Al Kerth, Chapter 3: Friends Saw Signs of Trouble and Tried to Help

Nearly a year after his death, they wonder if there wasn't something more they could have done.

Peter Sortino, president of St. Louis 2004, had known Al Kerth for 20 years. He considered himself a good friend, a colleague. The two had spent long days and nights working on the city library tax campaign and the domed stadium in the 1980s, MetroLink and labor issues concerning the downtown arena in the 1990s.

Now they were collaborating on the 2004 effort, Kerth's idea to celebrate St. Louis' past and secure its future with an ambitious civic agenda. But Sortino didn't know until the spring of 2002 that his friend suffered from manic-depression.

Certainly he knew that something was amiss. There had been hospitalizations. He thought, though, that they might be related to Kerth's heart problems.

But as Kerth began to miss more meetings and became less available to Sortino, the real story emerged. Kerth told Sortino his absences were caused by a mental disease. He had been taking medication. At times that had not been enough and he had to go into the hospital.

The way Kerth explained it, Sortino said, was that the illness gave him real highs. Sometimes, Kerth said, those were the periods when he came up with his best ideas. But they would be followed by a depression that took him so low, he could barely function.

"Al, you're my friend," Sortino remembered saying. "What can I do to help?"

Well, Kerth responded, maybe if you see me slipping into a state . . .

Reflecting on the encounter, Sortino said: "I didn't know enough about it to know how to help."

But what he remembered from that brief discussion was both telling and typical. Al wanted to get busy.

A grand plan

Al Kerth%2C far right%2C with fellow X Prize board members.Al Kerth, far right, with fellow X Prize board members.

Kerth had several ideas on the burner along with 2004, but the most grandiose -- one that even he credited his disease with inspiring -- was the X PRIZE.

Entrepreneur Peter Diamandis wanted to spur a great race to send civilians into space. He convinced Kerth that civilian space travel would create a trillion dollars in business opportunities. Individuals could fly into space and achieve weightlessness for the price of a used car, maybe $12,000. And think of the shipping business. Instead of promising overnight delivery nationwide, a shipping company using space travel could deliver packages overseas in hours.

Kerth loved the idea. He helped Diamandis and his associates form a Spirit of St. Louis committee, just as aviator Charles Lindbergh had. And he promised to put together a group of 100 St. Louisans, each of whom would put up $25,000. Rocket fuel, as it were.

In March 1996, Kerth gathered community leaders for a meeting in the Racquet Club. He showed them pictures of Lindbergh and the original Spirit of St. Louis committee. He spoke of how a similar effort could put their city back on the map. Everyone who signed on would get a medallion commemorating their participation. They could rub shoulders with celebrities and astronauts, which eventually included novelist Tom Clancy, actor Tom Hanks, former astronaut and Sen. John Glenn.

Eventually, the X Prize Foundation, as it came to be known, offered a $10 million prize to the first team of three private citizens who could fly the same craft into space twice within two weeks and return safely. (The effort is still under way, and Diamandis predicts that the feat will be accomplished next year.)

But the plan also drew a legion of skeptics. "I thought it was a crazy idea," said JoAnne LaSala, a friend who had worked with Kerth out of the mayor's office and later at Fleishman-Hillard.

Certainly it was grandiose. And grandiosity is one characteristic of bipolar illness. Many of us have big dreams. Few of us have either the will or the energy to carry them out. In Kerth's case, he could combine that irrepressibility with his salesmanship and his connections.

Kerth's X PRIZE vision didn't play as well at Fleishman, where associates couldn't fathom how to make the scheme billable.

Increasingly, Kerth's dreams for St. Louis seemed beyond what a public relations firm is set up to do. So with the help and encouragement of former Sen. John Danforth, Kerth left Fleishman and his job at Civic Progress in May 1998 and established the Eads Center. His press release said it would be a nonprofit public affairs consultancy designed to provide strategic counsel to groups that would bolster St. Louis.

In short, Kerth would work for free for civic groups. His salary -- about $200,000 -- would be paid by the Danforth Foundation.

Kerth named the Eads Center after James Buchanan Eads, the designer in the 1870s of the first bridge spanning the Mississippi at St. Louis. The new name worked on lots of levels. For one, Kerth excelled at building b ridges throughout the community. The bridge stands as an enduring monument to a man's vision and enterprise. But Eads may have resonated with Kerth in another way. Some historians believe Eads was bipolar. Eads had a pattern. He worked day and night on his projects, then would collapse in the aftermath. LaSala said Kerth couldn't have missed the connection. The naming of the center, she said, may have been "Al's ultimate dark joke."

