Larry Lieberman, 85; championed U. City, civil rights

Lawrence “Larry” Lieberman

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

The irony that Larry Lieberman’s funeral service was held on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks was not lost on the speakers and the many hundreds who filled the sanctuary of Central Reform Congregation to pay their respects. Mr. Lieberman’s career was the very antithesis of the fanaticism and hatred that motivated the attacks.

“Larry Lieberman’s legacy is a perfect antidote to the horrors of 9/11,” said Rabbi Susan Talve in her remarks.

Mr. Lieberman, who served a total of 29 years on the University City Council and was a past president of the St. Louis County Municipal League and a pioneer member of the African-American/Jewish Dialogue Task Force of the Jewish Community Relations Council, died Wednesday, Sept. 7, at the Barnes-Jewish extended care facility in Clayton. He was 85, and had been diagnosed in February with congestive heart failure, family members said.

While he would later be described as University City’s “Third Lion” because of his passion for that city, Lawrence Lieberman was born Aug. 15, 1926 to Russian Jewish immigrant parents, on the South Side of Chicago. As a young man, he worked in the family grocery store. During the Great Depression, his family almost went broke giving credit to people in the neighborhood, and modeling compassion for those in need for the young Larry Lieberman, who would devote his life to helping such people.

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Mr. Lieberman served in the U.S. Navy during World War II as a radioman on the USS Indianapolis and Henry T. Allen in the South Pacific. He sent what is believed to have been the first ship side message that World War II had ended in August 1945. After the war, he returned to complete his degree in chemistry at the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana, where he met his soon-to-become wife, Joy Orenstein, on her first day of college. Within one month, he proposed. They were married for 61 years.

The young couple moved to University City, which became their home and Mr. Lieberman’s political and civil rights landscape for the rest of his life. He worked for a time at a cheese processing plant and a pickle plant, where he faced overt anti-Semitism for the first time. He eventually took a job as an engineer at McDonnel Douglas (now Boeing), where he worked for 35 years until his retirement.

Mr. Lieberman first ran for public office in 1960, and he was appointed to the University City Council in 1965, three years after he and his wife had been turned down for a loan to build an addition to their home because the neighborhood was “changing,” i.e. becoming integrated. That first direct encounter with block-busting motivated Mr. Lieberman to a lifelong struggle for open housing laws in University City as well as St. Louis County, statewide and nationally.

Among the many local, state and federal luminaries who paid their respects at Mr. Lieberman’s funeral Sunday were Frankie Freeman, longtime civil rights icon; St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley; U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-Mo.; former U. City Council member Paul Schoomer; former State Rep. Barbara Fraser and State Rep. Rory Ellinger, the latter of whom spoke at the service.

“Larry and Joe Edwards (founder and owner of Blueberry Hill and U. City developer) were a team. He cast the tie-breaking vote to grant Joe Edwards the liquor license to open Blueberry Hill in 1972. Larry fought all kinds of discrimination based on age, gender or race,” Ellinger said.

In his remarks, Rabbi Randy Fleisher, who co-officiated with Rabbi Talve at the funeral service, pointed out “while Larry Lieberman was not a strong believer in organized religion, he was very aware that his passion for social justice and civil rights were deeply influenced by Jewish values.”

Mr. Lieberman was a past president of Older Adult Community Action Program, a group which advocates for the rights of older persons in the St. Louis region.

Mr. Lieberman also served on the Governor’s Council on Aging, and continued to publish the newsletter, U. City News, which contained capsule observations and news items on his beloved city.

Paul Schoomer, who owned the legendary Paul’s Books store in U. City, and who served for many years with Mr. Lieberman on the U. City Council, praised his longtime colleague as “brilliant” and a “consensus builder” who helped U. City successfully transition through the years in which its population became integrated.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Lieberman is survived by two daughters, Denise Lieberman of St. Louis and Susan Cohn of Tucson, Ariz.; three sons, David Lieberman of Portland, Ore., Mark Lieberman of Denver and Daniel Lieberman of Normandy, each of whom offered fond remembrances of their father at the funeral service, and nine grandchildren.

Burial was at the Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, Mo. Memorial contributions preferred to OACAP, the University City Symphony Orchestra, the University City Education Foundation, or a charity of the donor’s choice.

“On civil rights,” Rabbi Fleisher noted, “Larry just didn’t talk the talk. He walked the walk.”