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Obituary for Ruth Krause Jacobson: Legendary Fleishman-Hillard public relations maven, civic leader

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 12, 2010 - At age 70, Ruth Krause Jacobson "retired" from Fleishman-Hillard and began limiting her work week to a mere 40 hours. The agency threw a big party for Ms. Jacobson to mark the occasion in 1995, but Fleishman-Hillard Chairman John D. Graham told the Post-Dispatch, "I don't call Ruth retired. It was a recognition party."

Graham and his colleagues were recognizing decades in which Ruth Jacobson blazed a trail for women in the field of public relations and set a standard for representing clients on behalf of Fleishman-Hillard, the worldwide communications giant headquartered in St. Louis. Ms. Jacobson became Fleishman-Hillard's 16th employee and second female staff member in 1955, starting part-time before going full-time a couple of years later. She became the firm's first female senior partner in 1971. After her recognition party in 1995, she continued to work at her reduced schedule for six more years.

"Ruth was extremely creative and hard-working; she set very high standards," Graham said in a statement following Ms. Jacobson's death on Tuesday. "But she also brought to her work some human qualities that people really appreciated and that made her all the more effective. She genuinely cared. People sensed that about her. And she treated her colleagues and the members of the media with great respect."

Ms. Jacobson, who lived in Clayton after living in Ladue for many years, died at St. John's Hospital following a long illness. She was 84.

When Ms. Jacobson retired for good in 2001, she reflected on her role as a mentor, especially to women at Fleishman-Hillard, in an in-house article:

"It's wonderful that we now have many, many, many very capable, wonderful women," she said. "It was not just me - it was enlightenment on the part of our executives and our management. I used to say in speeches, 'Women have to work twice as hard as men to get ahead.' But it's no longer true."

Nudging Civic Progress

Much of the credit for that goes to Ruth Jacobson, say her friends and colleagues.

"I was a bit amazed by Ruth," said Barbara Abbett, a retired Fleishman-Hillard vice president and senior partner. "Back in the '70s, she was helping young women like me find their way into the field and helping them land in good positions.

"There was also a toughness about Ruth that a lot of times you didn't find in women of that era. She was very adept at gaining the confidence of key people in the community."

Key business and civic leaders like August A. Busch Jr. of Anheuser-Busch and Robert F. Hyland of KMOX Radio, listened to Ms. Jacobson.

Clarence "Cedge" C. Barkdale, the former chairman and CEO of Centerre Bank, said, "She was a great advocate for moving women ahead. I don't know how many times she came to my office to talk about advancement for women in the community. You didn't feel her hand was on your back, but it was! If you have an icon, you just listen."

PR Trailblazer

Ruth Jacobson was born June 25, 1925, in Rochester, N.Y., the youngest of four daughters of Thomas Murray Krause and Ruth Parmalee Krause.

Following in one of her sister's footsteps, she declined a Vassar scholarship to attend Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., where her classmates included the likes of actors Patricia Neal, Paul Lynde and Cloris Leachman. She received an undergraduate degree and a master's degree from Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism.

She began doing things her way, even as a student.

"I had read some articles on PR, which was a fairly new field, and in the summer I had worked at Mademoiselle magazine in New York and gotten to know some PR people there," she recalled during her Fleishman farewell. "So I went to the dean of the journalism school and said I'd like to do an independent study on the public relations of Marshall Fields. But no way would they let me do it. PR was a dirty word."

So she began establishing her trademark: changing people's minds. She persuaded her political science professor to let her design her own public relations major. After graduation, she joined Time magazine as a researcher, one of the few jobs available to women. She left when her professor suggested the job was menial.

She quickly found a job at Howard G. Mayer and Associates where she honed her public relations skills.

Two years later, she joined Harshe-Rotman and Druck, the first woman to work at the agency. But she got a little more than she bargained for: one of the partners often chased her. She quit. After moving to Minneapolis for a year, she and her husband Bud Jacobson, and their infant daughter, Anne, moved to St. Louis.

The Making of an Icon

Shortly after arriving in St. Louis, Ms. Jacobson found herself a single mother, but she was soon well on her way to establishing herself as a force in St. Louis. Along the way, she worked closely with Jerry Berger, the former newspaper columnist who now writes a blog at bergersbeat.com. The two met while both were providing services to KMOX.

"After her husband left, Ruth was determined to become successful," said Berger. "She was a stickler for professionalism and she did it as tough taskmaster.

"She was the meanest, nicest woman in the world," Berger said. "We laughed a lot at the same things. We amused each other. Sometimes I would escort her and once when I picked her up for an event, she asked, 'I don't look like a Lane Bryant model, do I'?"

The two old friends, who became estranged for a time, were together at Berger's home last Thanksgiving. For decades, they had shared war stories, juicy gossip and community secrets.

