On a hot St. Louis Summer day, a small crowd was gathered in the Gym at Parkway West High School. I was just 24 years old, barely out of College and perhaps a little cocky that day. After all, the venue was not only a candidate's forum, and my alma mater, but as the Young Republican National Committeman, I was in the vaunted position of guest speaker for our State Treasurer candidate. However, I was humbled by the man next to me, an attorney, filling in for the Attorney General in his campaign for Governor. Further, I knew this man's name. "Hi. I'm Jerry Wamser."
Jerry had a commanding presence that began with his self introduction and the way he abruptly paused, snapping the last "r" deep in his chest. Crisp, precise, by the book, honest, ethical and with honor in all you do. And always a certain flair. That was Jerry. As he handed me his business card and said "call me", hundreds and perhaps thousands of St. Louisans will know exactly what he said next. There are variations, but there was an important right of passage into Jerry's World.
"We will meet on the court of honor"
"How about a little sweating?"
"There is someone I want you to meet."
Just like that, I had become Jerry's latest mentoring prospect and that meant I would have to bone up on my racquetball skills. Jerry stressed the importance of good sportsmanship, of charity, grace, giving back and respecting your fellow man. He revered the Salvation Army and could always be found engaged with local civic groups in and around Affton where he partnered with the venerable Dill, Wamser, Bamvakais and Newsham lawfirm.
Jerry had a deep admiration for the people of Affton who he saw as representing all that is good and solid in America. The fastidious "stock" were the people whose estates he often handled. They weren't the fanciest, but it was important to Jerry that I, a West County boy, could see the virtue of these "scrubby Dutch" (in the St. Louis lexicon) who worked hard, saved, provided for their families and found utter contentment in the bungalows that predominate the region.
I was joking to friends about Jerry, this very week. The ever cautious "conservative" Jerry talked me out of more business ideas. He was as cautious as the people he represented in probate court. Jerry taught me half of what I know about politics even as he half tried to talk me out of running for office. That was Jerry. "You need a lot of Yankee dollars,'" I can hear him saying. As he knew I was committed he taught me everything I needed to win.
Jerry loved helping candidates, and if he missed being the candidate himself, he never let on. Jerry was at once a guy who loved to be the center of attention but was as unselfcentered as there ever was a man. See, Jerry was the politician who never really was, but it was not like him to dwell on it.
Ever the dedicated civil activist, Jerry once gave in to the political bug and ran for Mayor of St. Louis. He was the last Republican to make a serious bid for city-wide office. He carried the South Side but ultimately lost as his opponent, Vince Shoemoehl made a hard and successful play for the “Northside” black vote and won. Jerry gave him a heck of run.
Governor Ashcroft tapped Jerry for an appointment to the important spot of Director of Elections in the City. Jerry was in his element. While I did not know him during those years, one of his favorite topics was to talk about the ways the various City political machines would steal elections. He found the stuffed ballot boxes and the vacant lots with 40 "voters" claiming the address, but that was kids stuff. He could give you chapter and verse on how it really is done. I took those lessons to Jefferson City and always thought of Jerry and sometimes chuckled when partisans would argue that requiring photo identification is akin to Nazism. Yep, they know the joke that Jerry told me years ago.
Over the years, I was privileged to enjoy countless raquetball matches with Jerry and a steady stream of guests in three way matches. Jerry would graciously host dinner out with couples including my Gina and his beautiful, life-long love Jeanette. How he loved her. They were soulmates even to his becoming a trustee of her alma mater, Fontbonne University, where she is known as a distinguished alumnus. It was always just Jerry and Jeanette, no kids, and yet lots of kids. It always puzzled me how such a giant of a man with so much to share would not hand this to a houseful of children.
I was out at a rather sophisticated event one night, visiting with several young professional men. At some point Jerry's name came up. I do not recall for certain, maybe he was there. What I experienced next is a blank hundreds of young men in St. Louis can fill. One of the men pointed at me excitedly, seeking confirmation "You're a Jerry's Kid, too?!
"Yes", I thought. "I guess I am a Jerry's Kid."
As special as I felt, I had no idea then, and still do not know how many Jerry's Kids are running around St. Louis, or California, or the limitless points on the globe. With Jerry as a mentor, who knows what you might do. Perhaps someone will take the task of creating a Jerry's kids reunion, or Face book Page and we can get an idea how many lives he touched and tell the world why his secret is at once so powerful and such an example.
Jerry never told me why he adopted me the way he did, but one day John Newsham did. He was the law partner adept at filling in blanks left by Jerry. Jerry was an amazing, rambunctious but smart young man. He was an excellent student and patriot, called by his country to fight in Vietnam. Jerry, the born leader rose to the rank of captain, naturally. He was profoundly impacted by the words that inspired or perhaps haunted him from those tragic years. At every funeral, he would hear the words "He had so much potential".
So it was, perhaps that none of those men would have died in vain, that Jerry would do his part to be sure the world would regain part of the gift of their potential. Jerry mentored, almost obsessively, any young man he encountered in whom he saw "potential".
I do not know if he saw in me the face of any particular fallen soldier, he never talked about it, but if I ever think about letting up, or leaving a battle to be lost, I feel that extra duty and I know I am not alone. Somewhere there is a fallen soldier who paved a path for me to have had the privilege to know Jerry Wamser. Today there are countless Jerry's kids carrying that torch but I doubt anyone could ever hold a candle the mentor's mentor, Jerry Wamser.