When I arrived in St. Louis in the summer of 2000, I discovered a remarkable city home to 91 municipalities on the shores of the mighty Mississippi River. It is a place described by demographers as the ‘northernmost southern city’ and the ‘southernmost northern city.’ It is a city whose ethnicity, geography and attitudes all place it uniquely in the middle of America.
In 1904, St. Louis did the impossible by simultaneously hosting the World’s Fair and the Olympics. The Show Me State showed the world that St. Louisans are creatively innovative, resilient and purposeful. St. Louis is known for many things like the world champion Cardinals, Ted Drewes concretes, toasted ravioli and provel cheese. It also is renowned for the Eads Bridge, once the largest suspension bridge in the country. Like the Brooklyn Bridge, its construction relied on sinking great caissons to unprecedented depths into the river below.
The Eads Bridge was the world’s first alloy steel bridge, the first to use tubular cords and the first to depend entirely on the cantilever in its building. It was the first large bridge to span the Mississippi River, and the visionary spirit that brought it to fruition embodied what was demonstrated later with the Gateway Arch. The Mississippi, once considered an obstacle to progress, had inspired St. Louis to think big and act boldly. It stirred city leaders to build a bridge that crosses both physical and mental divides and serves as a connection between our past and the promising future. Like all bridges, it enabled us to go from where we were to where we wanted to be.
Webster University, like other higher education institutions in our area, has chosen to be a bridge builder by being bold and measuring our success not by those we exclude but by those we include. What about your industry? Is it one of inclusiveness? Building a bridge is taking responsibility for others. How is your construction going?
I was told the inspiration for Simon and Garfunkel’s classic song, Bridge Over Troubled Waters, was a drawbridge operator who let boats pass beneath and let trains pass on top. One day, as he started to lower the bridge for an oncoming train, he looked down in horror to see his son caught in the bridge’s rigging. With no time to release his son then return to lower the bridge, he was trapped into making a choice none of us would want to make: lower the bridge and save those on the train or save the life of his child and allow the train to crash. What would you have done?
Our choices are difficult but clear: St Louis must ensure that it is as relevant today as it was in the past. We can’t be content with things as they are because we fear new or unknown areas and people on the other side of a great mental divide. How can we choose to remain safely on our own shores knowing that we could transform ourselves, our city and others by simply reaching across? Are we able and willing to build our next Eads Bridge? Time and opportunity are running out.
Benjamin Ola. Akande is Dean of the George Herbert Walker School of Business and Technology and chief of corporate partnerships at Webster University. Follow him on Twitter: @Benjamin_Akande