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Obitury of Jerry G. Clinton: Business leader and St. Louis 'ambassador'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 19, 2012 - Jerry Clinton, who went from rags to riches but never lost the common touch, a boxing aficionado who used the sport to help families and the man who helped St. Louis regain its NFL pride, died Wednesday of cancer at his home. He was 74 and had lived in Huntleigh.

In 2007, Mr. Clinton was diagnosed with neuroendocrine cancer, a rare form of pancreatic cancer that sometimes affects the liver.

His funeral Mass will be celebrated Tues., Jan. 24, at the Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis.

Mr. Clinton had worked for and then owned the Anheuser-Busch Cos. wholesale beer distributorship, Grey Eagle Distributors. He rose steadily through the ranks after joining the start-up company as a clerk earning $500 a month.

"Jerry started out sweeping floors; not too long after that, he ended up buying the company," said Jack Martorelli, Mr. Clinton's longtime friend and fellow boxer.

The Fighter

One way or the other, Mr. Clinton had been a fighter all his life.

"I'm a product of the streets of the city of St. Louis," he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1993. "I don't think that's bad. Frankly, I'm proud of that."

Mr. Clinton was born April 24, 1937, during the Great Depression in Graniteville, Mo. The town was once home to thriving granite quarries, but the Clintons had not prospered.

Their Graniteville home had no running water and no electricity. Soon after he was born, Mr. Clinton's father moved the family about 90 miles north to St. Louis, but their fortunes did not improve much. The family of seven lived in an apartment in the south St. Louis public housing complex that coincidentally shared part of the family's name: Clinton-Peabody.

"I grew up in some cold-water flats and some housing projects," Clinton told the Post-Dispatch.

It was the kind of place where you needed to learn how to fight. So he joined the South Broadway Athletic Club, where he won a raft of boxing medals, including titles as St. Louis Golden Gloves champion and Ozark Amateur Athletic Union champion.

"In those days, you either fought on the sidewalk or you fought in the club," Mr. Clinton said. "In the club, they gave you medals. They didn't give anything on the sidewalk -- just knots on your head."

Milton "Mickey" Valentine grew up in the same projects as Mr. Clinton some 20 years later and boxed as an AAU middleweight. He later coached other young men and would often see Mr. Clinton.

"Jerry was part of our boxing family; he was for the underdog," Valentine said.

In 1986, Mr. Clinton dreamed up a way to marry his love of boxing with a major philanthropic effort and the Guns 'N Hoses event was born. The multi-bout boxing card features a team of St. Louis area police officers against a team of firefighters. No matter who wins the matches, the winner is always St. Louis Backstoppers, the organization that assists the families of fallen police officers and firefighters. During the past 25 years, the event has raised more than $3 million.

"He loved boxing and he loved anybody who was tough enough to get into the ring and give it a go," said Dan Dierdorf, a former St. Louis Cardinals offensive lineman and Mr. Clinton's friend of some 40 years. "He had a special place in his heart for firefighters and the police; I hope his lasting legacy will be Guns 'N Hoses."

Martorelli said the legacy will endure.

"We'll continue to run it like we learned to run it from Jerry," Martorelli promised.

The American Dream

There was little evidence when Mr. Clinton graduated from Hadley Technical High School (now Vashon) that he would become a successful businessman and philanthropist. He had studied commercial art but after working about two weeks in the field he realized, he joked, "I could starve to death."

He began taking sales and marketing classes at Washington University and soon landed a job at Anheuser-Busch. He was a storeroom clerk who delivered supplies to the company's offices and did other odd jobs, including running errands for August A. ("Gussie") Busch Jr.


In 1963, Anheuser-Busch decided it needed independent distributors. Lohr Distributing served St. Louis; Grey Eagle, located in Maryland Heights, was formed to serve St. Louis County.

Mr. Clinton saw an opportunity and immediately went to work for Thomas Burrows at Grey Eagle as a clerk-dispatcher-cashier.

"Jerry took advantage of every opportunity," said Rob Rains, who helped Mr. Clinton write his 2007 book "Accept the Challenge."

"He had an incredible life story, the American dream personified," Rains said.

Mr. Clinton did not stay at an entry level for long. He was soon promoted to warehouse manager. From there, he rose quickly through the sales and marketing managerial ranks, until he was named president of the company in 1976. He was 39 years old.

