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Obituary: PR maven Helen Weiss was the woman with the fireworks

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 9, 2008 - Helen Weiss began her career at Famous-Barr in 1959 at a time when many women were just beginning to establish careers outside the home. Many in retailing and other professions looked to her as a role model. It wasn’t for her ability to rise through the ranks. She stayed a mid-level executive until her retirement last year. Rather it was because she always kept about her a sense of who she was – a party giver, a fashion plate, and an unreconstructed liberal who never fell out of love with that futile Democratic presidential candidate of the ’50s, Adlai Stevenson.  

Her work at Famous Barr and Macy’s included elaborate store openings, book signings for a welter of stars from Sophia Loren to Mickey Mantle  and Christmas extravaganzas that included not just Santa but also a cow (as in seven maids a milking.)

She may be best known for choreographing the July 4 St. Louis riverfront air and water shows and fireworks from 1964 to 1978. These events became the forerunner of what is now called Fair St. Louis. The shows annually attracted more than half a million St. Louisans — record crowds always — or at least that’s what Ms. Weiss told members of the press. And they bought it because Helen Weiss was their favorite flack.  

"We believed Helen not simply because we liked her but also because she established with us a reservoir of trust," said Robert Duffy, associate editor of the St. Louis Beacon. "If she couldn't tell us something, she told us that – 'I can't tell you.' There was never equivocation, never a sense we were being manipulated or spun.

"On top of that," Duffy continued, "we understood her role at Famous-Barr was far greater than P.R. She directed the store toward a role in civic affairs that transcended commerce. So, yes we liked Helen; in fact, we loved her, and our love was reciprocated. But we respected and trusted her as well. Our community is diminished by her death." 

Helen Mankin Weiss was born in Wheeling, W.V., but lived most of her life in St. Louis where she graduated from University City High School (where she is now a member of its Alumni Hall of Fame) and Washington University. In 1947, she married Richard M. Weiss, who went on to become a news producer and later an on-air business reporter for KSDK’s newscasts.

In the 1950s, Ms. Weiss got active in volunteer work, particularly with the Greater St. Louis Book Fair, a fundraiser for the Nursery Foundation which provides daycare services for disadvantaged children. The Book Fair was held during that time on the parking lot of the Famous-Barr store in Clayton. Her work drew the attention of executives there and they hired her part-time to handle special events. Ms. Weiss went full-time a few years later after her two children gave her their permission. 

Under the tutelage of such merchandising stalwarts as Morton May, Stanley Goodman and Joan Van de Erve, Ms. Weiss was encouraged to do bigger and more imaginative promotions.  Never given a large budget, Ms. Weiss used her imagination. For instance, she arranged to have that undergarment sensation, the Wonder Bra, arrive at Famous-Barr on its own -- in a limousine.  The Post-Dispatch played the event on the front page.

Ms. Weiss explained her success with reporters this way: “I am willing to do almost anything to help them get a story and ask for little in return.  At first, this seems an uneven proposition, but I find that in the long run I have great success in getting my news in the newspaper and on television.” In 2006, Ms. Weiss was elected to the public relations and advertising wing of the St. Louis Media Halls of Fame. 

Buoyed by her successes, Ms. Weiss pushed Famous-Barr to support a bevy of eclectic cultural events ranging from quilters out of Selma, Ala. to calliope players from Baraboo, Wis. Some events did not always work out as planned. Famous-Barr once held an event promoting merchandise from Spain and featuring Spanish Flamenco dancers. At the last minute, though, the dancers called to say they couldn’t make it. Ever resourceful, Ms. Weiss got in touch with some folks of Hispanic origin on the city’s south side. They put her in touch with some dancers. The troupe arrived just in time -- from New Mexico.   

“We did our best to keep them away from the media,” she confessed to a reporter 25 years later. “And to maintain the illusion that they were from Spain, we pleaded with them not to talk to anybody in English.” 

Ms. Weiss was never shy about sharing her opinions with top executives at May and Macy’s concerning the stores’ proper role in the community. When the Boy Scouts took an anti-gay slant regarding troop leaders she urged the brass to turn its back on the honors the organization wanted to bestow on the May Co. In her last year, she was advocating to widen the entrances to the downtown store for people with disabilities. If her remarks and opinions weren’t always accepted — or appreciated — there were few at May or Macy’s who didn’t admire her.

"Helen Weiss was a rare talent," said Maxine Clark, a former colleagueat May and founder and chief executive bear at Build-A-Bear Workshop."She knew how to take a product, make it a hero, have fun while doingit and most of all to sell a lot of it. She taught an entire generationof younger retailers what entertainment in retail was all about."

Ms. Weiss was a member of several civic boards including the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri which honored her twice with its Leadership in Civil Liberties Award and the Eugene Buder Spirit of Liberty Award. She served most recently on the boards of Craft Alliance and the Great Rivers Environmental Law Center. The Nursery Foundation plans to dedicate a new playground in her memory next month.

Ms. Weiss would throw parties on behalf of these organizations and others to spur planning and fundraising. Out of her modest kitchen came culinary delights culled from a mountain of stained and dog-eared cookbooks. None would have pleased a cardiologist.

Ms. Weiss was also known for her shoes and her earrings. Several years ago, the City Museum named her a Shoe Diva and put a part of her collection on display. Her earrings — most ostentatiously large — were a signature and she was generous about lending them out.

As Ms. Weiss fell ill, she began hearing from dozens of women to whom she had provided advice and counsel on fashion and life.

One was Debby Silverberg who worked for a short time at Famous-Barr decades ago. "I was one of the people she took shopping on Oak Street in Chicago," she wrote. "Helen made me try on couture, and then convinced me to buy the most expensive dress I've ever owned. I still have it and love it ... mostly because it reminds me of Helen. She was a role model for me ... a woman who succeeded because she wasn't afraid to be herself."

Ms. Weiss is survived by her daughter, Jean Weiss (Dave Kester) of Minneapolis, a son, Richard H. Weiss (Sally J. Altman) of St. Louis, both members of the Beacon staff; six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

The family requests no flowers and suggests tax exempt contributions to one of the following organizations:

— American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, 454 Whittier Street, St. Louis, Mo 63108, or aclu-em.org.

— Dr. Perlmutter's Parkinson Research Program, Department of Neurology,Washington University School of Medicine, 660 South Euclid, St. Louis,Mo. 63110.

— St. Louis Beacon, 3655 Olive, St. Louis, Mo 63108 or stlbeacon.org.

Funeral arrangements 

Services will be at 10:30 a.m Friday, Sept. 12, at Central Reform Congregation, 5020 Waterman Blvd at Kingshighway. Burial will be private. Visitation will be from 2 to 6 p.m., Friday at 710 South Hanley Road, Apartment 17B, Clayton, and again after 7 p.m. Saturday at the home.

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