Remembering Rheo Blair Part II: John O'Connor, Close Friend and Chief Assistant

I met Rheo Blair in the summer of ’69. I was seven years old at the time and sitting in a pew at St Brendan’s Catholic Church observing my sister and her fiancé rehearsing for their wedding when into the church walked Rheo,
Rheo surrounded by John's family at their home in 1972
shoulders squared, wearing a bright yellow shirt, as I recall, and carrying a great big camera. As it turned out, my sister’s fiancé and his brother both worked for Rheo and Rheo magnanimously agreed to be one of the two wedding photographers. Then I remember at the wedding reception that was held at our house on south Harvard Avenue in Los Angeles seeing Rheo there again, this time with his Champion juicer, set up in our living room, serving strawberry ice cream! The fact that it was his special high-protein ice cream didn’t matter to me at the time; the fact that it was ice cream did (!) and it was at that moment that Rheo became my new best friend.

I still remember that ice cream as being quite delicious, because I remember going back for seconds and thirds and fourths…although when I reminded Rheo of that time years later he laughed and said he didn’t think that it was the best batch he’d ever made. But to a kid who loved ice cream, eating Rheo’s ice cream on that hot August summer day was a real delight and I recall it as if it was yesterday. Rheo quickly became a dear friend of my family, not really because of the ice cream (although, speaking for myself, it certainly helped!), but because of the man that he was and the invaluable nutritional advise that he provided to members of my family, especially my mother, who was experiencing some pretty serious health problems at that time.

I also remember the first time I went over to Rheo’s house on Rosewood Avenue. I went with my parents and brothers. When we arrived at the door we had to remove our shoes, because Rheo’s house had wall-to-wall white carpeting. This was a new and rather fascinating experience for me. We all ate protein ice cream that night too and Rheo played W.C. Fields movies on his home projector until dawn (Rheo was a real night owl!). I had never seen a W.C. Fields movie before and recall turning to my parents at one point and, referring to W.C. Fields, saying “Where’s this guy been!” as I never laughed so hard in my life. 

Although Rheo was a well-known nutritionist in his day and a true pioneer in the field of nutrition, he was also a man of multiple talents. He loved photography and was actually quite good at it; many of his famous before-and-after pictures as well as other publicity pictures were taken by Rheo himself, at least in the early years. In fact, the only moving footage of my family in existence was taken by Rheo himself at my brother’s graduation from Marine boot camp. Moreover, he could also sing and do it well, in a baritone style reminiscent of the late, great Nelson Eddy. He could even play a little piano too, although as a non-musician who lacks the musical knowledge, I couldn’t rate him on this, other than to say he sounded pretty good to me. Moreover, he seemed – to me, anyway – to know his bible and, although he did not belong to any particular religion during the time I knew him, would on occasion cite scripture in a manner reminiscent of Billy Graham. 

Rheo dabbled in so many things. This included doing a little body building himself as a young man – although he knew this wasn’t ultimately for him. He was a man who knew his limitations as well as his strengths. But I am convinced that, although nutrition was the career path he ultimately chose, with his positive attitude and willingness to work hard he could have chosen a number of different paths and been successful at it.
John working out in Rheo's home, 1983

Rheo was really ahead of his time in many ways, including when he opened his own gym in downtown Chicago back in the late ‘40s. It included a kitchen along with state-of the-art equipment as well as it provided a venue to sell his and other dietary supplements. He was primarily interested in nutrition, but with targeted exercise. Moreover, he continued to work with body builders, because he knew that they made up a key segment of his target audience and they weren’t afraid to experiment with new things, be it exercise techniques or the protein and other dietary supplements. This arrangement worked out well for Rheo’s fledgling business. They also modeled for his Tomorrow’s Man magazine he published in which he advertised his supplements. 

