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James Edwin Westbury: Founding member of the University of Missouri-St. Louis


James Westbury, the former superintendent of the Normandy School District and the last member of a small band of citizens who transformed a golf course into a major university, has died. He was 89.

In the mid-1950s, residents of the St. Louis suburb of Normandy were looking for ways to encourage more students, particularly students from Normandy, to go to college. Cost, they believed, was a deterrent.

“They couldn’t afford Washington University, Saint Louis University or housing at the University of Missouri in Columbia,” Mr. Westbury told UMSL Magazine in 2013.

At the time, what is now Harris-Stowe State University was the only public school and it granted only education degrees. 

The Normandy Board of Education assembled a group of 28 men and women, including Mr. Westbury, to explore establishing a public junior college on the former grounds of the Bellerive Country Club. The golf course was moving to the more expansive environs of west St. Louis County.

By 1963, the Committee of 28, as the group was simply called, founded the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Mr. Westbury remained active with the university until shortly before his death on Saturday at St. Andrews at Francis Place in Eureka. He had lived in nearby Wildwood.

Services will be Friday morning at Schrader Funeral Home and Crematory in Ballwin.

“Jim was a delightful and engaging person,” UMSL Chancellor Tom George said in a recent tribute published by the university. “He was a fixture at our annual Founders Dinner – reminding us all of what great things can be accomplished when people work together for the good of the community.”

The birth of UMSL

For some time, Ward Barnes, then the Normandy School District superintendent, had supported creating a state-funded college in the St. Louis area and Elmer Ellis, then president of the University of Missouri-Columbia, agreed to provide an educational program if appropriate property could be secured.

In 1957, the pieces began to fall into place. The Bellerive Country Club, a neighbor of the school district, announced its intent to sell its 128-acre, 18-hole golf course for $1.3 million.

Rigorous zoning laws curbed interest from developers, causing the golf club to turn to the Normandy School District, enticing it with a reduced asking price of $600,000.

It sounded like a good deal to the district, but there were still hurdles. That’s where Mr. Westbury and then-Missouri state Rep. Wayne Goode came in.

“Jim was a financial wizard and Ward Barnes’ right hand man,” said Goode, who in 1962 was a freshman Democrat who introduced the legislation necessary for the transaction.

“He’s the one who formed the financial plan that helped convince the community of the wisdom of this effort – first to pass a bond issue to buy the property and then to transfer it to the University of Missouri.”

The new school opened in the fall of 1960 as the University of Missouri-Normandy Residence Center in the former golf clubhouse. There were 200 students and a waiting list. In 1963, it officially became the University of Missouri-St. Louis and now has an enrollment of almost 17,000.

Educator for life

Mr. Westbury, who was the director of special services for the Normandy School District when he was appointed to the Committee of 28, spent his life as an educator.

Credit Provided by UMSL
James Westbury (center) was honored at the 50th anniversary celebration of the University of Missouri-St. Louis in 2013.

He worked in the Normandy School District for 37 years, teaching physical education and social studies at three schools, coaching football and track and eventually serving as an administrator, including principal. In 1977, he was named superintendent and served until his retirement in 1987.  Mr. Westbury then worked as an educational consultant.

In 1989, Gov. John Ashcroft appointed Mr. Westbury to a task force that advised the Kansas City School District, which was wrestling with its court-ordered desegregation program. 

He narrowly lost a 1996 race to serve on the Special School District board, but in 2000, he was appointed to fill a vacated seat. He was subsequently elected and served on the board for 16 years.

Mr. Westbury tried diligently to resign after his mobility became impaired, but the district preferred to keep his wisdom on the board: They bought a wheelchair ramp to make meetings more accessible; he attended his final one in September.

He served on the board of directors of Talking Tapes for the Blind, volunteered as a naturalist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Rockwoods Reservation and cheerfully greeted and fed military service members at the USO at Lambert–St. Louis International Airport. 

For 47 years, Mr. Westbury refereed high school football on the weekends – when he wasn’t building showroom-quality furniture in his basement.

Loyal for life

James Edwin Westbury III was born in St. Louis on July 24, 1927, the son of James Armatage Westbury, an accountant, and Marie Mueller Westbury, a homemaker who baked cookies to sell in Webster Groves shops.

Mr. Westbury entered the Navy in 1945 and served stateside. When he returned home, he earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in education, both from Washington University. He received his doctorate from Saint Louis University in 1975. In 2014, he was awarded an honorary degree from UMSL.

“Jim was a loyal and enthusiastic supporter of the campus,” said former Chancellor Blanche Touhill in the university’s announcement of his death.

The former Ritenour High School standout football quarterback was married to the school’s former football queen, Shirley Schillinger Westbury, whom he met in junior high school.

Mr. Westbury was preceded in death by his parents and two older sisters, Lynn W. Brown and Margot Berger.

In addition to his wife of 66 years, Mr. Westbury’s survivors include his son, James E. "Jim" (Cathy) Westbury IV of Eureka, and Susan (Matt) Rola of St. Louis, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Visitation for Mr. Westbury will be from 3 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Schrader Funeral Home and Crematory, 14960 Manchester Road at Holloway, in Ballwin. The funeral will be at 10 a.m. Friday at the same location. Interment will be at Valhalla Cemetery.

Memorials would be appreciated to the Special Education Foundation.

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