the Depression and lost its North Point Road brick plant to a fire in 1941. He stopped brick production and hired chemists.
"He survived five profitless years from 1948 to 1953 while the firm developed a new and, industry experts note, distinctive product, Spectra-Glaze, which has made little-known Burns & Russell a national and international force," The Sun reported in an article on Mr. Russell and his company - which remains in family hands as one of Baltimore's oldest businesses.
"He was a perfectionist in whatever he did," said his daughter Beaumont Russell Martin of Owings Mills. "He had the highest standard of work ethics and integrity."
The Sun article said Mr. Russell saved a nearly obsolete company by changing it to a developer of new masonry products used in cinder-block construction.
Operating from a small plant with 89 employees on South Central Avenue, Mr. Russell oversaw production of the masonry glaze that in 1978 was being applied to an estimated 500 million concrete blocks through a network of suppliers in the U.S., England and Japan.
"We're like Coca-Cola. Somebody else makes the product, we make the syrup," he told The Sun. "I guess you would call us a specialty chemical company now."
Mr. Russell retired in 1985.
He was a former board member of Provident Bank of Maryland and Greater Baltimore Medical Center.
A memorial service will be held at 11:30 a.m. tomorrow at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, 232 St. Thomas Lane, Owings Mills, where he was a communicant.
In addition to his daughter, survivors include another daughter, Frances Russell Rockwell of Owings Mills; four grandchildren; two step-grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. His wife of 55 years, the former Julia Vernon Ambler, died in 2000.