Have You Met?
Name: Gene McNary
Story by: By Pat Treacy
Gene McNary believes in giving back to the community.
For the past 10 years, he has been involved with the Special Education Foundation and is in his second year as president of the organization. “The Special School District is one of the gems in St. Louis,” he said in a recent telephone conversation. The Foundation supports the School District’s efforts to help special children become productive, and in some cases, independent adults. During McNary’s tenure, the Foundation initiated a scholarship program for students and teachers, hosts an Awards Banquet to recognize achievement and established a Leadership Program where graduates of the Special School District mentor younger students.
As chairman of St. Louis Shriners Hospital, McNary helps guide the institution in its work of providing free care to children. “Shriners is the greatest philanthropy in the world,” McNary said. "They provide primarily orthopedic care along with cranial facial surgery and other specialties,” he said. “They receive no federal money and no third-party payments,” he added. There are 20 Shriners Hospitals in the United States and 22 in North America.
“St. Louis Shriners is on the leading edge of cranial facial surgery,” McNary boasted. “Some children are born without part of their faces and other deformities. Insurance companies consider this surgery cosmetic.” Insurance companies refuse to approve cranial facial surgery for payment, but patients and their families are not charged by Shriners Hospital.
McNary also serves on a committee which maps out the future of the entire Shriners Hospital system.
A plaque hanging in McNary’s office at the Paule, Camazine & Blumenthal law firm honors him as a founding father and member of the Hall of Fame of the Affton Athletic Association. The sports enthusiast spent 20 years raising money for the association, leading its efforts as president and coaching three teams.
This benefactor of our city was born in Muncie, Ind., one of two sons. His father was an oil jobber and his mother worked in her husband’s business. McNary earned his law degree at Indiana University and, after graduation, contemplated where he wanted to work and live.
“I had been to St. Louis to watch the Cardinals with my dad, so I was somewhat familiar with the city. It appealed to me because of its major league sports and cultural attractions and the fact that you can get anywhere in 30 minutes,” he remembered. He moved to St. Louis and joined the Lashly, Lashly & Miller law firm.
In 1963, he began his career as assistant public defender. “I wanted to do trial work,” he explained. After two and one-half years, he was a skilled criminal trial lawyer and in 1966 he ran for prosecuting attorney on the Republican ticket. “Lightning struck and I was elected,” he said.
He served as St. Louis County executive from 1975 to 1989, elected to four terms. During this time he helped create a regional Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Regional Arts Commission and helped merge city and county hospitals into a regional facility. He also served as chairman of the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council.
After his term expired as St. Louis County executive, President George W. Bush appointed McNary commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. McNary and his wife moved to Washington, D.C., where he headed an 18,000-employee agency with a budget of $2 million.
“The INS was a stepchild of the Justice Department,” he commented. “It was a no-win job because nobody wants immigrants and ethnic groups competed to get people from their countries into the U.S.” He promoted the service’s being moved to another arm of the government and when Homeland Security was instituted, the INS became part of its jurisdiction.
Gene and Susan McNary have five children and five grandchildren. The 68-year-old Ladue resident is a fitness buff who runs and rides a bicycle.
Early in McNary’s political career, then-Senator Clifford Jones advised him to “keep smiling and wear a thick hide.” “This was good advice,” McNary said, “Because politics is a rough and tough game.”
As McNary runs the race for an encore as St. Louis County executive, he is equal to the task.
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