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Obituary of Thomas J. Guilfoil: Former football Cardinals legal counsel; Democratic power broker

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 1, 2012 - Thomas J. Guilfoil, who handled the legal wranglings of the football Cardinals in St. Louis and Arizona for more than 30 years, and managed a successful gubernatorial campaign before he was 30, died of infirmities on Wednesday morning, Feb. 29, at his home in Des Peres. He was 93.

“Tom Guilfoil was the greatest lawyer I’ve ever seen,” said Gerhard J. Petzall, Mr. Guilfoil’s founding partner at Guilfoil Petzall & Shoemake, “because he thought in an imaginative way.”

A man who would readily admit that he “came from the streets," Mr. Guilfoil could hardly have imagined the success he would achieve.

Services for Mr. Guilfoil will be at 11 a.m. on Saturday, March 3, in the chapel at Ambruster Donnelly Mortuary.

During a legal and political career that spanned more than six decades, he became an advisor to tenants of the White House, statehouse and city hall, and engineered corporate mergers that set records for the amount of money that changed hands.

The Cardinals' mouthpiece

Mr. Guilfoil’s name lingers in the memories of most St. Louisans. Sometimes, they don’t know why. 

It’s because he was the “Football Cardinals Mouthpiece”, the nickname emblazoned on a red and white windbreaker he wore to games. Cardinals’ owner William V. “Bill” Bidwill gave him the jacket in 1986. Mr. Guilfoil spoke for both the the team and Bill Bidwill, who was also a close friend.

“Tom was such an important advisor and friend to me over the years, and I was so sorry to hear of his passing,” Bidwill said in a statement. “His influence in the St. Louis legal and political communities was legendary and I know personally the key role he played with our organization and other teams in the area.”

Mr. Guilfoil became vice president of the team in 1972 and remained an officer for more than 30 years, shuttling back and forth between Arizona and St. Louis after the franchise moved in 1988.

Some fans and civic leaders laid the move, the result of a failure to get a domed stadium built in St. Louis, at Mr. Guilfoil’s feet. When asked if he encouraged Bidwill’s decision, he did not flinch. 

“I advised him how to do it. Not whether to do it, but how to do it,” Mr. Guilfoil told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1995.

Bidwell suffered widespread reproach for the move, but Mr. Guilfoil’s loyalty never wavered. Of his friend he said: "There was never any bitterness on his part. It was all on the other side.”

Mr. Guilfoil helped one team to leave St. Louis, but helped another one stay put. When the baseball Cardinals wanted a new stadium, St. Louis City Mayor Francis G. Slay, whom Mr. Guilfoil had hired as a young lawyer at Guilfoil Petzall and Shoemake, called on Mr. Guilfoil to help put together a deal. 

Another young lawyer, hired in 1981 by Mr. Guilfoil, was Bob Wallace.

“Tom wanted to be thought of as a lawyer,” said Wallace, now an attorney for Thompson Coburn and the former legal counsel for the St. Louis Rams.  “He was very proud to be a lawyer; for him it meant respect.”

He also shared his legal expertise with the St. Louis Blues for nearly a decade. 

A young 'terrorist'

When Mr. Guilfoil graduated from Washington University School of Law in 1941, he didn’t have any job prospects. What he did have was a commission in the Army ROTC, and he was immediately called up. He failed the physical and had to look for work. 

He found a position at what is now Bryan Cave, an international firm of more than a thousand attorneys. At the time, there were only nine lawyers and Mr. Guilfoil did not see room for rapid advancement, so he tried the Army again. This time he passed the physical.

World War II was raging and he didn’t find his assignment in a secret surveillance office at Fort Omaha, Neb. very exciting. He appealed to a general to put him in the Air Corps. He became a B-17 bombardier and flew 35 missions with the Air Force. 

“He had an incredible war record,” Petzall said. “Tom was very proud of his service in World War II, which he called the last war that we won.” 

His pride was tinged with conflict. During an interview with the Post-Dispatch in 2005, he described his wartime role: 

“I was, by anybody's definition, a terrorist. We were bombing the principal cities of Germany. It bothered me at the time. I would take an oath that I have thought about it at some time of every week for more than 60 years. I have never rationalized it to the point that it was acceptable, but it was necessary.”