Rheo was also a motivational speaker and I think that, by design, he incorporated motivational tools into the nutritional program. As a disciple of the motivational authors and speakers Earl Nightingale and Napoleon Hill, Rheo was a big believer in the power of positive thinking and believed that in a free society such as ours a positive attitude coupled with hard work would invariably lead to success, be it financial, spiritual, or what have you. Moreover, Rheo felt that many of the young kids he met during his time as a nutritionist not only had nutritional deficiencies that needed to be addressed but also had very negative attitudes, which could be a factor in why too many turned too drugs. So, although many didn’t know this about Rheo, he very often included listening to tapes of motivational speakers like the aforementioned and others, like Reverend Ike, to work synergistically with the nutritional phase and yield better results. I can even recall one time when Rheo took some young students of his and me to listen to Reverend Ike speak out at the Santa Monica Convention Center. I found it to be a riveting experience. 

Another thing about Rheo that I’ll never forget is how much he loved science and technology. He was an extremely curious man and was always anxious to learn new things and buy the latest technological gadgets to hit the market. The fact that he had little formal education of his own may have stirred in him a real thirst for knowledge that continued to the day he died. I even recall when I went to see him in the hospital after he had been diagnosed with kidney failure how utterly fascinated he was with the dialysis machine and how it had “saved my life.” 

Rheo’s attitude toward technology was quite telling, for it was very different than the sort of attitudes he told me he witnessed as a boy growing up in rural Somerville, New Jersey. He told me his father was one of the first people in their area to purchase an automobile and that there were closed-minded people at the time who referred to his father’s car as the “Devil’s mobile.” Rheo detested this sort of closed-minded, anti-science attitude and wanted to get as far away from it as possible. 

As a big music lover, he used to recall his early days working in Chicago when he owned his own recording studio. I think he would have been great at it if he had pursued it, but God obviously had other plans for him. However, one example of Rheo’s fascination with technology was when he went out and purchased the first-generation walkman when it first hit the market and was just beside himself at the quality of the sound coming from what at that time was such a small unit. For a man who was working with reel-to-reel recording equipment back in the ‘40’s, this was no doubt a quantum leap and Rheo couldn’t get over it. 

Of course, it was Rheo’s own poor health that inspired him to get into nutrition in the first place. He told me that he was once diagnosed as the most anemic boy in that part of New Jersey where he grew up. Rheo was very sickly as a boy and said that his mother was suffering with an active case of what he called “infantile paralysis” (polio) while pregnant with him. But he said he used to listen from his home in New Jersey to Dr. Carleton Fredericks’s radio show that aired out of WOR in New York City and how this raised him out of ignorance. He praised Dr. Fredericks greatly as his mentor, acknowledging that so much of what he knew about nutrition came from listing to this nutritional pioneer.

Rheo suffered with, among other things, severe hypoglycemia, which he told me impared his ability to think clearly and concentrate in school. This led him to seek relief by experimenting with many different types of diets, including veganism/vegetarianism, which was very popular among the “health nuts” of the day. But he said the first diet that he noticed really helped him was the Bernard McFadden “Milk Diet.” After this, along with becoming a disciple of Dr. Fredericks, Rheo was on the path to adopting the high-protein, animal-based diet as the dietary basis for his nutritional program. 

I think Rheo would agree that he was not the most organized individual in the world. But I got the sense that this was, at least in part, because he tried to do too much of everything himself. He should have delegated more responsibilities to others, particularly when it came to the private nutritional counseling. Rheo always insisted on doing it himself, even though there was such a demand for people to see him and he couldn’t possibly handle them all one-on-one. This didn’t stop him from trying. At a certain point,however, when the load simply became too heavy, he did start referring some prospective clients to Dorothy North for nutritional counseling. She was the mother of child television star Jay North of Dennis the Menace fame, was a believer in Rheo’s nutritional philosophy, was very knowledgeable herself, and a well-respected nutritionist herself at the time. I would later work under her in the vitamin department at Quinn’s Health Pantry, which was the state-of-the-art  health food store in Los Angeles back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, before Mrs Gooch’s (later purchased by Whole Foods) came along.

