Al Kerth, Chapter 1: Public Man, Private Struggle

He was one of St. Louis ' most influential men, yet Al Kerth struggled with manic depression. Looking back nearly a year after his suicide, symptoms of his illness are there -- even in his many successes.

Steve Stogel's best friend committed suicide last Sept. 11. His name was Al Kerth.

He was your friend, too, if you root for the Blues or the Rams, if you've taken pleasure in the restoration of Forest Park, if you've enjoyed moments of quiet reflection in a city library, if you can envision the region becoming a center for life sciences, if you feel compassionate toward people who are battling cancer, if you look forward to a grand civic celebration next year.

Al Kerth meets with the press as part of his effort to bring the Rams to St. Louis.

Al Kerth meets with the press as part of his effort to bring the Rams to St. Louis.  

Kerth was associated with all these civic efforts -- and more. In some instances, such as the Rams moving to St. Louis , he was the linchpin; for the 2004 effort, the instigator.

Alfred H. Kerth III came from a storied St. Louis family. His great-grandfather, Henry Kerth, was a farmer who moved to town in the early 1900s to run Farmers' State Bank in the Chesterfield area. His grandfather, the first Alfred Kerth, is considered the father of modern Clayton and was its mayor in the middle of the last century. His dad, Al Kerth II, graduated from West Point and ran the bank in Chesterfield . And Al Kerth III, for many years, was the secretary of Civic Progress, a powerful organization of the area's top chief executives.

Kerth III was wealthy. He had a beautiful wife and three fine boys, now ages 10, 24 and 26. And he had a dream job, underwritten by the Danforth Foundation. He could start and support civic projects of his choosing, without having to generate fees, as he did at his old public relations firm, Fleishman-Hillard.

Stogel called his friend Harry Potter, so friendly was he, so self-effacing and yet endowed with an almost mystical power to bring people together and have good things happen as a result.

And yet, on the morning of Sept. 11, on a balmy, breezy, nearly perfect St. Louis day, Al Kerth sat with a shotgun at his desk on the third floor of the Security Building at 319 North Fourth Street . Surrounding him were the little treasures and plaques he had collected from more than two decades in civic life and an array of family pictures. He set aside for his assistant some legal documents that he wanted her to pass on to his family. Then he pulled the trigger.

Stogel is still trying to understand why, and so, perhaps, are the more than 1,500 people who attended Kerth's memorial service Sept. 16.

Most of them learned for the first time at the service that Kerth had been suffering for years with a debilitating mental disease known as manic-depressive illness, or bipolar disorder.

Kerth's wife, Susan, had asked Stogel to include that information in his eulogy. She wanted to address the questions surrounding her husband's death and to promote understanding about a disease that quietly devastates thousands of families across the nation.

Try to think of bipolar disorder as cancer, suggests Kerth's psychiatrist, Dr. Paul Packman. Cancer kills by attacking any number of organs. Bipolar disorder singles out the brain. It impairs judgment, robbing it victims of their ability to make logical decisions, to keep things in perspective, to care for their loved ones and themselves.

As many as 10 percent to 15 percent of people with bipolar disorder commit suicide. As many as 50 percent will attempt it at some point in their lives.

Over the years, our culture has created a web of caring and concern around people with cancer. As a result, few people today keep it a secret. Kerth, in fact, made himself a part of that fabric, supporting efforts to raise money for Hope Lodge Center , a facility for out-of-town cancer patients and their families.

People with bipolar disorder have their support groups, and a body of compassionate literature has grown up around the struggle they face. But as with many mental illnesses, manic-depression carries with it a stigma. The words valiant and courageous don't seem to come to mind as easily as unstable or, even less charitably, nuts. And so Al Kerth, scion of a prominent St. Louis family, public relations man extraordinaire, civic leader and visionary, had no interest in becoming a poster boy for bipolar illness. He attended no support groups. He was the guy who fixed things -- the healer, not the victim.

What many friends remember about Kerth as he seemed to be sliding into the abyss were his constant reassurances. He'd be OK. Now, if you don't mi nd, let's get back to work on Forest Park Forever, or MetroLink, or making the city a Mecca for the life sciences.

Maybe there were people who could have helped if Kerth had made his illness more widely known, or had gotten treatment sooner, or if friends had known how to help. And then again, maybe, as Packman suggests, what Kerth had was incurable, like a virulent cancer.

Chances are we all know someone with manic-depressive disease, whether or not we realize it. Estimates indicate one in every 100 to 150 U.S. residents is affected by the illness over a given one-year period. Asmany as 40 percent go untreated.

Their stories frequently go untold. They are kept quiet within families and even more often in the wider community.

Many in the mental health field believe that's unwise. History suggests that a public airing and discussion of illness of almost any sort -- cancer, AIDS, schizophrenia, alcoholism -- leads to better treatments and public policy.

The lionhearts

Manic-depression is a mysterious disease. The symptoms come and go, sometimes unrecognized.

No one is quite certain what causes the disorder. Some studies strongly indicate that it's hereditary. Others suggest that the risk increases with a trauma early in life -- the loss of a parent, for instance. Some say the symptoms can be triggered later with the deaths of loved ones, illnesses or marital problems.

For some reason, manic-depression seems to afflict a disproportionate number of brilliant, high achievers. And some studies have tried to draw a connection between manic-depression and wealthy families.

Over the course of his 50 years, Al Kerth encountered every one of these risk factors.

A bitter day

They called him "Buzz." Alfred H. Kerth III came into the world on Jan. 21, 1952, in a very cold, dark place -- Fort Wainwright Army Base near Fairbanks , Alaska . The temperature that day fell to minus-52 degrees Fahrenheit, bitter even by Alaskan standards, and nearly a record. Outside the hospital, the snow was 30 feet deep.

