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Leigh Gerdine Tribute Page

Dr. Leigh Gerdine
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Obituary from The Journal (Webster Student Newspaper)
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Obituary from Washington University's The Record

Photo and Obituaries courtesy of Marilyn Holmes (thank you!)

"Thanks for crafting Clan Webster's cradle..."

St. Louis Post Dispatch Obituary courtesy of Tim Noelker:

Leigh Gerdine, 84; ex-president of Webster U., champion of arts

Leigh Gerdine, retired president of Webster University and "the spiritual father of the arts in St. Louis," suffered an apparent heart attack Friday (March 1, 2002) while exercising at a health club. Mr. Gerdine was pronounced dead at St. Mary's Health Center in Richmond Heights. He was 84.

In half a century in St. Louis, he put his stamp on the university, started some arts organizations, rescued others and changed the area's cultural map forever.

In 1970, Mr. Gerdine became president of Webster when it was a college operating with a $2.6 million deficit.

Board member George H. Walker III remembers those years: "The banks had threatened and said, 'If you're not going to pay the debt and pay it soon, we're going to come out and lock the doors.'"

They didn't have to. Mr. Gerdine marshaled civic leaders to raise money and pay off the banks. Over the next two decades, he put the college on a solid financial footing while spearheading its evolution into a  co-educational university with campuses worldwide, graduate programs and ties with St. Louis cultural institutions.

When Mr. Gerdine arrived, Webster had a money-losing, professional theater. He saw to it that it grew and prospered. What is now the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis shares space on campus with Opera Theatre of St. Louis.

Opera Theatre is one of Mr. Gerdine's most spectacular successes. In 1975, he and other opera lovers invited Richard Gaddes, then artistic administrator of the Santa Fe Opera, to St. Louis. The idea was to revive opera here. The first season, in 1976, was successful, and today Opera Theatre is internationally respected.

Charles MacKay, general director of Opera Theatre, said, "There's probably not another opera company on the planet founded by a Rhodes scholar, recipient of the National Medal of the Arts, university president and composer of operas."

As for being "the spiritual father of the arts in St. Louis," Mr. Gerdine called that an exaggeration. But the description stands in a citation he received when he was awarded the National Medal of the Arts in 1989 in a White House ceremony presided over by President George Bush. His fellow honorees that year included writer John Updike, photographer Alfred Eisenstadt and musician Dizzy Gillespie.

That same year, Mr. Gerdine received the St. Louis Award, given annually to the area resident who has contributed the most to its development.

After retiring from Webster in 1990, at age 72, he put his full efforts behind the restoration and refurbishing of the Sheldon Concert Hall in Grand Center.

 Mr. Gerdine was born in 1917, in Sheyenne, N.D., where his father ran a service station and radio repair shop. He began playing the piano at age 8 or 9 and later played the saxophone in the high school band. He worked his way through the University of North Dakota, where he studied music, then got a Rhodes Scholarship for graduate work at Oxford.

He interrupted his studies to serve in the Air Force during World War II. He returned to the United States to get a doctorate from the University of Iowa, and later returned to Oxford for two years.

He taught music at the University of Mississippi and Miami University in Ohio before joining Washington University in 1950 as chairman of its fledgling music department. While there, he took over management of the St. Louis Symphony for two years after a musicians' strike.

The body will be cremated. A memorial service, followed by a reception, will be held at The Sheldon, 3648 Washington Avenue, at 11 a.m. March 9.

In addition to his wife, Alice Meyer Gerdine, Mr. Gerdine is survived by a brother, Louis Gerdine of Redlands, Calif., and a sister, Iris Rostowski of Long View, Wash.

Memorial contributions can be made to Webster University, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, the Black Repertory Theatre or The Sheldon.[<BR><BR><I>]LOCAL\ST. LOUIS DEATHS\ Reporter Susan C. Thomson:\ E-mail:\  Phone: 314-209-1315\ Reporter Robert W. Duffy:\ E-mail:\ Phone: 314-340-8128[</I>]

Oh Tim, thank you so very much for posting this.  Oh my goodness, what an incredible life - most of which I was completely clueless about.  A life so dramatically and fully lived - and such an unexpected and swift death.  It is good to be able to remember the gifts of his living in his dying in such a concrete way.

Rozzy (Hooper-Hamersley)

Thanks Tim...

I remember going with Zorn to see him to request money for Conquest of Mexico. We figured since I was a member of the student government, and an RC on the dorm staff we'd have more credibility. I think he approved $500 which went for the fruits and veggies and the film. Oh yes, there was an ad in the paper too, which had a serious misprint and Zorn went thru the roof and Lutz claimed innocence. Gerdine kept his cool.

