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Claire McCaskill: Garland should act, Breyer should retire, the filibuster should stay

Attorney General Merrick Garland should act on the contempt case against Steve Bannon, Justice Stephen Breyer should retire, Democratic senators Diane Feinstein and Patrick Leahy are getting old, the filibuster should be retained but reformed and former Attorney General Eric Holder was too slow to release the report clearing former Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson.

Those are some of the newsy comments that MSNBC/NBC commentator Claire McCaskill made Wednesday night at a First Amendment celebration sponsored by the Gateway Journalism Review. The former Missouri senator was interviewed by Jo Mannies, retired political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio and the Post-Dispatch and by GJR publisher William H. Freivogel. Listen to a recording of the entire interview.

The focus of the evening was the First Amendment, media literacy and democracy and McCaskill’s transition from elected public official to political commentator.

The media is failing because the business model is failing, the former US senator said.

Claire McCaskill

“I think the media is failing in that they are falling into a business model, which is not their fault, they’re trying to make money,” she said. “People are going to cable news outlets for affirmation, they’re not going for information. They’re going to feel righteous and correct.”

McCaskill said the meager core of journalists who are still toiling away, who have editors, and actually have to report factual information, are doing amazing work right now. There is just not enough critical mass anymore. 

Cable news outlets are a bunch of silos, Mannies said. There is the CNN silo, Fox silo, MSNBC silo. She asked McCaskill why she chose to join MSNBC, which is an admittedly liberal news organization. 

“The reason that I went with MSNBC was because I felt comfortable there,” McCaskill said. “Frankly, their willingness to give me a lot of latitude in my contract, both in scheduling and how much I appeared and where I appeared, was also important.” 

Mannies asked McCaskill for suggestions regarding how the average viewer is supposed to know which outlets are “crazy town,” and which ones are trying to get the facts straight.

“I recommend to people that they watch a little bit of everything,” McCaskill said. “I think reading is really important, and I’m just not talking about links on Facebook, I’m talking about whether it’s online or old fashioned paper, reading where there are editors, where reporters must run their stories by editors.”

She said she is a big believer that people should get their main news from places where there are editors, not on Twitter or not on Facebook, but places where reporters are still expected to play it straight. 

People pretending to be news outlets online has been a real problem, she said. These outlets that have started newspapers, that aren’t really newspapers, put up a banner online to make it look like a newspaper and create a name that sounds like a newspaper. (GJR probed a network of these pseudo-newspapers in Illinois.)

“Then, they print garbage,” McCaskill said. “And before you know it, depending on how sensational the garbage is, how much it makes you afraid or makes you angry, it’s everywhere. It’s around the world, and it’s not even a newspaper.” 

A media literacy advocate, Jessica Brown, asked how, in “post-truth” age, can a media literate electorate be developed? 

McCaskill said she believes most people who are taking college courses in media literacy already realize it’s a problem, so the question is how to reach the people who don’t take those courses. 

“I think kids need to be taught what is going on,” she said. “Why is TikTok not reliable? Why being an Instagram star should not be your goal in life? What is an editor? What is straight journalism? How can you recognize it?” 

McCaskill said if she was in charge of the world right now, she would require a media literacy class in 7th grade for every public school student in the country. 

“I think we’re at that point in our democracy, that it is that important,” she said. 

Frustration with Garland

McCaskill is frustrated that Attorney General Garland has not announced what he is doing with  Congress’ criminal referral for Bannon refusing to testify about the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.  

McCaskill was responding in part to a question from Michael Wolff, former chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court, who asked if Garland had been a judge too long to be an effective prosecutor.

“As someone who was the state prosecutor, I have very little respect for the molasses-like speed of the federal law enforcement apparatus,” McCaskill said. “What would they be investigating? Either they are going to do it or they aren’t, either he is going to appoint a special counsel or he isn’t.

“If I were still in the Senate, I would be pounding my podium for Garland to make a decision and move so we can get this thing going.  There is no excuse for him not to announce what the DOJ is doing with the contempt that they have been sent by the White House representatives.” 