Al Kerth II and his wife, Joanne, didn't know then that their nickname for their firstborn would be so fitting, that their son would possess seemingly boundless energy. "Buzz" came from the planes droning overhead, some perhaps on their way to Korea where the United States had been engaged in a bloody stalemate with the Chinese and North Koreans.

Although Buzz was blessed to be born into a family that had accumulated wealth and social standing, his inheritance also included a history of mental illness. Not long after his birth, Joanne Kerth experienced what family members described as psychotic episodes. Buzz's father also would suffer from bipolar disorder, though the symptoms would not surface until decades later. Even Buzz's birthday may have weighed against him. At least one study has suggested that a larger percentage of people suffer from bipolar disorder when they are born in the winter months of December, January and February.

When Buzz's family returned to St. Louis at the end of the military hitch, his parents had another son, Peter. Kerth II got into banking and quickly involved himself in civic life. This, too, was part of the family's makeup.

The Kerth men did not spend a lot of time at home with their families, said Al Kerth's aunt, Mary Jackson. They were providers. They shouldered burdens. And though each of the Kerth men -- Al I, Al II and Al III -- would encounter illness, misfortune and untimely deaths, they never complained. Heroes, Jackson called them, a term used among family therapists, of which she is one. On reflection, Jackson would say as she sat at her dining room table in Glendale a few months after her nephew's death, this quality was at once noble -- and dangerous.

Man of ideas

When Kerth II returned from the military service, he went to law school at night and worked by day at the bank his grandfather started, then known as Chesterfield Bank. In the meantime, his marriage was disintegrating. Joanne's mental illness had gotten worse, her sisters-in-law recalled.

They said it was clear to the family that she needed some psychiatric help and also that the marriage could not continue. Using his contacts in the legal community, Al Kerth I arranged for a hasty divorce for his son and medical attention for Joanne. So at a tender age, Buzz lost his mother. For a time, both he and his younger brother were cared for by a housekeeper, Thelma, in his grandparents' home.

In May 1957, Buzz's father married Mimi Belz, a member of another prominent St. Louis family. She was pretty, outgoing, fun-loving and a perfect match for Kerth II, who was kind but rigid, as befits a man who graduated in the upper 25 percent of his class at West Point . They would have two children of their own, Lisa in 1958 and Philip in 1960.

By all accounts, Buzz thrived in the '50s and '60s. Kerth's boyhood friend, Tim Barksdale, remembers him as a study in contrasts -- a Boy Scout who earned an array of badges, but also was a cutup. He was ever the leader (playing Moe when his pals took on the role of The Three Stooges) and sometimes a risk taker. Always, he was a man with a plan.

Buzz got a prep education at John Burroughs, where he was an honor student, and then went on to Carleton College in Northfield , Minn.

His first wife, Patricia Kyle Dennis, met him at Carleton and remembers being drawn to him immediately. He was strikingly handsome with long black hair and dark eyes that would stay fixed on you as you spoke. Friends said he looked like the pop singer Donovan, who was all the rage on campuses then with a song called "Mellow Yellow."

Kerth had a way with women. He was neither athletic, nor particularly extroverted. And yet he was captivating, said Linda Jacobson, who met him in Northfield in 1972 when she was a high school junior.

"I don't think anyone in my life ever intimidated or puzzled me more than he did -- or anyone who was as desperate to find the meaning out of everything," she recalled. "He seemed to always be operating on such vastly different levels than the rest of us, and at the same time he was almost obsessed with trying to be part of the mainstream."

Jacobson said Kerth had told her he experimented with drugs in high school but now was in to health products, taking alfalfa tablets and fasting to cleanse his body. He had a series of intense relationships with women.

"He seemed to be a person of extremes," she recalled. "That was puzzling to me. I was always perplexed by the flip sides of him."

Still, it never occurred to Jacobson, now an artist in Boston , nor to anyone else, that Kerth's extremes suggested a mental illness. Lots of people in their 20s experiment and become absorbed with their place in the world.

Kerth loved ideas, Dennis remembered, wandering from one to the next, teasing them out as he went. Some of them developed into wild schemes, such as the time he spread the word that Donovan would hold a free concert at Carleton from the balcony of Kerth's residence hall.

Hundreds showed up on the lawn that evening. At the appointed time, Kerth stepped out on the balcony with an electric guitar, backed by his stereo playing one of Donovan's LPs. For a few minutes, Dennis recalled, the students actually believed they were watching Donovan. When they caught on to the setup, some were furious. But others were impressed with the clever way he had pulled it off.

At Carleton, both Dennis and Kerth met a Mormon professor by the name of Gene England and, with his encouragement, became converts. At first, Kerth's embrace of a religion that is demanding and regimented made no sense to Dennis. He was such a free spirit. But looking back, Dennis believes the religion's tenets attracted her husband because they provided a bulwark against what may have been his nascent mania.

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints don't drink alcohol, don't smoke and abstain from caffeine. Kerth adopted the restrictions in a way that, to Dennis, seemed unnaturally zealous.

England married Kyle (as she prefers to be called) and Al on April 14, 1973, in University City with the reception at the Kerth family farm near Wright City . It was a typically joyous event.

But something happened later that night that shook Kyle Dennis to her core. Her husband simply disappeared. He had been gone for hours before he resurfaced. Where had he gone, what was he doing? Dennis asked him in tears.

Kerth told her he had spent most of the time in a barn by himself. He had a shotgun with him, he said. He had been thinking about taking his life.

Reporters William C. Lhotka and Jeremy Kohler of the Post-Dispatch, and Catherine Tierney of the Post-Dispatch news research department contributed to this report.

Al Kerth: Chapter 2 

How this story was reported

Suicide prevention