Fritzi Lainoff

Unsung Hero Fritzi Lainoff in 2011. Photo: Kristi Foster

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

She champions the causes about which she is passionate — and there are many — with gale-force determination and vigor. Friends describe her as a “human dynamo” with the energy of someone half her 81 years. What’s clear after spending time with Fredricka “Fritzi” Lainoff is that she won’t take “no” for an answer if she thinks, even remotely, that “yes” is a much better way to go.

These days Lainoff is on a mission to make sure government legislation takes care of the mounting needs of older adults and the uninsured. She is a tireless volunteer on their behalf, working long days and nights and traveling on occasions to Jefferson City and Washington, D.C. to talk the talk. 

“She speaks with representatives on both sides of the aisle, and makes it her business to know the ‘players,’ including lobbyists who help ‘decode’ the fine print on a piece of legislation,” says Lise Bernstein, who has worked closely with Lainoff at the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW)- St. Louis Section. “Fritzi says, ‘You’ve got to work with all kinds of people. Never antagonize any of them.’ She acknowledges that speaking to legislators is the most effective strategy in getting issues heard.”

Advocacy work seems to be in Lainoff’s genes. She comes from a long line of volunteers and activists, who instilled in her at an early age to stand up for what she valued. At 14, she was picketing a theater that prohibited African-Americans from sitting in its choice sections.

She explains that in 1912, her grandparents came to America with their 5-year-old daughter, Lainoff’s mother, and settled in St. Louis. Despite being very poor, the family shared what little they had. If someone had no place to sleep, there was always a place on the family’s floor, using a feather bed Lainoff’s grandmother had brought with her from Kiev.

Lainoff watched her mother, Rebecca “Billie” Miller, whom she credits as a role model, volunteer for VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) and later, the Gray Panthers. Miller was a delegate to the very first Older American Conference in Washington, D.C., which worked on, and formed, the Older Americans Act. 

After Lainoff’s father died when she was 2, her mother moved the family to Chicago, where she met and married Maurice Miller. It was there that Billie Miller was moved by the plight of children in her neighborhood with health problems. She decided to do more than sit idly and watch them suffer. 

“The year before I went to kindergarten, before the Depression, all these kids were going to start school without physicals or shots,” Lainoff recalls. “My mother developed a summer ‘roundup’ program for the kids to be taken to clinics. If their parents weren’t taking them, she would take them herself.”

Eventually, the Millers moved back to St. Louis, where Lainoff graduated from University City High School. Her first date with Harold “Mike” Lainoff was at a B’nai B’rith party held at her home. In June, the couple will celebrate 62 years of marriage. They have two grown children and a 23-year-old grandson. When her children were young, Lainoff was very active in St. Louis area parent-teacher organizations and educated herself about issues she felt were important. That way of doing business has never changed.

In addition to the elderly and uninsured, Lainoff’s advocacy has included a lifetime of work for the civil rights movement, people with AIDS, anti-nuclear power testing and the underserved.  Today, she participates and/or serves on the board of many organizations including NCJW, Mid-East Area on Aging, Older Adult Community Action Program, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center.

“I’ve always been involved in Jewish community services,” says Lainoff, who belongs to Congregation B’nai Amoona. “I see having strong Jewish communal services as vital to having a strong Jewish community itself and I’m privileged to be a part of that in whatever way I can.”

Lise Bernstein and Marilyn Ratkin, who was one of last year’s Unsung Heroes, have seen Lainoff ‘s “innovative, creative and daring” diplomatic strategies at work. They relate one recent episode in Jefferson City involving a Senate bill on elder abuse protection. Lainoff served as a main contact with the national AARP to organize busing “a few thousand citizens” to the state Capitol. She participated in daily phone conferences with the lieutenant governor, and leaders of relevant organizations. When legislators caught wind of the news that they would be “swamped” with older people demanding passage of the bill, they pushed the bill through the day before the planned event.

Lainoff smiles at the recollection. “It makes a big difference if you, as an advocate, are standing in the galleries because the legislators know why you are there,” she says.

From her purse, Lainoff pulls out a folded piece of paper with the mantra that speaks her actions. It comes from Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gassett: “I am myself and what is around me, and if I do not save it, it shall not save me.”

Then she adds her own two cents: “The world would be a better place if more people got involved.”

Fritzi Lainoff

AGE:  81

FAMILY:  Married for nearly 62 years to Harold “Mike” Lainoff; two grown children and one grandchild

OCCUPATION: Unincorporated St. Louis County, near Creve Coeur

FAVORITE PASTIME: She collects clowns