McCaskill told for the first time a story about her frustrations with former Attorney General  Holder’s slowness in releasing the federal investigation explaining why the Justice Department was not charging  former Officer Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown in 2014. The killing triggered months of protests and strengthened the Black Lives Matter movement.

McCaskill said the Justice report says exactly what the Grand Jury said in St. Louis County that there was plenty of evidence that Brown reached into Wilson’s police car and wrestled to gain control of his service revolver.

“Eric was so worried, I think, about the impact it would have that he held it until they finished the pattern and practice,” she said. The pattern or practice investigation found compelling evidence of unconstitutional police practices.

Both the report clearing Wilson and the pattern or practice investigation were released at the same time. She said the New York Times reported the pattern and practice investigation and buried in the story that there was no basis for any action against the police officer for the actual shooting.

“So, in one fell swoop, they undermine the effectiveness, in many ways, of the law enforcement community in St. Louis County for many, many years to come,” McCaskill said. 

McCaskill said she called the White House to complain and was told the president didn’t interfere with the Justice Department.

That hands off approach “got blown up during Trump’s years,” McCaskill said. “There was no line. He saw that lawyer as his lawyer. It is outrageous what he tried to do with the Department of Justice. So, I think there is a desire to get that line back to normal, to get it out of the political realm and back to the calling balls and strikes.”

She thinks Garland is reacting to the Trump abuses by trying to get back to traditional norms. But she said she would continue to be critical of Garland until he acts on Bannon.

Breyer should retire now

Dale Singer, a former Post-Dispatch editorial writer and reporter for St. Louis Public Radio asked if Justice Breyer should retire to preserve rights like those recognized in New York Times v. Sullivan.

McCaskill did not hesitate. “I think he should retire,” she said. “I think he should retire tomorrow.”

She added, “We have some really old Democratic senators,” pointing in particular to Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy and California’s Diane Feinstein. “I love Diane, but she’s very old, she’s the oldest (Democratic senator). I love Pat Leahy, he’s very old. If anything happened to either one of them then we’re no longer the majority. So I wish Breyer would retire so that we could make sure we at least hold on to three seats (in the Supreme Court) as far as values I worked for for 30 some years.”

Should Feinstein retire? “Diane blew me away. She was hyperprepared. She wasn’t staff driven. …..I think she has struggled lately. Her husband’s in very bad health. I don’t know what it is about that place that people don’t want to go home. But I’d like to take them aside and say come on out here, it is pretty nice….I’m having a hoot now….I think they get so used to the deference and the routine….I think many people stay too long.”

Retain but reform filibuster

“All of  my friends in the very progressive camp of the Democratic party…they forget there’s a 50-50 Senate,” she said. “They get so mad about the filibuster and about Joe Manchin. You only get to a majority in the U.S. Senate if you elect some moderates. There aren’t enough bright blue places to elect 55 or 53 Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warrens.”

 “….I was there when we stopped them defunding Planned Parenthood. It would have happened if it wasn’t for the filibuster….I was there….when because of the filibuster we were able to stop funding of the wall.

“…It sounds great to do away with the filibuster as long as we’re in charge,” she said. “If we are no longer in charge, it won’t feel so good. It will be helpless to stop anything.”

She said there is a need to reform the filibuster.  

“Somebody shouldn’t be able to call the cloakroom from a bar downtown and say ‘I object,’” McCaskill said. “They should have a standing, talking filibuster.”

McCaskill said voting rights should be carved out as an exception. Appointments are now an exception to the filibuster. She believes voting rights could legitimately be couched as such an essential in the democracy.

“If we do away with the filibuster, it will swing back and forth,” McCaskill said. “There will be no really big long-term change because it will become just whoever is in charge. I’m not sure that is what the Founding Fathers wanted.” 

 Integrity has been undermined

When people used to run for office, integrity was a pretty important value, McCaskill said. 