Along the way, he had convinced his boss to let him buy into the company.

"So I bought 5 percent of the stock and took the biggest bank loan of my life," he told the Post-Dispatch. "I paid it off in five years."

In 1980, he became Grey Eagle's sole owner.

Under Mr. Clinton's leadership, Grey Eagle's market share increased from around 30 percent to more than 80 percent, making it one of the largest independent beer distributors in the Midwest. Mr. Clinton sold Grey Eagle back to the brewery in 2005.

In less than 20 years, Mr. Clinton had gone from delivering cigars and magazines to Gussie Busch, to hobnobbing with him, other civic leaders, movie stars and the men of the NFL.

Jerry Clinton's Way

It wasn't winter when the St. Louis football Cardinals flew south in 1988; it was spring, but the outlook was bleak for St. Louis football fans. Two years later, while many were moping, Mr. Clinton, as usual, was planning to seize an opportunity.

The NFL had announced that it would be expanding by two teams; Mr. Clinton was determined that one of those teams would come to St. Louis.

He believed that an indoor stadium would be the first step in returning the NFL to St. Louis and he led the effort to build one. He invested some of his own money, but his group's franchise bid fell short. His efforts, however, helped lure the Rams from Los Angeles to St. Louis.

After a seven-year absence, professional football returned to the city in 1995. In 2005, a section of Seventh Street at Convention Plaza near the Edward Jones Dome was renamed "Jerry Clinton Way" in recognition of his efforts.

The Ambassador

Mr. Clinton's philanthropy extended far beyond football fans.

"What this city is going to miss about Jerry is how great an ambassador he was and how he supported so many causes," Rains said.

Mr. Clinton provided financial support to hundreds of charitable organizations in the St. Louis area. He served on the board of directors of several organizations, including the St. Louis Ambassadors and the Gateway Chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and he was one of the founders of the Civic Entrepreneurs Organization, which was formed to promote the St. Louis area.

He sponsored the Budweiser Poker Classic to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association and organized the LPGA Pro-Am Golf Classic, which raised money to fight cancer.

For the past 26 years, Mr. Clinton offered his support to Marygrove Child Center.

"He bought one of our foster homes," said Marygrove's CEO Sister Helen Negri. "It's named Clinton Cottage."

In 2004, he received the Missourian Award. The honor, sponsored by the American Heart Association, recognizes individuals who have made outstanding contributions to their community.

Mr. Clinton served in the U.S. Army Reserves during the 1950s, was once a part-owner of the St. Louis Blues and was an investor in a group that once owned radio station KFNS.

"Jerry led a wonderful, full life," said Dierdorf, who provided the foreword for Mr. Clinton's book. "For him, it was all about St. Louis; he loved this town."

Accept The Challenge

Mr. Clinton faced and overcame numerous challenges in his life, but none more tragic than the 2002 death of his son, Jeff, who was killed during a practice lap at the Homestead Raceway in Miami, Fla. Jeff, who shared a love of car racing with his father, had become a Grand Am series driver.

In addition to his son, Mr. Clinton was preceded in death by his parents, Harry and Thelma Clinton, and his brothers, Harry Jr., Bill and Russ.

His survivors include his wife Terri Clinton (nee Larkin) of Huntleigh, son Brian Clinton and his wife Megan (nee Young) of Clayton, former daughter-in-law Ellie Williams and Kip Hamby of Ladue, and five grandchildren: Mark, Nathan, Riley, Myles and Cole Clinton. He is also survived by his ex-wife Jo (nee Novinska) Clinton, of Sanibel, Fla., and his sister, Betty Freeman of St. Louis.

Visitation for Mr. Clinton will be from 2-8 p.m., Mon., Jan. 23, at Bopp Chapel, 10610 Manchester Road in Kirkwood. The funeral mass will be at 9:30 a.m., Tues., Jan. 24, at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, 4431 Lindell Blvd. Burial will follow at Resurrection Cemetery.

In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to Backstoppers, 10411 Clayton Road, Suite A5 (Le Chateau Village), St. Louis, Mo. 63131, or Child Center Marygrove, 2705 Mullanphy Lane, Florissant, Mo. 63031.

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

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.

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