Saying Goodbye to Two Friends, Part I
If you are fortunate, a special person enters your life at the exact time they are needed. Even better if that person turns out to be one of those rare “better angels of our nature.” For Shakespeare, as for Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address, “better angels” were neither individual people nor supernatural beings; they were aspects of temperament. A better angel is a composite of those praiseworthy traits within us that exist alongside of, and contest with, our less-noble traits.
The idea behind this phrase is that we are all born wanting to love and be loved. We are all born with the desire to be kind and care for others. Over time, most of us lose these innate sensibilities for any number of reasons, but those rare few who can hold on to them irrespective of their individual journeys walk a different path.
I was fortunate to know not one but two of these individuals as both partners and friends during the last 27 years: Mary Louise Carter and Peter Benoist.
Each of them exemplified the better angels of our nature in their own way. As fortunate as I was to know them, their absence has left a void that will be difficult to fill.
Mary Louise Carter passed away on Wednesday, June 3rd. She was the Mayor of the City of Pagedale since 1992 and had been an alderperson for ten years prior to that. Neither Beyond Housing nor the 24:1 Initiative would exist as they are today without the significant influence of Mayor Carter. I realized the day she died that I have never called her anything but Mayor or Mayor Carter. That’s how much respect I had for her.
We first met when I started this job in September of 1993. At that time, we were known as the Ecumenical Housing Production Corporation, and our only line of business was scattered-site rental housing.
Every year, we would send a letter to the municipalities where we owned rental homes to ask “How are were doing?” Every year, Mayor Carter would be the first to reply. As soon as she received my letter, she would get in her car and drive to see all the homes and what condition they were in. She would also check with the police department to see if there were any reports of problems. I would get her call and have my pen ready to jot down any and all issues she found. Never did she have a negative or mean tone—she simply stated matter-of-factly the places where we and our tenants needed to do better.
Her consistency in giving us feedback was a hallmark of her leadership. We always knew where we stood with Mayor Carter, and she was always honest with us.
As time went on, we pivoted to community-building work, and in 2000 we began a conversation with the City of Pagedale about expanding our work there. Mayor Carter and the City Council had long wanted to add new housing and were thrilled when, over the next 10 years, we built almost 100 new homes.
Our next significant service delivery in Pagedale was opening the Pagedale Family Support Center in the old Pagedale City Hall. Mayor Carter, always wise with city resources, was able to save enough to build a new city hall right next to the old one. At the center, we continue to provide programing for children and other community members, including an after-school program and summer camp, a computer lab, a food pantry, and the Redbird Rookies program through our longtime partnership with the St. Louis Cardinals. She loved that we were able to provide needed services for the children of her community.
When we consistently did what we said we were going to do, we earned her trust. Once we had that, we really began to build a truly remarkable partnership.
In 2008, the confluence of the mortgage crisis and the failing of the Normandy Schools raised levels of fear and trepidation throughout the boundaries of the school district, including Pagedale. Mayor Carter convened her peers to begin a conversation on how to address the crisis, and she asked if we could help. She told her peers that we could be trusted and would be a good partner. This is how the 24:1 Initiative started in her new city hall. Because she was so respected, her peers were willing to begin this radical new conversation about how these 24 cities could work together.
As this unique, White House-recognized, national model began, our work in Pagedale continued with the construction and opening of a new grocery store. This was followed by a senior housing center, a bank, a movie theater, a health center, a coffee shop, an anti-payday lending operation, a women’s business center, a credit union kiosk, and much more—and, under construction today, a mixed-use retail and community kitchen building.
This was all created thanks to a tax increment financing district, or TIF, that Mayor Carter helped shepherd through the approval process. If you go to a movie at the 24:1 Cinema, listen for her voice at the beginning of every film describing 24:1 and asking you to be polite and respectful. I will go there soon just so I can to hear her voice again.
As our work took us to other parts of the 24:1 footprint, Mayor Carter always reminded me, “Chris, you finish that work and then come on back home” with a wry smile and then a warm laugh. It was the best compliment I could get—we had become part of the Pagedale family. I was even presented with the key to city in a remarkably sneaky celebration that she organized. I rarely get surprised, but my friend absolutely pulled the wool over my eyes that night.
Over the years, Mayor Carter and I had many conversations about how challenging this work was. We took turns holding each other up when we got frustrated or down. I remember the days when her grandkids were very young. She would point to the two cars seats in the back of her car and laugh about how those little ones would just wear her out. She loved her family and spoke glowingly of her husband, children, and grandchildren. She mourned the loss of her husband several years ago, but, as always, she kept moving forward.
I spoke to her a week before she died. She told me she could not shake the feeling of always being tired, and she was hopeful her doctor could figure it out. She was thrilled to be retiring and determined that the candidate she favored to succeed her would win. As a direct result of her campaigning, the Rev. E.G. Shields Sr. was indeed elected to be the new mayor, just one day before Mayor Carter passed—one final success to add to my friend’s ledger.
As I shed tears these last several days, I have reflected on the gift I was given to have a partner and friend like Mayor Carter. I am blessed to have had her come into my life and am so proud to call her my friend. I am not sure what I will do without her, but I can hear her saying, “C’mon now, Chris, you got work to do—go ahead and get it done.”
I will, Mayor, I will. In your honor.
I have been blessed to benefit from not one but two better angels of our nature in my life. The other is Peter Benoist. Like Mayor Carter, Peter exemplified the best within us, which I will be sharing in the second part of this blog post in just a few days.