David Mesker, a civic leader and financier who died of cancer on Sunday morning, two days after his 84th birthday, impressed an acquaintance as being an encyclopedia on two feet, a fountain of information on subjects he held in esteem. There was that, and then there was his generosity of treasure, time and spirit.
He was a gentleman, too, a person of grace and generosity, distinguished by splendid talents and decided tastes, a fellow who cared deeply for many people and many things, and loathed others, and had no compunction about allowing his loves and loathes to be known.
Tennis was love, no pun meant. In the early 1960s he was president of St. Louis District Tennis for a year, and he answered positively to entreaties to push forward the development and completion of the Dwight Davis Tennis Center in Forest Park. With Mr. Mesker leading the way, between $700,000 and $800,000 was raised for the project.
“I’d say that was pretty successful,” Mr. Mesker allowed a couple of months ago. And so it was.
This year, at Christmastime, he sent out a card with a drawing of the royal pachyderm Babar playing tennis to a friend of many years, and on the back he inscribed the poem of Emily Dickinson’s that goes:
I went to Heaven,
Twas a small town,
Lit with a ruby,
Lathed with down
Stiller than the fields
At the full dew.
I could be
‘Mong such unique
In recent years especially, his world was contented with poetry of a special and individual rhyme and meter. Where once conversations with him took didactic edges, recently they often turned to observations on beauty and grace, and he spoke affectionately of the Missouri River and his relationship to it, a closeness that evolved over decades.
He loved to walk down to the river in all seasons, and this summer he was at the riverside watching the show set up by the fireflies. His spirit was enlivened by myth and legend and history, and a couple of years ago, he contributed a chapter to a book about the lower Missouri River valley called “Missouri River Country.”
And so it went with Mr. Mesker, the apparently untroubled existence of a man who in fact took his share of hard knocks, and in the last few months said that while he was in no great rush to die, when the time came, he’d have the luxury of knowing he had had a rich, fulfilling, often thrilling life, one whose portfolio included everything from to the competitive volleys of finance to those of tennis.
He took pleasure in the wonder of the fuzzy bur-oak acorns he kept on a kitchen windowsill as enthusiastically as he took pleasure in fine furniture, and works on paper and music all squeezed into the confines of a special realm of the exceptional.
David Warren Mesker was born to Francis A. and Pauline C. Mesker, a couple who imagined and built an American Xanadu on a prominence in St. Louis County. overlooking the Missouri River. The Mesker family was in the iron business, and the Meskers’ house was all of metal, stuccoed over, but metal all the same. When you drive up to the front door and cross a sensor a bell announces a visitor as he or she approaches, and its throaty call not only indicates one’s arrival but gives a suggestion this is no ordinary place.
The house is situated to take full advantage of views of the river and the thickets beyond it. A funicular tucked under the terrace has rolled out to carry generations of squealing children up and down the hill, and it provides much appreciated transportation for grown-ups, too, those who’d take a ride any day rather than take a hike. Once at the bottom of the hill, a visitor finds tennis courts and an exceptional folly built to look like the prow of a 19th century steamboat. Behind it, there’s a pool with a water slide.
It is great fun, and Mr. Mesker shared this architectural and natural bounty with both friends and organizations that needed a place to have a knockout party, or a place to show newcomers and visiting out-of-towners the beauties of the Missouri’s riverine richness.
He was a dedicated, deep-rooted St. Louisan. Besides showing his property and sharing it with others, he was a model of civic engagement and served many organizations in the course of his productive lifetime. His awareness of the value of history, music and the visual arts to a region such as ours was built on a solid education and a continuing taste for learning. His education began in 1936 at Community School, and continued at St. Louis Country Day School. He graduated from Amherst in 1953, and took off from there to Germany to serve in the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps, stationed in Frankfurt.
From the middle 1950s to the early ‘60s, he worked for Mesker Brothers Iron Co., the family business. In 1962, he joined the old A.G. Edwards brokerage company, where he was vice president for finance and compliance, and a partner and member of the board of directors. He also had a rather unusual assignment at the company – to help in the building of its art collection. Similar duty was shared with the St. Louis Art Museum, where he was a member of the board of trustees and chair of the collections committee.
The Art Museum was only one of the cultural institutions to which he gave time and talents. Entirely socially secure, his organizational service was a way to give back to his hometown gifts of time in addition to treasure, and not a way to cut notches on a belt of self-aggrandizement. He did his homework, too, and had deep knowledge of organizations with which he became affiliated.
He was president of the board of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, and board chair of Laumeier Sculpture Park for six years. He served on the boards of Grand Center and of the art district’s northern bookend, the St. Louis Symphony Society. At Washington University, he endowed the D.W. Mesker professorship of Asian Art. He supported St. Louis Public Radio and the St. Louis Beacon.
He was a member of the boards of the Lighthouse for the Blind and the Foundation for the National Archives. Related to his work in finance, he served as chair of District 9 of the National Association of Securities Dealers in 1971, and chair of the national organization in 1978.
A board affiliation that made him extremely proud and brought him enormous enjoyment was with Opera Theatre of St. Louis, where he was chair for six years. The passing of the general director’s baton from Charles MacKay, now general director of the Santa Fe Opera, to the current Opera Theatre general director, Timothy O’Leary, who has proved to be a spark plug for action and involvement in community life and an innovative impresario not averse to risk, came after his service as chair, but he continued to exert leadership.
O’Leary told St. Louis Public Radio, “When I first came to Opera Theatre to visit the company, my predecessor Charles MacKay asked David to host me for a one-on-one dinner the first night I was here.
“He was so astonishingly kind, warm and forthright. I remember thinking that if the other board members were like him then this was absolutely the job I wanted. In the years since then, David has been one of the most important mentors in my life.
“Not just about running Opera Theatre, but about how to live. He was a person of such generosity of spirit, such appreciation for the world and its wonders, such wisdom, and such curiosity.
“He's a person I would like to be more like.”
In a message to the company’s board Monday, O’Leary wrote that Mr. Mesker oversaw the first campaign to build an endowment. He brought about other financial and renovation and expansion projects – and a retirement fund for company employees.
“His total generosity to Opera Theatre is among the most significant in our company’s history,” O’Leary said, “although he always played down his role and did not seek credit for it.”
Mr. Mesker is survived by a daughter, Elizabeth M. (Thomas G.) Vance of Richmond, Va.; a son, David W. Mesker Jr. of St. Louis; two sisters, Phyllis Maritz of St. Louis and Pam White of Sharon, Conn., and two grandchildren. His marriage to Susan Priest Mesker ended in divorce.
The portrait bust accompanying this article is the work of the artist Dorothy Haase of New York and St. Louis, who was Mr. Mesker’s companion for the last eight years.
Burial is to be private. A memorial service will be at the Church of St. Michael and St. George on Thursday, Aug. 13, at 11 a.m. The family asks that donations be made to Opera Theatre of St. Louis, to Washington University or to the Church of St. Michael and St. George.