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Obituary of Joyce G. Littlefield: 50 years of community activism and political action

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 29, 2009 - It took a lot of work, and sometimes plenty of moxie, to make Skinker-DeBaliviere and the Central West End two of the most viable neighborhoods in the city of St. Louis. Joyce Littlefield spent more than five decades on the project, and she brought the moxie.

“Through care, concern, doggedness and ability, Joyce was responsible for a lot of changes to this city,” said A.S. “Pete” Littlefield, a former pharmaceutical executive with Organon and Joyce Littlefield’s husband of 60 years and fellow community activist. “I called her a ‘professional’ citizen.”

A memorial service for Mrs. Littlefield, whose civic and professional work spanned more than five decades, will be Tuesday, May 5. She died April 24 at Barnes Jewish Hospital of heart failure. She was 85.

Mrs. Littlefield was born at the corner of Newstead and Natural Bridge in the city of St. Louis on Dec. 5, 1923. She graduated from Beaumont High School in 1941. She turned down a scholarship to Fontbonne College (now University) in favor of Miss Hickey’s Secretarial School (now Hickey College) and an opportunity to quickly begin working.

She was hired by the law firm Salky & Jones (now Husch Blackwell Sanders) as a legal assistant and soon began rewriting the letters of Sidney Salky, which was just fine with him. In fact, when Mrs. Littlefield decided to stay home with her first child, Susan, her boss begged her to return. When she declined, he made her an offer she couldn’t refuse: a chauffeur-driven car to take her to work each morning and home each afternoon, with a drop-off and pick-up at a grandmother’s for little Susan.

She had begun her life in a very traditional way, but it didn’t stay like that very long. She quickly wove work, marriage, motherhood and community service into a seamless but intricate tapestry of service.

Neighborhood Improvement

She seemed an unlikely candidate to be a community activist, but by the mid-‘50s that’s exactly what she was. In spite of a growing family, or perhaps because of it, she and her husband and others in the community, co-founded the Rosedale-Skinker Neighborhood Association.

“Our slogan was ‘improve your home to improve your neighborhood.’ I was the second president of Rosedale-Skinker, but Joyce took most of the calls,” Pete Littlefield said.

The area is now called the Skinker-DeBaliviere Neighborhood, but it still has the street barriers and configurations that Mrs. Littlefield and her neighbors had designed to reduce through traffic. This model of traffic control was used throughout the city.

It was just the beginning of her substantial community involvement. When Mrs. Littlefield took her final leave from Salky & Jones, she became immersed in community work. During and after serving as president of Rosedale-Skinker, she became a member of the Citizens Council on Housing and Community Planning and the Washington University Civic Education Center. As a member of the Citizens Council, she co-authored the city of St. Louis Minimum Housing Standard Ordinance, which eliminated rooming houses and established penalties for substandard properties. As part of the Civic Education Center she coordinated institutions with nearby neighborhoods, using public television (KETC Channel 9) to expose and to debate community issues.

Mr. Littlefield said in the early ‘60s she began to take on more and more responsibility. Her community labors of love included co-founding and serving as president of the Inter-Association of Neighborhood Organizations, a citywide group formed to increase neighborhood input on government decisions while simultaneously chairing the “Committee for a Better St Louis.” First on the agenda: lights for the alleys.

“Joyce pushed to start identifying things that would have an immediate, visible impact on neighborhoods, like the alley lights,” said Mrs. Littlefield’s eldest child, the previously chauffeured Susan Littlefield. (All of her children called their mother “Joyce.”) “They convinced neighbors to buy and use those green-shaded lights, then worked out a deal with the city to get them put in by non-electricians to save money.”

It wasn’t the last time the neighborhood would benefit from her lighting efforts. When city leaders wanted her help in passing a 1962 bond issue that included funding for Busch Stadium and streetlights for main streets, she didn’t immediately agree.

“I don’t think I can do that,” Pete Littlefield recalled her saying. “If you include funds for the neighborhood lights, maybe we can work on it. And I want my neighborhood to get the first lights.” So, the bond issue was changed to include neighborhood street lights. It passed, and Rosedale-Skinker got first dibs.