“People would believe what you said,” she said. “Donald Trump took that and turned it on its ear. He basically played to people’s cynicism and their sense of grievance.” 

The main thing that has changed with the advent of the internet, McCaskill said. She doesn’t know whether it was Trump, the internet or an unhealthy combination of the two. 

McCaskill said next Tuesday’s gubernatorial race in Virginia would be important because the Republican candidate is trying to have it both ways – courting Trump voters without embracing Trump. She said it would be interesting to see if he can thread that needle.

Mannies asked: With the media backdrop of the silos, did polarization of the media affect Missouri’s polarization? 

The Missouri Legislature, during the beginning of COVID-19, legalized brass knuckles, McCaskill said. 

“That moment was just a defining moment for me about how far we had fallen in terms of representation in Jefferson City prioritizing, I think, the issues most Missourians want them to care about,” she said. “The reason that is happening is because the Republicans did something very effectively, not just in Missouri, but in the country, and that is they weaponized cultural issues.”

In the past, McCaskill said in Jefferson City, there was a lot of time spent on the meat and potatoes of what state government is supposed to be doing and the services it’s supposed to be providing. 

“Republicans don’t talk about stuff anymore, they don’t really even try to legislate on that stuff anymore,” she said. “It’s all about cultural stuff.”

McCaskill said she wants Democrats to do a better job of bringing up cultural issues on their side of the equation, including abortion rights and gun control.

In regard to other cultural issues that could be helpful to Democrats, politically, McCaskill said the main one is voting. 

“They want to keep you from voting,” she said. “The freedom to participate in our democracy is a cultural issue. And I think it is one that could be really good for our party.” 

“The other thing is it’s going to motivate a lot of people to vote because what those guys haven’t figured out, that are pushing all this voter suppression stuff, Black and Brown Americans know what they’re doing,” she said. “They know they are trying to keep them from voting. And you know what is going to happen psychologically, it’s going to motivate them to vote more, I really do believe that.” 

McCaskill said she was surprised one of the Republican candidates for the Senate in Missouri  “isn’t trying to take a traditional Republican role…saying I believe in conservative values but not all this crazy talk.” McCaskill referred to the Trump-like rhetoric of the candidates, including Mark McCloskey, whom she referred to as that “crazy gunwaving St. Louis West End gun lawyer.”

McCaskill suggested that Democrats may have to wait a cycle or two to win statewide political office but added that the nomination of Eric Greitens, might open the door sooner.

Emily Cooper is a graduate student at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where she studies Professional Media and Media Management. You can follow her Twitter @coopscoopp




Publisher, environmental activist, immigration advocate receive top honors from GJR/SJR during First Amendment Celebration

Kay Drey, 2021 Whistleblower Award
Anna Crosslin, Freedom Fighter Award
Dr. Donald Suggs, 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award



GJR honors publisher, editor of The St. Louis American with lifetime award

Dr. Donald M. Suggs has spent his lifetime accomplishing one achievement after another. He was the first in his family to complete high school. He is an oral surgeon-cum-civil rights advocate, art collector, and newspaper editor and publisher. 

As executive editor and publisher of The St. Louis American Suggs is chief producer and promoter of the 93-year-old weekly newspaper — not just keeping the American alive but also striving to adapt and change as it provides vital information for people throughout the St. Louis metropolitan area. All people. Blacks, whites and people of other ethnicities have come to trust the American to tell news and feature stories as seen through an African American lens.

Dr. Donald M. Suggs, publisher of The St. Louis American, at the Saint Louis Art Museum, where he is an honorary trustee.  (Photo by Jennifer Sarti)

Suggs is this year’s recipient of the Gateway Journalism Review’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He will be honored Oct. 27 at the magazine’s annual First Amendment Celebration.

An influencer of public thought, Suggs sits on more than two dozen boards of directors or trustees, ranging from the Barnes-Jewish Goldfarb School of Nursing (emeritus member) to the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis.

