This Week in South Side History

Bloody 1953 bank heist hit silver screen

Movie gave boost to then-unknown Steve McQueen

by Jim Merkel

southwestbank1953.jpg

At 94, Melburn Stein has been retired longer than he served in the St. Louis Police Department.Yet he still has dreams about April 24, 1953, when he was nearly killed more than once in what was to become known as the Great St. Louis Bank Robbery.

The sensational robbery at the Southwest Bank at South Kingshighway Boulevard and Southwest Avenue attracted a crowd of police officers and onlookers.

It ended with a police officer injured, two bank robbers dead and one robber injured. The getaway car’s driver eluded police but was quickly caught.

One robber took his own life, saying “They’ll never take me.” Stein killed the other one as the robber rushed to the front door using a woman as a shield.

The bank’s directors, who were holding a board meeting in a room in the bank, threw their wallets in a wastebasket and hid under a table until police used tear gas.

In the end, police recovered the entire heist – $141,000.

It was the stuff you’d see in a 1950s crime movie, and people in Hollywood agreed. In 1959, United Artists released a movie about it, “The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery,” starring a new actor named Steve McQueen.

The man who played Stein had a special knowledge of the part. It was Stein himself, ordered by the city police board to play the role.

“Frankly, I didn’t think McQueen was all that great,” Stein said, adding that McQueen was distant and self-contained.

Living in Creve Coeur and still spry enough to cut his own grass, Stein credits his Marine Corps training to saving him amidst the gunfire. It told him to bend down and become a smaller target.

Stein shot the robber holding the hostage after she passed out of his line of fire.

“It was a calculated shot,” Stein said. “I had plenty of time to think about it.”

The dying robber went for a .38-caliber revolver in his belt and almost shot Stein. Fortunately, Stein noticed what the robber was doing.

“I reached down and got the gun,” Stein said. “Just to think about it gives me the creeps.”

Stein stayed on with the city department and retired in 1973 after 31 years.

The officer who was injured, Cpl. Robert Heinz, didn’t do as well.

A bullet that struck him in the head lodged in the skull around the ear and was not removed. He lost his equilibrium and had to retire.

Last week, retired Southwest Bank President Ed Berra showed off the old vault that had held money stolen in the robbery. Now an advisory board member and a consultant to Southwest, Berra started with the bank in 1959.

After the robbery, the bank increased the numbers of armed guards or introduced them at branches that didn’t have them, said Berra, 78.

Pictures on the wall of the Southwest Bank office include a newspaper photo of the robbery.

“I can’t believe that’s over a half-century ago,” Berra said.

Note: I hope Jim Merkel will forgive me using his article as my blog entry. Jim, if you ever read this, just remember who made you famous as the Grinch.

This Week in South Side History

St. Louis annexed Carondelet in 1870

from the South Side Journal Tues. April 1, 2008

written by Jim Merkel

Two visitors came to Carondelet on April 7, 1870 ready to make official the biggest change ever in the community’s century-old history.

They were the St. Louis city register and the marshal, appearing at the office of the City of Carondelet with an order to turn all city documents over to them. They came after the state legislature passed a law annexing the community to St. Louis.

The visit marked the end of the City of Carondelet, which traced itself to a village established three years after the founding of St. Louis.The community began in 1767, when a Frenchman named Clement DeLore Treget crossed the Mississippi to Spanish land on the west side. He started a community called Louisbourg, or “Vide Poche” (empty pocket). Later he changed the name to Carondelet, in honor of the Spanish governor general.

The village grew steadily and was incorporated as a city in 1851. Industry and railroads came to the area, including James Eads’ boat works, where the ironclads were produced that helped the Union take control of the Mississippi during the Civil War.

Despite the city’s industrious residents, the monster to the north grew faster and finally absorbed Carondelet in 1870.

“There clearly is some evidence to suggest that some people in Carondelet were unhappy about being annexed by the city of St. Louis,” said NiNi Harris, a Carondelet resident and author of numerous books on St. Louis historical topics.

But Harris said the community benefitted greatly from becoming the city’s southernmost neighborhood. The annexation brought professional police and fire departments, the immediate construction of two new schools and the opening of Carondelet Park in 1876.

“Though the community lost this sense of independence and to a little bit lost its sense of being distinct, the advantages were many,” she said.

The Sycamores are all dying

These big sycamore trees here in Carondelet and Holly Hills are getting old and one by one they’re all dying. It’s a turning of the page for the South Side. The trees were planted along with the neighborhood in the 1920′s and ’30′s. I started thinking about this when the big wind storms blew through here last month and took a whole lot of Sycamore limbs with them. In some case, whole trees came out of the ground and some just snapped off above the ground. And, now I think about it every night as we walk the neighborhood and I glance around from tree to tree. Some of them are still in good shape, some of them are gigantic.

