Shirley Mosinger has devoted her life to literacy

2016 Unsung Hero Shirley Mosinger. Photo: Yana Hotter


Shirley Mosinger’s bookshelves are filled with impressive volumes, from Irving Howe’s “World of Our Fathers” to a book of Chinese poetry her father gave to her when she was a child.

Books and learning were cherished in her Jewish household when she was growing up in Atlanta in the 1930s and ’40s and then when she and her husband, Harold, raised their four children in Creve Coeur.

At 87, Shirley Mosinger is being heralded an Unsung Hero for her inspired lifelong mission to promote books, reading and literacy for people of diverse backgrounds.

She has sought to encourage reading and instill a love of books in underserved populations, including young mothers at a public hospital and inner-city schoolchildren.

This mother of four, grandmother of 11 and great-grandmother of five – a former Senior Olympian – pursues with vivacity her many hobbies, including bridge and badminton. She also has continued teaching literacy.

For the past 10 years, she has helped elderly Russians and Asians with literacy at Covenant Place and has worked as a  volunteer with the Parkway Schools English as a Second Language (ESL) program.

“She continues to be a champion of literacy today,” daughter Gail Severance of Jefferson City says. “She delights in teaching English to immigrants from around the world and helping them along the path to U.S. citizenship.”

The award primarily is being given for her signature Beginning Babies with Books program, which Mosinger started with Judi Sams at Regional Medical Center.  Mosinger started the program to teach disadvantaged young mothers the importance of reading to their babies and talking to them from birth on, and learning how exciting and fun books can be.

The program has grown and changed and has reached thousands of mothers. Tens of thousands of books have been given away.

Mosinger was inspired to start the program after her last grandson, Tyler, was born in 1988. One day, she watched the effect her voice had on him.

“It was like someone plugged Tyler in,” she recalled. “His arms started waving and his little legs started kicking. He got so animated looking at me. The words meant something. I decided someone has to tell the mothers how important it is to talk to their babies at a very early stage.”

Tyler now is a pediatrician.

Mosinger approached Sams, who was director of volunteers at Regional Medical Center, about the program.

When the volunteers approached the mothers, she recalls:

“We went into the rooms with the biggest smiles and enthusiasm. They’d have a baby and other children, and I’d say,  ‘Snuggle them all together and let them see the pictures in the book and say, “Look at the duck, look at the dog.’” … Let them see the book and touch it and hold it … and you’ll see how much fun it will be. They’ll be the smartest kids in kindergarten!’ ”

Each participating mother also got a library card, free books and information on various helpful resources for parenting.

Although Regional Medical Center has closed, the literacy program continues at Barnes Jewish Hospital and the YMCA.

Mosinger started volunteering by helping new Americans and Holocaust survivors through the National Council of Jewish Women. Mosinger would babysit their children while the women attended English classes.

In the 1960s, Mosinger read to third- and fourth-graders at Hamilton and Cupples elementary schools in St. Louis.

“I was interested in helping the children,” Mosinger said. “The teachers were so glad to see me, and the children were, too. There was such a terrible illiteracy rate. We would talk about vocabulary some. The purpose was to make children want to read.”

Later, she got involved with a joint ORT America and International Institute literacy program. (ORT stands for Organization for Rehabilitation through Training.)

Mosinger recalls that one of her most touching experiences was meeting a man in his 70s who desperately wanted to learn to read.

When he was 9 during the Great Depression, he had to leave school and sell newspapers on the streets of Chicago, she said.

While Mosinger was tutoring him, his wife was diagnosed with cancer. Once he brought in a Cream of Wheat box so Mosinger could read the directions to him.

“He was such a kind, good man and desperately wanted to learn to read,” she said. 

Mosinger’s other great priorities are family and her Jewish faith. She is a life member of various Jewish organizations, including Hadassah and the National Council of Jewish Women, and served as vice president of both organizations in St. Louis.

She grew up in Atlanta, the fourth child of Anne and Sol Yudelson. Her mother’s family was settled in Atlanta while her father emigrated from Lithuania with his parents as a young child to Greensboro, Ga. His parents, the only Jews in town, opened a general store.

Mosinger said: “Daddy used to run down to the railroad station and get the kosher meat for his family.”

Mosinger attended an academic public girl’s high school before heading to St. Louis, where she attended Washington University and met husband Harold Mosinger.

They had much in common from the start. While her father owned a chain of retail shoe stores, her future husband’s father owned a wholesale shoe business, which Harold later joined.

“When I was born, Gus Mosinger (Harold’s father) pulled out a bottle — it said for medicinal purposes only, it was liquor — and gave it to my father,” Mosinger said with a smile. 

When Shirley and Harold became engaged, they opened that bottle.

“It was terrible,” she laughed. “It had been sitting around for 19 years.”


Age: 87

Family: Married for 66 years to the late Harold Mosinger; four adult children, three daughters and one son, all married;  11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren

Home: Creve Coeur

Occupation: Homemaker, volunteer

Fun fact:  She squeezed fresh orange juice almost daily for more than 60 years.