When he’s not shifting from Zoom meetings with his newspaper staff to those of the myriad of other organizations he supports, he’s writing pointed editorials and overseeing  page production for Wednesday afternoon deadlines.

The Suggs of today has come a long way from where he started. 

Donald Marthal Suggs was born Aug. 7,1932, to Morris and Elnora Suggs. His father was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, and grew up in Kentucky. His mother was born in Montpelier, Mississippi.

The couple met and settled in East Chicago, Indiana, where Morris Suggs worked in a steel mill, their families having joined others who were part of the Great Migration from the South to the industrial centers in the North.

The couple had three children: Donald, Loretta and Walter.  

Though he grew up in the age of segregation, the young Suggs was raised in an integrated environment of the small, factory town. He attended public schools with the children of Eastern European and Hispanic immigrants. 

“I had a ‘mixed’ kind of upbringing,” he told GJR, adding that he learned to “code switch” at an early age. 

His father, he said, was a voracious reader.

“He was intellectually curious.”

Early influences

Growing up with Black newspapers such as The Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier in his home, the young Suggs followed his father’s lead and also developed an intellectual curiosity.

In high school, with his then-best friend, Donald Peters, Suggs started a newspaper — The Galloping Gossip. 

But it wasn’t until much later that he would return to that first passion for sharing news.

After high school he spent a year working while taking classes at an extension program of Indiana University. He went on to enroll full time at the university, earning his bachelor’s degree in dentistry and his doctorate of dental surgery — D.D.S. He was one of two Black students in his graduating class when he completed graduate school. 

Dr. Donald Suggs receives honorary doctorate from Washington University. (Photo courtesy of the Suggs family)

It was while he was a student that he began learning about, and developing an appreciation for, fine art. During his high school years, he spent summers with his paternal grandparents in Chicago and visited places like the Art Institute. 

On visits to New York, he began exploring art even more. 

“New York was my North Star,” he said.

He came to St. Louis for an internship in 1957 and medical residency a year later at the historic Homer G. Phillips Hospital. 

Suggs chose Phillips — known as a training ground for a generation of Black physicians — over an internship in New York “because I thought Blacks were in charge.”

It was also in St. Louis that he turned his focus on the burgeoning civil rights movement. 

As he started on the activism trail, however, Suggs said initially he was viewed with suspicion. 

“I had two fights: one with our political opponents and also with those on the inside, who were suspicious that I was a plant,” because of his speech, mannerism and advanced education.   

During this time, he met two men who would become his closest friends for the coming decades.

The Joneses

Mike Jones was a sophomore at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, in 1968, when he met Suggs.

“Donald was a revolutionary oral surgeon,” Jones said. 

Dr. Donald Suggs, 1998. (Photo courtesy of The St. Louis American)

“He drove a Volkswagen and collected African art. He was leading the Poor People’s March.”

In fact, Suggs served as the St. Louis chairman of the Poor People’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The historic 1968 event was organized to call for economic justice in the United States. 

Under Suggs’ leadership, St. Louis sent busloads of people to Washington, D.C., joining more than 200,000 others from around the country who had come to hear from civil rights, labor and religious leaders. The march had been planned by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for the summer five years after he delivered his  “I have a dream” speech. But King was assassinated that April and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy carried on with the march. 

Jones said he was introduced to Suggs by a college friend during Jones’ days as a student-activist. 

“Take away the movement, Donald and I would have never met,” Jones said. 

“He had a profound effect on me. He nurtured my intellectual development.” 

Jones has served on the Missouri Board of Education, and was deputy mayor for development of the City of St. Louis and a senior policy advisor for the St. Louis County executive. Today he is a regular opinion writer for the American. 

“Without the American,” Jones said, “the Black community [in St. Louis] would be totally ignored.” In the American “there is a forum for Black perspective and Black voice.” 

Virvus Jones, who is not related to Mike, met Suggs when the young surgeon was balancing his dental practice, cultural pursuits and activism. 

“Doc always had an interest in history and politics,” Virvus Jones said. At Suggs’ home at the time in University City, “there were these African sculptures … He showed me how Picasso copied a lot of African art.”

