Molly Rockamann of EarthDance
St. Louis native Molly Rockamann was passionate about farming, nutrition and their effect on the environment long before the farm-to-table movement became mainstream. These interests were solidified when her dad took her to Al and Caroline Mueller’s organic farm in Ferguson (the oldest of its kind west of the Mississippi). The couple’s natural farming practices influenced the 15-year-old Rockamann deeply, and now she focuses on growing food while nurturing the community through her organic farm school, EarthDance.
Rockamann started her journey when she left St. Louis to attend Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, graduating with a degree in environmental studies. She then traveled to Fiji, California, Ghana and Thailand to become familiar with various agricultural industries and practices. It was her hands-on experience in organic farming at the University of California, Santa Cruz, that gave her the idea for EarthDance. “There wasn’t any kind of training program like it offered in the St. Louis area at the time,” she says.
She returned home in 2007 with plans to bring her ideas to life and was re-introduced to the Mueller farm. “I started renting an acre on the property and visited Caroline before she passed away to learn as much as I could about the farm’s history,” Rockamann says. In 2008, she founded EarthDance with the hope of giving the community not only a different way of growing food and eating, but also a different way of living through hands-on organic farming education. Rockamann and her staff reach all ages and backgrounds—students, retirees, corporate employees, parents—who are interested in learning about the land and the impact of healthy eating. Thanks to generous donations, the nonprofit acquired the entire Mueller property in 2012.
“Our flagship program, the farm and garden apprenticeship, is in its seventh year and is one-ofa-kind in the country,” Rockamann explains. “It offers an intensive introduction to organic farming and gardening on a part-time basis, just 10 hours a week, to make it more accessible.” This year, there was a waiting list for the first time.
With such increased awareness and interest, EarthDance continues to grow its community outreach. There are free public tours every Tuesday, custom group tours, multiple volunteer opportunities, a summer youth program, and apprenticeship classes open to the public for $20. “Our produce reaches a wide array of people also,” Rockamann says. “We now offer public CSA shares; we sell at Ferguson Farmers Market, Local Harvest Grocery and City Greens Market; and we donate to Operation Food Search and the Food Pantry at St. Stephen’s in Ferguson.”
But it’s not just about food. After the recent unrest in Ferguson, EarthDance started a Practicing Peace initiative, which Rockamann explains as an effort to educate the community about how food justice and the environmental movement are major elements in a peaceful society. “We offer a farm-to-yoga workshop, yoga classes and trauma relief workshops,” she explains.
She says too often people are disconnected from their food source and their neighbors. “People say they come here and just take a deep breath. They love how it feels,” she notes. “It’s really a unique gem in the Midwest. Throughout history, farms have played an important role in creating community. I’m really excited this farm is helping do that again.
Webster University has experienced numerous changes and immense growth in its 100 years, but it has never strayed from its commitment to quality education and community outreach. Today, it’s a four-year university with campuses in nine countries, and its home in Webster Groves continues to be a vibrant part of the St. Louis community.
Elizabeth Robb, chair of the centennial celebration and a 1965 graduate, says Webster University was founded on forward thinking, a mission that continues today with its educational practices and diverse population. In the early 1800s, the school began as a seminary for young women, operated by the Sisters of Loretto, a Catholic religious organization. In 1898, the women bought land from Benjamin Webster, for whom the university is named, and used the farmhouse as a school. “The cornerstone of Webster Hall was laid in 1915, and Loretto College was founded during the height of the women’s suffrage movement as one of the first Catholic women’s colleges west of the Mississippi,” Robb says. It opened with five students, graduating two in its first class in 1919.
A lot has changed since the early days. Men were admitted full-time in 1963, the school expanded its metropolitan reach to Kansas City in 1966, and in 1967, the sisters transferred administration to a lay board—the first Catholic school in the nation to do so. “They knew that to make the school what it could become, it needed a broader reach,” Robb says. “That was the beginning of enormous growth.”
Established as a university in 1983, it now serves approximately 20,000 students around the globe (with campuses in Switzerland, China and Greece, among others) and is a leading provider of higher education to the military. In 1974, the United States Department of Defense invited Webster College to be the first to open an extended campus program at Ft. Sheridan near Chicago. Now, it’s on around 40 military installations in the country.
The school always has had a large local presence as home to both Opera Theatre Saint Louis and The Rep. “Former presidents Sister Jacqueline Wexler and Sister Francetta Barberis really pushed for a regional performing arts center at the university,” Robb explains. “Conrad Hilton, who we all called Uncle Connie, donated money to build the Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in 1966, and a small group of theater students formed The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.” Hilton was a strong supporter of the Sisters of Loretto, and Opera Theatre was the result of local residents determined to bring festival-quality opera to St. Louis. “A number of the original founders were on the Webster board of trustees or were alums, so it was only natural to have it at the school.”
