Harold C. “Hal” Donofrio Sr., a legendary Baltimore advertising figure and a Korean War veteran who founded Richardson, Myers & Donofrio, which became one of the city’s leading advertising agencies and whose advertising campaign played a major role in securing Harry R. Hughes the Maryland governorship, died Thursday of complications from dementia at his home in The Cloisters in the Woodbrook neighborhood of Baltimore County.
The former longtime Guilford resident was 94.
Donald P. Hutchinson, who was Baltimore County executive from 1978 to 1986 and a former president and CEO of the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, got to know Mr. Donofrio when Mr. Hutchinson was running for county executive and Mr. Hughes for governor.
“Hal was a good mediator and totally without any ego and always had tremendous ideas, plus he had a subtle sense of humor. He could make side comments, which made everyone laugh,” he said
Harold Charles Donofrio was the son of Italian immigrant parents. His father, Pasquel “Pat” Donofrio, was a successful nurseryman, and his mother, Lena Donofrio, was a homemaker. Born in Geneva, New York, Mr. Donofrio later moved with his family to Westminster.
“Hal enjoyed a good relationship with his dad who required English to be spoken in the house at all times,” his longtime friend Joseph M. Coale III wrote in an unpublished biographical profile. “The only exception was when his parents wanted to keep a secret from the children did they converse in Italian: a negotiating option many parents would enjoy having today.”
After graduating from Westminster High School in 1944, Mr. Donofrio began his college studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he played several sports and was on the varsity boxing team.
Mr. Donofrio withdrew from Maryland and enlisted in the Army in 1946, when one career day, when enlistee service options were offered, “he found himself on his way to Officer Candidate School because it was the shortest line,” Mr. Coale wrote. “He soon realized the very serious life and death consequences of his obligation. By Nov. he had graduated from the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, as an 18-year old second lieutenant and departed for the ‘Land of the Morning Calm’ — Korea.”
As a member of the occupation force, Mr. Donofrio began to dream of a possible military career and applied for a Regular Army commission. He reenlisted in 1948 and was first stationed in Vienna, then with the Allied Control Council, composed of the Four Powers: the U.S., Great Britain, France and Soviet Union. After serving for a year in Okinawa with the 29th Division, he requested inactive duty and returned to College Park, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in physiology in 1951.
Sent to Korea, he served two combat tours with C Company, 35th Infantry, 25th Division, first as a rifle platoon leader and executive officer, then promoted to captain as company commander. Conducting ambush and patrol missions mostly at night earned Mr. Donofrio the Combat Infantry Badge with three combat stars.
He completed his military career at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, as aide-de-camp to the college’s commandant. He became an adjunct professor of military history and ROTC until being discharged in 1955.
While at the college, Mr. Donofrio took aptitude tests that revealed he had strong abilities that corresponded to sales or public relations work. After returning to Baltimore, he launched his advertising career when he went to work at VanSant-Dugdale, a premier advertising firm, starting at the bottom in account services and moving up to copywriter and, finally, to account executive.
At the urging of a friend, David Martin, he left VanSant after eight years, and in 1961, he moved to Richmond, Virginia, and joined Cargill, Wilson & Acree, “a cutting edge firm with increasing national exposure,” Mr. Coale wrote.
“Honing his own style, experience and confidence in one of America’s most competitive yet exciting industries, Hal paid his dues,” Mr. Coale observed.
In 1964, Mr. Donofrio returned to Baltimore and established Richardson, Myers & Donofrio in the basement of a Biddle Street building that backed up to Danny’s restaurant on North Charles Street.
“He used to sleep on a couch in his office and then go out and beat the bushes for business,” said his wife of 27 years, Sherri Thompson, a retired AllFirst banker. “He was the epitome of the self-made man.”
He developed an enviable client list early on when Red Rose Animal Feeds — the fabled Triple Crown winner Secretariat ate its products — became a client of the company, which was later sold to Carnation in 1974. When the company celebrated its 150th anniversary in 1992, it was Mr. Donofrio who handled the creative side of the celebration.
He represented Black & Decker, local meatpacking businesses and Crown Central Petroleum. When Mr. Hughes, former secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation, decided to run for governor in 1977, he turned to Mr. Donofrio to help with the campaign.
Mr. Hughes, who was a reform candidate, found himself facing an entrenched Democratic machine that had been plagued by scandals and indictments. South Baltimore political leader Harry J. “Soft Shoes” McGuirk famously dismissed Mr. Hughes as being nothing more than a “ball lost in high grass.”
It was Mr. Donofrio’s and his staff’s work, along with the joint endorsement of The Sun and The Evening Sun, that successfully propelled Mr. Hughes in 1978 into the governorship in Annapolis, where he served for eight years.
“The Hughes commercials are as Spartan as they could possibly be,” The Sun observed in a 1978 article. “The candidate sits alone under the studio lights, surrounded by blackness, talking quietly about the themes of his campaign.”
“In a move that was later praised by The Sun, RM & D declined to solicit state business showing there was to be no quid-pro-quo as in the past,” Mr. Coale wrote.
One of Mr. Donofrio’s notable ad campaigns, which ran from 1987 until 2013, was the “Campaign for Our Children,” which focused on teen pregnancies. Straightforward messages and graphics won praise from the local and national press. “Maryland birth-to-teens during the length of the program declined by 30 percent,” Mr. Coale wrote.
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Active in the community, Mr. Donofrio had served as chairman of the March of Dimes and on the board of St. Paul’s School. Other board memberships included the National Indoor Tennis Championships to benefit Junior League charities and the National Association of Advertising Executives.
Mr. Donofio, who played tennis and golf, was a member of the Baltimore Country Club. He and his wife were also world travelers.
“We went to Europe, the Caribbean and the French West Indies at least once a year,” Ms. Thompson said.
A memorial gathering will be held from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. July 30 at Ruck Towson Funeral Home, 1050 York Road, Towson.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Donofrio is survived by his son, Malcolm “Mac” Donofrio of Hamilton, Montana; a sister, Nancy Joneckis of Hanover, Pennsylvania; three granddaughters; and a great-grandson. Another son, Harold C. “Chuck” Donofrio Jr., died in 2017. An earlier marriage to the former Nancy Jane Robinson ended in divorce.