A Vietnam war veteran and former St. Louis comptroller, Virus Jones is the father of St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones. Though Virvus Jones for years contributed to the American’s “Political Eye” opinion column, he stopped as his daughter, a former St. Louis treasurer and Missouri state representative, rose in politics. 

Suggs’ passion for art and politics grew along with his family. 

He is the father of Dawn Suggs who is the American’s digital and special projects director, Dina Suggs, who lives in New York and Donald Suggs Jr., who died in 2012, and grandfather of Delali Suggs-Akaffu. 

“I was attracted to the artistic community, [but] I didn’t have talent,” Suggs said. 

What he did have was connections, which led him to establish the African Continuum, an organization that brought to St. Louis what he called “serious, non-commercial artistic endeavors:” musicians, theater performances and fine artists.

He also helped establish the Alexander, Roth, Suggs Gallery of African Art, with locations in St. Louis and New York City.  

Running a newspaper

The St. Louis American was established by Nathan B. Young in 1928. N.A. Sweets sold advertising in the early days before taking over in the mid-1930s. Sweets went on to run the paper with his wife, Melba Sweets, until 1981. 

When the Sweets family stepped down, the paper was purchased by business partners Dr. Benjamin Davis, Clifton Gates and Gene Liss. 

After Davis died a few years later, Suggs joined the other partners. He eventually bought them out and assumed control of the paper in the mid-1980s. 

“He always loved the American because it was well written,” said Fred Sweets, son of N.A. and Melba, and a former photographer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“He is committed to quality journalism.” 

The American today

Yet another Jones — Kevin Jones — started out selling advertising for the American almost 30 years ago. Today he is the paper’s chief operating officer, in charge of advertising, circulation and supervision of the business staff. The American currently distributes about 50,000 papers each week through about 700 locations in Missouri and Illinois. 

Kevin Jones described Suggs as a visionary and extremely energetic. 

Dr. Donald M. Suggs, publisher of The St. Louis American, in his office on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. (Photo by Jennifer Sarti)

“He’s up at the gym when I’m still asleep,” Kevin Jones said. “It’s hard to work with him and not be that energetic. It rubs off.”

Kevin Jones said he believes one of the keys to Suggs’ success is that “he listens to people.”

“He’s always one to listen to ideas for changes. He takes my ideas and enhances them and takes them to the next level.” 
These days, Suggs is looking toward the future and working to ensure the American remains strong not just in print, but online and across social media platforms. 

The paper continues to be celebrated by its peers. 

Among recent honors, the American in September won 33 statewide awards in competition against newspapers with circulation of 5,000 or more, from Missouri Press Association in its 2021 Better Newspaper Contest. The awards include the first place award for general excellence, which the American has won seven times. 

But for Suggs, 89, the work goes on. 

“In the next two years,” he said, “the American has to be reset. To thrive we must be sustainable.” 

And he wants to continue the tradition of raising up talented journalists. 

“We want to have the kind of reputation that people will want to work here because it is a professional community newspaper. We want this to be a desirable destination.”

Linda Lockhart has worked as a reporter and editor at several news organizations around the Midwest, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and St. Louis Public Radio. From November 2020 through February 2021 she served as interim managing editor at The St. Louis American.




Kay Drey: Whistleblower for an Atomic Age in St. Louis

Commentary

Kay Drey is an activist, environmentalist, a whistleblower and an Earth Mother. Who could argue that there is anyone more passionate than Kay Drey about protecting humanity from the dangers of the atomic age?

Humanity means mothers, fathers, children – it’s not just a word. She is the premier whistleblower because she has educated so many journalists to blow the whistle, to make some noise, to sound the alarm in defense of man, woman and child.

Kay Drey

She is the Paul Revere of the Nuclear Age: 

• “Mobile Chernobyls are coming!” she warned us.

•  “Plutonium is coming!” she warned us.

• “Polonium is coming! Have you heard of it?” she asked us.