Will this neighborhood survive for 50, 60, or even 100 years? What do I mean by “survive?” I don’t know. It’s so nice right now. We sat on the porch tonight, 11:00 pm or so, and it was so quiet. We feel safe walking late at night. Do I want my daughter to settle here to raise a family? I don’t know.

Easter Sunday on the South Side

Oh, woe to those who don’t live in our little town. Sunday morning the alarm clock rang at 5:30 am. I stumbled out of bed to get to church so I could get the coffe plugged in. The sunlight was just fading into the sky and I thought about the family and friends that were down at Bellerive Park for the Sunrise Service. This little park is a perfect place to watch the sun come up as the view to the east is introduced my the Mighty Mississippi River, then slowly told by the flat terrain of western Illinois. I’ve yet to make this service because I’m always back at church getting their breakfast ready. On this chilly morning I knew they wouldn’t be long. I was right; they showed up ready to eat at ten after seven.

Tom Boyer and his wife, who live on the corner of Bellerive and Louisiana are always the first to arrive. Tom is a veteran of the Korean War and he will always approach me to say, “Do you need help with anything?”

“No, thanks, Tom, just have a seat; we’re almost ready.”

About twenty more will follow in. Then a little later about thirty more who decided to sleep in come in dressed in their new spring colors. I say “Kinda chilly out there, eh?” about a hundred times.

Breakfast is served. Twenty years in the restaurant/catering business has made this morning easy and I love to to do it.

I have some breakfast myself, then it’s upstairs to practice for the Worship Service. I tune my guitar, we run through the songs, then I come out of the choir room to see a full sanctuary. So many people! I know it’s Easter, the energy is just stunning. The tulips are perfect and tell a story of Beth Meyer, my aunt, who did these flowers for as long as I can remember. She died this past year and I thought of her all through the service as I gazed at the flowers.

The choir was pumped because of all the people, not to mention we were going to do a couple of songs from our big show last week and we knew them well. Musicians long for moments when their music can move the emotions. Easter morning, we were there.

After church we went over to my dad’s house. Everybody was there. I mean EVERYBODY. It’s not often that my dad and Judy’s whole family gets together. All of Judy’s kids were there. All of my cousins from my dad’s side were there too. And the kids! My God the kids!

And Ken Meyer brought a special friend. Her name is Lisa Mitchell and she’s a life-time member of Kingshighway Methodist. Turns out they dated after high school. Now they’re both divorced. So, most of us know her very well. Her and Ken are co-leading the youth group. She has two kids; a daughter named Ashley who is a little younger than Emily and a son named Kieth who’s the same age as Emily. Kieth is headed for either West Point or Annapolis. To me, this is a sign that our little church has “bounced.” That is, we didn’t hit bottom, we bounced off of it. In its hey-day, this church had a youth group that produced the core group of families that I grew up with. They married each other and my generation is a result of that, but there’s just about three of us left. But, it’s building back up now. We had our first baby, Luke Trask, about four years ago, and now Ken and Lisa may be a sign that we’ve bounced back.

All in all, a great Easter Sunday. As I said in an earlier entry, the more I grow in my faith, the more Easter grows to be the central holiday of the year for me. Remember, the stone that covered Jesus’ tomb was not rolled away so he could get out. It was rolled away so that you could see in.

Spring is here

I love the onset of warmer weather. For me it means just one thing. Spending evenings sitting out front on the neighbor’s porch doing nothing. Talking about anything and everything. And I don’t feel bad about it at all. I cherish it, in fact. I paid my dues working twenty years in the freezing cold or hellishly hot kitchens around town. Working every evening and every weekend and every holiday. No more. I’m going to sit back with a cool Perrier, the sounds of cicadas chirping through the Sycamore trees and enjoy life.

I’m reminded of the Andy Griffith Show episode called “Man in a Hurry”, where Barney and Andy are sitting on the porch. Andy’s strumming his guitar softly, and Barny says, “Yeah, I think I’ll go home…take a nap…go over to Thelma Lou’s and watch some TV… ” Andy nods. Then he says it again. Andy says, “hmm.” Then Barney says it again. The man who’s in a hurry can’t take it of course and yells, “Just do it!” That whole scene is so good. They all sing a little song in this scene too. The song is “The Little Brown Church in the Vale.” It’s really nice.

I like my little part of town. It’s like Mayberry to me. I live on the same block I grew up on. I go to the same church I was born and baptized in. All the folks there have known me my whole life. And now I know some the young ones their whole life. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. No job, no amount of money or luxury could take me away from it. It’s my home plain and simple.