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Economy & Business

Jo Ann Harmon Arnold: Emerson Executive Became One Of Region’s Top Corporate Philanthropists

Provided by the St. Louis Zoo

Jo Ann Harmon Arnold rose from temporary secretary to top executive at Emerson Electric Co. More than three decades after her arrival, she explained why she stayed.

“Interesting, challenging work to do with a lot of responsibility is a hard combination to walk away from,” she told the St. Louis Business Journal in 1999.

She began in Emerson’s human resources department. As she moved steadily through the ranks, Mrs. Arnold said each opportunity seemed “more exciting than the next.”

Her work was pretty exciting to the St. Louis community, too. In addition to her corporate managerial duties, Mrs. Arnold was in charge of the company’s charitable giving. By the time she retired in 2004, she was overseeing annual distributions from the Emerson Charitable Trust of $20 million to nonprofit organizations. 

Mrs. Arnold died Tuesday, Jan. 20, after suffering a heart attack while aboard the SS Voyager off the coast of Thailand during a cruise with her husband, Fred E. Arnold. She was 74 and had lived in Ladue.

“Community and civic leaders will tell you Jo was largely responsible for the influence and respect Emerson has for its giving in the community,” said Emerson Chief Executive Officer David Farr. “Her name may not have been a household word, but hundreds of thousands of St. Louisans have benefited from her contributions.”

Show Me the Money

For 24 of her nearly 40-years at Emerson, Mrs. Arnold guided the company’s charitable giving around the world, which included hundreds of local educational, cultural and human services organizations. Her personal time and talents were often an added bonus.

She was the first female chair of the St. Louis Zoo Commission.

Mrs. Arnold at the Zoo
Credit Provided by the St. Louis Zoo
Mrs. Arnold at the Zoo

“She was a real trailblazer,” said Cynthia Holter, a Zoo executive who worked with Mrs. Arnold on the Emerson Children’s Zoo. “She was a mentor to women in business. She was the epitome of a businesswoman: bright, articulate and feminine.”

Mrs. Arnold took great pride in the projects she oversaw.

“I go down the hall and I’m always telling everyone, you’ve got to drive through Forest Park,” said Mrs. Arnold, then an Emerson consultant, in a 2005 Commerce Magazine article. “You’ve got to see the Grand Basin, it’s so wonderful. I watch it like a child.”

By deftly guiding Emerson’s philanthropic efforts, Mrs. Arnold helped to bolster the bottom line of numerous organizations, including the Zoo, the Missouri Historical Society, United Way of Greater St. Louis and River Bend United Way, the Saint Louis Symphony, Grand Center, the Sheldon Arts Foundation and the Academy of Science of St. Louis.

Her role extended well beyond sharing her employer’s bounty. She served.

Among the organizations benefitting from her leadership were the Urban League of Greater St. Louis, Laumeier Sculpture Park, the Missouri Women’s Forum and the International Women’s Forum, Girls Inc., Annie Malone Children & Family Service Center, Mathews-Dickey Boys’ & Girls’ Club, the National Council for Jewish Women, the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis and the YWCAs in St. Louis and Alton. She was a director of what is now the St. Louis Regional Chamber.

Her educational affiliations included the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Webster University and Washington University. She was a board member of St. Louis Public Radio.

“Jo Ann Arnold was a wonderful friend and member of our university community,” said David Blasingame, executive vice chancellor for alumni and development programs at Washington University, “(She helped) to advance the university’s efforts on behalf of people and families in the St. Louis community.”

She was also a longtime board member of St. Louis OASIS, working alongside the organization’s founder, Marylen Mann.

“She was interested in our aging population and keeping people well, keeping them active,” said Mann of her friend, who was a dedicated runner. “Jo had the ability to take a look at a situation not only with compassion but to step back and analyze it from a business sense.

“Nonprofit organizations need people who are clear-eyed and see things from a business perspective,” Mann added. “Jo really liked being involved.”

The Trailblazer

Mrs. Arnold began her career like so many other women during the ’60s: doing clerical work. For her, that would change quickly and for good reason, said her daughter, Elisabeth McCabe.

“She was smart and had phenomenal people skills,” McCabe said. “She earned every step.”

Mrs. Arnold with her grandson, Owen McCabe
Credit Family photo
Mrs. Arnold with her grandson, Owen McCabe

From an inauspicious beginning, Mrs. Arnold rose to become senior vice president at Emerson.  

In the early years, she traveled a lot and, for a time, she did so as a single mother.

“She would take me and my grandmother on business trips with her,” McCabe wistfully recalled. “She worked hard every day of her life (but) my mother was so well-balanced.”

During her tenure at Emerson, Mrs. Arnold’s responsibilities included giving advice to successive chief executives.

“Jo was Emerson’s first female executive and she had a tremendous impact on our company and on the entire St. Louis area,” Farr said. “As an adviser first to Chuck Knight (Emerson’s immediate past CEO) and then to me, she shaped Emerson’s philanthropic programs for many years.”

In addition to supervising Emerson’s charitable arm, Mrs. Arnold managed executive recruitment, organizational development programs and the company’s stock and compensation programs for executives worldwide. She also served as advisory director for Emerson's Securities and Exchange Commission compliance and proxy and shareholder relations.

Her numerous awards for corporate leadership, as well as her personal philanthropy and involvement in the community, included being named a 1993 Woman of Achievement.

Prior to joining Emerson, Mrs. Arnold was a research assistant at Harvard University and at the old Falstaff Brewing Co.

Out of Alton

An Alton native, Jo Ann Secor was born July 22, 1940, to Mae Secor, a homemaker who sometimes worked at the polls, and Fred Secor, a factory worker at Olin Corporation. They helped their oldest child become a “happy, confident and capable individual,” said Mrs. Arnold’s daughter.

After graduating from Alton High School in 1958, she earned bachelor degrees in sociology and psychology from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

She married Jim Poneta in the early ’60s and they had one daughter, Elisabeth. They later divorced. She married Robert L. Harmon, an electrical engineer at McDonnell Douglas in 1970; he died in 1999.

In 2004, she married Fred Arnold, an attorney with Thompson Coburn.

In addition to her husband and daughter, Elisabeth McCabe (Brian) of Houston, Mrs. Arnold’s survivors include her stepchildren, Jane Arnold of Clayton, Charles (Kate) Arnold of Chicago and Susan (Drew) Kimball, of Atlanta; two brothers, Fred Secor (Barb) of Alton, Donald Secor (Betty) of Wood River, and Perry Secor of Hawaii (island); one sister, Debra Heckman of Alton, and 10 grand- and step-grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

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