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Warren McKinney Shapleigh: civic leader, former president of Ralston Purina

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 2, 2009 - Warren McKinney Shapleigh, a revered civic leader, businessman and former president of the Ralston Purina Co., died Sunday evening (Nov. 1) at McKnight Extended Care. He was 89. 

Mr. Shapleigh was born and reared in St. Louis, and was a graduate of St. Louis Country Day School. He graduated from Yale University in 1942, with a B.A. in economics, and after college served in the U.S. Navy from 1942 to 1946. Three of those years of service were spent chasing submarines in the Pacific theater, part of the critical battle for New Guinea and eventually the Philippines. He also spent a year as executive officer of a fleet tanker during the war. During that time, in September 1945 on Okinawa, he married Jane Howard Smith of St. Louis, who was with the American Red Cross at the U.S. Army's Ninth Station Hospital.

When he returned to St. Louis after the war, he devoted his life to business, to civic affairs and to the betterment of St. Louis.

William P. Stiritz was a friend of Mr. Shapleigh and a colleague of his for many years at Ralston Purina Co.

Monday, Stiritz said, "Warren defined leadership as analytical and substantive rather than charismatic. It was Warren's management team that inherited the leadership of Ralston Purina in 1981, which led to the company's accomplishments - continuing today as Ralcorp, Energizer and, to an extent, Nestle Purina Pet Foods.

"Warren possessed a personality that could be characterized as patrician. He possessed a cool, analytical mind that penetrated the smoke and mirrors of business economics - whether underperforming existing businesses in the company's portfolio or a business that was for sale by another party," Stiritz said.

"He recognized the corporation's obligation to the community and its employees, but he understood management's legal obligations to the owners of the company, its shareholders. Warren was a gentleman in the rough and tumble world of business. He was a personal model whose value systems extended well beyond just business," he said.

Emily Rauh Pulitzer, chairman of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts and a long-time friend of Mr. Shapleigh, said, "He was a knowledgeable and thoughtful leader, and cared a great deal about St. Louis. He was influential in the redevelopment of the LaSalle Park neighborhood around the Ralston Purina headquarters (Checkerboard Square, just south of downtown).

"His interests," she said, "ranged from business to the Botanical Garden to the arts, to Washington University and beyond.

"He was," she continued, "an extraordinary human being and a good friend."

Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden , said, "Warren Shapleigh was a great friend and supporter of the Garden; he served on our Board for almost 60 years. With Tom K. Smith Jr. and Howard Baer, he was someone on whom I could always count for good advice, support and friendship in my early years at the Garden in the 1970s. A prudent, very helpful, pleasant and intelligent man, he made a fine contribution here and to the community generally. He was the chair of the nominating committee that selected me as the Garden's director in 1971."

Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton said Mr. Shapleigh was one of the great leaders of the university's board of trustees. "When I arrived in 1995, he was very supportive, and a leader on our board in helping us to move forward on architecture and art and the development of what has become the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts."

Wrighton said he had strong relationships with Mr. Shapleigh and his wife, Jane. "Both helped me to come to a better understanding of St. Louis. They were great mentors and advisers. He will be missed very much."

Wrighton's predecessor, Dr. William H. Danforth, said, "Warren Shapleigh was a wonderful St. Louisan with wide ranging interests and skills. He was a businessman and an able trustee of Washington University. He was interested in the arts, and knowledgable about architecture. He had many, many friends whom he enjoyed and who enjoyed him. He was an enthusiastic sailor who could watch calmly an amateur almost mess up -- and he'd make the key correction. He had a great family, and he has left his mark on St. Louis. 

As Peter Raven observed, Mr. Shapleigh served as a director of the Missouri Botanical Garden for well over half a century, and worked on its finance and endowment committees. He was, as well, a member of the board of directors of St. Luke's Hospital and was president of its board from 1958 to 1960. In national affairs, he was a member of the board of directors of the Brookings Institution in Washington. From 1989 to 2006, he was president of the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Foundation.

He was highly regarded for his integrity in business and was sought after as a director for the boards of a number of corporations in St. Louis and outside the city. Those he served  include the Union Pacific Co., New York; Barry Wehmiller Co., St. Louis; J.P. Morgan & Co. and Morgan Guaranty Trust, New York; the old Centerre Bank in St. Louis and Boatmen's Trust Co., St. Louis; Brown Group, St. Louis; and Ralston Purina, St. Louis.

Mr. Shapleigh is survived by his wife, Jane; two daughters, Jane Shapleigh Mackey, St. Louis, and Christine Shapleigh Schmid, of Boston; a son-in-law, Paul A. Schmid III, Boston; and five grandchildren: Alexander M. Mackey (Alexandra), Boston; John W. Mackey, St. Louis; Jane S. Mackey, San Francisco; Celeste Schmid Prothro (Randell), San Francisco; and Paul A. Schmid IV, Washington; and two great grandchildren.

A memorial service will be at 11 a.m., Nov. 5, at Saint Peter's Episcopal Church, 110 North Warson Road. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Missouri Botanical Garden or the Saint Louis Art Museum.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.