Sunny Glassberg: Philanthropist was best known as ‘the Turtle Lady’ | St. Louis Public Radio

Sunny Glassberg: Philanthropist was best known as ‘the Turtle Lady’

May 23, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon - Sunny Glassberg, whose generosity buttressed many of St. Louis’ proudest educational, civic and cultural institutions, and who gave hundreds of single mothers and older adults a chance at a college degree, humbly and delightedly accepted the title of "the Turtle Lady."

She was so-nicknamed for "a little gem; that wonderfully whimsical Turtle Park," said Peter Raven, president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Turtle Park is a tiny sliver of Forest Park, detached from the park’s mainland. It is populated by large and small turtles; turtles being hatched, and a gracefully curled serpent, all suitable for climbing or sitting.

The living turtles that often found their way home with her children were Mrs. Glassberg's inspiration for the playground’s concrete replicas. She commissioned sculptor Bob Cassilly to fashion the creatures, and architect Richard Claybour to design the park.

In 1996, the once-lonely strip across Highway 40 from the zoo was transformed into a children’s wonderland.

Mrs. Glassberg died Sunday (May 19, 2013) after a brief illness at her home at the Gatesworth retirement community in University City. She was 94 and had recently lived in Clayton.

A memorial service will be June 11 in the 1904 World’s Fair Pavilion, one of Mrs. Glassberg’s favorite places.

Giving with gusto

When the pavilion faced the wrecking ball, Mrs. Glassberg donated seed money to restore it, and set about helping to raise the rest.

Sunny Glassberg
Credit Provided by the family

Turtle Park and the pavilion were two of her crowning achievements, but there were many more.

"She was very modest about her contributions and did not go around blowing her horn; it was one of her most attractive attributes," Raven said.

Mrs. Glassberg supported a picnic pavilion at the Shaw Nature Reserve; contributed to the reforestation of Tower Grove Park, and established an endowed professorship at Washington University for its International Center for Advanced Renewable Energy and Sustainability (I-CARES). She recently partnered with the Missouri Department of Conservation and the federal government to purchase 438 acres along the Meramec River, near Pacific. She was there as the land was dedicated May 6 as the Myron and Sonya Glassberg Family Conservation Area.

Through gifts to the Scholarship Foundation, Mrs. Glassberg helped nontraditional students realize their dreams.

"Sunny was the contributor to 10 major scholarships annually," said Faith Sandler, executive director of the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis. "She chose (the scholarships) very carefully with great social justice in mind.

"All that she did, she did with great gusto and humility," Sandler added. "She was a wonderful woman."

Her scholarships went to students of veterinary medicine and engineering, women returning to school and St. Louis Public Schools graduates. Her first scholarship was funded through the proceeds of her estate sales business, Sellers Unlimited.

Mrs. Glassberg supported the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, and encouraged people to visit its Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, "so that such atrocities are never allowed to be repeated."

Other beneficiaries of her largesse included the Missouri Historical Society, YMCA, League of Women Voters and the St. Louis Zoo.  She volunteered with mental health patients at the old State Hospital and helped establish the Switching Post to benefit Miriam School.

Her efforts garnered many honors, including the 2012 Greensfelder Medal from the Missouri Botanical Gardens and the 2012 Older Women’s League’s Women of Worth Lifetime Achievement Award; the Individual Saint Louis Zoo Award in 2010, the Hiram W. Leffingwell Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009 and the St. Louis Woman of Achievement for Creative Philanthropy in 2007.

Sunny side up

Mrs. Glassberg credited her father, a physician, for her spirit of philanthropy.

"He did not believe in spoiling us," she said in a 2007 interview with the Suburban Journals. "He always gave back to the community and expected us (children) to always do the same."

She often accompanied her father on Sunday visits to an orphanage. He would treat the children for free.  When she learned that one of the little girls had no shoes, she told her father on the ride home. The very next weekend, she and her father took the child for new shoes.

When the Red Cross came to her Kentucky high school seeking volunteers to help evacuate victims of the 1937 flood in Louisville, she was among those chosen to row boats carrying people to safety.

"One man thought I was too young for such a job," she recalled in the interview. "I told him I was not and just kept rowing."

Sonya "Sunny" Weinberg was born Sept. 21, 1918, during the Spanish flu epidemic. She grew up in Louisville, Ky., the middle child of Dr. Samuel William Weinberg and Belle Goldstein Weinberg, a former teacher.  When her father died when she was 16, so did her dreams of attending college.

The Great Depression had set in, so at age 20 she headed to St. Louis to find work. She was quickly hired as an assistant buyer by Arthur Baer of Stix, Baer & Fuller and later promoted to buyer.

Luckily, she took time from work to attend a party at the Greensfelder family cabin, at what is now Rockwoods Reservation. There she met Myron Glassberg, the nephew of Albert Preston Greensfelder, then head of Fruin-Colnon Construction Company and an ardent conservationist.

She attended the party in March of 1940 with a date. A day later, Mr. Glassberg was her new suitor; three months later, they were married. Befittingly, they honeymooned in Canada’s Banff National Park. Their first home was a third-floor apartment in Clayton, but they soon bought a house in University City where they raised their children.

Myron Glassberg received an engineering degree from Washington University and became a successful contractor.  He died in 1991. Three years later, Mrs. Glassberg donated money to build a public pavilion at Greensfelder Memorial County Park in her husband’s memory.

The gift

Turtle Park’s largest denizens are big enough to "swallow" small children. They are named Dick, Tom and Sally for Mrs. Glassberg’s children. The four smaller turtles are named Antonio, David, Adam and Emily in honor of her grandchildren.

From the time they were created, Mrs. Glassberg visited her "symbols of peace" often, hugging young visitors in lieu of her grandchildren who lived far away.

In addition to her husband and parents, Mrs. Glassberg was preceded in death by her elder brother, Morris "Morrie" Weinberg, her younger sister, Ruth Adele Weinberg Tavel, and a grandson, Antonio Vicente Glassberg.

She is survived by her three children, Richard Glassberg, DVM (Mary), Fullerton, Calif., Tom Glassberg, Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Sally Glassberg Sands (Robert Park Sands), Bozeman, Mont.; her grandchildren, Adam Glassberg, David Glassberg Sands (Erika) and Emily Glassberg Sands, and Anna Shkolnikov, widow of Mrs. Glassberg's late grandson. 

"My work has been a gift to myself," she said in the Suburban Journal. "God has been very good to me and I like giving back."

Mrs. Glassberg’s remains will be cremated. A memorial service is planned for 11 a.m. Tuesday, June 11, at the World’s Fair Pavilion in Forest Park

If desired, the family suggests donations to a favorite charity in Mrs. Glassberg’s memory.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.