Al Kerth, Chapter 2: From the Height of Success to the Depths of Despair

As Al Kerth's reputation as civic leader grew, so did the pressure. After some personal setbacks, friends say signs of mental illness were emerging.

Patricia Kyle Dennis knew on her wedding day that she had married a brilliant man in Alfred H. Kerth III. She was right. Kerth, who was then 21, would go on to forge a career that years later would attach him to nearly every important civic project in St. Louis. What she didn't know on April 14, 1973, was that her husband may have been suffering from a psychiatric illness. Dennis wanted to believe that Al's admission that he had contemplated suicide on their wedding night was simply a belated and severe form of cold feet.

A mental illness? That had never occurred to her.

Dennis, who was then just 22, didn't know that suicidal impulses are a manifestation of bipolar disorder and that the onset of the illness frequently occurs in people in their 20s. Early intervention and treatment are considered a key in mitigating the symptoms and saving lives.

Dennis kept Al's disclosure on their wedding night to herself. He seemed fine otherwise. She hoped he would get over it. It was only many years later, after she became a psychotherapist, that she could look back and see other signs -- many of them subtle -- that pointed to manic-depression.

After the wedding, the couple spent five months in Israel working on a kibbutz and studying the roots of Christianity. When they returned to St. Louis, Kerth finished up a degree in economics at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. He decided to go into business while staying active in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Mormons put Kerth in charge of missionary work in his ward, which was based in Frontenac. A master organizer, Kerth would lead his fellow Mormons on home visits.

John Schleiffarth, a former schoolmate of Kerth's at John Burroughs School, found him indefatigable. "If appointments would fall through, he wouldn't send us home," Schleiffarth said. "We'd just go visit people who weren't coming to church. He was a very calm, quiet kind of person, but people would respond to him." 

 Al Kerth%2C upper left%2C with his first wife%2C Kyle%2C and family.
Al Kerth, upper left, with his first wife, Kyle, and family.

But by 1980, Kerth himself would join the ranks of the fallen away. He began to smoke, and to do a bit of drinking. A glass of wine with dinner isn't so earth shattering, he told Schleiffarth.

Many people with manic depression smoke, drink and engage in other destructive habits. They can be driven by impulses despite their better judgment or strongly held beliefs. In Kerth's case those beliefs seemed so strong to his wife that his new behavior -- though not outlandish -- came as a shock.

"It was such a mystery," Dennis recalled. "I couldn't figure it out."

It made Schleiffarth sad. "He became involved in other things and with people who thought differently," is the way Schleiffarth put it.

By the early 1980s, Dennis found she, too, was dealing with a different Al Kerth than the man she had married. Increasingly, he was absorbed with the world of business, leaving little time for her and their two young sons. She said he began seeing other women. The two divorced in 1985.

Al's boy

Clarence "Cedge" Barksdale was chairman and chief executive officer of First National Bank in St. Louis in 1977 on the day that 25-year-old Alfred Kerth III walked into his office looking for a job. Like Kerth, Barksdale came from an established St. Louis family and they moved in the same circles.

Some years before, First National had bought Chesterfield Bank, where Al's dad was president and had stayed on under Barksdale's tenure. So Barksdale was prepared to like the son and to hire him. But his colleagues had expressed a concern. There had been some trouble with the father.

"They were telling me he was all depressed," Barksdale recalled. By then Kerth II was in the throes of manic depression. "Big Al" was so depressed, he'd "lie in bed like a mummy," said his sister, Mary Jackson. Shock treatments, medication and rest helped bring him around, she said. But the illness ended his banking career.

Meanwhile, his son was just getting started. And Barksdale was impressed. The kid was polished, but he didn't come off as slick. He dressed nicely, and he was self-effacing. "Everybody liked him," Barksdale said.

Barksdale hired Kerth first for his human resources department, but then he quickly moved into a community affairs position. Soon Kerth was raising the bank's profile in the region, getting involved in all manner of civic endeavors. He made important connections to key business and civic leaders such as chief executives August A. Busch III of Anheuser-Busch, William E. Maritz of Maritz Inc., and Bill Danforth, then chancellor of Washington University.

It soon became clear to Kerth and Barksdale that the wunderkind's passions were tied up far more with civic life than with banking. So with Barksdale's blessing, Kerth took a job with Fleishman-Hillard, the St. Louis-based public relations giant. One of Fleishman's most important clients was Civic Progress, an organization of two dozen of the area's chief executive officers. For many years, Fleishman's chairman, Harry Wilson, had been the organization's secretary. As he neared his retirement in 1987, Wilson brought Kerth into the mix.

Go through Kerth

When Kerth took over as secretary for Civic Progress, the organization -- then 40 years old -- had become a lightning rod. Many considered the leadership too stodgy and insular. For years, the organization included neither women nor minorities.

But few civic projects got going without Civic Progress' blessing. And to get to Civic Progress, you had to go through Kerth.

For the corporate leaders, Al Kerth proved to be a godsend. The 35-year-old shared their social and business connections, but he had the ability to talk to just about anyone -- blacks and whites, pols and entrepreneurs, socialites and social outcasts.

Even better, he was uncommonly discreet. He never gossiped, and he always deflected the credit. He seemed to pop up everywhere -- at charitable fund-raisers, cocktail receptions, neighborhood meetings and political events. And over the course of a decade, from 1987 to 1996, acting either on behalf of Civic Progress, Fleishman-Hillard or both, Kerth got things done.

