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Tom Villa, a pillar of south St. Louis politics, dies at 77

Tom Villa
Jason Rosenbaum
St. Louis Public Radio
Tom Villa's career in St. Louis and Missouri politics spanned five decades and included winning elections for state representative and St. Louis Board of Aldermen president. He died Friday.

Tom Villa, a Democratic stalwart who made an indelible mark on south St. Louis politics, has died.

Before retiring from public service in 2017, Villa had been elected to several influential state and local offices — including state representative and president of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen — and provided counsel to prominent political figures in south city. Villa, who died Friday evening, was 77.

“Tom was a realist,” said St. Louis Collector of Revenue Gregory F.X. Daly. “And he understood the art of politics — and what he was able to do and get done.”

Born in 1945, Villa was the son of Alderman Albert “Red” Villa, who served on the Board of Aldermen for 37 years. Villa began his career as a high school counselor and teacher, but the political bug bit him at an early age, he said during a 2016 episode ofPolitically Speaking.

“I grew up with sample ballots on the dining room table,” Villa said. “I grew up going to Union Station going to rallies for Harry Truman. And it was just something that I genuinely enjoyed.”

Listen to Tom Villa's 2016 appearance on Politically Speaking
Villa spoke extensively about his life and career during a 2016 edition of the Politically Speaking podcast.

Villa’s first foray into politics was in the 1970s and '80s, when he was elected to the Missouri House. There, he rose through the ranks of Democratic leadership to become the chamber’s floor leader from 1980 to 1984.

“I would have served in the Missouri General Assembly for nothing,” Villa said in 2016. “It's like a circus, only the tent is not soft. It's a hard roof on the Capitol building. But I genuinely enjoyed it. I made a lot of dear friends there, and the diversity of the state of Missouri in itself I found to be completely fascinating.”

He ran for state treasurer in 1984, losing narrowly to Republican Wendell Bailey. He made his first of several political comebacks three years later when he was elected to the powerful position of St. Louis Board of Aldermen president.

After winning reelection to that post in 1991, Villa embarked on an unsuccessful campaign for St. Louis mayor — falling to Freeman Bosley Jr. — then chose not to seek another term as board president in 1995.

Daly said that Villa didn’t harbor bitterness over losing elections, as he saw the results as a reflection of the people’s will.

“He had a very good outlook on life,” Daly said. “And whatever the results were going to be, he was going to give it his best shot and hopefully he was going to be successful — and he was very successful on a number of things.”

Villa continued his career in electoral politics into the 21st century when he again won a bid to serve in the Missouri House in 2000. Nearly a decade later, he returned to the St. Louis Board of Aldermen in 2011 when he was elected alderman in the 11th Ward.

During his last stint in elected office, Villa became known for his independence. He often voted against then-Mayor Francis Slay’s big agenda items, including a sweeping plan to revamp portions of north St. Louis and a failed effort to build a riverfront football stadium.

Jake Hummel succeeded Villa in the Missouri House and was his next-door neighbor. He said Villa was principled when it came to policy and politics.

“Tom wasn’t in any particular club or clique,” Hummel said. “If he thought it was the wrong thing for the wrong reasons, you weren’t going to change his mind.”

A collage of Tom Villa wearing a canary yellow, burgundy, black and red sport coats.
Jason Rosenbaum and Rachel Lippmann
St. Louis Public Radio
Tom Villa was known for his collection of colorful sport coats.

Hummel also said Villa was passionate about serving his constituents and made it a point to get back to people when they had a problem that required his attention.

“Tom was not just a politician. He was a statesman,” Hummel said. “Tom would spend his nights in Jefferson City calling back people that had contacted him. Whether they wrote a letter or they emailed him, Tom would reach out to anybody that talked to him.”

Daly noted that Villa had a great sense of humor that allowed him to connect with people. He purchased countless colorful sport coats and would quip that he was able to outshine his colleagues when it came to fashion because of “lack of competition.”

Villa is survived by his wife, Karen.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.