He also had Bobwhite Quail as pets. He had three, and the two males were ganging up on one female. He knew I was an animal lover and so he asked me if i wanted one - Giovanni. I went to his house and he introduced us and we decided it was a compatible match. I had the bird in my dorm room on 4th Maria. And in the summer at home. I wouldn't keep one like that now, but we did get attached. Lee would see me in the halls and ask about Giovanni. Name came from an opera.  Astute, gentle-man he was.

Oyra  (Ira Slotkin)

Wow. First, I'm surprised that he was still around. I'd never heard what became of him. I was very impressed while I was at Webster by the amount of  shit he'd put up from the students. He had a prized potted plant in the front entrance that somebody made off with, and all he did was publish the care and feeding instructions in the paper! He was always in motion; my freshman year I never saw him except walking swiftly from his Cadillac to his office and back again, always waving to someone as he went. I made an appointment to see him sometime that spring just to make sure it wasn't Conal Furay in a nice suit! I also remember him mentioned in the Lou Reed song "Sally Can't Dance No More"...well I think the actual lyric was "...he went to lay Jardine", but I know what it SOUNDED like! Here's to our "Leisure Dean", a better warden of our nuthouse we could not have asked for, if I may slip into Time Newsreel-ese for a moment! 

Jeff (Jobson)

I remember him most when we worked on the the student security program, and for occasionally pulling strings to get some webby students out of hot water. a cool dude with big shoes, who by his credits certainly made a difference in this world.

Peace be with you Leigh...

Purple (Sal Parrino)

OK, I just remembered how he (Gerdine) always ate a salad rather than the steak for main course, in an era where doing so (particularly for men) was unusual.  He seems to have lived a very full and healthy life. 

Eve (Coulson)

My presiding memory of Leigh Gerdine was when we took over his office--or tried to. We had a sit-in because a teacher we liked (photography, I believe... someone from the Media Studies program in any case) didn't get tenure and was let go instead. We were livid and took over his office, demanding they reconsider and keep her on. I just remember being amused even at the time with how calm he was about the whole thing. Tolerating our brattiness and trying to reason with us. I think most college presidents would have called the police after a while, but I think he just went to lunch or went home or something... hehe. I doubt he could have handled it better. I can't remember all the details (can anyone help?), but I think we just got bored and left eventually.

Carol (Dillon)

I have a couple of Leisure Dean memories to share.

In the first (not for release to the papers and his family), I was hitchhiking down Big Bend toward school. It was summer, it was hot, and I was sweaty. I was also in my freaky attire - bad haircut, short shorts, platform sandals, baby blue fingernail polish, human tooth earring - the whole package. Leigh pulled over in his BIG blue Caddy and picked me up. The air conditioning felt luxurious, and Leigh was a gracious conversationalist. Cynics may say he would have picked up any "talent" dressed as provocatively as I was, but I appreciated the gesture, and the fact that he seemed unconcerned about my sweaty body messing up his elegant wheels.

In the second, it was my freshman year, and I was ensconced in 357 Maria with Lee Tarnoff. We put up orange day-glo on our window facing Big Bend that read "If it feels good, do it!" Leigh called Lee and I into his office and told us this preposterous story about how a local had seen our sign and later died of a heart attack, his dying wish being the removal of that offensive sign. We agreed to take it down. I think it's indicative of the man that he understood that a command to remove the sign was inappropriate, and would be rejected and viewed as intrusive. So he treated us as adults (albeit simpletons) and involved us in the process. Thanks Leigh, and happy journeys. Your work here is well done.

Ira (Carter)

I'm 72 hrs late on this one and I'm sure someone like Linda got this sooner, but I wanted to let you know that Dr Gerdine passed away this weekend.  There were good stories in Sat & Sun Post-Dispatch. He was one of the few responsible adults in my life at that time and although we had our ups & downs, generally treated me better than I did him or his institution.

Rush (McAllister)

After visiting Webster I knew it was the place for me, everyone was soo nice.  I thought I had made a mistake when during my first few weeks there went downtown at night and the place was dead.  Silly me, I thought all cities were 24/7 like NY.  It took a while to find out where everyone was!  They were upstairs in Loretto dorm, an all guy dorm back then.  I was caught making my way up there by Leigh Gerdine (sp?).  I had no idea who he was, just this guy in a red and black checkered shirt.  I noticed something inside his shirt and he showed me 2 quails!  He invited me to his office and explained he was the president of the school. Showed me his killer stereo system and played piano for me.  He was very kind and didn't bust me for sneaking into the dorm.  We bonded that night and occasionally he would check on me to see how I was doing.  I was impressed that he and everyone were so caring and from that time on I was very happy with the school and the kindness of mid west folk.

Mimi (Botscheller) logo

© 2002 Richard H. Fox

updated 2007
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