Blough, Roger Miles

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BLOUGH, Roger Miles

(b. 19 January 1904 in Riverside, Pennsylvania; d. 8 October 1985 in Hawley, Pennsylvania), in true Horatio Alger fashion rose from the humblest of beginnings to become a captain of industry—president and board chairman of U.S. Steel.

Blough was born in a community that is described as both a section of Johnstown (famous for the 1889 killer flood) and a small village outside the western Pennsylvania city. His father, Christian Emanuel Blough, a truck farmer and greenhouse operator, and his mother, Viola Nancy (Hoffman) Blough, a nurse, were of modest means. Because of the family's finances, Blough, the fifth of seven children, planned to attend school no further than eighth grade, a fairly common practice at the time. His teachers, realizing his academic abilities, encouraged him to continue his education. He first worked his way through Susquehanna Academy (affiliated with Susquehanna University, located in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania) and then the university itself. He enrolled in 1920, but dropped out for the 1923–1924 academic year to earn money to continue. He graduated with a B.A. in 1925. While at Susquehanna, the five-foot, eleven-inch, 175-pound Blough earned multiple letters in football, basketball, and tennis. A serious student, he was also active on campus and well liked. The Lanthorn (the Susquehanna yearbook) said of him, "Those of us who know Roger best have learned that behind that kind smile and laughing eyes there lies a character containing those elements of greatness before which the world will someday bow in awe."

Blough secured a teaching (mathematics and science) and coaching (basketball) position in Hawley in northeastern Pennsylvania. On 13 June 1928 he married a fellow teacher, Helen Martha Decker. They had twin daughters. His wife's father was Hawley's leading attorney. Influenced by his father-in-law, Blough enrolled at Yale Law School. His brilliant academic record continued—he was editor of the Yale Law Journal. In the depth of the Great Depression, Blough graduated in 1931. He applied at New York's leading Wall Street law firm, White and Case, and was offered a $200-a-month position. George Case noted on his application, "First class chap, clean, good-looking. I like him."

Heading a team of twenty lawyers in defending U.S. Steel on monopoly charges during a congressional hearing in 1939 and 1940, Blough impressed the steel giant's president, Benjamin F. Fairless. He was made U.S. Steel's general solicitor in 1942. He rose through the ranks and succeeded Fairless as president in 1955.

Blough presided over the smoothly run Big Steel firm, but in 1962 he locked horns with President John F. Kennedy over increases in steel prices. At the time U.S. Steel was by far the largest producer of steel in the United States. The company was, in fact, the nation's third-largest corporation, behind only General Motors and Standard Oil of New Jersey.

On 31 March 1962 an agreement was reached between the United Steelworkers of America (the union) and the steel industry. The union felt the agreement gave liberal concessions to Big Steel as far as wages were concerned. This was done, as the industry said, to keep the overall cost of steel production low and competitive with foreign markets. Kennedy and the government, in general, were pleased with the agreement and viewed it as an inflation-fighting measure. But just ten days later, on 10 April 1962, Blough flew to Washington, D.C., and personally handed Kennedy a press release stating that U.S. Steel had raised the price of its steel by $6 a ton. To make matters worse for the young president and his battle against inflationary trends, Bethlehem Steel, the nation's second-largest producer, immediately followed with a price increase of its own. Kennedy was incensed over the price increase.

Over the next three days, the government flexed its collective muscles. Four antitrust investigations into the steel industry and its business practices were instituted. Consideration was given to legislation that would roll back the price of steel to levels prior to the controversial increases. Price and wage controls were threatened and discussed. Even the FBI got into the act, questioning the news media on U.S. Steel's action in an attempt to determine possible collusion and price-fixing. Perhaps the most serious ramification was the government's decision to divert Department of Defense contracts away from Blough's firm. Kennedy stated that he felt the steel industry had "double-crossed" him and the increase was "unjustifiable and irresponsible," and added that the steel executives had "utter contempt for their fellow countrymen."

When Blough left the White House, the president was said to have remarked, "My father always told me they [big-business executives] were sons of bitches, but I never believed him—until now." Kennedy was not the only one to hold a news conference. On the fourth day of the crisis, 14 April 1962, Blough addressed the media, defending the price increase as "necessary to finance modernization of the industry to maintain competitiveness." One day before Blough's news conference, three other large steelproducers—Inland, Kaiser, and Armco—indicated they would not be joining U.S. Steel and Bethlehem in upping steel prices. First, Bethlehem reversed its action on the increase, and "by sunset," as New York Times obituary writer Daniel J. Cuff put it, "U.S. Steel caved in."

A few days later, on 18 April 1962, Blough placed a call to the White House in an attempt to mend fences. The conversation was described as being "useful and cordial." But not all hard feelings were erased. Businessmen from many industries in addition to steel were irate at what they considered the government's involvement with the private sector.

The 1960s were not entirely controversial for Blough. He served out the decade, somewhat out of the spotlight, retiring as CEO in 1969. He remained a U.S. Steel board member until 1976—while working once again for White and Case—and then retired fully to the hamlet of Hawley. In 1963 he was presented the National Football Foundation's highest award—the Gold Medal. It was an honor that had previously been given to Dwight D. Eisenhower, Herbert Hoover, Douglas MacArthur, and later, ironically, to John F. Kennedy. Blough was also honored as Industrialist of the Year in 1967.

Blough died of heart failure, was cremated, and is buried in Green Gate Cemetery in Hawley.

With one notable exception, the affable Blough led an industrial giant for several decades of prosperity with little fanfare. He once said, "I was pretty lucky. I can't remember any serious reverses." Intellect, hard work, and dedication also had something to do with his rise to prominence.

Blough's personal and corporate papers are housed in the Susquehanna University Library (Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania), which bears his name. Three books by Blough give insight into his thinking: Free Man and the Corporation (1959); Government Wage-Price Guideposts in the American Economy (1967), with George Meany and Neil H. Jacoby; and The Washington Embrace of Business (1975). An obituary is in the New York Times (10 Oct. 1985).

Jim Campbell