Sliding into the abyss

Kerth moved into the Security Building, just a block or two away from Fleishman, and the same distance from the 2004 offices. With his longtime aide, Ann McMahon, they set up an unusual shop.

Their operation would be an incubator -- a friendly environment where fledgling nonprofits lacking office space could use the phones, the copier and the computers and get the benefit of Kerth's wisdom.

The unit had a kitchen with an old oak hutch from Kerth's grandmother's house. In an outer office, he set up a living room with a cushy leather couch, easy chairs and a coffee table. He moved a recliner into his office. And he'd pad around the place in his stocking feet.

Music was in the air, most often loud, and it was frequently Willie Nelson singing "Living in the Promised Land" or "Nothing I Can Do About It."

When LaSala saw the office, it seemed almost too homey. Would Al ever go to his real home and get away from work?

McMahon remembered lots of good days as Kerth continued to connect the dots for a host of city projects. One of them was Forest Park Forever, the massive project designed to spruce up the city's largest playground. Another was the effort to revive the Old Post Office as a site for courtrooms, college classes and cultural offerings, a plan still in the works. Then there was the Danforth Foundation's effort to make the metropolitan area a center for the life sciences.

But slowly, Kerth's friends began to see him lose touch. The man who had seemed in control of events large and small could no longer be counted on to show up at meetings. When he did appear, he seemed distracted, detached.

"You could tell when Al was off and on," said his good friend, Steve Stogel, who worked with him on the Old Post Office effort. "When Al wasn't on, he would come to the meetings and just not participate."

Kerth had been seeing his psychiatrist, Dr. Paul Packman. Packman, citing doctor-patient confidentiality, declined to discuss Kerth's treatment. But as Stogel recalled, there were always different medicines, in a variety of combinations. Getting Al on the right track with his meds, Stogel said, seemed as delicate as tuning a Stradivarius.

Once trim and impeccably dressed, Kerth had added 50 pounds to his 6-foot-1-inch, 180-pound frame. He sometimes looked unkempt. Friends noticed that he had been drinking and that his hands were trembling, a side-effect of the medicine.

One characteristic common to people with manic-depression is a lack of insight. Unlike a heart patient who knows chest pain is a sign of trouble, a person suffering from symptoms of this mental disease may believe he's doing just fine.

In fact, the manic episodes can be alluring. Patients have reported feeling a surge of confidence, insight and energy. They feel as if they can work endlessly on their pet projects. But then comes a cycling into moods so black that they feel they're staring into an abyss, incapable of finding any joy in life.

Caregivers say a community of caring and knowledgeable family and friends is important to people suffering from manic-depressive disease. They can see the little signs that suggest trouble and insist their friend get help.

LaSala was one of those friends. She had worked with Kerth for a decade on civic affairs, before leaving for a master's program at Harvard. When she returned to St. Louis in September 2001, she was devastated by Kerth's appearance. His usual joie de vivre had evaporated. Unlike Sortino, who approached Kerth gingerly, LaSala confronted him.

The two met that September at an outdoor table at Bar Italia in the Central West End. She told him he looked awful.

"I know what you're trying to do," LaSala said. "You are trying to kill yourself by having a heart attack. It's not going to work. The hospital is too good here."

Kerth started to weep.

Kerth's 50th birthday was approaching in January, and LaSala knew he dreaded it. "Al," she said, "think of the great party we'll have. There will be so much affection and respect for you."

She recalled him responding, "Let me assure you, I don't believe that."

Kerth's illness also began to take a toll on his second marriage. By then, Susan and Al Kerth had been married for more than 15 years and they had a young son. Although she was reluctant to describe the last several months of her husband's life, Susan Kerth acknowledged that by the spring of 2002, the two were living apart. Stogel said Kerth's mood swings had become so extreme that it had become clear to Susan that he had to pull himself together. So she took a "tough love" approach.

At the same time, she and Stogel kept in touch with Kerth daily. In May 2002, friends got Kerth to agree to check himself into a psychiatric hospital in Boston. Kerth emerged after a few weeks saying he felt better. But few people in the throes of such severe depression recover fully in so short a period.

"Al was so good at acting like everything was OK," Sortino said. "He could make you think that everything was great."

