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Obituary of Fern de Greeff: A legacy of giving

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 12, 2010 - Fern de Greeff, whose name has become synonymous with outstanding hospice care, died of breast cancer at her home in St. Louis Hills on Sunday in the care of St. Anthony's hospice. She was 100.

Mrs. de Greef and her husband, Russell F. "Rus" de Greeff, had endowed St. Anthony's Medical Center's de Greeff Hospice House, St. Louis' only freestanding facility for terminally ill people who have no one to care for them in their homes. The decision to fund the house was made in 1998 when Rus was in St. Anthony's with terminal cancer.

A visit to Rus' hospital bed by longtime friend Joseph Lipic, a St. Anthony's board member who was on his way to a meeting about the $3 million hospice house project, put the wheels in motion. Lipic had been gently encouraging his friends to contribute.

"I'd been trying to change them from leaving money to the redwood forest or something," Lipic laughed. "When I stopped by on my way to the meeting, Rus asked me to leave some of the information with him.

"When I came back later that afternoon, Fern told me they would do it."

She had explained to Rus the need for a lead contributor, Lipic said. And she had explained that it could be the legacy they wanted.

"Life had been generous to us and, as we grew older, we began thinking about giving back to society some of our blessings," Mrs. de Greeff said in a 2007 interview. "Although Rus was very, very sick, when I asked him about endowing the hospice house, he answered, 'Let's do it!' "

A Legacy of Giving

The Hospice House is "home" to 20 patients who have no one to care for them during their final weeks or months of life. Hospice House has been the recipient of numerous awards and a best-practice study of scores of national and international delegations of health-care professionals. Mrs. de Greeff continued to take an active role in projects at Hospice House into her 100th year.

Though Mrs. de Greeff suffered from arthritis radiating to all points of her body and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease making breathing increasingly labored, she worked diligently on the facility's expansion in 2005. She made sure to select just the right shade of paint.

"We wanted it to be as much like a home as possible," Mrs. de Greeff said.

The Hospice House was the beginning of a tremendous level of giving that continued to provide much joy to Mrs. de Greeff even after her husband of 63 years died at age 89 in June 1998.

The de Greeffs were major contributors to the park on Grand Boulevard between Chouteau Avenue and the St. Louis University Medical School on the grounds of St. Louis University's new Doisy Research Center. She made it known that she wanted gold and red maples in the park that would one day give people "the thrill of seeing the splendor of autumn."

"If you happen to pass by the park in the fall and it is ablaze with color, think of me," Mrs. de Greeff said.

She was also one of the first and largest donors to the scholarship awards program for her alma mater, Roosevelt High School.

In an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2007, Mrs. de Greeff said that giving, "... tells me I haven't lived my life in vain. I've done something worthwhile for my fellow man who has been less blessed than I."

Charity (and Love) Begins at Home

Mrs. de Greeff was born Fern Grossenheider, the only child of Arthur and Tilly Grossenheider, in her parent's south St. Louis home, arriving with the aid of a midwife.

In 1925, she was a member of Roosevelt High School's first graduating class, coming out two years early. Immediately following graduation, barely 16 years old, Mrs. de Greeff began working as an executive secretary downtown for a real estate investor.

Mrs. de Greeff's appreciated poetry and one of her favorite poems was "The Blushing Bride," which she became in 1934. She and her husband spotted each other across the proverbial crowded room at a dance at Morse Mill on the Black River one warm summer evening; they became engaged on their third date. A year and a half later, after all debts were paid, they were married. Her marriage, she said, was central to her life.

The generosity that Mrs. de Greeff extended to her community was shared early with her family and her country. During their six decades of marriage, the de Greeffs assumed responsibility for the care of eight elderly family members and served as guardian of her father's cousin for 34 years.

Both de Greeffs served their country during World War II. When Rus, at age 35, was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to serve at Fort Warren, in Cheyenne, Wyo., Fern soon joined him. She worked as a civilian personnel counselor, resolving issues between military personnel and civilian employees.

Trained as an architect, Rus de Greeff switched careers and moved through the management ranks at Sears for 40 years, having started as a clerk in the hardware department in 1929. It was the year that the Great Depression began and the stock market crashed. It didn't seem like such a good deal at the time when Sears offered its employees stock-purchase plans and profit sharing. But Mrs. de Greeff told the Post-Dispatch that at Rus' retirement "we were astounded to discover how much we had accumulated. We were there as Sears began its growth and we were along for the ride."

In their leisure time, they literally went along for the ride.

In addition to loving poetry, red maples, playing bridge and playing piano, Mrs. de Greeff shared her husband's joy in driving horse-drawn carriages. The two belonged to the St. Louis Carriage Association and could often be found riding in one of their antique carriages through Tower Grove Park or Forest Park, on the stage at the Muny or waving in parades. The late king of the King of Beers, Gussie Busch, was often a riding partner. Their carriage-driving once even secured them an invitation as guests of the royal family at Buckingham Palace.

Be the Best You Can Be

For sharing their good fortune, her energy and her time, Mrs. de Greeff received numerous awards, including the St. Louis County Chamber of Commerce Humanitarian Award, 2005, St. Louis County proclamation of Feb. 23 as "Fern de Greeff Day," the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Missouri Hospice and Palliative Care Association. She also received the Medal of Honor from the Daughters of the American Revolution, along with the DAR Missouri state award for Outstanding Women in American History.

"She had a deep commitment to education and health care, particularly for the dying," Lipic said. "Fern made a deep impression on a lot of people and people loved her a lot.

"Fern wasn't very religious, but she was very spiritual. Her credo was the poem "Be the Best that You Can Be" and she lived the words of another bit of poetry: "I am the mortal that god shines through, God and I are one, not two; he wants me where and as I am, I shall not fret, nor will I plan; now I am relaxed and free; God is working his purpose through me."

In addition to her husband, Mrs. de Greeff was preceded in death by her parents, Arthur and Tilly Grossenheider. She and her husband were only children and they had no children.

Visitation for Mrs. de Greeff will be at 10 a.m. Wednesday, followed by services at 11 a.m. at Hoffmeister Colonial Mortuary, 6465 Chippewa.

In lieu of flowers, contributions would be appreciated to St. Louis University, c/o Fern & Russell de Greeff Park, 221 N. Grand, St. Louis, Mo. 63103, or St. Anthony's Charitable Foundation, c/o de Greeff Hospice House, 10010 Kennerly Road, St. Louis, Mo. 63128.

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

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

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