St. Louisans fondly remember their connection to Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Lois Severin and her late husband, Phil, with Ginsburg at Washington University.

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

Lizzy Mills clearly recalls the day in June 2016 when her Cultural Leadership class was in Washington, D.C and met U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the legal champion and feminist trailblazer who passed away Friday at age 87. Cultural Leadership is a year-long social justice program for African American and Jewish high school students in St. Louis that works to develop the next generation of civil rights leaders.

“One of the things I remember the most about her is just how tiny she was. She so much reminded me of my grandma. I couldn’t shake that feeling of, wow, I feel like I know you,” said Mills, 20, a Clayton High School graduate and Temple Israel congregant now attending college in Los Angeles. “Even though she was so small, she still had such a stature, the way she carried herself with such grace. She told us how after law school no one wanted to hire her. She was like the only woman in her class. 

“Her message to our young group was one of inspiring us not to give up — to find our place and find our fight and passion as well. She really rejected everyone else’s notion of who she was supposed to be — what kind of mother and wife she was supposed to be. She made her own expectations. She lived her life outside of what everyone else expected of her and that takes such strong character.”

Not only did Mills and her Cultural Leadership classmates get to partake in a Q&A with Ginsburg, many of them appear in the 2018 documentary about her life, “RBG.” 

The filmmakers wanted footage of Ginsburg interacting with students, which she did regularly, and the ones from Cultural Leadership Class 12 happened to be chosen. The movie’s credits even reflect that.

“It’s funny because I’ll get a text from one of my friends once in a while asking, ‘Are you in the RBG movie?’” said Mills, whose mother, Jill Silverstein, is a noted civil rights attorney here. 

“Yes. I am,” Mills tells them. “I play the role of the inspired young Jewish girl at the end. There I am smiling.” 

An unlikely connection

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Cultural Leadership classes had been meeting annually with Ginsburg since 2010, thanks to her relationship with the program’s founder, Karen Kalish, 75. When Kalish started a similar social justice program in Washington, D.C. in the mid-90s, students expressed a strong interest in meeting the Black and Jewish justices on the Supreme Court. At the time, they were Ginsburg, Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer.

“Justices Ginsburg and Thomas responded to my letters immediately and invited us to come to the court on a Tuesday morning in October 1996,” said Kalish, adding that Breyer never responded. She continued to take students to visit with the justices annually, until she left the program to pursue a master’s degree in public policy.

In 2004, when Kalish started Cultural Leadership here, she once again reached out to Ginsburg and Thomas in the hopes that students could meet with them in June, on their annual civil rights trip to several cities, including D.C. Unfortunately, she was told June is the busiest month for the justices and they were not available to meet.

It wasn’t until some years later, after Kalish had left Cultural Leadership and started another nonprofit here called Home Works!, which assists struggling students, that she met Peter Stiepleman. Stiepleman was an elementary school principal in Columbia, Mo. Now he is superintendent of schools there.

He had heard about HomeWorks!, and asked Kalish if they could meet for lunch so he could learn more about the program.

That August, Stiepleman called Kalish and told her he was bringing along his wife and kids when he came to St. Louis the following month. That struck Kalish as odd because the two had planned to talk business. 

“ ‘Of course,’ I said, ‘but your wife and kids? Where are you going?’ ” Kalish asked. 

“Ruth Bader Ginsburg is my aunt,” he said. ‘We’re going to Washington for Yom Kippur.”

Kalish immediately wrote Ginsburg a letter similar to the one she wrote years ago, asking if Cultural Leadership students could meet with her in June. Stiepelman gladly delivered it to his aunt at a family dinner at her Watergate apartment. (Stiepelman’s younger brother, Daniel, wrote the screenplay for “On the Basis of Sex,” the 2018 biopic about Ginsburg.)

“Four days later I had a handwritten note from her in my mailbox inviting us to be at the Supreme Court the following June 17 at 4 p.m.,” said Kalish. “And we were there and (Cultural Leadership) has been every year since.”

Over time, Kalish and Ginsburg began corresponding. Knowing her love of opera, Kalish sent Ginsburg programs from Opera Theatre of St. Louis. When Kalish commissioned a bejeweled portrait of Ginsburg by local artist Zack Smithey, Kalish sent the justice a picture of it. Not only did she write back to thank Kalish, she also sent a personal note to Smithey.

“Who does that?” Kalish said, incredulously.

 Pen pals for three decades

Perhaps no one knows better about Ginsburg’s penchant for personal letter writing than University City resident Lois Severin, who calls Ginsburg her “special acquaintance.” The two had been corresponding every few months for 27 years. In addition to sending  Severin typed letters and handwritten cards for every Jewish and secular holiday imaginable, Ginsburg sent her speeches to Severin along with RBG trinkets she thought Severin might like. 

When Ginsburg underwent chemotherapy treatments in 1999 for colon cancer, she started wearing gloves to keep her hands protected. So whenever Severin spotted a pair she thought Ginsburg would like, Severin sent them to her.

“I got my last letter from her on Aug. 15 (dated Aug. 10) thanking me for a pair of gloves I had sent her,” said Severin, 85, known locally as “The Smile Lady,” because she’s always passing out smiley face stickers. “I really was shocked because I knew how sick she was.”

Severin, 85, explained that her late husband Phil and Ginsburg’s beloved late husband, Marty, had gone to Cornell University, where the two were fraternity brothers. Marty was dating Ruth, who was in the class at Cornell below them. When Marty graduated, he moved to Boston to attend Harvard Law School. Phil stayed at Cornell for his MBA.

“Phil used to drive Ruth from Ithaca, N.Y. (where Cornell is located) to Boston (a 5½ -hour trip one way) to see Marty,” Severin recalled. “I said to Phil, ‘Well, what did she say?’ He said, ‘Nothing. She just studied the whole time.’”

Severin first met Ginsburg at a party when she was in law school. “I had no idea who she was because she was Ruth,” said Severin, adding that Ginsburg was absolutely beautiful, and she and Marty were completely smitten with each other. “I never knew any women going to law school. 

“I didn’t see her again, until Phil brought her here with the Cornell Club to speak at Washington U in the late 90s. I met with her, we visited. Then Phil died five years later, in 2003, and Ruth and Marty wrote me a beautiful note. That’s when Ruth and I started corresponding regularly. She responded to everything personally and immediately. 

“She was the most special person in the world.”