CLEVELAND — Longtime Fox News CEO Roger Ailes built his fame and fortune in TV and politics in the power corridors of New York and Washington, but classmates who knew him growing up in Ohio say he was down-to-earth and never forgot his Midwestern roots.
Though Ailes died Thursday morning in Palm Beach, Florida, he was born thousands of miles away in Warren, Ohio, in 1940. At the time, Warren was a bustling steel city, and Ailes’ father was a factory foreman without a college degree.
Steve Papalas, 77, took a government class with Ailes in the 7th grade in 1952, the year Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower ran for president. Papalas remembered that in a predominantly Democratic city, the 12-year-old Ailes took a stand for Eisenhower in a class debate.
“When Roger supported Eisenhower it was like, ‘oh my god, a Republican, are you kidding me?’” said Papalas, a retired police officer.
But Ailes got his way and persuaded the class to break for Eisenhower in a mock vote. It was a sign, classmates say, of Ailes’ strong-willed independence.
“He wasn’t a follower. He was a leader, and you could see that,” Papalas said.
After college, Ailes headed to Cleveland to take a television job. He later went to Washington to work as a media guru for Richard Nixon and then to New York to start Fox News.
Dennis Blank, also from Warren and nine years Ailes’ junior, recalled his surprise when he met Ailes as a media executive in the 1980s in New York City.
“I was stunned,” Blank said. “There weren’t that many of us from Warren.”
Over after-work drinks, Blank and Ailes became friends despite differences.
“My politics and his, I don’t think they could possibly be further apart, but I just always liked him,” said Blank. “He was always just kind of a regular guy from Warren who happened to make it big.”
Ailes returned to Ohio only occasionally for high school reunions, but when he did, he was widely welcomed. Ailes quietly donated large sums of money for various projects in Warren. He also attended dinners with a group of former classmates, including Pat McLean, 77, who kept in touch with Ailes even after allegations of sexual harassment ended his Fox News career last July.
“Last time we talked, I said, ‘Roger, we’re 77 years old. Go out and enjoy yourself, you’ve worked hard all your life. Learn to relax,” McLean said.
Ailes spent much of the winter in Florida, McLean said. Though he didn’t make it back to Warren after he left Fox News, he did reach out to friends in Ohio before his death.
“He was enjoying himself,” McLean said. “He didn’t do that before.”