In 1945, he returned to Bryan Cave and left a few months later to work with another attorney, Irv Hartman. He did mundane legal work, like bill collecting for companies, but he began to do the kind of civil rights work that he would incorporate into the remainder of his work life. 

A legal legend

By the late 1940’s Mr. Guilfoil had been appointed chief counsel for the Missouri Division of Insurance. 

In 1953, he and Morris Shenker unsuccessfully defended James P. Finnegan, the chief collector for the Internal Revenue Service in St. Louis, against bribery charges. Shenker, who became well known for the notorious clients he defended, was himself indicted in 1989 for concealing funds from the IRS and bankruptcy creditors. He died before his case to came to trial. 

Mr. Guilfoil said federal agents had been after Shenker since the ‘50s, but told the Post-Dispatch: “Morris was a man of generous impulses … and much of what he did as a lawyer was an expression of his concern for downtrodden people.”

In 1963, Mr. Guilfoil became law partners with Stuart Symington Jr., son of then-U.S. Sen. Stuart Symington, and Gerhard Petzall, in the firm Guilfoil, Symington & Petzall. The firm later became Guilfoil, Petzall & Shoemake when Jim J. Shoemake joined as a partner in 1970.

He served as legal counsel for the Bi-State Development Agency and brought the account with him to the new partnership. He had already shepherded Bi-State through the acquisition of all mass transit facilities within the St. Louis metropolitan area, some 15 entities, but the agency was going broke.

To stop the bleeding, Bi-State cut service and raised fares. Mr. Guilfoil determined that a bi-state sales tax was needed. 

“Tom was instrumental in getting a sales tax approved by Illinois and Missouri that saved the system,” Petzall said.

Part of the sales tax agreement was that the agency would roll back fares.  It didn’t happen, and Mr. Guilfoil threatened to resign if Bi-State did not keep its promise. 

“That’s the kind of moral fiber he had; he was an extremely ethical person,” Petzall said.

The agency eventually honored the agreement, but not before Mr. Guilfoil resigned. 

In 1986, Mr. Guilfoil helped orchestrate the deal in which Boatmen's Bancshares acquired General Bancshares (the old Bank of St. Louis holding company) and its $2 billion in assets. It was said to be the beginning of Boatmen's rapid expansion en route to becoming the largest bank in Missouri. It was the type of deal that earned Mr. Guilfoil the nickname “Takeover Tom”. 

One of the firm’s most celebrated cases, led by Mr. Guilfoil, was Diversified Industries, Inc. v. AT&T. Guilfoil, Petzall & Shoemake won the anti-trust case to the tune of $105,000,000, then the largest civil judgment in Missouri history.  The case took nearly a decade and earned the law firm $13.5 million in fees.

The case that gave Mr. Guilfoil the greatest satisfaction, however, didn’t carry the biggest price tag.

The underdog

“I think the suit that I probably took most pride in was the one that had the (old) St. Louis City Jail declared a constitutionally impermissible place for incarceration,” Mr. Guilfoil told the Post-Dispatch in 1995.

Mr. Guilfoil was appointed by the late Judge Jack Regan of the U.S. District Court in May of 1974, to represent Billy Joe Tyler and two other former inmates of the old St. Louis City jail, then at 124 South 14th Street.

Mr. Guilfoil was said to have grinned as he described the law firm’s tactics in the pro bono suit to St. Louis Magazine in 2005: “We approached (it) like it was a corporate takeover.  (We) took hostile depositions from the mayor and everyone else and won the case,” he said. “No one had ever gotten anything done until that lawsuit.”

In the shortest period of time ever, Mr. Guilfoil said, the suit was settled, resulting in a significantly reformed system that reduced severe overcrowding.

“Tom was smart, fierce, and funny — though the humor was the kind that they use to cut diamonds,” said Mayor Slay.

Thomas Joseph Guilfoil knew what it was to be an underdog. He grew up hard in a poor neighborhood on Jefferson just southwest of downtown. He lived with his mother, an older sister and an aunt in a flat next to his mother’s dress shop. His father died when he was an infant.

He graduated from McKinley High School in 1936, when schools were still segregated by race and class. Most black children went to Sumner; Roosevelt and Cleveland were reserved for the white children whose parents weren’t foreign-born or poor. 

