John Mann, 45; restored old YMHA

John Douglas Mann

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

What Mary Strauss was to the Fox Theatre, John Mann was to the old Young Men’s Hebrew Association facility at 724 North Union Boulevard. Just as Strauss and her late husband Leon restored the storied Fox Theatre to its 1920s opulence, so did Mr. Mann’s determination and tenacity make it possible for the old YMHA to be fully refurbished as the West End Community Center.

Mr. Mann died Monday, Sept. 19, at his home in Clayton. He was 45 and had been diagnosed with brain cancer nearly two years ago. “He bore his illness with grace and courage,” a family statement added.

John Douglas Mann was a native of Clayton, the son of Marylen and the late Norman Mann. He was a graduate of Clayton High School and Colgate University and earned a master’s degree in business administration at Washington University. He worked in marketing for SBC and recently started an international manufacturing and importing company.

Mr. Mann became involved in his ultimately successful quest to restore the old YMHA building when he was back in St. Louis recovering from a brain injury he sustained in an automobile accident in Cumanga, Calif., He had been working there after graduating from college.

He was driving when another car slammed into his vehicle, causing it to crash into an 18-wheel truck. He spent nearly the next two years recovering in St. Louis from the brain injury he suffered in the crash.

During his recovery, he became aware of the old YMHA, which had become property of the city of St. Louis after the Jewish Community Center moved to its Creve Coeur location near Lindbergh Boulevard and Schuetz Road. The building became very run down and was going to be closed because the city lacked sufficient funds to restore it. It had been a safe haven for youths in the neighborhood, which at the time was a high crime area.

Mr. Mann became determined to save and restore the building. He enlisted his dynamic mother Marylen, the founder of the OASIS organization, who was recruited with the help of Katie White, a domestic in the Mann household. With the help and encouragement of his mother and White, Mr. Mann joined with Peter Smith, a local attorney to create a foundation and raised money from Civic Progress companies. In all, about $2 million was raised.

Marylen Mann recalled, “John’s heart went out to these kids.”

In addition to the large private companies associated with Civic Progress, Mr. Mann sought and obtained donations from many members of the local Jewish community with fond memories of the old “Y” building. Kids who had learned how to swim at the old Y pool, who had played basketball on its courts and who had rehearsed for Bearskin Follies with their fraternities or sororities while at Washington University were among the donors. One of the West End Community Center’s major occupants was Lift for Life, a gym for inner city children. Mr. Mann became president of the organization’s board, and steered its efforts to open a charter high school in the Soulard area, said Marshall Cohen, executive director of the academy.

Mr. Mann was also a member of Leadership St. Louis and was named to the St. Louis Business Journal’s “40 under 40” when he was 28.

“John was warm, witty and self effacing (and) wore his accomplishments lightly,” a family member said. He was also described as an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan who loved to play basketball and spend time with good friends. He loved music, especially the blues. “But his greatest joy was his wife and their two beautiful daughters,” the family member said.

Funeral services were held last Thursday at Central Reform Congregation.

Survivors include his wife, Bonnie Kottler Mann; two daughters, Julie and Abigail; his mother, Marylen Mann and stepfather Frank Jacobs, of Clayton; and his brother, Robert Mann of Cambridge, Mass. Contributions in Mr. Mann’s memory may be made to Lift for Life Academy, 1731 South Broadway, St. Louis, Mo. 63104.