Mary Langenberg didn’t have far to go to pay calls on some of the institutions she supported so generously in her long, productive life.
She was by all accounts a vivacious and beautiful woman, who loved entertaining her friends and cherished good, lively, yeasty conversations.
After living for many years in architecturally traditional dwellings in the Central West End and Clayton, she spent her later life in a sleek and elegant modernist aerie on Skinker Boulevard, an apartment with a knock-out view of Forest Park and the land beyond.
She died there, with her family in attendance, on Nov. 20. She was nine action-packed, well lived decades old.
Were she to walk across Skinker to follow a path meandering through the woods and meadows, she’d arrive presently at the St. Louis Art Museum.
The museum is a longtime recipient of the largesse of Mrs. Langenberg and her late husband, Oliver M. Langenberg, who died in 2012 just weeks shy of his 100th birthday.
Museum director Brent Benjamin recalled her multiple graces – her generosity of fortune and spirit and an ability to put a new acquaintance at his or her ease.
“She was lovely a person as one could ever care to know,” he said, “and as gracious as she was generous.”
That observation is repeated time and again by those who knew her. Benjamin said that Mrs. Langenberg was a frequent visitor to the galleries and often spent lunchtime in the museum’s restaurant with friends. She and Mr. Langenberg, were among the largest donors in the history of the museum, Benjamin said.
They endowed a fund for acquisitions of Asian art, he noted, and when an object was under consideration for purchase, the couple would be asked to come to see it. Benjamin said often they’d ask that endowment funds be left alone, and would put up the money needed to pay for the acquisition on the spot.
St. Michael and St. George
Besides the museum, three other important institutions the Langenbergs supported were nearby also. Should she journey north on Skinker Boulevard from home, in a few blocks she’d come to Wydown Boulevard, and up that shady street is the Episcopal Church of St. Michael and St. George and the adjacent St. Michael’s School.
The church and the school were longtime beneficiaries of Mrs. Langenberg’s attention. She served on the church’s lay governing body, its Vestry, and also as a board member who gave time, energy and financial assistance to the school.
Ashley Cadwell, former headmaster of St. Michael’s School and co-founder of the Cadwell Collaborative, an educational consulting enterprise in Middlebury, Vermont, said he has had two “mentoresses” in his life called Mary – one is his 94-year-old mother, Mary Cadwell. The other was Mary Langenberg.
“She had such a great way of being clear, stern and loving, and she was enormously generous. She and Ollie gave us the gymnasium for the school and paid for a lot of the playground. But the Langenbergs also were ready with wise counsel beyond the financial, Cadwell said.
“During a time of serious tumult for the school, they made it clear what we were doing was what was needed.”
Cadwell said also if she disagreed with something or another at the school, “She was not bashful about calling you.”
Washington University and City Academy
Skip over a short distance to the north of the church is Washington University, another recipient of Langenberg-style attention. Mrs. Langenberg attended the university for a time, although she left school because she needed to work.
Dr. William H. Danforth, chancellor emeritus of Washington University and a founder of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, described Mrs. Langenberg as one of his favorite people. He was a frequent guest at her table on Sunday evenings along with a few others close to Mrs. Langenberg.
“She was a very good person,” Danforth said, “always warm, a grand individual who loved to have people in her home. Besides her generosity to Washington U., Danforth said she and Mr. Langenberg were very good to the Plant Science Center, and paid frequent visits to it.
Her interest in education and her generosity played out also at City Academy, a private middle school at 4175 North Kingshighway in North St. Louis.
Don Danforth is president and co-founder of the school.
“One of the greatest benefits of working at City Academy is getting to know people who are genuinely interested in the community and its welfare,” Danforth said. The Langenbergs, of course, were two such individuals.
Danforth said he talked to Mrs. Langenberg often, and she regularly recalled for him the first graduation ceremony of City Academy. She and Mr. Langenberg were in attendance and were presented the inaugural Langenberg Prize for outstanding service to the school. While named for the Langenbergs, it acknowledges also the quest for lifelong learning and the importance of giving back to society.
Danforth said Mrs. Langenberg was also was quick to praise those who made sacrifices for the good of children and for providing good educations for them.
Danforth said he had a special place in his heart for the Langenbergs. “They were the first donors to the school – the first not related to me anyway.”
From Springfield, Illinois
Mary Booth Langenberg was born in Springfield, Illinois, into circumstances far more modest than those which she enjoyed in later years. She was one of seven children, five of whom survived. Her father, Andrew, was an owner of a restaurant in the heart of Springfield’s political universe. Her mother, Mary, was a nurse.
When she left Washington U., she returned to Springfield and landed a clerical job in the insurance business, but she was recognized as a comer and she was elevated into managerial jobs. In a milieu similar to that portrayed by women executives in “Mad Men,” she encountered the obstacles and resistances women faced in the 1950s.
In 1954, she married William Lee Polk, who ran the insurance company office in St. Louis. The bride-to-be moved back to Springfield to take a better-paying position, so the couple courted long distance. They were married in 1954. Their son, William L. Polk Jr. was “hatched,” as his mother said, in 1956. William L. Polk Sr. died of cancer in 1964.
Mary Polk was crushed, her son said, but as was her wont, she “got back on the saddle,” and after a while she married Oliver Langenberg, to whom she was devoted. That union lasted for a half a century, until his death in 2012. William Danforth said “Ollie was very much in love with her, and she was a great wife to him.”
Dr. Virginia Weldon, a physician, businesswoman and former president of the St. Louis Symphony, had a clear picture of the depth of the generosity Mary and Oliver Langenberg extended to the orchestra. She also knew Mrs. Langenberg as a friend and neighbor in the Central West End. They lived two doors apart on Pershing Place and their children were playmates.
“She was a remarkable person,” Weldon said, “and for those of us who got to know her later in life missed a lot of the experiences that made her so remarkable. We loved her, and were among those who spent time with her on numerous Sunday evenings after Ollie died.”
The Langenbergs were symphony regulars in their heyday. Marie-Hélène Bernard, president and CEO of the Symphony said, “The Langenbergs were long-time subscribers and generous supporters. They loved the symphony and understood why it is such an important civic asset.”
Other organizations and institutions with which she worked include: the St. Louis Grand Jury Association (board member), Washington University Women’s Society; Children’s Hospital, where she co-ran the gift shop; the Missouri Botanical Garden; the Chatillon-DeMenil Mansion; the Woman’s Exchange, where she was board chair; and St. Louis Country Day School.
Her longtime friend, the Rev. Steven W. Lawler, rector of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Ferguson, summed up the life and work of Mary Langenberg succinctly.
“Mary's clarity and graciousness were shared with family, friends and the community in many and significant ways. She had a way of seeing the essential thing and then working with others to make things better. I will miss her warm friendship and wise counsel.”
The family asks that donations be made to Chatauqua Institution. 1 Ames Avenue, Chatauqua, N.Y. 14722 or to the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, 975 North Warson Road, St. Louis, Mo. 63132.
Immediate survivors include her son, William Lee Polk Jr. (Carolyn); her grandchildren: Olivia Lee Polk, William Jackson Polk and Samuel Finnegan Polk; and her stepchildren: Peter Morton Langenberg (Marilyn) and Alice Langenberg Abrams (Walter).