One of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal student financial aid and work study programs, the National Youth Administration, helped Mr. Guilfoil become one of the few McKinley students to attend college. 

Political powerhouse

He had passed out campaign materials for President Roosevelt in his neighborhood when he was just 12 or 13, and the college opportunity forever sealed his political affiliation.

Mr. Guilfoil’s became steeped in Democratic politics and his legal life was interspersed with his political life.

Shortly after leaving the fledgling Bryan Cave, he managed the St. Louis-area campaign office for Forrest Smith’s successful gubernatorial bid in 1948. Two years later, he left the State Insurance Division to manage the U.S. Senate campaign for Thomas C. Hennings of St. Louis; he managed Hennings’ re-election six years later.

In the 1940s, a time when blacks and whites led parallel lives, Mr. Guilfoil found a black political ally in a man named Jordan W. Chambers. They became close friends.

“Jordan loved me like a son,” Mr. Guilfoil told the Post-Dispatch in 1995.  “We were together frequently and, of course, in many ways, it gave me great political power because if you're a Democrat, you simply are not going to win, unless you have support from the black community.”

Chambers owned Peoples Undertaking Company and Club Riviera, a meeting place for stars and politicians. In the 60s, he was elected constable and Democratic committeeman of the 19th Ward, making him the first black committeeman in St. Louis.

Chambers had good reason to support Mr. Guilfoil, who admitted to being a “flaming liberal” in those days. Mr. Guilfoil went to the U.S. Senate in 1956 as special consultant to the subcommittee on constitutional rights, and successfully negotiated the first civil rights package since Reconstruction. He got a federal statute that makes it a crime to attack certain categories of federal employees or officers amended to include the armed forces.

“That was considered to be just revolutionary in 1956,” Mr. Guilfoil said.

On the national stage, Mr. Guilfoil helped elect President John F. Kennedy in 1960, and President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964; he ran the state campaign for both.

He became chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party in 1982, chairman of the Commission on Informational Technology, and was a member of the St. Louis City Planning Commission.

He had become a major political player, but he knew too much to run for office.

“Very few people have the chance to see the terrible indignities you suffer when you get in office,” he said. “I have. The holding of public office would be distasteful to me."

The gray fox

Mr. Guilfoil served on the board of directors of Engineered Support Systems, Guarantee Trust Life Insurance Co., and United National Insurance Co. Mayor Slay named a City Hall conference room for him.

He retired from active law practice in 2002, but remained a partner in the firm. He retired as an officer with the Cardinals in 2005.

His outstanding work, his calm but forceful demeanor and his striking appearance enticed people to rename him. 

His third moniker came from the late U.S. Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton, who dubbed him the “Gray Fox” for his shock of wavy hair that made his already-distinguished appearance even more so.

He once called Morris Shenker “a unique and colorful man” — he could have been describing himself, but he never quite saw it that way. 

He told St. Louis Magazine: “I wouldn’t want anyone to take my life as something to draw a lesson from. I think I could have accomplished much, much more than I ever did. I don’t think I made the proper use of my abilities. And that’s failure.”

His friends beg to differ. 

“He was an extremely talented professional and wonderful person,” Bidwill said.

“There will never be another like Tom; he was unique,” Petzall said.  “He was an amazing guy.” 

“He was a very tough guy who could be very direct and blunt,” Wallace said. “But every time you had a discussion with him, you learned something.”

“He left an indelible mark on the law, on his city, and on those who worked with him,” said Mayor Slay. 

Mr. Guilfoil who had been previously married and divorced, had no children. His parents, sister and aunt preceded him in death.

He had not had a drink since 1949.

He is survived by his wife, Dianne Meyer Guilfoil.

Visitation for Mr. Guilfoil will be from 4 to 8 p.m. on Friday, March 2, in the chapel at Ambruster Donnelly Mortuary, 6633 Clayton Road. Services will begin at 11 a.m. on Saturday,March 3, at the same location.  Burial will be at Oak Grove Cemetery.

Memorials would be appreciated to Backstoppers, 10411 Clayton Rd., Suite 5, St. Louis, Mo. 63131. 

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.

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