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Local author Jim Merkel will discuss new book on city childhoods

Ask a hundred St. Louisans about growing up here, and you’ll get more than a hundred memories. Local author Jim Merkel did just that, and the result is his new book, “Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades.”

In an interview Wednesday on KTRS radio, Merkel enthused over his project and spread the word about a livestreamed author talk he’s planning on Saturday at 1 p.m. It’s hosted by the Field House Museum, 634 S. Broadway in Downtown. He’s excited to discuss his book.

“This is the most unusual book I’ve written,” he said. He has five other books about St. Louis under his belt, but those have all been about grown-ups.

“This is about kids – or at least the memories grown-ups have about kids,” he explained. “And it’s something that we ignore, because kids are to be seen and not heard.”

Not for Merkel, and not for the people he talked with about their childhoods here. The people who told him their stories were born in years ranging from 1907 to 2008.

“They all had wonderful stories to tell,” he said.

Milo Marston stands in front of Dorothy Hunter’s childhood house, while holding a picture of Hunter (at left) and two siblings.  Photo by Jim Merkel
The oldest of Merkel’s volunteers was Dorothy Danner Hunter, who lived in the 3800 block of Connecticut Street about two blocks south of Tower Grove Park. In the photo at left, Milo Marston, the youngest person in “Growing Up St. Louis,” stands in front of her childhood house while holding a picture of Hunter and two of her siblings. Coincidentally, Milo also lives in the 3800 block of Connecticut.

To start the book off, Merkel also gives seven accounts of early St. Louisans, taken from other books, newspapers and oral histories. Those St. Louisans include Julia Davis and Josephine Baker, but also 14-year-old Esther Whaley, who married a 40-year-old man who “has only changed from my big brother to my husband in my affections.”

Merkel’s more recent St. Louisans include KSDK Sports Director Frank Cusumano, born in 1961, who told of watching Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson strike out 17 opposing batters in Game One of the 1968 World Series. “That moment was the moment that made me fall in love with sports,” Cusumano said.

On a grimmer note, St. Louis police Chief John Hayden described riding with his father in their car in the 1970s and being pulled over by police. “I’d say, ‘Hey, Dad. What’s going on?’ He’d say, ‘Calm down, son.’ But each time, I’d look down and notice his hand shaking. … It really left an indelible impression upon me to see my big strong dad’s hand shaking that way.”

Hayden’s father was big and strong, “and yet when they were pulled over by police, he was scared,” Merkel notes. “Every African-American has experienced that.”

He contrasted that with his own experiences, as a white man, in similar circumstances. “I’ve done dumb things, and I’ve been pulled over, and the cops have been so nice! I could not imagine having to go through this. This is what African Americans have to see. And so, that shapes them in their later life.”

“No matter when or where we grow up, the stories, people and places that populate our memories leave and indelible mark on our life story,” Merkel says on his website.

He also points out that few childhood memories can be said to be truly accurate. Even memories seared into the brain can involved debatable details (ever argue with a sibling over some long-ago event, remembered differently by each of you?).

But, Merkel notes, “even the misremembered details or stories convey a truth. Even when they’re wrong, they are part of a person’s life story, how a person defines himself.”

The purpose of his new book, he said, is “to remind us that what happens to us as adults is largely the result of our experiences as children.” Joy, sorrow, pain, boredom, adventure, security, fear, grief … these memories and stories can stir empathy as well as providing enjoyment, he hopes.

Merkel, born in 1951, lives in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis, but he grew up as a “country boy” in Des Peres and Webster Groves, from the mid-1950s onward. He offers a few of his own childhood memories, in an epilogue to the book.

Merkel has written four other St. Louis-focused books for Reedy Press:

  • “Hoosiers and Scrubby Dutch: St. Louis’s South Side”
  • “Beer,  Brats, and Baseball: German-Americans in St. Louis”
  • “The Making of an Icon: The Dreamers, The Schemers, and the Hard Hats Who Built The Gateway Arch”
  • “The Colorful Characters of St. Louis”

He has also self-published a novel and a travel book about the Apostle Islands of Lake Superior.

Any and all of his books can be ordered at his website, jimmerkelthewriter.com

June Heath


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