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Obituary of Edith J. Spink, Ladue mayor for 20 years

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 23, 2011 - Edith Spink, the longtime Ladue mayor who took her defense of a city ordinance barring yard signs all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, died Tuesday morning at her home in Ladue. She was 90.

A funeral service will be at 11 a.m. Monday (June 27) at the Church of St. Michael and St. George.

Mrs. Spink had an unwavering vision of what the city of Ladue should be, and she did everything in her power to protect it during her 20-year tenure as the city's mayor. "Mrs. Spink's vision was definitely the direction I wanted for Ladue," said Charles Hiemenz, a 14-year member of the Ladue City Council, whom Mrs. Spink got involved in politics. "It's why we moved to Ladue."

Mrs. Spink said her adherence to the ordinances was simply a matter of aesthetics. "I think Ladue is an example of cleanliness, good housekeeping and appearances, which I think are important," she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1989.

The next year, the city of Ladue, with Mrs. Spink leading the charge, became embroiled in a landmark First Amendment case. The U.S. Supreme Court would ultimately declare the Ladue ordinance banning yard signs unconstitutional.

It was an unaccustomed loss for Ladue's longest-serving mayor.

The Accidental Mayor

Edith Swift Jenkin Spink, who became universally known as "Edie," was born in St. Louis on May 19, 1921, the daughter of Isabella Swift and William Jenkin. She received her bachelor's degree from Washington University and graduated from Washington University School of Law in 1945. She also attended The Vanderschmidt School in the Central West End, which offered clerical courses.

Mrs. Spink would become neither a practicing attorney nor a secretary. Instead, she married Charles Claude ("C.C.") Johnson Spink, the publisher and owner of the St. Louis-based The Sporting News. For most of the first half of her life, she was a housewife and dedicated community volunteer. As she prepared to leave the mayor's office in 1995, Spink said she had never wanted to become mayor and still maintained that she would have preferred her former roles. She told the Post-Dispatch that she ran for City Council at the urging of friends.

She served on the city council for five years, the last three as president.

But after dipping her toes into the political water, it was a short swim to becoming mayor. Mrs. Spink succeeded Richard Douglas Shelton.

"Edie Spink was an iconic figure in Ladue. As mayor for 20 years, she was arguably the most influential force in making Ladue the kind of city it is," said her successor, Jean Quenon. "I think Ladue was her whole life."

Mrs. Spink worked without a salary. Even so, she put in long hours and was known for being accessible to residents in one of the most affluent cities in the nation. She proved to a popular mayor, who didn't face a serious challenger in almost two decades. But it wasn't all smooth sailing. Her vigorous enforcement of the city's many ordinances created friction.

Day in Court

With her legal background and firm convictions, Mrs. Spink was not averse to letting the courts decide -- and they often ruled in her favor.

In 1985, Ladue won a case against a couple who were living together without benefit of marriage. Three years later, the city sued to close the "Winter Wonderland" at Tilles Park because of traffic. The suit was withdrawn when a satisfactory traffic plan was drawn up.

There were other successes, but in 1994, in City of Ladue v. Gilleo, the U.S. Supreme Court handed the city and Mrs. Spink a resounding defeat: It invalidated an ordinance that banned most lawn signs in Ladue. The court upheld the decision of three lower courts, ruling unanimously that the ordinance violated the First Amendment.

"I believe that sometimes the First Amendment can be overruled by other instances," Mrs. Spink had said. "We'll live up to the Supreme Court decision as best we can."

When Mrs. Spink retired the next year, she called the case one of her three disappointments as mayor. The other two were the defeat of a proposed 60 percent increase in the city's tax rate and the failure to get the state to build an environmentally friendly sound barrier along the western side of Interstate 170.

Moving on

She was in office 18 years before facing serious opposition. It came in 1993 from Dudley Grove, an attorney who said she entered the race partly to get Ladue to end the yard sign case, which cost the city approximately a half million dollars.

Mrs. Spink again prevailed, but it would be her last term in office. She decided not to seek re-election and hand picked her successor.

"I was honored when she asked me to succeed her," said Quenon, who served four terms. "I told her I wasn't sure I knew how to be mayor; she said 'I'll help you.' And she did." Quenon quickly put Mrs. Spink back to work, naming her head of planning and zoning.

But Mrs. Spink also began pursuing other interests, which included supporting Republican candidates. In 1995, she hosted a fundraiser for Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, who was seeking the Republican nomination for president, and in 1996, she opened her home to then National Republican Party chairman Haley Barbour, the current governor of Mississippi, to help raise money for the state Republican Party.

Mrs. Spink also served on the 1994 welcome committee for Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan. She helped cover the costs of the trip, defraying the expenditure of government money.

An Open Hand

It wasn't the first time that Mrs. Spink had helped out the government. In 1994, she gave the city of Ladue $5,000 as partial reimbursement for the yard sign suit and for plants. During her tenure, city officials adopted an ordinance that requires the replanting of trees when they are lost to construction.

Mrs. Spink and her late husband gave more than $2,000 annually to the St. Louis Garden Club and to the Garden Club of Ladue. In 1988, the Spinks underwrote the renovation of the old Flora Gate, the original entrance to the Missouri Botanical Garden. It was reopened as the Edith and Johnson Spink pavilion in 1989. Mrs. Spink oversaw the distribution of numerous pieces of artwork and books when her husband died in 1992. Organizations that benefited included the St. Louis Art Museum, the Garden, the Museum of Natural History, the Missouri Historical Society and the St. Louis County Library.

Mrs. Spink served on a number of boards and was often lauded for her generosity. In 1990, she was elected to the board of trustees of Ranken Technical Institute, becoming the first female board member in the college's 82-year history. She served as an emerita trustee of the Missouri Botanical Garden and as president of the Junior League.

She was selected as the 1959 Woman of Achievement by the old Globe-Democrat for her community service with the United Way of Greater St. Louis and other organizations.

"They had no children, but in so many ways, she nurtured this city as if it were her child," Hiemenz said.

"We have lost a giant in our community; she was our greatest asset."

Charlene Bry, the former owner of Ladue News, dedicated her recently published book, "Ladue Found: Celebrating 100 Years of the City's Rural-to-Regal," to Mrs. Spink. Mrs. Spink is survived by two nieces and numerous cousins.

Her funeral services will be at 11 a.m. on Monday (June 27, 2011) at The Church of St. Michael and St. George, 6345 Wydown Boulevard, in Clayton. Burial will be in the Spink family mausoleum at Bellefontaine Cemetery.

In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the St. Louis Zoo Endowment Trust for the Spink Endowment Fund, the St. Louis Art Museum Foundation for the Spink Endowment Fund or to the Church of St. Michael and St. George for the Spink Endowment Fund.

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

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