Russell Bliss: Riverdale’s godfather had hands of steel

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Russell George Bliss, a lifelong Riverdale resident who hit hard and loved deeply, died Oct. 22. He was 79.

Born March 9, 1939, Bliss grew up on Henry Hudson Parkway, attending Saint Gabriel School, said his brother Richard, later graduating from All Hallows High School in 1957.

He developed into a top tennis player by the time he was a high school senior, Richard said, earning an athletic scholarship to Iona College in New Rochelle. He ended up keeping it local, however, attending Manhattan College for a year, before joining the Marine Corps — not drafted, but enlisting, in 1958 — where he worked himself up to the rank of lance corporal.

He was discharged in 1964, according to daughter Michelle Flores.

Bliss’ godson, Terrence Fanning, called Bliss a pillar of the Riverdale/Kingsbridge community for nearly eight decades who was “widely respected and helped many.”

“Russ and his family were legends in my eyes and others’ as well,” Fanning said. “They were kind, cunning men of valor with fiery tempers. Hard as walnuts.”

After serving in the Marines, Bliss landed a gig as an area manager for a carpeting company before joining what is now Canadian-based liqueur producer Hiram Walker & Sons Ltd. working as a salesman.

Bliss went on to open the Sadie Hawkins bar on Riverdale Avenue near West 236th Street, a neighborhood watering hole Flores described as “the place to be” in the 1980s, although she was too young to hang around there at the time.

But if Bliss’ bar was known for jaunty good times, he also ran a tight ship, Fanning said. “He was a tough saloon owner who could give a good knock when warranted.”

Bliss later sold the bar and became an ironworker, Richard said.

People who knew Bliss probably thought twice before picking a fight with him, because he was a black belt in karate, Richard said. He also fought in the New York Golden Gloves boxing tournament — considered by some boxing aficionados one of the most elite Golden Gloves titles, along with the Chicago Golden Gloves.

Bliss was “quite proficient at the knuckle game,” Fanning said.

Bliss’ father was a sales manager for Hiram Walker, Richard said, who, as an amateur boxer, reputedly fought top-tier bantamweight slugger Alfonso Teofilo Brown, better known as “Panama Al Brown,” but got knocked out — his only loss out of some 25 fights, Richard claims.

As for Richard, he was born in 1945, attended Saint Gabriel like his brother, but graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School, attended college in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for about a year, eventually landing a job at the post office in Riverdale.

Besides his wife Joann, Bliss is survived by three children — daughters Michelle, Dawn Bliss Ramirez, and son Brett, as well as grandchildren Alex and Skylar Rose, brother Richard and sister Evelyn Thau.

Other than a brief stint in Florida and a spell in Maryland, Bliss spent nearly his entire life in Riverdale, Richard said.

Bliss developed what Flores described as ocular melanoma, a kind of eye cancer, which eventually spread. He was eventually placed in hospice care at the James J. Peters VA Medical Center on Kingsbridge Road.

The staff was “fabulous,” Richard said. “The best thing was, he didn’t suffer — didn’t suffer at all.”

“He was the best father in the world,” Richard added, “always with his kids. He was always helping people, magnificent in public relations. If anyone came to him, he always had good answers. He’d help anyone out. He was so dedicated.”

He also was a father figure to many people in the Riverdale community, Richard said, not just his own kids.

And of course, he could throw a mean punch.

“He had hands of steel,” Richard said. “And he didn’t look like a rough guy.”

Flores was no less rapturous when talking about her father.

“My dad was the best,” Flores said. “He loved all his children. He was our protector. He’s the one who always encouraged us to do good in life. He was so proud of all of his children.”

“He was also very smart,” Flores added. “He loved to read.”

Flores described her father as an entrepreneur who owned a number of bars and restaurants — not just Sadie Hawkins, but another called Faces, in Manhattan.

He was president of a local tavern softball league that played games in Seton Park, Flores said — his team representing the Sadie Hawkins establishment.

Fanning claims Bliss worked as corner man for professional boxer — and Ethical Culture Fieldston School groundskeeper — Danny “Irish” McAloon, as well as training other boxers. McAloon, another longtime Riverdale resident, died last year, at 74, after a 12-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

Bliss helped a number of his fellow ironworkers land union jobs.

“He liked to help people that’s down on their luck,” Fanning said. “He loved to see people get second chances. He rooted for the underdog.”

And at 78, Fanning recalls, the man was a “health nut,” still capable of lifting 250 pounds. “He was a human anomaly.”

“I miss swimming in the ocean with him,” Fanning said. “He was just such a humane person. He was closer to me than my dad.”

A final farewell was held for Bliss Oct. 27 at Saint Gabriel’s Roman Catholic Church on Arlington Avenue, followed by a military burial at Woodlawn Cemetery.

“His legacy lives on in the many lives he touched,” Fanning said.