In recognition of those midnight rides to warn about environmental dangers, the Gateway Journalism Review is giving Drey its Whistleblower award at its First Amendment Celebration later this month.

Who else but Kay Drey would have tritium3 as her email address? It is impossible to message her without wondering if this radioactive element might be contaminating the neighborhood.

Most St. Louis journalists who have covered nuclear issues in any depth have found their way to Kay Drey’s basement. Full of file cabinets packed with items like 200-page Department of Energy documents, her basement is an extensive library on nuclear issues.

Two legendary Post-Dispatch investigative reporters, Lou Rose and Roy Malone, found their way to her basement when nuclear power plants were first being proposed for Missouri.

When writers with the Society of Environmental Journalists wanted to find out about yellow cake, and why St. Louis is called “atomic city” for its role in the making of the first atomic bombs, they found their way to Kay Drey’s basement.

Whether it was a story on the careless disposal of byproducts in the manufacture of atomic bombs, or a plan for nuclear power plants at Callaway near Fulton, Missouri, Kay Drey was in that basement helping journalists find facts. And she would talk with them.

Kay Drey would say: “It’s been more than a half century since the beginning of the atomic age, and we still don’t know what to do with the first cupful of the dangerous radioactive waste that has resulted.”

Kay Drey doesn’t just stay in the basement, though. With her knowledge of the dangers of the nuclear age, she might be forgiven for hunkering down in the basement. And never mind the radiation danger – how about a fallout shelter for protection from the profiteers, policy makers and public relations men of the atomic age?

No, Kay Drey has not stayed in the basement. She has come to the aid of her countrymen when they have organized and protested neglect of dangerous debris buried in lakes and streambeds. She has demonstrated with mothers opposed to train cars of radioactive waste barreling through their backyards.

There is, in fact, much more to be done in Kay Drey’s basement, but she has felt compelled to take on other obligations. She has served on professional panels and at university seminars on the intricacies of nuclear technology and radioactive containment.

She was not afraid or intimidated to debate the engineers and the project managers of the Weldon Spring Remedial Action Project for burial of atomic waste in the St. Louis region.

Despite her best efforts, a tomb for some of the worst radioactive waste from the atomic age was built on a 45-acre site at Weldon Spring. The highest point in St. Charles County now is not a bucolic, vine-covered bluff overlooking the Missouri River. It’s a boulder-covered mound of atomic debris. It’s a pyramid completed in 2001 containing 1.5 million cubic yards of hazardous waste.

Kay Drey told the project officials that they had no business siting an atomic waste repository in a significant population area – literally just a few thousand feet from Francis Howell High School. It belonged at sites sanctioned to isolate the wastes from people and the environment.

Under Kay Drey’s questioning, officials conceded that the burial site might be effective for 1,000 years or less. Not a good fit for deadly materials with a half-life that could exceed hundreds of thousands of years.

When the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy decided to ship the radioactive debris from the 1979 Three Mile Island (TMI) accident through Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, St. Louis and Kansas City, Kay Drey once again sounded the alarm. The shipments especially upset mothers in St. Louis who saw the rail casks of radioactive materials coming by their schools and backyards.

Kay Drey helped form Citizens Against Radioactive Transport (CART), which successfully got the attention of city and county officials, as well as the St. Louis congressional delegation, to demand more safety measures for the program to transport debris from TMI to Idaho.

St. Louis’s most informed nuclear activist warned that the TMI program was just a dry run for a plan to ship thousands of spent nuclear plant fuel rods for decades from the East Coast, through the Midwest, to Yucca Mountain, Nevada. The U.S. Congress eventually nixed the Yucca Mountain plan. 

“Spent fuel rods should not be coming through populated cities,” Drey told a reporter with the Webster-Kirkwood Times. “Such shipments can be mobile Chernobyls. They must be isolated, under constant surveillance. Irradiated fuel rods are always vulnerable to acts of terrorism, fire and accidents.”

