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Obituary of John Morris Drescher Jr.: a lawyer with grace and compassion

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 19, 2009 - A temptation would be to pigeonhole John Drescher as a gentleman of the old school, for he was indeed courtly, well mannered, perfectly groomed, beautifully dressed, dignified and refined. Although such descriptions aren't in any way inaccurate, they are in fact inadequate to the descriptive task.

Mr. Drescher died at home in Ladue on Thursday (June 18, 2009) after a long illness. He was 84. His gentlemanliness and his gentleness were evident to the very end.

Good manners uninformed by a sense of humanity and unendowed with grace can cover over a multitude of lapses of character, however, and bespoke garments may disguise selfishness of spirit and other flaws. To describe Mr. Drescher simply as a gentleman would be to diminish him, however, as one can tell from the testimony of friends and family members. Here are a few examples.

Mr. Drescher and his wife, Katherine White Drescher, called Kitty, were longtime friends of the late Oscar-winning filmmaker Charles Guggenheim and his wife, Marion Streett Guggenheim, who lives now in Washington.

At one time, the Guggenheims and the Dreschers were next-door neighbors in Parkview Place, and Kitty Drescher worked for Charles Guggenheim at Channel 9. On the telephone recently, Marion Guggenheim remembered what good times they had as neighbors, how much fun it was, how enlivening, and how the two households transcended neighborliness to become something rare and special, and interwoven so tightly that an insoluble fabric was created that survives strong, despite absences and distances, until this day.

Businessman Taylor Desloge spoke with deep affection for Mr. Drescher. His son Stephen Desloge married the Dreschers' daughter, Ann. Desloge said, despite fundamental disagreements on politics, he and Mr. Drescher were close and abiding friends; and following the marriage of their children, the Desloges and the Dreschers formed something of a super-family.

"I have never heard him say anything bad about anyone," Taylor Desloge said.

"I've never heard anyone say anything bad about him," his friend William H. Danforth said.

Dr. Danforth, who is chancellor emeritus of Washington University, was a childhood friend of Mr. Drescher. "I was a year behind John at Country Day," Dr. Danforth said, and he regarded the older boy with something that approximated awe. "He was the first person ever to ask me to do something moderately important," Dr. Danforth said. "And I was amazed, because I didn't think of myself as competent. He had been head of the yearbook, and he asked me succeed him. I was astounded, and it occurred to me that maybe I wasn't totally helpless."

Dr. Danforth spoke of Mr. Drescher's strong, well-considered opinions, his unyielding values, his liberalism and his loyalty to the Democratic Party. As others did, Dr. Danforth spoke of Mr. Drescher's precision and professionalism as a lawyer.

In recent years, Charles C. Allen Jr. and Mr. Drescher had lunch together three or four times a week. Allen knew him slightly from Country Day in the 1940s, but the friendship did not develop until Allen and his father joined Lewis and Rice in 1960. There Charles Allen and Mr. Drescher became close friends and colleagues.

Mr. Drescher worked with Allen on the sprawling business of the old Boatmen’s Bank, particularly mergers. “He was strikingly meticulous,” Allen said. “Not fast, but methodical, thoughtful.” Allen said one could depend on Mr. Drescher to give substantial thought to any project, and his intellect, he said, was astonishing. “He doesn’t forget anything.”

But the quality of Mr. Drescher’s character goes beyond intellect, and into the ineffable condition of the enlightened heart. Allen recalled a situation in which a woman who worked for the law firm had been dismissed, and Mr. Drescher took up her cause, “He fought hard for her,” Allen said, “and demonstrated genuine concern. He was extremely thoughtful of people at every level. And there was never a touch of rancor in his dealings with others. It was not part of his being. Not many people are like that." 

John Morris Drescher Jr. was born in St. Louis at the old St. Luke's Hospital on Delmar Boulevard, but spent his early years in Edwardsville, Ill., his mother's hometown. His father worked on the Coca-Cola account for the old D'Arcy Advertising Co., and commuted to work. Eventually, the family moved to St. Louis.

Mr. Drescher was educated at the Miss Wilson's School and Community School, and graduated from Country Day School in 1943. But in a matter of months, in the summer of 1943, the schoolboy who'd bequeathed direction of the yearbook, enrolled for his freshman year at Princeton University.

However, as were so many boys his age, he was lassoed by Mars and yanked with little ceremony into military service. In the blink of an eye, Mr. Drescher found himself relocated from the leafy and scholarly gentility of Princeton to an Army barracks down South.

Far from resenting this interruption in his plan, he found military service transformative. As he lay dying, he said that besides falling in love with and marrying his wife, Katherine White Drescher, and rearing his family, military service meant more to him that anything else.

From basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., he was assigned to the 100th Infantry Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., where he was assigned to a heavy machine gun squad. Just recently, he laughed as he recalled hauling 50 pound pieces of machine gun while slogging around the woods of North Carolina. He leapt at a chance to learn to be a radio operator, and that occupation proved fortuitous, in part because it probably kept him out of the line of fire. He would spend the rest of the war as a radio operator. But radio operator or not, he frequently was in harm's way.

