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Peter Fischer: a generosity and a vision equal to his desire for anonymity

Peter Fischer avoided publicity, but did accept the St. Louis Award.
File photo | Robert W. Duffy | St. Louis Beacon

M. Peter Fischer, whose reticence and penchant for anonymity were exceeded only by his generosity and keen and realized desires to contribute to the improvement of the city of St. Louis, died of cancer Thursday night on Cape Cod with his family in attendance. He was 80 years old and lived in Ladue.

Mr. Fischer was born and reared in St. Louis, the son of the late Aaron and Teresa M. Fischer. His parents were philanthropists, and in 1986 they established the Gateway Foundation. It became a philanthropic organization that would figure prominently in Peter Fischer’s later life.

Before that, however, Fischer was focused on the law. He received his B.A. degree from Duke University, Durham, N.C., in 1957, and his J.D. degree from the Washington University School of Law in 1960. In 1961, he received his Master of Laws from New York University.

In his legal career, he worked as an attorney in the Internal Revenue Service’s office of legal counsel, and was a political aide to Franklin D. Roosevelt III, a grandson of the former President and Mrs. Roosevelt. In St. Louis, he was a partner in the firm of Fischer & Hawker.

Before construction of the award-winning Citygarden downtown on the Gateway Mall, the Gateway Foundation, of which Mr. Fischer was president, was notable for its program of lighting significant architectural works such as the Saarinen Arch -- the central feature of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial -- and the three massive water towers: the Bissell and Grand Avenue towers in North St. Louis and the Compton Hill Water Tower in Reservoir Park on South Grand.

The Gateway Foundation also became a local Johnny Appleseed of art, and installed works of contemporary sculpture around town where they acted as compelling visual surprises. Although generally these additions to the urban experience were received happily, nothing prepared the public or city officials for the brilliant Citygarden, a public sculpture garden created between Market and Chestnut streets, and Eighth and 10th. 

Jim Dine's Big White Gloves, Big Four Wheels at Citygarden
Credit File Photo | Rachel Heidenry | St. Louis Beacon
Jim Dine's Big White Gloves, Big Four Wheels at Citygarden

Citygarden opened in July 2009, and with its more or less accessible works of art and it water features, it was an instant hit with children, downtown residents, downtown working folks, folks from west of Skinker who hadn't been east of Skinker in decades, corporate executives, urban land observers and critics – and politicians who recognized the power good design could exert. The Gateway Foundation paid the entire cost of the project, about $30 million and covers operating expenses as well.

Immediately after opening, Citygarden – with its eclectic collection and bright and cheerful atmosphere -- was recognized as a shot in the arm for downtown, and a source of much needed good press, locally and nationally. Mr. Fischer won the St. Louis Award in 2009 for his creation of Citygarden and gave a no-nonsense speech to the civic establishment, reminding it of the need to plan and to build with quality and sustainable growth in mind, and not with quick and mediocre fixes.

Although a terrific architecture firm designed Citygarden – Nelson Byrd Wolz of Charlottesville, Va. – the vision, the impetus and the money came from Peter Fischer himself. He clearly was proud of his accomplishment, and spent many hours patrolling (anonymously) his very evident Citygarden success.

While he guarded this privacy with a whim of iron, he was wonderful company one-on-one and in small groups. He had a quick wit and a lively intelligence. Generally, he refused social invitations and certainly he was never a fixture on the social charity party scene. He liked to meet a friend for breakfast, however, and preferred those early-morning meals to be agenda-free.

For years, Paul Wagman was the human barrier between Mr. Fischer and the public, especially pesky newsmen and women. Wagman happens to be a former reporter and is now senior vice president and partner at Fleishman Hilliard, the public relations firm. He has been spokesman for Citygarden for many years.

At some point, Wagman was elevated in Mr. Fischer’s estimation and moved from spokesman to friend of Fischer, and both spokesman and philanthropist got an enormous kicks out of the friendship.

Big Suit by Erwin Wurm
Credit citygardenstl.org
Big Suit by Erwin Wurm

Wagman recalled Mr. Fischer’s delight in a sculpture called “Big Suit,” a huge empty pink metal suit installed on a monumental pedestal on the north side of the sculpture garden. It represents perhaps the dressed up and deep down emptiness of the metaphorical “Man,” and men and the resonant hollowness of his life.

Mr. Fischer wasn’t one for suits, pink or otherwise. His uniform consisted of a pair of well-worn khaki pants, a button-collar Oxford cloth shirt, a frayed needlepoint belt, a crew neck sweater (cotton in summer and wool in winter) often knitted of brightly colored yarn; usually frayed. Also brown penny loafers. As for something making it the better to see you with, he wore dime-store magnifying eyeglasses way down on his nose, and the specs usually came with multi-color frames. Although this may sound awfully down at the heels, Mr. Fischer pulled off this understated style with the greatest of ease.

He had a mischievous twinkle in his eye unless angry; then the eyes turned piercing. But he loved to laugh, and as Wagman said, he loved to tease and took teasing merrily.

“He had the greatest smile,” Wagman said, “one that said, ‘This is fun.’ He took joy in the works of art, and one time, standing in front of “Big Suit,” he said, ‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ He asked that question a lot – ‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ – especially when something really tickled him.”

On the other hand, he was strictly business when it came to social justice and the environment. For example, he was attorney for Lawyers for Housing, an American Bar Association program to provide housing for low-income people. He served with Margaret Bush Wilson,  who later became chair of the National NAACP board of directors.

He represented the Special School District of St. Louis County in the St. Louis metropolitan desegregation case. He was president of the Deer Creek Foundation, which focuses on holding public organizations accountable for their behavior, news organizations included.

His law partner, Mary Stake Hawker, is president of the Deer Creek Foundation. She has been Mr. Fischer’s law partner and friend for over 40 years. She provided reasons explaining Mr. Fischer’s extraordinariness: 

"Peter was scornful of attempts to sum up people’s lives after death,” she said. “Eschewing that, I will say that Peter was extraordinary for many reasons, including:

  • “His concern for and legal representation and broader advocacy of those who are at a disadvantage in the existing administrative, legal, and economic systems;
  • “His persistence in ‘bucking’ the opinions of experts, including lighting experts who insisted that the St. Louis Arch's reflective surface could not be lit;
  • “His judgment, the breadth and depth of which he brought to bear on a broad range of problems -- from the aesthetic, to the personal, to the most complex political and social ones;
  • “His unerringly applied principle of not prejudging people, despite the nearly universal human preconceptions and stereotypes most of us employ."

He is survived by a daughter, Martha Fischer, two sons, Michael and Matthew Fischer,  four grandchildren and his wife,  Suzanne Chichester Fischer. There will be no funeral or memorial service.