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Government, Politics & Issues

William R. Orthwein Jr. obituary: Business and civic leader, humanitarian

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 11, 2011 - William R. Orthwein Jr.'s grandfather was a merchant who supplied wagons going west when they passed through St. Louis. The merchant's son became a prominent attorney, but he did not forget his family's humble beginnings. He became a humanitarian, whose efforts included helping to create the city's Legal Aid Society, ensuring that people without means could have legal representation.

Mr. Orthwein did not follow his father's career path, but he fully embraced his spirit of benevolence. The Winston Churchill quotation atop his funeral program reads: "We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give."

William R. Orthwein Jr., died June 1, 2011, at his home in Clayton after recently contracting pneumonia. He had suffered a stroke in 2003 and later developed throat cancer. He was 94.

"The Churchill quotation fit Bill very well," said Dorsey Ellis, dean emeritus and William R. Orthwein Distinguished Professor of Law emeritus at Washington University. "He was a supporter of just about every major cultural institution in this city," Ellis said. "Like his father, he felt strongly the need to give back to St. Louis."

Transformational Philanthropy

Ellis said he was overwhelmed by the honor of being named the Orthwein chair in 1999.

"It was the appointment to this specific chair," Ellis wrote at the time. "This is the chair that Bill Orthwein, a man whom I have grown to respect and admire, generously endowed in memory of his father, a graduate of this law school."

Ellis said Mr. Orthwein first endowed the chair to strengthen the faculty and enhance the law school's stature. It was the kind of strategic perspective that marked much of Mr. Orthwein's giving, said Stephen Jones, a close family friend who delivered Mr. Orthwein's eulogy.

"Something extra came with the things that Bill Orthwein got involved in," Jones said. "He really had a knack for understanding what his gift meant to the larger organization. "Uncle Bill," as Jones affectionately called Mr. Orthwein, "sought to transform an organization through his gifts and his involvement."

Numerous organizations large and small - educational, cultural and health and welfare institutions -- as well as the lives of thousands of individuals, have been transformed by the generosity of Mr. Orthwein and his wife Laura Orthwein.

One such organization was the Missouri History Museum, where Mr. Orthwein served on the board of directors for about 15 years.

"He gave unstintingly of his good counsel, wisdom, advice and money - you got the whole package," said Robert Archibald, president of the History Museum. "But his involvement, commitment and interest came first.

Although Mr. Orthwein would never name a favorite charity or organization, Peter Raven, president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden, is pretty sure that Mr. Orthwein had a special affinity for the Garden.

"The Garden became one of his very favorite places as time went by," Raven said. A lot of time went by. Mr. Orthwein was on the Garden's board of directors about three decades.

"He joined (the board) before we had term trustees, but we sure didn't want him to leave," Raven said. "He was an early mentor to me, and he always participated fully in everything we were doing. He was also very generous."

Some of Mr. Orthwein's generosity touched nontraditional areas, like the St. Louis Zoo's Animal Nutrition Center, a storage and food preparation space for approximately 18,000 animals. The gift also funds a staff nutritionist, a rarity among U.S. zoos, and St. Louis is believed to have the nation's only endowed position.

"The commissary was working OK," Jones said, "but the Orthwein Nutrition Center transformed an already leading zoo into an even more important position in the zoological world."

Zoo president Jeffrey Bonner stated that the contribution "will be felt here in St. Louis and around the world for years to come."

Hospitals and children's homes, cultural institutions and church programs, community projects and food pantries, have all benefitted from Mr. Orthwein's time and gifts. So have many schools, including his alma maters: Rossman School, where his sixth grade class picture still hangs, St. Louis Country Day School (now MICDS) and Yale, from which he graduated in 1938 with a business degree.

"Many of the gifts were about scholarships and faculty enrichment programs," Mr. Orthwein's eldest daughter, Laura, said. "He really cared about people and particularly education. That included programs for low income kids and scholarships for technical schools."

"Our father has given all of his life," Mr. Orthwein's daughter Nettie added.

A Humble Titan

After graduating from Yale, Mr. Orthwein went to work as a salesman for General American Life Insurance Co. Four years later, in 1942, he joined the newly minted McDonnell Aircraft Corp. (now Boeing) in the personnel division. He went on to lead the unit, and later became the first president and chairman of McDonnell Automation Co., known as "McAuto," which pioneered data processing systems in the aircraft industry. Mr. Orthwein remained head of McAuto until his retirement in 1982.

That's when his second career as a philanthropist kicked into high gear. He was free to focus on helping civic and nonprofit organizations and he made the most of it. In addition to systematically giving away millions of dollars, Mr. Orthwein provided his leadership skills to numerous organizations.

An article in the St. Louis Business Journal last year listed Mr. Orthwein among "the biggest titans of business and industry" for his leadership on nonprofit organization boards. The article noted that most of the people at the top 25 nonprofit organizations serve on only one board, some serve on two, but very few serve on three. Mr. Orthwein served on three.

He served on the McDonnell Douglas Corp.'s board of directors for 36 years and was a member of the company's executive committee. He served on the corporate board of Mercantile Bancorporation, Mercantile Trust Co. and Microdata Corp., United Fund (now United Way of Greater St. Louis), St. Luke's Hospital, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, St. Louis Zoo, Missouri Historical Society, Greater St. Louis Area Boy Scouts, Missouri Botanical Garden and the St. Louis Science Center. He led the board of St. Louis Country Day School for three years.

In recognition of his years of service and giving, Mr. Orthwein received the Philanthropist of the Year Award and the Robert S. Brookings Award from Washington University. He also received the Boy Scouts' Silver Beaver award. He was in the first class of St. Louis Country Day School Honor Medal winners, and in 2003, he became the first individual to receive both the school's Honor Medal and the Distinguished Alumnus Award.

"When I first told Bill that he was chosen as the 2003 St. Louis County Day School Distinguished Alumnus," recalled Jones, who attended both MICDS and Yale a generation following his mentor, "his response was, 'I haven't done anything that is distinguishable.'"

A Legacy Endures

Mr. Orthwein's legacy of giving will continue through the William R. and Laura Rand Orthwein Foundation, which was established in 2004. The foundation listed assets of more than $33 million at the end of 2009.

William Robert Orthwein Jr., was born Feb. 12, 1917, the youngest of three sons of William Robert Orthwein Sr. and Nina Kent Baldwin Orthwein, who was a teacher. In addition to becoming a successful businessman and philanthropist, Mr. Orthwein was an avid golfer and bridge player, and a dedicated Cardinals fan.

"Uncle Bill was an exceptional man," said Fred Thatcher, who is actually Mr. Orthwein's cousin once removed. "I think that his greatest attribute was his ability to engage others to do more than they expected of themselves."

Mr. Orthwein was preceded in death by his parents and two brothers, Robert Baldwin Orthwein and David Kent Orthwein.

In addition to his wife of 71 years, Laura Hale Rand Orthwein, Mr. Orthwein's survivors include three daughters, Laura Rand Orthwein of Berkeley, Calif., Nina Orthwein Durham of Arlington, Va., and Nettie Orthwein Dodge (Tyler) of Wheatland, Wyo. He is also survived by seven grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.

A memorial service was held on Sunday, June 5, 2011, at Second Presbyterian Church. The family would appreciate memorials to the charity of the donor's choice.

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

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