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Evelyn Edison Newman: Creative philanthropist made it fun for others to contribute

Evelyn and Eric Newman
Provided by the family

Evelyn Newman – a pillar of the community if ever there was one -- died Tuesday at Barnes-Jewish Hospital after a brief illness. She was 95 years old.

Although born in Georgia Mrs. Newman considered herself a lifelong St. Louisan. With her loyalty to this region, she brought business acuity and a special talent for marketing to bear on worthy regional causes.

Ten years ago, Mrs. Newman told the Washington University Magazine “I am an idea person. I love spotting trends and I have always been interested in retail because of my family.”

That family was the Edisons. The Edison Brothers and their shoe business, which went by a number of names, was founded in 1922 and moved from Georgia to St. Louis in 1929. It flourished in a town known for shoes and booze, and became a titan in the American shoe business. In the late 1940s, for example, it was the largest chain of women’s shoe stores in the country.

Mrs. Newman benefited from a good education and an interesting one. She graduated from John Burroughs School in 1937, attended Goucher College in Baltimore and Washington University as well. But her true alma mater, she always said, was the “University of Eric Newman.” He, as was she, is a very smart man indeed. He, at the age of 104, survives his wife.

Mrs. Newman married him in 1939, and last year the couple celebrated their diamond anniversary. Together, they have worked as a team of creative philanthropists. They established the Eric P. Newman Education Center at the Washington University School of Medicine and created several professorships and scholarship funds. In recent years, they created the Newman Money Museum at Washington University’s Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts.

The Eric P. and Evelyn E. Newman Foundation was established recently with capital of $60 million. St. Louis Public Radio has been a beneficiary of the Newmans’ largesse.

We must all reinvent our lives now and then to stay relevant -as the world around us changes, and we ourselves change. - Evelyn Edison Newman, Writing in her blog, The Savvy Sage

As important as her partnership with her husband has been, she also was a dynamic and progressive force in the community and a businesswoman in her own right. At a time when women in her circumstances rarely took jobs, much less had careers, she went to work for the May Department Stores Co., then joined Edison Brothers, first as a buyer and then as a developer of retail concepts.

Entrepreneurship was her retail trajectory. This spirit of mercantile adventure translated into work for not for profits as the Evelyn E. Newman Group, established in 1982. A healthy part of its mission was to bring business expertise and sensible business practices to not-for-profit organizations.

Throughout – in her personal life and in business – Mrs. Newman carried herself with warmth, grace and cultivated elegance. She was a woman of exuberance and enormous energy too; in fact, right until the end, she seemed forever youthful -- so spry, so vigorous, so vital the family was genuinely surprised she had died.

“Her spunk and with-it-ness disguised how old she was,” her son, Andrew Newman, said. “She was always reinventing herself – examining this concept or that concept.”

This concept or that concept seemed to flow from her fertile imagination. The determination  was to make money – not for her pocketbook but for the good of the community.

The list of her endeavors runs on and on, but here are a few examples. If you ever snapped up a valuable first edition at the St. Louis Book Fair, or just a book you love to read, you can thank Mrs. Newman. She thought up the Book Fair, initially as a money-raiser for the Nursery Foundation, the first interracial day care center in St. Louis.

At some point you might have taken home some second-hand treasure from the Gypsy Caravan, which rang up the cash register for the St. Louis Symphony Society. The caravan was another Evelyn E. Newman project.

Evelyn Newman at the Butterfly House
Credit Provided by the family
Evelyn Newman at the Butterfly House

A while back, you may have placed the high bid for the donated pure-bred puppy or the week in some sensational condo in Aspen at the CAMELOT Auction, which benefited the Arts and Education Council. That was vintage Newman.

You may have walked through the fluttering of the Sophia M. Sachs Butterfly House at Faust County Park. If so, you owe a gesture of gratitude to Evelyn Newman.

In addition, she is credited with creating in 1960 the popular Scholarshop, which supports the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis. Forest Park Forever is part of her legacy;  she was its first executive director.

In recognition of all this and many other projects, honors and awards were bestowed upon her. In 1959, a special category called Creative Philanthropy was established for her by the Woman of Achievement organization, acknowledging her work.

Mrs. Newman was the first recipient of the Award for Lifetime Achievement of the Arts & Education Council.

Her academic credentials swelled beyond Eric Newman U. with an honorary doctorate from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and the Robert S. Brookings Award from Washington University.

Keeping up with the times and its new media, she blogged as the Savvy Sage, targeting “the exciting new demographic of people over 80.” She and Eric Newman provided funds for the Newman Green, an addition to the parks system of the City of Clayton. The Newmans are lifelong Claytonians.

Besides her husband, she is survived by two children: Linda Newman Schapiro of New York and Andrew Newman of St. Louis; her brother, Julian Edison of St. Louis; and five grandchildren in New York and San Francisco. There are 10 great-grandchildren, as well.

In a final act of philanthropy, Mrs. Newman bequeathed her body to Washington University Medical School. She requested there be no funeral or memorial service, and asked those who want to celebrate her life to make donations to their favorite local charities.

Messages of condolence to the family are best made to evelynenewman@aol.com.

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.