Friday, January 18, 2008

THE CITY DESK - Rory Riddler

New Year Brings
On Those Lives
Worth Living

It was tough saying goodbye, as it always is, to some rather remarkable men. Within the span of a few weeks, three former City Councilmen and two of the pioneers of the remarkable revitalization of South Main Street passed away much like the old year.

I’m not very good at writing obituaries. I could never do justice to the lives these gentlemen lived and the things they did. But perhaps I can express some of what these individuals meant to me and to our community.

The first of the five who died was former Councilman Dan Conoyer. I served with Dan the seven years he was on our Council. He then spent seventeen years helping to build up the St. Charles Community College. That’s the Dan Conoyer most people are familiar with.

But as a Councilman, he fought to try to have competitive bidding among professional service contracts like engineering. It is a concept that appalls engineers, but which Dan proved could save taxpayers huge sums. His local ordinance worked so well in fact, that the professional engineers of the state banded together and got the Missouri General Assembly to pass a law saying that municipalities could not require engineers or architects to bid against one another.

It was particularly hard going to Dan’s memorial service at All Saints the Friday before Christmas. Dan had been a groomsman at my wedding and his second wife Debbie was one of Sue’s bridesmaids.

In my mind’s eye he’s still working by my side, helping to build a float for the City Council to ride on in the July 4th Parade. We built a pretty good likeness of the Washington Monument that year. But everybody thought it was a missile.

Next I heard about the death of South Main advocate and preservationist Archie Scott. Archie relished his role as gadfly of historic preservation. He was very good at shaming people into doing the right thing.

Too many people that were born and raised in St. Charles just looked on the historic buildings as, well old buildings. It took eyes like those of Archie Scott to see the gems beneath the dust.

I then learned of former Councilman Bill Baggerman’s passing. I was a good friend of his daughter Janey. We were in Journalism together at St. Charles High and one of my first assignments was to interview her in her home. That’s when I met her father.

I remember him saying to me (perhaps half jokingly) that opening the new bridge ruined St. Charles with the flood of new residents. Then realizing that I was probably one of those newcomers, excepted all present company. It was the closest I came to being granted a Visa to be here.

I remember Bill Baggerman as a gracious, highly intelligent and vigorous individual who spoke passionately about the things he believed in. The first City Council meeting I ever went to, on the second floor of the old City Hall (formerly the fish market) on North Main Street, was with Janey to watch her Dad.

Before the drive to stamp out public smoking, the old Council chambers were filled from eye level to ceiling with cigarette and cigar smoke. Mayor Brockgreitens sat on the bench normally reserved for a judge and the Council members were arrayed around long tables facing each other.

The audience sat on benches behind a railing. One Councilman (not Bill) sat back in his chair, his feet propped up on the table and his white socks showing beneath dark trousers. It was like a scene out of To Kill A Mockingbird.

In sharp contrast to his surroundings, Bill Baggerman represented the next generation in the development of St. Charles. And he helped inspire me to run for the City Council and to try to leave a place better than I found it.

I was hardly off the phone talking with Janey about her father, when I learned that yet another former Councilman, Gil Brown, had died as well. It was turning out to be a very tough New Year. It was too late by the time I caught up with the news to make Gil’s funeral, but I want his family to know the deep and abiding respect I had for the man.

Gil was old St. Charles. He was a proud member of the Pikers’ Club and the first person to tell me what the organization was. His one idiosyncrasy was he hated fish with a passion. He had spent a lot of time on the rivers as a member of the Army Corps of Engineers. He told me he knew what fish swam in and he didn’t care to eat any. That was too much of a challenge to a former prankster Councilmember, (who shall remain nameless LR), who put an open can of sardines in Gil’s desk drawer in the Council chambers.

Gil used his engineering expertise and knowledge of the Missouri River to benefit St. Charles and freely gave of his time to review stormwater plans.

One time on a flight back from a National league of cities Conference in Washington, D.C., I recall that Gil and I discussed how a German heritage festival, an Oktoberfest, would be good for St. Charles. The idea got passed along to Mayor Mel Wetter, who gave it to one of his sons in the Jaycees and the St. Charles Oktoberfest was born.

Gil didn’t get a lot of recognition in his lifetime, other than from friends and family. They didn’t give out as many awards in those days and Gil never looked for nor expected any recognition.

That same sad week brought a call from Councilman Larry Muench that his father-in-law, South Main icon and personal hero finally succumbed to his long illness. John Dengler was sick for a long time and the end seemed upon him at several turns. But I remember telling Sue that John would be around at Christmas, because no one loved Christmas more on South Main Street, nor held it in his heart better, than John Dengler.

John was loved by so many people, from the Fife and Drum Corps and the hundreds of young lives that program enriched through the years, to our Tourism efforts, the Special Business District Board, the South Main Preservation Society, his former comrades in arms and thousands of customers.

One of the last events I remember John and I being together for was his military reunion. I filled in for the Mayor to present a proclamation to his old military unit whose veterans of World War II had stopped in St. Charles. John was so proud to show off his hometown and much of what he could show off, were projects he had worked towards.

If John Dengler ever made an enemy I wouldn’t know it. It is a skill I wish I had mastered sooner. John took a real interest in me, my wife Sue and our children Kathleen and Justin. He watched them grow up at reenactments and in parades on South Main. He always asked about your family and talked about his own.

John fought to make St. Charles the fun place it became, with festivals and entertainment for those of all ages. His efforts helped put us on the map for something positive and not as oddballs trying to ban cursing in bars.

John knew the real happiness to be had in life was in bringing joy to others and he was a happy and lighthearted soul for it. John made us laugh, he made us smile and only at the end of his life, did he make us cry.

Which brings me to the ending of this story that John would not want me to forget. These five men all gave of themselves to the community and their neighbors. They lived lives worth the living. To those who have picked up the torch, I ask that you measure yourselves by what these men accomplished and ask yourselves the most important question a human being can…how do I want to be remembered?