In 1988, he cut his teeth on a referendum that nearly doubled taxes to assure the quality of the city's library system. In 1994, he led another tax campaign to expand the MetroLink light-rail system. And from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, he led the drive to build a new downtown arena, now known as Savvis Center, that kept the Blues in town and has served as a venue for Springsteen, Sinatra and the pope.

Here is where Kerth's family ethic and his passion for civic life may have meshed with his illness. No one can say for certain whether manic depression actually makes intelligent people more effective, but researchers have noted than an uncommon number of bipolar patients make connections that other people don't. They can also summon the single-min dedness and energy to see a complicated plan to fruition.

Colleagues said few people could connect the dots between an idea, a plan and action better than Al Kerth. He'd gather people in a room around a flip chart and the grease pencil would fly, one sheet after another going up on the wall until the whole thing was mapped out. Then Kerth would start making phone calls, calling in chits, bringing together people who had never met but who had interests in common.

Once the plan had been mapped and the assignments made, only Kerth would be privy to the master plan. There were confidences to keep and deals that hung in the balance.

Some people who didn't much care for Kerth thought he could be smug, walking around with an expression that seemed to say, "I know something you don't know." But if that was off-putting to a few, a legion of admirers grew up around Kerth because he was so perpetually available and a great listener.

Former St. Louis Alderman Ken Jones remembers how deftly Kerth handled a potentially explosive situation -- black participation in the construction of the domed stadium downtown. When the new stadium was approved in 1990, there were no guarantees that any of the construction business would go to minority contractors, leading Jones, who is African-American, to label the legislation a "hustle and swindle of the taxpayers."

Kerth approached Jones quietly and sympathetically, promising to work with him to make sure a significant number of minorities won contracts and got jobs -- a promise Jones had heard before.

But Kerth was different. "He would really listen," Jones said. In the end, minority workers made up 20 percent of the stadium's labor force.

Kerth's reputation for getting things done frequently preceded him.

Former Sen. Thomas Eagleton remembers getting a call from political operative Joyce Aboussie in 1994 asking him to help bring a pro football team to St. Louis. Aboussie said that Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-St. Louis County, St. Louis County Executive George "Buzz" Westfall and Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. wanted Eagleton to head FANS Inc. and get the Los Angeles Rams to move here.

"Now, Mr. Senator, I know you don't know much about any of this," Eagleton recalled Aboussie telling him. "Mr. Senator, you should go right away to see Al Kerth. He will tell you all about it. Please, Mr. Senator, don't think about this independently. Just do what Al tells you to do."

Collision course

Despite his growing reputation, Kerth found himself in a pressure cooker in the mid-'90s.

The year 1993 had ended badly with the city getting the word that first Charlotte, N.C., then Jacksonville, Fla., would be getting an expansion football franchise, not St. Louis.

"Al took that very hard," said JoAnne LaSala, who had worked with Kerth on several civic projects over the years. "He was representing Civic Progress, and it hadn't come off. He took it as his personal responsibili ty. He wanted to make it right."

Kerth worked nearly round-the-clock in orchestrating the Rams deal. Looking back, his former colleague, Allison Collinger, now an executive with the Rams, can see that Kerth was on a collision course. "His work was all-consuming," she said. "He smoked. He ate like crap. And he didn't take care of himself."

Researchers have looked at the effect of stress on the lives of manic depressives. While no definitive evidence has emerged to suggest a cause-and-effect relationship between stress and brain chemistry, researchers have theorized that setbacks in life can have a triggering effect.

What Kerth had to contend with would be daunting for anyone. On Jan. 11, 1995, just as the Rams were on the brink of announcing the move to St. Louis, Kerth's father died.

Four months later, Kerth underwent emergency heart bypass surgery at Barnes Hospital.

Some family members and friends said that's when they noticed for the first time that Kerth was suffering from what could be described as a mental disease. After the surgery, he seemed profoundly depressed. They said it didn't provoke undue alarm because they knew that some patients do become depressed after such a difficult surgery.

More bad news came in October 1995. Kerth was told that his half brother, Philip, had been killed in a head-on automobile crash in Arkansas. Kerth soldiered on.

His civic profile soared even higher when then-Boatmen's Bank chairman Andrew B. Craig III asked him for help in preparing an acceptance speech for the 1995 Man of the Year award. Increasingly, civic leaders had been using the speech to offer a challenge or float an idea. And Kerth had a big one. The centennial of the 1904 World's Fair was less than a decade away. What if the civic leaders were to launch a civic improvement campaign designed to bear fruit by that date?

Craig cited Kerth as the father of the idea in his speech in January 1996. And the Danforth Foundation, four corporations and dozens of civic leaders came along later to underwrite St. Louis 2004 to the tune of $2.3 million a year.

August 1996 brought a bright spot when Post-Dispatch columnist Jerry Berger named Kerth one of St. Louis' 25 most influential citizens. Friends said Kerth felt flattered and proud.

But within a few days, Kerth checked himself into a hotel and attempted suicide by taking a mixture of alcohol and pills.

That is the essence of manic-depressive illness. You can stand at the pinnacle, soaring with confidence at one moment, then feel hopeless the next.

Kerth entered the hospital and regained his equilibrium, only to encounter another blow a short time later. He contracted leptospirosis, an illness that at various times impaired his speech, brought on flulike symptoms and ultimately left him nearly blinded in his right eye.

It led to repeated hospitalizations and long weeks of bed rest at home in late summer and fall 1996.

By November, though, he re-emerged determined to regain the prominent role he had played in civic life -- just like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

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 3 

How this story was reported

Suicide prevention