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Donald F. Essen
August 19, 1921 - September 25, 2013
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Upon his Wed. Sept. 25, 2013 death in his Ballwin home, Donald F. Essen received the joy of eternal life, joining his wife Patricia (née Wolf), and his parents F.X. and Amelia (née Jacob), an infant sister, brother David, and son-in-law Mark Detrich. Don’s surviving family—daughters Sue (Tony Kenworthy), Maud, Joanie, and Mary, and grandsons Nick and Ed Detrich—extend their sincere gratitude to the excellent ladies of Seniors Home Care for their love and devotion.
Blessed by the gift of faith, Don was a husband, father, businessman, churchman, and civic leader who played a significant role in the development of West St. Louis County.
Don was born in a stucco house in Ballwin, the city he helped incorporate and that was his home for 92 years. A fourth generation member of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Ellisville, he was baptized on Sept. 15, 1921 by Pastor E. Buchshacher and confirmed in faith in May, 1934 by Pastor Arthur E. Going. Don remained a member of what is now known as St. John Church his entire life. Highlights of his service to the congregation include:
• Taught 4th grade Sunday School and sang in the choir with Pat for over 45 years and in 1948 taught the congregation’s first adult Bible class
• 1955, chaired the 1955 Church Building Committee’s “Strive for 55” Campaign to build the new church building that was completed in the early 1960s
• At various times, served as Elder and President and Vice-President on the Church Council
• Served on the St. John Building Committee until 2007
Don also served Concordia Seminary as a member of the President’s Advisory Council from 1968 to 2007. Starting in 1971, he was very active in The Gideons International, at various times serving in these capacities:
• President, Vice-President, Zone Leader, and Faith-Fund Chairman, State of Missouri
• Vice-President, St. Louis Southwest Camp and St. Louis South Camp
Don graduated from the two-room Ballwin Public School No. 42 in 1935, after completing 8th grade. A 1939 graduate of Maplewood High, Don graduated in 1943 as a Mechanical Engineer from Washington University, where he was active in ROTC in preparation for military service. Don was officially designated a BMOC as President of the Chorus and also received Sophomore Honors and the Pi Mu Epsilon Mathematics Honorary. In 1943, Don was honored by membership in Omicron Delta Kappa Honor Society for his leadership, activities, and grades. That year he also served as Vice-President of Sigma Nu’s Gamma Omicron chapter, and later on served as President of the St. Louis Sigma Nu Alumni Association. Throughout his life, Don remained active with the Wash U Alumni Association, and helped raise funds through the Eliot Society.
From 1943 through 1946, Don served the US Army in the WWII European Theater, applying his engineering skills to protecting Antwerp from V-1 buzz bombs by pioneering statistical methods that became the model for all statistical sections in the command. During active duty he earned the rank of Captain and decorations from three countries, including:
• United States – Bronze Star, Army Commendation Ribbon, World War II Victory Medal, European Theatre Campaign Ribbon with three stars, American Theatre Campaign Ribbon, and Army Occupation Medal
• Great Britain – Military Cross
• Belgium – Chevalier de l’Ordre de la Couronne avec Palme, Croix de Guerre 1940 avec Palme, and Fourragere 1940
After the war ended, Don served in the US Army Reserves from 1946 through 1961, achieving the rank of Major.
After a brief tenure at Emerson Electric, Don worked at Monsanto where he met Pat, his wife of 63 years, in the cafeteria; they had been distantly acquainted while students at Wash U. The pretty chemist was embarrassed at the KMnO4 stains and holes in her lab coat, but Don noticed no sartorial deficits and immediately asked Pat out on a double date with Marv and Lula Knoll for a cruise on the Admiral. During a brief but busy engagement, the young couple found time to join the Kirkwood Chorus, thus setting the precedent for a lifetime of cultural enjoyment of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, and the Santa Fe Opera. Encouraged by the gift of a Mixmaster from Pat’s mother, Don and Pat married in 1947, settled in Ballwin, and began a family.
