Fred Epstein, 79; headed local heating company, ACLU chapter

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Fred Epstein, head of the Industrial Engineering & Equipment Co., a heating firm, and longtime president of the Eastern Missouri Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, died Wednesday, Sept. 10, due to complications from leukemia.  “Fred was surrounded by his loving family and Rabbi Susan Talve (of central Reform Congregation),” a family member said.

Mr. Epstein was known for his ability to combine his practical business and private sector administrative knowledge to the ACLU and other causes in which he became involved.  His wife of 57 years, Sara Epstein, said that his leadership skills were evident when he was a high school student involved with the Missouri Valley Federation of Temple Youth, where they met. She said he demonstrated those skills for “the rest of his life.”

Frederick Epstein was born in St. Louis on Jan. 28, 1935, the son of the late Milton and Zelda Epstein, a couple who loved to travel and who were, like their son, involved in numerous civic and philanthropic causes. Milton Epstein founded Industrial Engineering & Equipment Co. in 1929, which Fred Epstein would later take over.

Mr. Epstein was a graduate of University City High School and studied physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  When Sara went to college in Boston, the two reconnected. They were married the year Mr. Epstein graduated from college.

Back in St. Louis, Mr. Epstein started working for his father’s company, which was located in Brentwood, where it manufactured electric heating elements, some of them highly specialized.  The firm was noted for providing 100 percent reimbursement for employees who took college courses or earned advanced degrees. The firm had 350 employees.

In 1985, Mr. Epstein founded the Zelda Epstein Day Care Center in memory of his mother.  The facility provided affordable daycare for the entire community. It was the first in the state to be established in an industrial site.

Among Mr. Epstein’s passions was the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).  He served several terms as president of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri and numerous terms on both the local and national boards of the organization, which seeks to safeguard the rights enumerated in the U.S. Constitution.  Under his leadership, the local chapter increased its membership from 200 to more than 5,000 members, and its legal docket from two cases to dozens at a time.

Mr. Epstein described his goal with ACLU as “to bring the cause of civil liberties to the attention of the general public, to actively pursue individual cases, and to achieve concrete results.”  He was widely praised for his soft-spoken, kindly demeanor and for his preference to work behind the scenes as a peacemaker when there was conflict within the ACLU while shunning any personal acclaim for his efforts.

Mr. Epstein was a board member and president of Citizens for Modern Transit, the group that brought the light rail system, MetroLink, to St. Louis.  “Fred vigorously dove into the details of how rights-of-way would be negotiated and how the rail cares would be styled.  He saw the big picture but never overlooked the details,” a long-time associate said.

He was also the head of the St. Louis Desegregation Monitoring Committee, which provided oversight of the 1970s court order to integrate the public schools.  In his retirement, Mr. Epstein worked with various causes, including the Soros Foundation and a variety of non-profits involved with such issues as ethics in politics to reconsidering criminal sentences and related causes.

Mr. Epstein was also known as a devoted family man, who enjoyed telling jokes or engaging in an energetic argument, but always with respect and a joyful smile.

A funeral service for Mr. Epstein was held Sunday at Central Reform Congregation, where Talve officiated.  A visitation was held Monday in the Park East Tower 7th Floor Fireside Room, 4909 Laclede Avenue.

Survivors, in addition to his wife, include two sisters, Elizabeth Mulliner of New Orleans and Beryl Brasch of Denver; a daughter, Rebecca Goldstein, of Clayton; three sons, David Epstein of New York City, Theodore Epstein of Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. and Michael Epstein of San Francisco, and six grandchildren.

Contributions may be made in his honor to Central Reform Congregation, 5020 Waterman, St. Louis, Mo. 63108; ACLU/EM, 454 Whittier Street, St. Louis, Mo, 63108, or the charity of the donor’s choice.