Rheo H. Blair influenced my mother and me greatly. My mother told me that she used to scoff at my sister for taking a vitamin C pill, but that when her health was failing her and she was losing so much weight because she couldn’t hold any food down she relented and tried Rheo’s protein powder and that it was the first time in a long time she was able to hold any food down. My mother went on to fully recover her health and became a disciple of Rheo’s and a real believer in the power of “super nutrition.” Moreover, I myself learned so much from Rheo and found myself reading the books he recommended, such Food Facts and Fallacies and Low Blood Sugar and You, both by Dr. Carlton Fredericks, and Super Nutrition by Dr. Richard Passwater. After Rheo passed away, I worked various jobs as a laborer before my mother got me a job working at Quinn’s Health Pantry where she was working. I honed my nutrition skills working in health food stores and eventually went back to school to earn my degree in nutrition. Clearly, Rheo had a profound impact on the career paths my mother and I chose to take.

Another thing I’d like to stress about Rheo was how very open minded he was. Although he was passionate about what he believed in, he was always willing to listen to an idea, even if it was counter to what he believed. And he even found himself changing his views on occasion, including his nutritional views. I remember, for example, how Rheo used to be opposed to drinking beer, before coming to advocate its consumption with meals, in small amounts. Another example of how Rheo could change his position concerned his view on beta carotene. Rheo would always say that carrots don’t contain “vitamin A”; rather, they contain beta carotene, which is pro-vitamin A,  and which has to be converted in the liver into the “active” form of vitamin A. Therefore, Rheo argued, beta carotene wasn’t necessary and that it was better to consume foods (e.g., liver) with the active form of vitamin A already available. However, one day, I saw Rheo reading some articles on beta carotene and so I asked him “Why are you reading about beta carotene? You said the active vitamin A is superior.” Rheo replied that, as it turns out, beta carotene may have benefits above and beyond its vitamin A activity, most notably as a much more potent antioxidant than vitamin A, with the capacity to quench the corrosive singlet-oxygen radical. Additionally, not too long before Rheo passed away, he began to see the value in consuming evening primrose seed oil and fish oil, studying up on the important prostaglandins produced from these oils, and even introduced his own Evening Primrose Oil and MaxEPA fish oil products. Although these products seem inconsistent with Rheo’s reputed nutritional philosophy, what this showed was how non-dogmatic Rheo was and that he was more interested in learning and doing whatever worked than engaging in game of cognitive dissonance. Furthermore, this, I believe, is why Rheo was able to deliver the best before-and-afters I’ve ever seen. Even today, thirty years after his death, I don’t think there is an authentic before-and after out there that comes close to the transformation Rheo achieved in the case of Caroline Young (Let’s Live Magazine, August, 1967).

What I realized about Rheo was that he was absolutely not some guy pushing his own narrow agenda to make a buck. In fact, Rheo always went for the highest-quality and as a result the most expensive materials. But he never got rich doing it, as some out there have claimed. In fact, he was always in debt and had to work eighteen-hour days, seven days a week, just to keep paying his bills, which were prodigious. Rheo struck me as a man of integrity, a very spiritual individual with a zest for life, someone who loved science, and a holistic practitioner in every sense of the word who wanted to improve the quality of people’s lives.  And he did. Like George Bailey in the 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life – a movie Rheo truly loved, by the way – Rheo really did touch the lives of so many people, and no doubt far more than he ever realized. But unlike George Bailey, Rheo actually did make it out of that little town he was desperate to get away from, and there are a whole lot of us thankful that he did! 

John O’Connor has a Bachelor’s Degree in Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Science and works for a dietary supplement company where his duties include Quality Control, R&D, and Regulatory Compliance.

 Contact me

Home Page

Copyright © 2008 - 2013 Charles Welling
All rights reserved.

Information found on Rheo H. Blair: The Book is meant for educational and informational purposes only, and to motivate you to make your own health care and dietary decisions based upon your own research and in partnership with your health care provider. It should not be relied upon to determine dietary changes, a medical diagnosis or courses of treatment.