Barry Upchurch

Barry Upchurch, St. Louis REALTORS® President

By Barry Upchurch, St. Louis REALTORS® President
January 2017

A little boy followed a man with an axe down a dusty road. The whole journey seemed curious to this little boy of five. The man stopped at a cedar tree and took several practice swings, checking the sharpness of his blade. Soon, they would arrive at a dilapidated one-story house with a large, wooden-framed front porch. The house was covered in brush and volunteer trees, reflecting its neglected condition. The man would go to work on clearing the brush and trees away from the house…and the little boy would do his best to help his father.

As I learned the details of this story, I came to find out that the father and son had been living in an old, abandoned elementary school with his mother and two sisters—without a home—also neglected and abandoned by society, much like the home they were working on.

Like many of the families and children living in North St. Louis during the recent great recession, their story was not dissimilar. As Ecclesiastes warns us, “There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under the heavens.” A time to be born and a time to die. A time to tear down and a time to build. A time to be silent and a time to speak.

Many of you have asked me why am I so passionate about the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater St. Louis, why do I love St. Louis so much and why was I willing to run and lose four times for office before I ended up here—before you today—on the eve of our association’s 140th anniversary?

Fifty years ago, I moved to St. Louis at the age of five. Unlike the hero in my story above, I have always had a roof over my head, I have lived in a well-built home in a safe neighborhood, and I attended one of the best public schools in St. Louis, just a stone’s throw from the association’s headquarters.

To me, St. Louis was a place of opportunity and wealth. The Gateway Arch keystone had just been placed, connecting the massive legs which amazingly stood on their own. A new geodesic dome, the Climatron, which embraced the concept of “Spaceship Earth,” was open for visitors. Marlin Perkins, the head of our world-famous zoo, was starring in a wildly popular TV show, “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.” And my sister and I would sit at our kitchen table doing our homework—at least, she did—listening to Jack Buck on KMOX call the strikes thrown by Bob Gibson and the stolen bases of Lou Brock. It’s funny. When you listen to the baseball game on radio, you don’t see color or race—you just hear the cheers from one of the most winningest teams in franchise history, our beloved Cardinal Nation. It was a magical time.

Not until the appearance of Martin Luther King, Jr. on our small black and white TV set would I start to comprehend the ramifications of segregation in our country, our state and our city, from the comfort and safety of my sheltered home. Being an idealist in an ideal world, I was enamored with his words:

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Being born in North Carolina, the great-grandson of a confederate soldier who fought under Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, I marveled at American history—especially, the war between the states—and the role that St. Louis would play as a border city in a border state. As a southerner, my loving grandmother ingrained in me two lessons, which she would repeat over and over again. One was of how my weak and emaciated great-grandfather made his way back home to N.C., after having served in deplorable conditions at a prison camp in Elmira, N.Y. for a year, after being captured shortly after the battle of Gettysburg. The other lesson, sadly, was African-Americans were no good and that segregation was to be upheld at all costs. I loved my grandmother dearly, but that lesson stood in stark contrast to my mother’s side of the family—the well-off tobacco farmers—where African-Americans occupied my great grandparents’ house right next to my grandparents. They worked in the fields with them, broke bread together and treated them with the utmost respect, even though they attended different churches and schools. It was truly a tale of two cities which would lead me to conclude that economic prosperity plays a key role in driving out racial disparity.

Soon we will play a masterful video of the history and future of our association, reflecting back upon our trials and tribulations and opportunities over the last 140 years. I ask you to please keep one quote in mind as you watch.

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations,” as stated by President Abraham Lincoln, just 43 days before his untimely death. Just think what our world might have been like if this one human had continued to guide us towards peace.

The path across the Delmar Divide is not well traveled, as Robert Frost once wrote: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” As many of the leaders in this room know, we have crossed the Delmar Divide, not once, but numerous times this year. More than 100 of our members worked with Rebuilding Together to repair the homes of three neighbors in need in Pagedale. Our Affiliate Council and so many of our members donated hundreds of backpacks filled with school supplies to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater St. Louis. We visited with the Mayor of Dellwood, a neighborhood most ravished by the tragedy of Ferguson, to discuss opportunity and growth. We held our post-election celebration at the beautiful Moonrise Hotel. And, most recently, we built a haunted house, raised tons of candy and volunteered at the Boys & Girls Clubs’ Boo Bash Halloween party this year. All small steps for us, which in the words of Neil Armstrong, truly were “one giant leap” for our Association.

Which makes me think back upon that little boy trying to keep up to the large strides his father must have taken going to that abandoned home. And I think of the challenges that lay ahead. And finally, I think of the long journey St. Louis, and our association, have been on. You see, that little boy was not from the Boys & Girls Club, not from North St. Louis, not an African-American or even from this century. That little boy is my father, here today. It was because of the partial forgiveness of his family’s debt, during the Great Depression, which allowed him, my aunts and my grandparents to have another shot at the American Dream. Who knows where I, or my father’s eleven descendants—all college-educated, productive citizens—and now living the American Dream—would be today. As Beyond Housing’s Chris Krehmeyer would say, my family was the one that needed just a little help that day.

In conclusion, please consider these three themes as you watch our 140th anniversary video and imagine what we can do in the next decade:

First, let us continue to give. The Spirit of St. Louis is one of generosity—we are already one of the most philanthropic communities in America—but much, much more is required. Let us not only give to our association, our community and to each other, but let us “ForGive” ourselves, each other and our community for what we have or have not done. In the spirit of the prodigal son, let us welcome back home those who have been lost, abandoned or forgotten.

Second, the Preamble to our Code of Ethics talks in aspiration language and one of the most powerful concepts is “the highest and best use.” While we, the REALTOR® family, may be experts on land, housing and commerce, that’s NOT what we live for. We live so that our children, our children’s children and future generations can aspire to their highest and best use—their full potential. Let us break down the so many barriers and arbitrary boundaries that divide us so ALL our children can prosper, live, work and play in peace together.

Finally, from the heartland of America, and, as one of the founders of our National Association of REALTORS®, let St. Louis—and really, all of us—go forth from this point in history and renew our commitment to the American Dream for all Americans. Let us be the homestead to nurture new ideas of home-ownership and the guarantor of prosperity for future generations. And let us be the cornerstone of a new foundation, the foundation for the American Dream, which has its roots at 4600 Labadie Avenue.

For now is the time to plant, the time to sow, the time to embrace, the time to speak up and, above all, the time to love.