Lee Liberman, 91, was key figure in merger of Barnes-Jewish hospitals

Lee Liberman receives the St. Louis Man of the Year Award in 1986 from Charles F. Knight, as Ann Medler Liberman looks on. File photo: Mark Richman

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

Lee M. Liberman, chairman emeritus of Laclede Gas Company and a civic leader who was named St. Louis Man of the Year in 1986, died Friday, Aug. 31 from complications due to a series of strokes. He was 91 and died at Barnes-Jewish Hospital surrounded by family members.  

Mr. Liberman, whose long career with Laclede Gas Company began in 1945, was active for many years at the old Jewish Hospital, and served as chairman of its board of directors.  Later, working with others, he played a major role in bringing about the merger between Jewish and Barnes hospitals, and later served as co-chairman of the Barnes-Jewish Hospital Board of Directors.

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“I think Lee was proud of the role he played in putting Barnes and Jewish hospitals together,” Mr. Liberman’s widow, Ann Medler Liberman told the St. Louis Jewish Light.  “Bringing the two hospitals together was really difficult.  He had been very active with the old Jewish Hospital, and there were many people who were opposed to putting the two hospitals together.  But he sincerely believed the merger was in the best interests of both hospitals, and it appears that he was correct in his judgment.”

Mrs. Liberman added that her husband played a role in the recruitment of Dr. William A. Peck, who served for many years as director of the Washington University Medical Center to St. Louis, of which the Jewish Hospital was one of the participating institutions.  “Lee also played a key role in helping the old St. Luke’s Hospital through a difficult transition period in its history,” Mrs. Liberman said. “ Lee knew how to bring people together to solve community problems and had the skills to help resolve them.”

Mr. Liberman’s many civic activities included serving as a board member for Jewish Federation of St. Louis and as former chairman and as a member of the Washington University Board of Trustees.  Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton, informed the board of Mr. Liberman’s passing “with great sadness.”  He noted, “Lee was a member of the Board of Trustees since 1975, (and) contributed extraordinary leadership to the university and participated fully in university life.”  Mr. Liberman served as chair of the Board from 1988 until 1993.

Barry Rosenberg, former president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, said, “Lee contributed greatly to the strength and vitality of the St. Louis region and helped strengthen the bonds between the Jewish and larger St. Louis community.”

Mr. Liberman was born July 12, 1921, in Salt Lake City, Utah, the son of Benjamin and Sylvia Goldflan Liberman.  When Lee Liberman was 10 years old, his father joined a St. Louis law firm and the family moved here.  He graduated from Soldan High School in 1939, and earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Yale University in 1942.

Mr. Liberman had intended to attend Stanford University Law School after he completed his military service during World War II in the Army Air Forces.  Instead, he accepted what he intended to be a temporary job as an engineer at the Laclede Gas Company in 1945, and stayed with the firm for the rest of his professional career.  He rose to the position of president of Laclede Gas in 1970, became chief executive officer in 1974 and board chairman in 1976.  He served as chairman until he retired in 1976 as chairman emeritus.

Described by Wrighton as a “consummate student,” Mr. Liberman, a few weeks before his 83rd birthday in 2004, earned a Ph.D. in interdisciplinary studies from Washington University’s School of Arts & Sciences.  He earned a master’s degree in liberal arts from the graduate school in 1974.  He was awarded an honorary doctorate of humanities from Washington University in 2000.

Mr. Liberman’s wife noted that he wrote his doctoral dissertation on President Theodore Roosevelt on his role not as president but as a writer.  “Teddy Roosevelt wrote many books,” she noted adding,  “Lee was an avid reader, and was always reading lots and lots of books.  He was also a golfer and loved watching baseball games.  He loved the St. Louis Cardinals.”

Among many other activities, Mr. Liberman also served as chairman of Forest Park Forever; commissioner of the St. Louis Airport Authority and vice chairman of the board for the BJC Health System.  After the merger of Barnes and Jewish hospitals, he served as co-chairman of the board of Barnes-Jewsh, with William Danforth, former chancellor of Washington University.

In addition, Mr. Liberman served as director of the boards of several local private firms and several non-profit agencies, including the St. Louis Regional Commerce and Growth Association.  He chaired the board of the St. Louis Symphony in the mid-1980s during a period of financial challenges and helped its efforts to become one of only six orchestras to receive challenge grants from the National Endowment of Arts in 1985.

Mr. Liberman also created the St. Louis Zoo Foundation in 1995 and served as its first chairman.

In February 1987, Mr. Liberman was honored as St. Louis Man of the Year for 1986, during a presentation at Powell Symphony Hall.  He was the 32nd recipient of the award, which was sponsored by the St. Louis Man of the Year, Inc. and KMOX Radio.  He was presented with the award by Charles F. Knight, chairman and chief executive officer of Emerson Electric Co, and a past recipient.  The award had been created 32 years earlier by the old St. Louis Globe-Democrat, and later was sponsored by KMOX Radio.

Among his many other honors, Mr. Liberman received the Distinguished Eagle Award from the St. Louis Area Chapter of the Boy Scouts of America in 1990; the St. Louis Variety Club’s Man of the Year Award in 1990 and the John Poelker Award for Public Service in 1997. He was a member of Temple Israel.

In addition to his wife of 30 years, survivors include two daughters, Alise O’Brien and Celia Hosler, both of St. Louis; three sons, James Liberman and Andrew Medler, both of St. Louis, Peter Medler of Sacramento, Calif.; and nine grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at Graham Chapel on the campus of Washington University at a time to be announced later.  Memorials are appreciated to the Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital, 1001 Highlands Plaza Drive West, Suite 140, St. Louis, Mo. 63110; Washington University, 1 Brookings Drive, St. Louis, Mo. 63230, or to Forest Park Forever, 5595 Grand Drive in Forest Park, St. Louis, Mo. 63112.