But it wasn't. Aside from dealing with his medications and staying away from alcohol, Stogel said, his buddy had to come to terms with the fact that he could no longer be the city's Wunderkind. Civic leaders were carrying on the many projects he had been involved in without him. That hurt.

LaSala saw him for the last time in the summer of 2002. They met again in the Central West End, this time at a coffee shop. She was even more assertive, demanding that Kerth stop drinking, get past his denial and take the steps necessary to restore his health. And Kerth was even more resistant. He stalked off and got in his car; LaSala got in with him. Kerth got out and walked into the nearby branch of the public library.

At that point, she said, "I didn't know what to do."

On Aug. 4, unbeknownst to his family and friends, Kerth purchased a shotgun.

But he did not use it then. He found instead the strength to check himself into a St. Louis hospital. Stogel accompanied him. He was determined to get better, Stogel said, for his family, for his town. His stay lasted about three weeks.

Sortino was one of the last of Kerth's good friends to see him. The two met on Monday, Sept. 9, for lunch at the Media Club downtown. Sortino was preparing the announcement of events that would surround the celebration of the World's Fair centennial and wanted Kerth's input. Kerth showed up in a khaki suit and suede shoes. "He looked real fresh," Sortino recalled.

Sortino asked Kerth to follow up on the planning with Jim Mann at Forest Park Forever. Could he handle that? Sure, Al responded.

In fact, Mann said he got a voice mail from Kerth. He sounded strong, Mann recalled. He wanted to discuss lots of things.

"Call me when you have a chance," is the way Kerth had ended his message.

Before Mann could respond, he learned of his friend's death.

In the wake of Kerth's suicide, Sortino asked himself whether there was something more he could have asked at that lunch. Should he have followed up with a phone call to see how Al was doing? Others who saw Kerth over those last several days asked themselves similar questions.

LaSala, despite her determined efforts, felt like she hadn't done enough. "We never imagined that he would really kill himself," she said. "You believe in treatment. You believe in medication and the psychiatric system."

Beyond hope

Al Kerth pulled the trigger on his shotgun sometime between 5 and 8 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2002. He did not leave a note, which is not unusual, researchers into suicide say.

Left unexplained is why Kerth took his life on 9-11. It's possible that with his public relations savvy, Kerth may have believed that the media would make little of his death when the nation was remembering the loss of so many others the year before.

Or the date could have had no bearing at all. The literature says that suicide is frequently an impulsive act, particularly among those with manic-depression. And in many cases, those who commit suicide are under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Kerth's death certificate cited alcohol as a contributing factor in his death.

All that can be said with any assurance is that Al Kerth's illness had blinded him. He couldn't have seen the X PRIZE poster on the wall that portrayed his dream of civilians rocketing into space, nor the pictures on his credenza of his wife and kids who were so proud of him, nor his grandpa's pocket watch that reminded him that he came from a long line of accomplished men.

And he must have stared past the small stone on his desk that his friend JoAnne LaSala had given him a few months before. She thought it might make a connection for Al when his spirits were at a low ebb. Maybe, she thought, it would prompt him to give her a call.

Etched into that stone was a single word: Hope.

Suicide is hardest on the living, it is said. That would be true in Al Kerth's case. Even months after his death, you could not talk to Kerth's friends and associates without seeing their eyes glisten. Each of them said they wished they could have found ways to help him.

Those who had helped the most, like Steve Stogel, felt even more bereft.

When Stogel checked Kerth into the hospital in August, he knew that there would be times when they would need to talk about something other than his illness. So he decided to give him a book that the two could share. It was the Tom Clancy thriller "Red Rabbit."

Kerth read the whole book before he checked out of St. Mary's. Stogel got only as far as page 138.

Now, nearly a year later, the volume sits on a table in Stogel's bedroom, the bookmark still on 138. Stogel says he can't yet bring himself to pick it up, to finish it or even put it away.

Instead, Stogel, along with Peter Sortino and Ann McMahon, has gone to work on another volume: the life and times of Al Kerth, a collection of stories from Al's friends -- anecdotes, poignant and funny; dreams, wacky and promising; missions, started and completed.

The three say they may never understand how a man of so much accomplishment, with so much to live for, could take his life. But what they want to remember -- what they want the rest of us to remember -- is that Al Kerth was their friend and one of the best friends this city ever had.

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.

How this story was reported

Suicide prevention