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Obituary of Dave Sinclair: Car dealer legend; supporter of police, workers and America

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 25, 2009 - More than four decades ago, Dave Sinclair started out as “the South County Ford Dealer,” but in recent years he had become widely known as “the American car dealer in South County.” He had become a one-man “buy American” campaign and union members considered him the best friend in management they ever had.

David Sinclair died on Friday morning (Sept. 25, 2009) of gallbladder cancer at St. Anthony’s Fern & Russell F. de Greeff Hospice House. He was 81.

A funeral Mass will be celebrated Monday morning at Cathedral Basilica (the new Cathedral). “Dave Sinclair had the personality to run the country,” said Gerald Feldhaus, executive secretary treasurer of St. Louis Building and Construction Trades Council, AFL-CIO. “He stood behind his word; he was stern but fair with everybody.

“And he was an advocate of ‘buy American’ and the middle-class worker. He was in management, he was a business person, but he was always out there to help the little guy; he would reach out and help his workers. He was one in a million.”

The Pitchman

Mr. Sinclair’s radio and television commercials were direct and to the point. In his TV ads, he planted himself squarely behind a podium, looked directly into the camera and delivered his message, all the while gesturing broadly and tapping the podium for emphasis. In his latest commercial he spoke of his admiration for workers:

“There seems to be a great hatred of unions, but I don’t know why. I’ve worked with four unions for 50 years and I have no trouble. I do have a simple philosophy: I never, ever try to put on any crap for an employee, and I never take any, so there is no problem. I think we should pay more attention to the working people in this country. And please buy American – Thank you and here’s my address.”

That was his signature closing line, along with "If it’s not right, we’ll make it right - free."

Once A Union Man …

Mr. Sinclair once was a member of the Plasterer’s Union. As a hod carrier, he skillfully balanced the heavy containers of plaster that kept the workmen supplied. As the spokesperson for Sinclair Automotive, Mr. Sinclair later became a member of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), a national labor union representing performing artists.

“He was a firm believer in collective bargaining,” said his oldest son, Dan. “Even his sales force is a union sales force. He never tried to break them. He often said that ‘any employee that got fired by Dave Sinclair fired himself’.”

Mr. Sinclair became a car salesman in 1956 and opened his first Ford dealership in South City 10 years later, moving to South County in 1972. He was on his way to becoming the head of one of the St. Louis area’s largest private companies, which would see sales topping more than $220 million annually. Sinclair Automotive now has four St. Louis dealerships - Ford, Buick GMC and two that sell Lincolns. There had been two others: an Oldsmobile dealership that closed in 2005 after GM terminated the Oldsmobile line, and the West County and South County Lincoln-Mercury dealerships, which were consolidated in 2007. He remained fiercely local to American carmakers, particularly Ford, because Ford had given him venture capital when all he had was a hundred dollars.

“Dad believed that a loss of American manufacturing would lead to a loss of American prosperity. And he believed that any problem could be solved by the sale of one more car,” Dan Sinclair laughed. “He had been saying this since 1972, but in the last four or five years, he really began to give the message. It snapped into focus.”

Made In America

David Sinclair was born Feb. 5, 1928, in St. Louis and grew up in the Walnut Park area. He graduated from Beaumont High School in January 1945; the following month, and to his mother’s “shock and horror,” on his 17th birthday, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. Despite his age and the fact that he weighed in at just 140 pounds, facts his mother hoped were grounds for rejection, he was accepted. He missed fighting in World War II, which was in its final throes.

After working for a time as a hod carrier upon his return to St. Louis from military service, he followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, joining the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, where he served for six years. After determining that his brother Walt’s profession of car salesman would be more lucrative, he made the switch. But he forever remained proud of his time as a police officer. He hired a lot of ex-police officers and offered help whenever he could: like patrol cars during the great snow storm of 1982.