Mrs. Littlefield’s efforts were all important, but some were also fun. As the city’s 200th anniversary approached, she, along with the late Rosemary Flance and Barbara Lynch, planned the St. Louis Visitors Center Bicentennial Celebration.

The trio and their friends raised the princely sum of $5,000 from the city and solicited in-kind donations from businesses. In 1964, over 10 days, in 10 different neighborhoods, the new concept of street fairs and festivals was born. St. Louisans were introduced and reintroduced to their city. One festivity, Hill Day, which attracted 100,000 people, became a long-term celebration.

In 1966, the Littlefields moved their expanded family to the Central West End – often referred to at that time as “shabbily genteel” – and to a new community revitalization opportunity for Mrs. Littlefield. In the 1970s, she co-founded the Women’s Crusade Against Crime along with Salees Seddon and Del McClellan. Working closely with the 7th and 9th Police Districts, they worked to make the Central West End a safer place to live and visit.

Mrs. Littlefield had established a reputation for getting things done. It was said that City Hall staffers had a standard line when they saw her coming: “Just give her what she wants and maybe she’ll go away.”

Tough Work

Mrs. Littlefield’s life of service was punctuated first by work to contribute to the family’s welfare, then a career, borne of experience as a community activist and organizer.

In the mid-‘60s, Mrs. Littlefield joined the staff of the Human Development Corp., working with the Model Cities Urban Renewal Program. She later served as the campaign manager for the second Cervantes Convention Center Bond Issue campaign after the first effort failed. Mayor Alfonso “A. J.” Cervantes, for whom the downtown facility is named, tapped Mrs. Littlefield to rethink strategy and to run the second campaign. It passed handily.

After Mayor Cervantes, who was often controversial and who was described as flamboyant, left office in 1973, Mrs. Littlefield became the executive vice president of the mayor’s real estate holdings, Maryland Plaza Redevelopment Corp. It was a position she held for 15 years.

Mrs. Littlefield was responsible for securing loans, preparing business plans, acquiring city permits, coordinating architects and overseeing construction projects. She was most proud of yet another lighting project, the “Griffin” light standards on Maryland Plaza, recreated at a Memphis metal foundry from long-lost molds unearthed in the old Scruggs, Vandervoort and Barney department store building downtown.

Mayor Cervantes’ tenure had been marked by his urban revitalization efforts, not all of which were successful. The same was true for his private efforts, which Mrs. Littlefield was overseeing.

Photographer Martin Schweig Jr., whose family’s studios were in the Central West End for decades, remembers the mayor’s real estate ventures with something less than fondness, but he didn’t blame Mrs. Littlefield.

“Those were interesting days,” Schweig said. “A.J. Cervantes was extremely destructive to the CWE. When he started condemning property, he hired Joyce to look after the real estate. He condemned the building our studio was in at Maryland and Euclid, took it over, and we became tenants of Mayor Cervantes. He doubled the rent in one month and drove out a lot of tenants, but that wasn’t Joyce’s fault.

“She certainly was looking out for Mr. Cervantes, but also the tenants. She was very efficient, very good and very important to his operation. Mr. Cervantes created the problem; Joyce had to try to work within them and that wasn’t easy.”

Community Service

While working full time, Mrs. Littlefield did not neglect her community. She chaired or co-chaired Cathedral-Fete, the St Louis Cathedral’s annual fundraiser, many times. Her work didn’t surprise Msgr. James Telthorst, now pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church. He was Mrs. Littlefield’s pastor at the Cathedral for 14 years.

“Joyce was somebody passionately in love with her city and her church and willing to give the best to both,” Father Telthorst said. “She did what she could to improve her city and her church. She liked to see things alive and well and was willing to work toward that end. She added a spark to things.”

Among Mrs. Littlefield’s other affiliations were the St. Louis Cathedral Parish Council, St. Louis Plan Commission, Women for City Living, the League of Women Voters, St. Louis Lyon Sister City Program and the Westminster Place Association.

Not surprisingly, she once received the 28th Ward A.J. Cervantes Good Citizenship Award.

Political Life

“From the time I was little, our dinner table conversation, including the children, was politics and community organizing. We were all trained as activists,” Susan said. “We joked that we all got master’s degrees in political science by the time we graduated from high school.”

