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Backstoppers celebrates 50th anniversary

By Rachel Lippmann, KWMU


July 2, 2009 –

Backstoppers gets most of its publicity when things go terribly wrong.

Any story about the death of a police officer or firefighter is likely to mention the organization, which steps to support the families of the fallen.

It turns 50 years old this year.

With a semester left in law school, Bob McCulloch found himself in a pinch.

"I was advised by the National Direct Student Loan Association that, well, you've reached your max, we're not loaning you any more money," he recalled.

McCulloch was almost 13 when his father Paul, a canine officer with the St. Louis Police Department, tracked a suspect in the shooting of another police officer into the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex on city's near north side. That was July 2, 1964 - Paul McCulloch was killed.

Growing up, McCulloch said, Backstoppers was a constant presence. He and his three siblings received regular phone calls and yearly Christmas bonds. More importantly, he said, the organization paid for that last semester at St. Louis University Law School. He's now St. Louis County prosecutor, a job he's held for 18 years. The organization, for him, was more than just a financial lifeline.

"The moral support, the fact that there were people around all the time was a much greater benefit," he said.

St. Louis Globe-Democrat publisher Richard Amberg and Nicholas Blassie, the president of the local meatcutter's union, came up with the idea in 1959. It was modeled on a similar club in Detroit that served only firefighters. From the start, Backstoppers has served both police and fire.

"I think we are about to embark on a great venture which holds much hope for St. Louis," the Globe-Democrat quoted a Backstoppers founder. (Read the Globe-Democrat article (PDF Document) about the Backstoppers first membership drive).

The article appeared November 30th, 1959. Two months later, Spanish Lake volunteer firefighter William Brogden was killed while responding to a call that turned out to be a false alarm. His widow Lucille became the foundation's first beneficiary.

Current Spanish Lake fire Chief Robert Ritter was a teenage volunteer when Brodgen died. Before Backstoppers, he said, first responders didn't have much of a financial safety net.

"The only thing they had basically was their insurance," he said. "It just depended on each department, what insurance they carried, and it varied throughout the county."

Families receive an immediate payment within hours of a loved ones death. A Backstoppers member later reviews the family's finances and helps pay down debt.

As owner of the Suburban Journals newspaper chain, Frank Bick made friends with many officers on the St. Louis police force, especially in south St. Louis. His friends, he said, were worried about leaving their families with nothing if they were killed in the line. That prompted him to make one of the first donations to Backstoppers. "It's one of the biggest morale boosters in the department," he said. "People are interested in police work, and they're interested in the welfare of the cops and the fireman."

For 15 years, former St. Louis County Police Chief Ron Battelle tried to comfort families of his fallen officers by promising his support - and that of the Backstoppers. He's now the organization's executive director.

"I've seen the grieving that goes on, and I've seen the great strength these families show when they're faced with these situations, and it's humbling, and it's reassuring, and it's very satisfying," he said.

Backstoppers also extends its helping hand beyond the families of fallen first responders.

Ruthie Sansousice had yet to be born when her father Raymond was murdered. The Potosi-area native had just moved to St. Louis when he was shot and killed on New Year's Eve 1968 while trying to break up a purse snatching. Ruthie's mother, and three of her four siblings, was in the car.

Ruthie doesn't know exactly how her family benefited from the payment they received, though with five children, the money likely went quickly. But the recognition from the Backstoppers still makes her proud of the father she never knew.

"Police officers, you somewhat know, and they know, that they have to take a certain amount of risk, it's kind of their job, and they're really extraordinary people to be police officers," she said. "Well, he was just an ordinary person who took that risk."

Backstoppers funds the benefits with fundraisers, membership dues, and investments. Though investments have taken a hit in the current economy, executive director Ron Battelle said, it won't change the level of support the organization supplies. In fact, Backstoppers has started helping officers who survive severe injuries but can no longer work.

And over a half-century, the organization has expanded from serving only the city and county to serving 17 counties on both sides of the Mississippi. As of today, 115 families have benefited from its assistance.