Leo Drey: Progressive Pioneer

Leo Drey left us at the age of 98.

It was in the mid-sixties that I first met Leo. He had heard about struggling FOCUS/Midwest magazine and wondered how it was doing. We met in his unpretentious office–no secretary. You just walked in.

The simplicity of his and his wife’s lifestyle, both in their work and in their home, was in sharp contrast to the far-reaching progressive adventure they pursued over these many decades. While Leo devoted himself to sustain an environment on the ground that would benefit generations to come, his wife Kay became a prophetess, who not only analyzed and recognized the implicit dangers of nuclear power plants, but also became an unrelenting voice informing the public and government how the nuclear industry poisons our environment. St. Louis Magazine called both “Green Giants”.

Leo encapsulated much more than being a national pioneer in land reclamation, a philanthropist who made one of the largest gifts of its type in Missouri, if not the nation, a founder of environmental groups that will outlast all of us. Moreover, he also represented a reconciliation of two lines of thought of particular concern to the Jewish community as well as to many others.

In a High Holiday, Yom Kippur, sermon, the late Rabbi Jim Diamond, then director of Hillel, a student group at Washington University, offered his evaluation of where American culture diverted from Jewish culture. Americans, he declared, have established individualism as the principal guide in shaping their lives. Jews, on the other hand, have always considered the community, whether of their own tribe or on a more universal base, as the core of their belief system.

If Rabbi Diamond would have had an opportunity to meet Leo and review his lifework exalting individual values that contributed to many communities, he would have had to amend his theories and recognize that individualism and community work can complement each other, benefiting both aspects of American life.

Leo Drey represented the best of many cultures.

Publisher’s note: Leo and Kay Drey were major supporters of the St. Louis Journalism review and chaired the most recent First Amendment celebrations for the Gateway Journalism Review.