Celebration of the Life of Louis J. Rose, April 19, 2010 First Presbyterian Church of St. Louis
When I started at the Post-Dispatch as a phone clerk in 1977, Lou Rose was an empty desk with a stack of pink message slips, “while you were out…” I wondered, “does this guy ever come into the office?” He was investigating fire districts in North County — something you have to do every 30 years or so I guess. The stories were hard-hitting and resulted, as was usual with Lou’s stories, with folks getting thrown out of office, and maybe even a couple of indictments.
I only met Lou after I read the stories, and I thought, “this teddy bear of a man wrote those stories?” After I got to know him a little better, I could just imagine the secretaries and clerks who got the records for him, and probably fetched him a cup of coffee too, thinking he was a friendly guy, sort of bumbling, asking odd questions, but totally harmless with his funny mannerisms. Lou bonded with people by letting them do favors for him. To paraphrase Will Rogers, Lou never met anyone he didn’t ask a favor of. So when the news stories came out, they realized how much they had under-estimated this rumpled little man.
Lou cared about justice. Some things were just wrong, like stealing from taxpayers or violating your oath of office. His investigations made a difference. The one his family is most proud of, the one that has had the most lasting effect on St. Louis, was exposing nuclear waste sites. Kay Drey said yesterday that all but one of those sites have been cleaned up and they’re cleaning the last one now.
Lou wrote two books. The first, How to Investigate your Friends and Enemies, became a journalism textbook. As he toured around the country selling it, many single moms talked to him about how they were seeking the fathers of their children who owed child support. So he and Roy Malone wrote another book just for them: Make the Jerk Pay. He defended this title in talk shows and book signings: Any man who didn’t support his children was a jerk.
Talking about Lou earlier this week, [his daughter] Leslie and [son] John said he was a good father, loving and kind. “He would do anything for his kids,” Leslie said. Yes, and other people’s kids too. Lou was a regular volunteer in the Room at the Inn homeless shelter that First Pres participates in once or twice a month. He would volunteer as one of two church members who spend the night with the families, sleeping on cots in Fellowship Hall.
Roger Chamberlain told me yesterday that if a child cried in the night, Lou was the first to hop up and soothe the child. He always brought some small trinkets for the kids to keep, something that would fit in their pocket that was theirs alone.
He knew what it was to be poor. Lou’s parents immigrated to New England from the Azores. Lou was born in America, but he spoke no English until he went to school. His parents were simple, illiterate mill workers. He was not only the first in his family to go to college. He was unique in his neighborhood too. He was proud of his Portuguese heritage and his Portuguese neighbors — Porta Gee, he’d say to his kids, “We’re Porta-Gee. Don’t forget it.”
Lou’s life is a shining example of what the prophet Micah wrote: “What does the Lord require of you, but to seek justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.”
Those of you who knew him only outside this church congregation may be picturing Lou right now, in a cartoon version of the pearly gates, raising his hands in his characteristic shrug and saying to St. Peter, “Hey two out of three’s not bad.”
Because when Lou first became active with this congregation, he would regularly tell anyone who would listen that he was an atheist. One of the first times he came here — and it might not have been a worship service, I think we were just walking through the sanctuary — he looked up at the chancel and, on reflex, he knelt slightly and made the sign of the cross. I thought at the time, “gotcha. You’re no atheist.”
But it took him years of coming to worship services, parties and float trips and especially volunteer events of First Pres before he broke down that atheist act and joined as a full professing member.
In these days when many people in our society say they are “spiritual but not religious,” Lou was the rare opposite. He understood the value of being part of a church congregation well before he acknowledged the existence of God.
Lou’s first active involvement with us at First Pres was in 1980, when we adopted a boat family — that’s what they called refugees who fled the fighting in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, in small leaky boats landing in Malaysia and spending long months in refugee camps.
Lou’s son, Neal, had joined the Boy Scout troop here and I think Carol was becoming a member, when Lou heard that First Pres was adopting this Laotian family. He immediately volunteered to be on the committee. The family had arrived and we were trying to get them moved into an apartment in the Loop. But University City wouldn’t issue an occupancy permit for a family of five in a one-bedroom apartment.
So Lou persuaded Al Goldman, director of planning and zoning for UCity, to meet him at the apartment. Lou took a tape measure and they measured and discussed every alcove and sun porch, every nook and cranny of that apartment. He badgered Mr. Goldman until he gave in and said the family could live there.
Then Lou and Neal helped move the furniture in. The family spoke no English, just a little bit of French. Lou spoke to them in his broken French. If they didn’t understand, he just said it a little louder. He was so eager to help and so unembarrassed about his lousy French. It was the first time I saw the wife, Nompara, laugh, watching Lou yelling in his broken French. And he laughed with her. The family had had such a hard time. But Lou broke through the barriers to make them feel welcome.
Seek Justice. Love Kindness. Walk humbly with God.
Lou had some hard times. One of the toughest experiences a parent could ever have is losing a child; especially losing a child to murder. When Neal was killed by an acquaintance, it rocked Lou’s universe. Lou and Carol and Leslie and John, and all of us who loved them. Lou and Carol actually separated for a while. But love won out. Later, after they had healed, Lou and Carol agreed to participate in the group pre-nuptial counseling that the pastor, Kelly Allen, held for couples planning to get married in the church. Over lunch in the day-long program, Lou and Carol would talk about how they survived the trauma of Neal’s death and worked their way back to a loving, healed relationship.
He walked humbly with God.
About 10 years ago, the congregation spent a year “revisioning” — talking about who we were and what God was calling us to do. At the end of the year, about two dozen of us met at Ann Agnew’s house to write a mission statement and long-range plan. Lou had joined the church by then and was part of this group. With flip charts and markers, we discussed and wrote down and negotiated and tweaked and came up with the mission statement we could all agree with. He was part of that, professing his faith, discussing the nuance. Yes, Lou walked humbly — change that word there, no it should go this way — humbly, with carefully well written mission statement, he walked with God.
He taught us how to be a welcoming congregation, valuing every person as a child of God, whether that person actively professed belief in God or not. He led the way in advocating for the poor and downtrodden, doing so without condescension. He modelled empathy and love.
Some of us here today knew Lou mainly in his public persona of investigative reporter, where he was happiest and most effective afflicting the comfortable. And some of us knew the flip side of Lou, where he was happiest and most effective comforting the afflicted.
Leslie recalled that she once asked her father what was his most embarrassing moment. He thought a moment and then said, “I don’t think I’ve ever felt embarrassed.” Her response, “well, you sure dished it out to your kids.”
We can all think of moments when we were embarrassed for Lou, but those funny quirks didn’t bother him. Even in those days of professing atheism, Lou understood grace. We are all sinners, unworthy to proclaim ourselves perfect. But God loves us and pardons us. Lou behaved every day of his life with the certainty that God loves and forgives.
Seek justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God. We love Lou. We miss him. But we know where he is. Praise God. Amen.