His career at the Minneapolis Star (and later the Star Tribune) may have spanned four decades, but Joe Blade was known among colleagues for the two years he worked at a newspaper in Toledo, Ohio. He often introduced himself as “Blade of the Toledo Blade,” even after he had gone on to become an award-winning investigative reporter who exposed corruption in Minnesota.
Blade, of Minneapolis, died Nov. 23 from lung cancer. He was 85.
Born April 13, 1934, in Oklahoma, Blade began working as a reporter at his high school paper, then went on to study the craft on a full scholarship at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He worked during college, mainly as a waiter at a home for the elderly.
The experience proved useful to him years later at the Star, where that demographic became one of several beats he covered in his long career doing “exposés of con men and crooked companies,” as he described it in a handwritten timeline of his life’s accomplishments.
In 1975, Blade authored a series of stories about mistreatment of patients and financial wrongdoing at River Villa, Minnesota’s largest privately owned nursing home. His report ultimately led to five convictions, prison sentences for the owners and new state laws that increased regulation for nursing homes.
“That was probably the hallmark of his career,” said Dave Nimmer, who was managing editor of the Star at the time. “I got plenty of flack from some people, but he was right. He was taking the industry to task for issues of care and finance. He was a damned good reporter.”
His investigative work “consumed” him, said his partner of 47 years, Ann Burckhardt. “When he was on somebody’s trail, it absolutely took over his life.” Blade would often rent a motel room where he could spread out boxes of paperwork, toiling “night and day till he had the details he sought,” Burckhardt said.
Blade transitioned to business reporting and won a prestigious award in 1978 for a series he wrote about job satisfaction. He retired in 1990.
When he wasn’t working, he was traveling, indulging in lifelong wanderlust he picked up when he was stationed in Italy with the U.S. Army in the 1950s. He took an overseas separation from his service to roam for 10 months through Europe and North Africa. Later, after his stint in Toledo, Blade went abroad as a diplomatic courier for the U.S. State Department, a job that had him escorting diplomatic pouches throughout Europe, Africa and the Middle East for four years. He moved to Paris, living in a family’s attic and studying at the Sorbonne, before arriving in Minneapolis.
“He’d been everywhere and done everything,” Burckhardt said.
Blade and Burkhardt met at the Star, where she was a longtime reporter and editor for the Taste section. Burckhardt was writing a story about cooking for one, and Blade offered to be interviewed. “I did interview him and put one recipe in. The ‘J.B. Sundae’ — a scoop of chocolate ice cream topped with a couple of tablespoons of fruit cocktail.”
When Burckhardt tested recipes for the paper, Blade would be her “sous chef.” “He was meticulous at cutting the fat off of meat, slicing and dicing perfectly,” Burckhardt said. “He was a pretty serious guy.”
Burckhardt’s daughter, Barbara, who considered Blade a second father, remembers his sillier side. “He loved to laugh and when he would give you a greeting card it was always funny,” Barbara said. “He loved reading history and trying to figure things out,” Barbara said. “I think he had the heart and soul of a journalist.”
Blade is survived by Ann Burckhardt of Edina and Barbara Burckhardt of Burnsville and brothers Bill of St. Louis and Richard of Colorado Springs. Services have been held.