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Lee Liberman: Civic leader, led growth of Laclede Gas

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 4, 2012 - Lee M. Liberman, who led Laclede Gas Co.’s expansion into a regional utility and who was often lauded for his leadership of civic, academic and nonprofit organizations, died Friday at Barnes-Jewish Hospital of complications from a series of recent strokes. He was 91.

A memorial service at Graham Chapel is being planned.

Laclede began selling gas to St. Louis for street lighting in 1857. By the time Mr. Liberman joined the company, it was a dual utility but still serving only the city.

“We also had a small electric facility,” Liberman recalled during an interview with Washington University Magazine in 2008. “But we got rid of the electric business and, at the same time, bought St. Louis County Gas Co., which had been part of Union Electric.”

It was one of the first steps Mr. Liberman took in expanding the company’s service area, which now includes St. Louis and St. Charles counties. Laclede also acquired Missouri Natural Gas, which serves eight counties in Missouri.

In a public note of condolence, Douglas H. Yaeger, who recently retired as chair of the Laclede Group, called Mr. Liberman “a great friend and mentor to me, a truly unique person. ... He was a tremendous champion for St. Louis."

Changing times

Lee Marvin Liberman was born July 12, 1921, in Salt Lake City. He was the younger of Benjamin and Sylvia Liberman’s two sons. His father joined a St. Louis law firm and moved the family here when he was 10.

After graduating from Yale University in 1942, with a degree in chemical engineering, Mr. Liberman served stateside during World War II in the U.S. Army Air Corps.

He started as a chemist in Laclede’s coke plant in 1945. It was supposed to be a temporary job.

The plan was to work there until he began law school at Stanford University. He was going to become a lawyer like his father.

"I never made it to Stanford,” he said.

Instead, he spent nearly five decades at Laclede Gas; he was head of the company for nearly half of those years.

He deftly led the company through extensive growth, rapid technological advances and major social changes.

Mr. Liberman was among more than 40 business leaders who met in 1990 to address racial polarization in St. Louis. He was one of the 18 leaders who publicly declared that his company would do its part to bridge the racial divide.

A year later, Mr. Liberman reported that Laclede Gas had developed a course for employees called “Managing Cultural Diversity in the Workplace.”

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Mr. Liberman announced that the course would teach all employees, “that it's necessary to value cultural diversity to stay competitive” in anticipation that “by the year 2000, almost 75 percent of the newcomers to the work force will be women, minorities or immigrants.”

When Mr. Liberman retired in 1994, Laclede Gas had nearly 600,000 residential and commercial customers with sales topping a half billion dollars.

Despite successfully effecting many changes during his rise to the pinnacle of business, one thing never changed: Mr. Liberman answered his own phone. "He had secretaries, but if he was there, he picked it up and answered it," said his wife, Ann Liberman. "He was very accessible."

‘Head of everything’

William H. Danforth, chancellor emeritus of Washington University, called Mr. Liberman “head of everything.”

He served on the boards of several local corporations and numerous nonprofit organizations and was chair of Washington University’s board of trustees, which earned him a seat on the dais during a visit by former President George H.W. Bush in 1989.

He was deeply involved in health care, serving as chair of Jewish Hospital and co-chair with Danforth of the successor organization, Barnes-Jewish Hospital, after the two hospitals merged in 1995.

Mr. Liberman supported Missouri’s efforts to reign in health-care costs during the 1990s and readily worked across political party lines.

A Republican, he was appointed in 1993 by St. Louis Mayor Freeman R. Bosley Jr., a Democrat, to a special committee to audit the city’s financial condition.

One of his most challenging positions had included crossing political lines.

As co-chair of the St. Louis Health Care Alliance, Mr. Liberman backed Democratic Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl Jr. in establishing St. Louis Regional Medical Center in 1984, following the controversial closing of Homer G. Phillips Hospital and then St. Louis City Hospital.

“It was a situation where not everyone agreed,” Danforth said, “and Lee tried to work out what was best for the community in the long run.”

After working with Schoemehl on the deal, Mr. Liberman, told the Post-Dispatch: "The mayor is a bright, capable guy. If I were a Democrat, I'd be for him.”

Mr. Liberman was a life director of the Muny, chair of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Forest Park Forever, commissioner of the St. Louis Airport Authority, a director of the VP Fair Foundation and he helped create the St. Louis Zoo Foundation and ARCHS (Area Resources for Community and Human Services), a welfare-to-work program.

As chair of the 1987 United Way of Greater St. Louis campaign, Mr. Liberman initiated the organization’s Leadership Giving program, leading the effort that raised more than $40 million.

“It is hard to fathom,” the St. Louis Business Journal wrote in 2001, “the breadth and depth of Lee Liberman's philanthropic efforts on behalf of St. Louis.”

A boy scout’s heart

Duly lauded for his efforts, Mr. Liberman’s honors included Coro Foundation’s John Poelker Public Service Award in 1997 and the Right Arm of St. Louis Award from the Regional Commerce and Growth Association in 1991. He was named the Variety Club’s Man of the Year in 1990.

Once described by the Post-Dispatch as a “corporate executive with a boy scout’s heart,” he received the Distinguished Eagle Award from the Greater St. Louis Area Council, Boy Scouts of America in 1976.

In 2002, he was awarded the Jane and Whitney Harris St. Louis Community Service Award from Washington University.

The award followed an honorary doctorate of humanities from Washington University in 2000, the second of two degrees he received from the university. He had earned his master’s degree in liberal arts from Washington University’s University College in 1994.

In retirement, Mr. Liberman attended the university full time, earning a doctorate in American literature and history in 2004, a few weeks shy of his 83rd birthday.  His dissertation was on President Theodore Roosevelt.

Washington University’s Liberman Graduate Center was named in honor of Mr. Liberman and his wife, Ann, in 2009.

“Lee was one of the greatest citizens of this community, a natural leader,” Danforth said.

His wife aggreed. "He was a huge presence, a great guy," said Ann Liberman. "I am going to miss him forever."

Mr. Liberman was preceded in death by his parents; his brother, James; and his former wife, Jean Liberman.

In addition to his wife of 30 years, Ann, Mr. Liberman’s survivors include two daughters, Alise (Denise) O'Brien and Celia (Tim) L. Hosler, both of St. Louis; three sons, James (Janet) Liberman and Andrew W. (Becca) Medler, both of St. Louis, and Peter Medler of Sacramento, Calif., and nine grandchildren.

A memorial service will be at Graham Chapel on the Campus of Washington University at a later date.

In lieu of flowers, memorials may be sent to the Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital, 1001 Highlands Plaza Drive West, Suite 140, St. Louis, Mo. 63110; Washington University, 1 Brookings Drive, St. Louis, Mo. 63130, or to Forest Park Forever, 5595 Grand Drive in Forest Park, St. Louis, Mo. 63112.

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