Ever the visionary, after the war Don saw that people would want to own their own automobiles and, with the expansion of suburban living, move to West County. So on Oct. 29, 1949, Don took charge of the Ballwin Motor Company founded by his father in 1922, which was the third Chevrolet dealership in the St. Louis area and the first in West County. As a youth, Don had learned the automotive business from the ground up; he had cleaned parts, scraped carbon, ground valves, changed tires, lubricated cars and changed oil, washed cars, pumped gas, and operated the 24-hour wrecking service. Don served as Ballwin Motor Company’s Automotive General Manager until 1954, when his father sold him the business with an inventory of one automobile. Don then focused on developing the Chevy franchise as Don Essen Chevrolet, which he moved to a modern HOK-designed facility in 1962 and operated until 1985. In the early years, Don not only sold cars but also was the young company’s sole manager and accountant, but as the business grew he became active in many professional organizations:
• Greater St. Louis Chevrolet Dealers Association (past President), St. Louis Zone Chevrolet Dealer Council (1978 Chairman), Midwest Region Chevrolet Dealer Council (1978 Delegate), and Chevy II 20 Group (past Chairman)
• West County Automobile Dealers Association (past Treasurer), Greater St. Louis Automobile Dealers Association (past Chairman-Ethics Committee), and Missouri Automobile Dealers Association (past Board Member, past Chairman-Ethics Committee, member Franchise Continuation Committee)
Don also found ways his business could benefit his community:
• Started the Driver Training Program in Parkway and Rockwood School Districts, providing student driver cars to those districts and to Valley Park School District
• Organized and sponsored two official Soap Box Derbies in St. Louis in 1963 and 1964 whose winners competed in the National Derby in Akron, OH
• Donated the use of parade cars to many events, including Ballwin Days
• Sponsored local athletic teams including the Ballwin Athletic Association, Ellisville Athletic Association, Ballwin Khoury League, Bonhomme Jr. Football League, and Lafayette Club Hockey
While building his business, with Pat’s support Don worked tirelessly in the community to develop West County as an attractive place to live, worship, and do business. His many activities included:
• 1957, co-founded the Lafayette (now West County) Chamber of Commerce (serving as first President and also on the Board), which was instrumental in securing the bond issue that built Lafayette High School in 1960
• 1960: Chairman of Ballwin's Tenth Anniversary Committee
• As President of the Ballwin (now West County) Rotary Club and member of the Chamber, helped lead a five-year effort to widen Manchester Road to four lanes, and chaired the dedication ceremony in 1963
• 1964 to 1980s, Washington First Federal Savings and Loan Association of Greater St. Louis (served as Board member)
• 1979, received the St. Louis County League of Chambers of Commerce Outstanding Business Person of the Year Award
• 1983: Chaired the Pond-Grover Study Committee whose approved study became the basis of the new City of Wildwood, incorporated in 1995
• West County YMCA (past Board member)
It wasn’t all work and no play for Don and his family. Every year Don and Pat packed the family into a Chevy station wagon and hit the road to go camping or horseback riding, swim in the ocean, attend Rotary conventions, or visit historic sites. Don and Pat enjoyed square dancing for many years at the Melody Barn. They were both athletic, enjoying tennis and golf at Forest Hills Country Club (where Don had served on the Board), and were proud of the photographic evidence of all four daughters water skiing at once. They enjoyed walking so much that they founded Die Ballwin Wander Freunde volksmarch (walking) club. Don and Pat travelled extensively, and enjoyed sharing their experiences and photographs from travelling in the US, Canada, the Caribbean, Central and South America, Europe, China, the Fiji Islands, Scandinavia, India, Nepal, Germany, Israel, and Turkey. On one of their last trips they taught vacation Bible school in Alaska.
Don tried many sports, including racquetball, cross-country skiing, sky diving, and hot air ballooning, and for a number of years maintained a single engine pilot’s license. In later years, he kept bees and enjoyed sharing honey with family and friends. But throughout his life, Don’s favorite sport was downhill skiing, which he had first learned in Austria in 1945 while in the Army. Don last skied with his daughters and grandsons on the slopes of Winter Park, CO at the age of 84.
On his retirement in 1985, Don continued to be active in his church and community. As a member of the Ballwin Historical Commission, he helped organize moving, renovating, and re-dedicating his elementary school alma mater, Ballwin Public School No. 42, in 1988, and also helped organize moving the Harrison-Schmidt-Dahlke log cabin to the City of Ballwin’s Vlasis Park in 1990. In 2010, he organized moving St. John's Lutheran Church's one-room Alt Schoolhouse, which had also been used as a church sanctuary, to St. Louis County's Faust Park.
Don also remained active with Concordia Seminary, The Gideons International, The West St. Louis County Chamber of Commerce, The West St. Louis County Rotary Club, Ballwin Days Committee, Ballwin Historical Commission, German American Heritage Society, Washington University Alumni Association, and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. Highlights include:
• 1987-1991: Chaired the St. Louis County Planning and Zoning Commission
• April 17, 2001: Received the Engineering Alumni Achievement Award from his beloved alma mater Wash U
In later years, Don and Pat together served on the Ballwin Days Committee for 24 years and received these meaningful honors:
• 2000: Mr. and Mrs. Ballwin Days
• 2007: St. Andrew's Ageless Remarkable St. Louisans for their contributions to the community
On March 7, 1997 Don told the Times West, “Helping to build up a viable commercial base in West County has meant more than selling cars. I believe in the community, the history, the people. I’ve always wanted to give something back.”
Funeral service at St. John, 15800 Manchester Rd., Ellisville on Sat., Oct. 5, 2013 at 1 PM, followed by interment with military honors at St. John's Lutheran Cemetery adjacent to the church.
Visitation at Schrader Funeral Home Family Center, 14960 Manchester at Holloway, Ballwin on Fri., Oct. 4, 2013 at 3-8 PM and at St. John, Sat. Oct. 5, 2013 at 12-1 PM.
If desired, contributions in Don's name may be made to The Salvation Army, Midland Division, 1130 Hampton Ave., St. Louis, MO 63139, to The Don and Pat Essen Endowed Scholarship Fund, Seminary Advancement, 801 Seminary Place, St. Louis, MO 63105, or to the organization of your choice.