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Obituary of Lou Berra: 'The most important person ... in politics whose name was never mentioned'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 20, 2012 - Consultant Lou Berra was, as political consultant Richard Callow said, “the most important person in the St. Louis region's politics whose name was never mentioned.”

Which may explain why, when his death was made public Thursday, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, a Democrat, and Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a Republican, both Tweeted their condolences.

Berra, 68, died of kidney cancer Wednesday evening at his home in Sunset Hills. His family had transported him on a private plane from the Cleveland Clinic on Tuesday when it was clear that the end was near.

Berra had been an advisor or consultant to St. Louis mayor and St. Louis county executives since the 1970s, as well as other major political figures in both parties.

He was considered a national expert on housing issues, and had a hand in virtually all major governmental actions in the region for more than 30 years.

But it was largely an invisible hand. “He was such an influence behind the scenes, but he was so intent on not shining a light on that,’’ said business partner Joe Cavato, St. Louis County’s former director of planning, who joined forces with Berra 12 years ago.

Berra was the founder and, until recently, the chief executive of the Community Program Development Corporation and the Development Research Group. The former is a for-profit corporation set up in 1977 to provide consulting services for a variety of private and public clients, as well as not-for-profit groups.

He soon became a household name to all of the region’s political and civic leaders, and intentionally was unknown to almost everyone else.

Berra recently explained his reasoning in a retrospective that he had written for a granddaughter’s class report. “I want to be a man known for what ‘he’ did, not for who ‘he’ was, or who his family was,’’ Berra wrote.

Berra hailed from a prominent St. Louis family. He was a cousin of the late Paul Berra, the longtime city Democratic Party leader in the 1960s and ‘70s, who also served stints as city treasurer and comptroller.

Lou Berra's father was Louis "Midge" Berra, a tavern-owner, alderman and Democratic leader who was known as the “King of the Hill,’’ and is the namesake of Berra Park. The elder Berra died while his son was high school.

After graduating from St. Louis University, Lou Berra first clerked for several years with the circuit attorney's office, then got a job working on the federal Model Cities program. By 1973, he was an executive assistant to then-new St. Louis Mayor John Poelker, who had spent 10 years as city comptroller.

Berra dealt with a variety of policy matters, but soon became the mayor’s go-to-guy on housing issues at a time when improving low-income and moderate housing stock was a major national focus.  According to federal documents, Berra was chairman of the U.S. Conference of Mayor’s staff committee involved in crafting the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974.

After Poelker left office in 1977, Berra formed his own consulting firm and began his long career as the man sought after by politicians and political leaders to provide advice and counsel.

He continued to exercise his housing expertise. In the aftermath of the 1993 flood that decimated many Missouri communities along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, Berra oversaw the relocation of several towns.

He was affectionately known as “the Godfather’’ for his ability to solve problems. Berra, said Cavato, was the best instructor he ever saw in “how things got done, how to make an impact and how not to care who got credit for it.”

City Democratic Party chairman Brian Wahby called Berra "one of the kindest, funniest men I've ever met." Slay referred to him on Twitter as "a wise, funny counselor."

Mike Jones, senior policy advisor to St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, said Berra's influence was broad and deep. "He touched so many lives. He shaped and influenced so many careers," Jones said.

In Jones' case, Berra was behind a mayoral appointment to the then-Community Development Commission when Jones was a 20-something city alderman. Using a basketball analogy, Jones quipped, "He's the one who invited me down to the 'Big Boys' court."

Berra also was a devout Catholic and family man, with six daughters. He was particularly close to Cor Jesu Academy, a Catholic girls schools in south St. Louis County.

"My father is my best friend,’’ said daughter Laurie Berra, of Rock Hill, as she described his family’s quest to help Berra get the best medical care when he was first diagnosed with cancer in September 2010.

He was married for 46 years to his wife, Barbara.

Besides his widow and daughter, survivors include five other daughters -- Natalie Spence of Sunset Hills, Karen Berra of Boca Raton, Fla., Connie Berra of Creve Coeur, Lydia Berra and Kristina Berra, both of Crestwood, a sister, Rose Marie Bianchi of St. Louis; and seven grandchildren.

Services are private, in keeping with his wishes. But Laurie Berra said a memorial service for all who knew him is planned for 10 a.m. May 12 at St. Ambrose Church, 5130 Wilson Avenue, on The Hill.

Berra is to be buried with his Mickey Mouse tie, his daughter said.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.