Webster University continues to expand its role in the community. It offers an official internship program with The Muny and music lessons to students throughout the region taught by university faculty and staff, and it hosts an annual film series that has been touted as the best in St. Louis. “The university really is an institution unlike any other,” Robb says. “We’ve been celebrating since last year!” The centennial year will close in November, with an on-campus event open to the public Nov. 13 and a gala at Union Station Nov. 14.
Nothing is more iconic than the Gateway Arch, erected in 1965 as a monument to Westward Expansion. It hailed St. Louis as the gateway to the West and applauded our history as a cultural and commercial center along the mighty Mississippi. Half a century later, the Arch grounds need a major face-lift and are getting one, thanks to a multimillion dollar, publicprivate partnership called the CityArchRiver project.
CityArchRiver aims to make the Arch grounds and the surrounding area not only more aesthetically pleasing, but also easier to navigate and less isolated. By project’s end, the grounds will be expanded to connect to Kiener Plaza and the Old Courthouse, resulting in one seamless park experience. The plan will add 11 new acres of parkland and user-friendly features like 5 miles of bike trails, children’s play areas, and new spaces for special events and performances. “Improvements to the riverfront and all the accessible pathways through the grounds mean people will be able to navigate easily through the area from Kiener Plaza to the waterfront,” says Maggie Hales, CityArchRiver executive director.
Another major element is a new museum, which will feature interactive displays telling the story of Westward Expansion, and a new entrance on the park’s western side. “Right after you enter the new Park Over the Highway, you’ll come into this glorious, new, expanded museum and visitors center,” Hales says. “It’s one of the key pieces in making the Arch connect with the city.”
The project is a big deal: It represents the largest private investment in a national park since the Statue of Liberty was renovated in the ‘80s, says Hales. The benefits to the city will be huge, with a projected economic impact equivalent to having a second Cardinals baseball season each year, estimates CityArchRiver, bringing $367 million and 4,400 permanent jobs to the area.
Hales reports that during the years following 2006, annual Arch attendance dropped by about 1 million, possibly due to the static nature of the Arch and its museum, as well as the isolated nature of the grounds, she says. “Now, people will have reasons to return,” she explains, citing the museum’s interactive digital exhibits and the potential for various special events in the park. “We’re going to keep it fresh and invigorated, year after year.”
CityArchRiver still is raising funds for the project and its future maintenance. Construction began in 2014, and the museum groundbreaking took place in April 2015. By the Arch’s 50th anniversary in October, a few of the elements, including the Luther Ely Smith Square, a pocket park between the Old Courthouse and Fourth Street, will be completed. The majority of the park expansion is expected to be finished in summer 2016, says Hales, and the museum is set to be open in spring 2017
Ben Fainer, 84, has shared his story with thousands. He’s spoken at churches, synagogues and schools, at libraries and museums, with young and old alike. In 2012, he even published a memoir, Silent for 60 Years, which he co-wrote with Chesterfield author Mark Leach. But he wasn’t always this forthcoming.
Fainer has called St. Louis home since 1957, but the story he tells starts when he was a 9-year-old in Bedzin, Poland, where in 1939 he was torn from his family and placed in a concentration camp. A lie about his age—he said he was 15—sent him to the work camps and saved his life. Today, he’s one of the youngest Holocaust survivors.
He spent six years in six different camps, including Buchenwald and Dachau. In 1945, he was on a death march when the American army liberated him. “I don’t think I’ve got words in my vocabulary to describe how it felt when I was liberated,” he says. “It was like the heavens had dropped on my head.” Although he got his life back, there were things that could never be recovered. His mother and siblings were gone, as well as nearly all of the more than 200 relatives who had lived in the area.
For decades, he didn’t tell a soul, including his seven children, about his years in the concentration camps, even regularly covering up the tattoo on his arm with long sleeves. Partly, he says, because there are simply no words to describe the horrific things he experienced. “I’ve seen the worst horror you could possibly imagine,” he says. “I’ve seen guys with bayonets stuck in their bellies. In Buchenwald, my bunk was right beside the crematorium, and I saw bodies stacked up high, still alive and screaming.”
Another reason is his mother. To this day, he still tears up when talking about her, and his book is dedicated to her. “I told my wife, who always wanted me to open up, that I couldn’t, because it’s very hard on me,” Fainer says. “I had the greatest mother in the world, but she was sent to Auschwitz with three of her children, and that’s a one-way ticket.”
He began sharing his experiences in 1996, after much persistent prodding from the Shoah Foundation and the Holocaust Museum, which was compiling survivor interviews. “I was told it was important to tell my story, so the country knows there was a Hitler,” Fainer says. “I feel tremendously lucky and fortunate that I did. It’s important that the youth know the horror that existed. I also do it for my mother, because I had the greatest mother in the world, and she’d want me to open up.” Audience members, particularly children, often give him a hug afterward. “I say to them, love your mama, and give your daddy a little bit of love, too.”
Pictured: Molly Rockamann