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Steve Debellis, 59: U.News, SLU alum

DeBellis

The University News universe lost one of its stars this summer: Steve DeBellis.

Steve occupied several slots on this paper’s staff: inimitable cartoonist, trivia enthusiast, vintage-car buff, imaginative illustrator, feature writer, Groucho Marx impersonator (humongous rubber cigar and all), St. Louis historian and inveterate punster.

His tenure on our paper, circa 1974-78, was a combo of cockamamie talent, good humor and verbal outbursts that always surprised but rarely outraged. (He never launched a bon mot that would crack the PG-13 ceiling.) And he was consistent: If a word could be twisted to make its ambiguity funny … he’d do it.

Like this: A half-dozen staff members are sitting around a layout table (WAY before computers) on a long-ago production night. Steve, as usual, is cracking wise and producing puns, at random. The editor-in-chief glances up from her proofreading and says, with a valiant stab at indignation: “Could you guys — Steve — please knock off this pun crap and concentrate on reading proofs?” Steve’s response: “You don’t think we’re sufficiently punny?” Editor: “That stuff is just not my TYPE of humor” (her emphasis). Steve: “Why? Because it’s BOLD and in your FACE?” (his emphasis).

She shook her head, rolled her eyes, grabbed a proof and left the room — but she was smiling as she walked. (And we did finish the proofs by deadline.)

Even as a youngster, he was a quick, witty, decent sort. And that was exactly the breed of “screwball entrepreneur” (his words) he became … with a wrinkle of idealism. He became a champion for what most people might consider lost causes — like a metro Don Quixote, tilting at antique windmills. Some of his friends thought Steve’s ultimate goal was to capture those euphoric turn-of-the-century days of “the Nation’s Fourth City,” at the time of the St. Louis World’s Fair. But Steve deemed such historical jousts to be crucial to the understanding of St. Louis’ distinct history. And so was his role in helping to preserve it.

For example: Gaining access to the files of St. Louis’ “other” daily, The Globe-Democrat, and combing through those archives to produce The St. Louis Enquirer, a motley, monthly slew of celebratory vignettes (a “time machine on newsprint” — Steve’s words), peppered with quips, clever headlines and, of course, puns — below the logo,  “Where history repeats itself;” Resurrecting that once-famous, St. Louis-based beer name … Lemp; Cranking out sports T-shirts with vanished logos and names, found only in his lexicon and emblazoned only on his historical T’s; Bringing back the Griesedieck Brothers (GB!) label; Volunteering to share his historical expertise with the St. Louis 250th Anniversary Executive Committee; Receiving, from Mayor Francis Slay, a “Best of St. Louis “ proclamation, recognizing Steve’s lifetime commitment to his beloved city; Amassing a collection of beer cans and beer memorabilia that would boggle most minds and overwhelm a two-car garage; Writing, in 2006, 100 Years of Reel Entertainment: How Wehrenberg Theatres Became the Longest-Running Picture Show in America, commissioned by the Wehrenberg Theatres; And striving to resurrect the Goldenrod Showboat, in all her stern-wheeled splendor, despite the storms that have raked and wrecked her — a project he was devoted to, almost literally up to the day he died, of a persistent infection, at St. Mary’s Health Center in Richmond Heights, on Saturday, Aug. 2, at the age of 59.

He was one of a kind. The staff of the University News sends heartfelt condolences to Steve’s family and friends. He was one of our own, and we take pride in his accomplishments and share the pain of his absence.

Rest in peace, Steve DeBellis … U. News cartoonist, eclectic entrepreneur, singular son of St. Louis.

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