Mr. Drescher's demeanor did not suggest the warrior. While not a retiring person, he was the antithesis of aggressive; his presence can better be described as kindly and warm than forceful. And he tended to minimize the importance of his contributions and accomplishments. In a recent conversation, he said he'd received a few awards in his life, but only one was of any consequence to him, the Combat Infantry Badge.

The Battle of the Bulge, or the Battle of the Ardennes, lasted more than a month in December and January of 1944 and 1945. It was the biggest and bloodiest battle in U.S. military history. Mr. Drescher fought in a  mini-bulge in Northern France on its east-west traversing border with Germany. The Germans wanted to drive south across that border and to cut off Strasbourg. "We were in the way, and our troops were partially responsible for stopping them." For their service in preventing the mini-bulge, Mr. Drescher's batallion  received a Presidential Unit Citation, which is awarded for extraordinary heroism against an armed enemy.

The rest, Mr. Drescher said, was history. He crossed the Rhine later in 1945 and remained in Germany as part of the Army of the Occupation doing all sorts of odd jobs including guarding trains loaded with relief cargo. He recalled the summer of 1945 as idyllic, spent in the Swabian mountains near the town of Ulm.

Yet there were other experiences, some of the sort that taken together serve to animate the enlightened heart. One lesson learned vividly that summer by Mr. Drescher and his fellow soldiers was about the Holocaust. The Army showed graphic pictures of it, forcing the men to know clearly what they had fought against, and inoculating them against their saying, ever, that the Holocaust had not occurred. "It was a good thing the Army did," he said.

After the war, Mr. Drescher finished his work at Princeton, graduating with honors from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He experienced a "now what" moment after graduation, and decided to enroll in the School of Law at Washington University. That course of study also was interrupted by service during the Korean War, most of which he spent at the Pentagon and living in Washington. Compared to Europe that service was relatively uneventful and even "blissful," he recalled. "I did nothing of value whatsoever."

His life, he said, was shaped by the law and by his involvement with the Episcopal Church.

Back in St. Louis after the Washington interval, he finished law school, and took a job in the firm that was then Lewis, Rice, Tucker, Allen and Chubb, now Lewis, Rice & Fingersh. The educated heart pumped strong as a lawyer. Under the arm of the late R. Walston Chubb, a staunch liberal and open-space advocate, Mr. Drescher's sense of fairness and his growing sense of the necessity of racial equality was put to work when Chubb took him to a meeting of the Bar Association, where there was to be a vote to decide whether to allow African American members into membership. Chubb's and Mr. Drescher's side won. He said proudly that a perpetual occupant of his wallet is his membership card in the American Civil Liberties Union. "I'm a card-carrying member," he said.

He loved his work as a lawyer, and as Dr. Danforth noted, by all accounts he was an extraordinarily skillful one.

"Never saw a courtroom," his irrepressible wife said with a laugh, but he had a successful career as counsel to businesses and was beloved and respected by colleagues in and out of his firm. He spent his entire career at Lewis and Rice. Until he became seriously ill this spring, he went in to the office to work. More often than not,  he took MetroLink or the bus as well.

During his courtship and early years of his marriage, he and Kitty Drescher taught Sunday School at the Church of St. Michael and St. George in Clayton. Eventually, as their concerns for social justice became more central in their lives, they migrated east to the racially integrated, activist Trinity Parish on Euclid Avenue in the Central West End, where they've remained faithful communicants to this day.

The Episcopal Church was an ever-present source of spiritual nourishment to Mr. Drescher, and he served it and supported it unstintingly. Another compelling commitment was to psychoanalysis. When expedient treatments of symptoms, rather than the difficult, challenging and time-consuming work of discovering the root causes of mental illnesses, gained primacy and popularity, Mr. Drescher remained convinced of the wisdom of the "talking cure's" efficacy and value. He recently was given life membership on the board of the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute.

The schools that nurtured him - St. Louis Country Day School (now Mary Institute-Country Day School), Princeton University and Washington University's School of Law -- have been beneficiaries of his time and talent, as well.

Mr. Drescher and Katherine White Drescher were married for 52 years. "We've had a significant life together," she said, "and we've had lots of fun."

They have three children: a daughter, Ann Desloge (Stephen); two sons, Hugh P. Drescher (Susan), a movie producer in Washington; and Park M. Drescher (Kathleen), Appleton, Wisc., a lawyer and a banker. He has seven grandchildren.

Mr. Drescher's funeral will be at Trinity Church, 600 North Euclid Avenue, at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, June 24, Friends are invited to join the family after the service in the church hall. Memorial contributions may be made to Trinity Church, or to the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute, 8820 Ladue Road, St. Louis, Mo. 63124.