“Joyce had her hand in every political anything, from the days of Ray Tucker, she was very much the activist,” said Penny Chrisler, Mrs. Littlefield’s next door neighbor on Westminster for 40 years. “There was hardly anything going on that Joyce didn’t have a hand in.”

Along with her husband and Andy and Bobbie Brown, she had co-chaired Citizens Advocating for Public Schools, organizing a comprehensive slate of school board candidates.

Her hand also extended to volunteering over the years on the mayoral campaigns of Raymond Tucker, A. J. Cervantes and Clarence Harmon. She also served as the St. Louis campaign manager for Gov. Joseph Teasdale’s Election Campaign.

In 1968, she went national. Susan Littlefield recounted the time Mayor Cervantes tried to recruit her mother to work in Washington on Hubert Humphrey’s presidential campaign, but Mrs. Littlefield wasn’t interested.

“You are out of your mind. I have five kids, two dogs, and I think the hamster is still living,” Susan recalled her mother saying. “I can’t go.” But of course, with Pete’s prodding and assurances that the family would survive (he was a feminist before the word was coined, Susan said), Mrs. Littlefield was persuaded to spend several weeks working on Humphrey’s campaign.

Twice, she ran for public office. She was the 28th Ward candidate for alderman in 1963 and 1997, campaigning as a neighborhood preservation activist. The second campaign focused on mitigating the impact of MetroLink’s cross county expansion on adjoining neighborhoods. Her opponent was her neighbor of 21 years, 28th Ward Alderwoman Lyda Krewson.

“She ran against me, I didn’t run against her,” Krewson laughed. “Joyce’s positive impact was felt for decades in both the Skinker DeBaliviere and CWE neighborhoods where she, Pete and their family lived. She was a fixture. “And she was a lovely gal. Very sharp, spunky, energetic, always with the best interest of the neighborhood at heart. She always put the people first. We will miss her at the corner of Lake and Westminster.”

The Forever Activist

Our mother told us, "Never accept no for an answer if you believe your cause is worthy," Susan said. And for Mrs. Littlefield, there was always a worthy cause.

Having lived most of her life within three blocks of Forest Park, in 2007, Mrs. Littlefield joined Citizens to Protect Forest Park, jumping head first into the fray about selling part of the park to BJC Healthcare. She came out of retirement to campaign for a ballot initiative, Proposition P, requiring voter approval for the sale of any parkland, serving as a key strategist for the successful campaign. The group’s opposition did not stop the deal, but it did force the city to negotiate better terms for Forest Park and all other city parks in the future.

Carla Scissors, a friend and neighbor of Mrs. Littlefield, served on the park committee with her. “She was ferocious and full of life,” Scissors said. “She brought a lot of wisdom and spunk to the group. She was very on top of things and not shy about sharing her opinion.”

Mrs. Littlefield enjoyed English history and memorized every monarch of England. She loved to travel. She took advantage of any situation in which wearing a hat was appropriate, and wore them often, so often they because something of a trademark.

“She didn’t brag or crow about her accomplishments, she was modest in that regard, but she accomplished a heck of a lot of things by recognizing a need and working hard to address it,” her husband said.

Mrs. Littlefield’s parents, George Russell Gregory and Mary Keenoy Gregory, died before here, as did one sister, Eileen Grath.

In addition to her husband and her daughter Susan of St. Louis, she is survived by her children Stephen Littlefield (Stephanie Knapp) of University City, David Littlefield (Nancy Macek), of Vero Beach, Fla., Lisa Littlefield (Ray Portilla), of St. Charles and Douglas Littlefield (Lorrie Kahle) of Chesterfield. She is also survived by two sisters, Carole Krummenacher and Marilyn Hausel, both of Kirkwood, along with a number of grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

A Memorial Mass will be celebrated Tuesday, May 5, at 5 p.m., at the St. Louis Cathedral Basilica, 4431 Lindell Boulevard. A reception will follow from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Cathedral School Hall.

Memorial donations may be made to St. Louis Cathedral School, 4430 Maryland Ave., St. Louis, Mo. 63108.

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

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