February 10, 2012
As plans to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Gateway Arch with a grand entrance unfold and the drama of racial inclusion in the St. Louis construction industry continues with the nearby Mississippi River Bridge project, an industry pioneer whose career touched both this landmark and racial equality has left our midst. Woodrow Wilson "Woody" Zenfell, 94, died Feb. 4 at his Sunset Hills home of congestive heart failure, his wife Martha and children said.
Zenfell was the park engineer on the Arch and was later the executive director of the Construction Users Council, the predecessor organization to the St. Louis Council of Construction Consumers. He attended that organization's 40th anniversary celebration last year.
Woody Zenfell, was a true Southern gentleman, was the son of Mississippi Lebanese immigrant grocers. He grew up with no natural affinity for race relations. A public servant, he had worked on National Park Service projects throughout the south. In 1960 he was tasked with building the Gateway Arch. But this project came with a caveat. It was the time of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society and African Americans were to be included on the Arch's building team.
But blacks had been denied entrance to the construction trades in St. Louis. Zenfell recalled that for a time it looked like the Arch was not going to be built. While the recent I-40/64 project and others of its kind have received a lot of recognition, almost 50 years ago Woody Zenfell put away his youthful values and devised a hiring plan.
In 1964 Percy Green and Dick Daly climbed 125 feet up one leg of the Arch in protest. Work stopped on the Arch. Woody had to coax the men down. President Johnson signed an executive order compelling the project GC to hire black workers. The Justice Department filed suit against the building trades council and five of its member unions. The pipefitters started a training program. The electricians admitted their first 20 black journeymen and 12 black apprentices.
Later Zenfell went on to help with construction industry racial inclusion in East St. Louis, Kansas City, Des Moines and across the country. He headed SLCCC from 1973 to 1993.
Woody was the significance of the Arch beyond being simply a structure but said in a meeting with Mayor Alfonso Cervantes that he was equally concerned with seeing that the rights of all citizens were honored in its construction. "I didn't want my children to have to carry a heavier burden in the years ahead because I did nothing when I had the chance."
The family will hold a memorial service at 4 p.m. Sunday at Kutis Affton Chapel, 10151 Gravois Road. Visitation will be 1:30 to 4 p.m. at the funeral home. Burial will be at 12:30 p.m. Monday at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.
Survivors include his wife, Victoria Turner Zenfell; two daughters, Jennifer Fleming of Moberly, Mo., and Martha Zenfell of London; a son, Woodrow Zenfell Jr. of Sunset Hills; five grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.