Juli Niemann, a financial analyst who is executive vice president of Smith, Moore & Co., agreed that Ms. Jacobson had "a wicked sense of humor" and described her as "magnetic."

"She made things happen," Niemann said. "She had the capability to build relationships and projects. She was forthright and incisive. And she was faithful to her friends. Everything she cared about was substantive."

Like getting that bastion of maleness, the Noonday Club, to admit women.

"She used her relationships and talking with people to get them to do the right thing," Niemann said. "She did not badger. She just used proper pressure. To watch her in action -- wow! A huge number of people in this town are where they are because she gave them the impetus and direction to get there. She got me on KMOX radio, and I was there for 18 years. She never pulled the ladder up behind her; she brought everybody with her."

Tough Enough

"Ruth was generous and very supportive in mentoring young women," said Gayla Hoffmann, a longtime friend and public relations consultant and former vice president of Peabody Energy, one of Ms. Jacobson's clients. "She was a professional who believed things should be done properly and correctly and she didn't suffer fools gladly. She stood up."

"Ruth doesn't sugarcoat things," John Graham told the Post-Dispatch in a feature about Ms. Jacobson in 1995. "Her criticism is absolutely constructive. I may not always agree with her, but I always listen to her. She's won most of the arguments with me through the years."

"Sometimes I'm tough," Ms. Jacobson acknowledged in the same story. "And I hope it's in the right way," she said.

Joan Newman of Joan Newman & Associates, recognized Ms. Jacobson as a good woman to have around in a crisis. Newman was the Girl Scouts of Eastern Missouri's finance volunteer in 1984 when the local council -- the nation's largest -- learned that eight boxes of Girl Scout cookies had been tampered with. The council offered refunds on 1.5 million boxes of cookies that had already raised $2.6 million, according to an article in Time magazine. The council took a $1 million hit that year, but came back stronger than ever thanks in part to Ms. Jacobson, Newman said.

"This woman, from the moment she walked in the room, had command of the room; she knew exactly what the process should be. She talked us through the marketing and PR."

Publicity with Panache

Ms. Jacobson's specialty was special events.

It was her idea to bring in home plate via helicopter for the opening of the old Busch Memorial Stadium. She had a hand in continuing the annual VP Fair Fourth of July celebrations at the riverfront after Famous-Barr gave up its sponsorship of the event. She was instrumental in getting City Museum off the ground, and she was a founding member of the Forum for Contemporary Art. She conceived a day-long forum with government leaders that accompanied the opening of the Equitable Assurance Co. Building. Her other productions included the 50th anniversary celebration of Charles A. Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic flight, the centennial of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra and the opening of the Living World at the St. Louis Zoo.

Ms. Jacobson loved reading, gardening, travel and classical music -- and baseball. She planned trips for women broadcast and print reporters to Cardinals spring training in St. Petersburg, Fla. The reporters returned to write or air features about the players and their families. She put together pre-game fashion shows with the players' wives and children and helped create teen night at Busch Stadium.

An honoree many times over

Ms. Jacobson was instrumental in developing numerous prestigious civic and professional awards, and she was much recognized for her own civic efforts. She was named to the Ad/PR Hall of Fame in 2009 by the Ad Club of Greater St. Louis and the St. Louis chapter of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). Several days ago, the National Association of Female Executives named Fleishman-Hillard one of the top firms for women executives. Many at Fleishman credit Ms. Jacobson for the agency's award.

Perhaps her most cherished honor was the dedication of a conference room at Fleishman. It's a recognition reserved for a select few; only four others have been so honored said Paul Wagman, senior vice president and partner at Fleishman-Hillard.

"The room was dedicated to Ruth because she really extended herself in the most generous way," Wagman said. "She set the standard for the things that she did."

She served on more than 30 local boards, admitting to serving on more than 20 simultaneously at one point.

"She really influenced my life by having a really strong work ethnic," said her daughter, Anne Jacobson Nunno, a clinical psychologist. "She was invested in what she did. She also always said that on the days you feel your worse, you ought to look your best, and that's what I do.

"She didn't become stale; she always wanted to keep herself enlivened."

And sometimes she did that, Nunno recalled, by having a good vodka martini.

Ms. Jacobson was preceded in death by her parents and her three sisters who called her "Ruthie": Elizabeth Morrissey, Dorothy Krause and Jean Kendall. She is survived by her only daughter, Anne Jacobson Nunno (the late Vincent J. Nunno, M.D.) and her grandson, Alexander Nunno, both of Oakland, Ca.

A memorial service will be held at a later date.

Ms. Jacobson's family would appreciate memorials in her name to: The Head-Royce School, c/o Deidre Williams, 4315 Lincoln Avenue, Oakland, Ca. 94602; please notate "For the Lex Nunno Educational Fund."

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

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