It seems that around the holidays, it’s incumbent on writers like me to find people who convey the spirit of the season, someone who reminds us why—as Andy Williams sings—It’s the most wonderful time of the year. I thought about the effervescent Sugar Plum Fairy, she of the St. Charles Main Street Christmas Festival, but we all know the rest of that story. Santa Claus is way too busy—with all of his personal appearances and his tight toy production and distribution deadline. I was starting to give up.
Then, a friend told me about Ladue resident John Key and his work at the De La Salle Middle School at St. Matthews Church in the Ville neighborhood of north St. Louis. Key grew up just about as far from the Ville as a person can in St. Louis. He was born into a family blessed with successes: His great-grandfather, Henry Griesedieck, was one of the famous beer-producing Griesedieck brothers and the founder of the Stag Brewing Company. His paternal grandfather was Dr. Albert Key, the prominent orthopedic surgeon. On his mother’s side, his grandfather was none other than Edward D. Jones, the financial giant whose name still looms large over St. Louis. Key’s parents sent him to the best schools, Barat Hall and Saint Louis Priory. He went off to the University of Wyoming, where he got a B.A., but also spent much of his time loving nature, hunting elk and fishing in streams. Key returned home and went to work as a financial advisor at Jones, where he’s been since 1976.
My point is, John Key could have just happily lived his life with only token concern for struggling families, but he hasn’t. He says his conservative family values have been steering him all along. “My grandfather took me under his wing,” he says. “I always knew there was the other side of the fence. I didn’t get over there often, but the idea of helping people help themselves was always something I was brought up with.”
Ten years ago, Key and some colleagues set out on a mission to bring quality private school education to kids who otherwise may not have had much of a chance in life. They opened De La Salle Middle School, where Key now serves as board president. “The kids who come in to the program in the sixth grade, many of them have a kindergarten reading level and their math skills are miserable. They are behind the eight ball.” But he says the lifechanging influence the school is having on its students is profound. “I feel proud every time I go there. When you walk in, the kids immediately come up to you and say, Hi, how are you? and Welcome to De La Salle. These are kids who, before they started at the school, wouldn’t even talk to you.”
In the City of St. Louis, the high school graduation rate hovers at 50 percent; but a staggering 96 percent of De La Salle students go on to graduate from high school, and 77 percent are admitted to a two- or four-year college or university.
What’s happening at the school is remarkable, but keeping it up isn’t easy. Key and his fellow board members have to raise approximately $1.5 million a year to keep the school going, and even more will be needed to keep it growing. His Christmas wish is that all of us who are more fortunate will keep on giving back, even in tough times. “Yes, we are blessed, but at the same time, you’re not going to be fully blessed unless you, in turn, give back to someone else—my parents and grandparents believed that.”
So this isn’t the giggling joy of the Sugar Plum Fairy (especially since she was fired) or the dramatic story of revelation that saved the soul of Scrooge. This is just a bit of Christmas kindness from one of the good guys like John Key. “Christ’s teachings are that you need to go out and spread the word, but also to help people help themselves,” he says. That’s a yuletide message that we can all take to heart.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.