Mr. Sinclair, a member of the FBI National Citizen’s Academy, earned the FBI’s 2008 Director’s Community Leadership Award. The award recognized his support of Backstoppers, which provides financial assistance to families of police officers, firefighters and paramedics killed in the line of duty, and the Amber Alert program for the Warren County sheriff’s office.

In accepting the award, Mr. Sinclair declared, “I’d rather get an honor from a police organization than from the president of the United States or anybody else.” Other awards included “nearly every sales and service award Ford had to offer” for sales volume and customer service. He was named Labor Man of the Year in the late 1990s by the AFL-CIO; and he received the St. Louis Building Trades Council of the AFL-CIOs first-ever Spirit of America Award for his willingness to "stand up and speak out."

Stand And Deliver

He not only stood and spoke, he acted.

One of St. Louis’s most prolific advertisers, in 2008 he pulled his ads from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch because the newspaper was outsourcing some of its work to India. In 1993, Mr. Sinclair had joined 17 other area Ford dealers in pulling advertising from KMOV-TV because of the way the station handled a news story regarding a Belleville Diocesan priest.

He was, himself, the subject of a much kinder television treatment earlier this year. Mr. Sinclair was featured on NBC’s Nightly News segment, “Making A Difference,” on March 17 for hiring 12 people during hard economic times because “it was the right thing to do”.

In a subsequent interview with KSDK (Channel 5) news, he said that the hiring decision came after talking it over with his seven sons and sons-in-law, all of whom work for Sinclair Automotive.

“We felt like we could do it, so we should do it, and we did,” Mr. Sinclair said.

A Foundation Lost

It was a move that did not surprise Sam Barbee, president and CEO of the Missouri Auto Dealers Association, who had known Mr. Sinclair since he got into the automobile business 17 years ago.

“He was a business hero,” Barbee said. “Heroes don’t do things the way everybody else does; when they do something, they do it right and they win.

“He was exceptionally strong and at the same time, a gentle and fair businessman, father, dealer and community leader. We have lost a foundation.”

Mr. Sinclair had been a foundation for many community organizations.

He had partnered with Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine to promote prostate cancer awareness by offering a series of free PSA screenings at Sinclair dealerships.

He provided American troops fighting overseas with 100 care packages and he supported Gateway Paralyzed Vets.

He also supported the Missouri Police Chiefs Association, FOP Lodge 15, the American Chestnut Foundation, Monastery of St. Claire Sisters of the Poor and Queen of All Saints Church in St. Louis and Immaculate Conception in St. James, Mo., both of which he was a member, as well as other churches in the St. Louis area.

Mr. Sinclair, who had previously lived in Shrewsbury and Webster Groves, spent the past two decades in South County, most recently in Oakville. On almost every weekend he would ride horses on his ranch near St. James, Mo.

“He was always either working or at the farm,” said Dan Sinclair.

Mr. Sinclair was preceded in death by his parents, John and Melba Sinclair, and a sister, Eileen Sinclair.

He is survived by his wife of almost 59 years, Patricia (nee Walsh) Sinclair and his children, Daniel J. Sinclair (Mary), Affton; David W. (Patty) Sinclair, Kirkwood; John (Susan) Sinclair, Oakville; Mary (Mike) Detwiler, Oakville; James (Mary) Sinclair, Town and Country; Kathleen (Tony) Godfrey, Oakville, and Patricia (John) Willett, Oakville. He is also survived by two brothers, John J. Sinclair of Rolla and Walter E. Sinclair of Las Vegas, along with 37 grandchildren and one great grandchild.

Rembrance And Services

In lieu of flowers, the family would appreciate contributions to Backstoppers, www.backstoppers.org ; Birthright Counseling, www.birthrightstlouis.org , or Catholic Charities, www.ccstl.org .

Visitation for Mr. Sinclair will be from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday at Kutis Funeral Home, 5255 Lemay Ferry, 63129. A funeral Mass will be at 10 a.m. Monday at Cathedral Basilica-St. Louis, 4431 Lindell Blvd., in the city’s Central West End.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.