When concerns over global warming and climate change began to make headlines in the 1990s, the nuclear industry began talking about the need for new, safer, greener energy generation with nuclear power plants. Kay Drey blew the whistle to remind us of accidents like TMI, Chernobyl and Fukushima.

When Ameren-UE began talking about a second nuclear plant at Callaway, or a series of small, modular reactors for electric energy, Kay Drey blew the whistle. She insisted that nuclear power reactors are neither safe, nor economical for ratepayers and taxpayers.

“My number-one reason for disliking nuclear power is – you can’t have it without exposing workers to the radiation,” she told St. Louis Magazine. “I don’t think they level with the workers about that. My second reason is routine releases: Every nuclear power plant, even without accidental releases, sends nuclear waste into the air and water – in our case, from Callaway into the river. And I don’t think people know that.

“Then there’s the possibility of huge accidents. Terrorism – it’s a dream for a terrorist,” Drey added. In one reactor vessel the size of Callaway, there are 16 billion curies – a long-lived radioactivity equivalent to 1,000 Hiroshima bombs – and there’s even more in the spent fuel pool. And there is simply no place for the waste.”

In recent years, Kay Drey has devoted much of her energy to the cause of Just Moms St. Louis. This is a group of North St. Louis County citizens who have suffered ill effects from Mallinckrodt Chemical’s atomic waste being dumped in their Coldwater Creek, in their West Lake Landfill, in sites near their Lambert International Airport.

No one knows the importance of the presence of Kay Drey in an atomic battle more than Dawn Chapman and Karen Nickel. Kay Drey helped educate Just Moms St. Louis about the radioactive materials and their correlation to cancers, instances of leukemia, and immune-deficiency diseases in North County.

What’s more, Kay Drey helped them communicate with their county, state and national officials about the overdue cleanup of contaminated landfills that have been plagued by underground fires. Eventually, federal officials took notice and drew up a remediation plan.

“Kay Drey has been our Erin Brockovich and so much more,” said Chapman. “She has been our Lois Gibbs. What Lois Gibbs was to the cleanup of the toxic disaster of Love Canal, that’s what Kay has been for us with the West Lake disaster.

“She was there for us when we needed to learn more about what was happening to us where we live,” added Chapman. “She was there for us for organizing, demonstrating, and expanding awareness of the terrible legacy in St. Louis of the atomic age.”     

The word exceptional has lost much of its meaning in a time of faltering “exceptional leaders” and the broken promise of our “American Exceptionalism.” However, there is real meaning when just ordinary, concerned mothers like Dawn Chapman and Karen Nickel call Kay Drey a truly exceptional person – an exceptional environmentalist. 

Consider a partial list of Kay Drey’s environmental accomplishments:

• She led a campaign to stop Callaway from building a second reactor. 

• She got the DOE to admit to the radioactive waste at Lambert Airport. 

• She won a 20-year battle to get airport contaminants removed. 

• She identified contaminated quarry water at Weldon Spring.

• She made sure a water treatment plant was built near Weldon Spring so “hot” radioactive waste would not be dumped into the Missouri River.

• She played a pivotal role to get the EPA to acknowledge responsibility for at least a partial cleanup of radioactive waste at WestLake Landfill.

• She has served on the Board of Great Rivers Environmental Law Center.

• She has served as president of Beyond Nuclear, a national nonprofit on nuclear issues.

• She and her late husband, Leo A. Drey, were founders of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment in 1969 and she remains active with MCE. 

• She and Leo Drey amassed more than 153,000 acres in the Missouri Ozarks and donated most of the property to the L-A-D Foundation for protection and recreation.

Let’s be honest. After all, Kay Drey has been honest for nine decades of life. The days are numbered. We are not going to have Kay Drey to blow the whistle for our own safety’s sake forever. And who among us could possibly take her place?

Don Corrigan is former editor of the Webster-Kirkwood Times and emeritus professor at Webster College. He has written stories and books about the environment and drew on his decades of reporting on Kay Drey to write this appreciation.