Fred Epstein: He Built Up His Company And The ACLU And Led Both With Aplomb



Fred Epstein took the reins of the industrial heater factory his father founded in 1929 (just days after the stock market crashed) and adroitly steered it into the 21strst century, all the while giving chunks of time to transform the local ACLU into a formidable organization. He died Wednesday at the age of 79.


Since he was a young boy, Mr. Epstein had spent time at Industrial Engineering & Equipment Company, first going to the office with his father on Saturdays. When he was older, he worked summers. But a Saturday in 1957, his second day home from MIT, was different: It was his first “real” day on the job and it was spent cleaning the lobby floor. A thunderstorm had deposited a layer of silt from a nearby creek.


It was enough to make him briefly question his decision to turn down the $6,000-a-year job McDonnell Douglas offered him. His father was paying $4,200. But he decided to stay at Indeeco – as the company was commonly known – for nearly 50 years.


With a strong, unwavering sense of justice bequeathed to him by progressive parents, Mr. Epstein also devoted his life to leading and supporting civic causes.


“He was a wonderful, kind, loving guy who had a great interest in people and everything they were doing,” said Joyce Armstrong, the former head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri. “He was always trying to do something to make progress.”


Mr. Epstein died at his home in the Central West End on Wednesday, Sept. 10, from complications of leukemia.


Services will be Sunday, Sept. 14, at Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis.


By the time Mr. Epstein took over Indeeco, the company’s custom-made heaters were in many well-known edifices: the Sears Tower and the John Hancock Building in Chicago, pavilions at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, Radio Vatican in Rome, Barbara Streisand’s apartment and Yankee Stadium. Mr. Epstein decided they could do even more.


‘Snap into Action’


One day after his father’s funeral in 1974, Mr. Epstein, at age 39, took over a successful company and began to shape it for the future. He had begun two years earlier, creating a new division to make controllers that mete out electric power to heaters to maintain precise temperatures. Industries, such as big boilers, needed the technology.


In 1976, Indeeco established a division to manufacture heaters to provide an air filtering system to help dissipate radiation in the event of a nuclear power plant meltdown. When the Three Mile Island accident occurred in 1979, the facility did not have the Indeeco heaters. The company streamlined its manufacturing process and hand-delivered heaters in record time.


He led the company into yet another new field: an explosion-proof heater for use in volatile locations such as rocket launch pads, wastewater treatment plants and paint storage rooms. The heater was later modified for use on oil rigs. Mr. Epstein delivered a paper at the European Petroleum Conference in London on the new design.


Comfortably headquartered in the Hanley Industrial Court in Brentwood, Indeeco had long enjoyed market dominance. But building slowed in the 1980s, and competition increased. Mr. Epstein kept the company viable by making it customer-savvy, innovative and nimble.


His guiding philosophy, said his family, was “snap into action.”


During his tenure, Indeeco expanded through acquisitions and partnerships, relocated some production and opened additional facilities, including one in Cuba, Mo.


In Indeeco at Seventy-Five, The Making of an American Company, a book about the family business, Mr. Epstein’s sister, Elizabeth Mullener, described her brother as “a man of enormous energy, intense focus, and impressive intellect.”


She devoted an entire section to one of his most unusual business moves: the creation of the Zelda Epstein Day Care Center, simply known as Zelda’s by families.


In 1985, Mr. Epstein opened the first on-site corporate day-care facility in Missouri. It was named for his late mother, a onetime schoolteacher with an intense interest in children. The nonprofit day-care center was lauded by then-Gov. Mel Carnahan and his wife, Jean Carnahan.


Mr. Epstein and Mrs. Carnahan crisscrossed the state together to promote corporate day care.


“I want to put my efforts behind things that seem to have a real future,” Mr. Epstein said. “This seemed like a good progressive idea.”


Weighing in on Weighty Issues


Progressive ideas shaped and consumed Mr. Epstein’s life. During the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Mr. Epstein regularly contributed commentaries to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He tackled some of the toughest issues, including abortion, guns, racial injustice, urban development, public transportation, health care, workers’ rights and women’s rights.


Mr. Epstein actively promoted his principles through his work with the ACLU. In a paper titled The ACLU Grows Up – the Armstrong-Epstein Era, William H. Freivogel writes: “The ACLU was his love. It was the combination of Epstein and (Executive Director Joyce) Armstrong that transformed the ACLU into a powerhouse organization.”


Mr. Epstein became president of the local ACLU in 1970. In a speech at the annual meeting the following year, he said, “When I took over this job a year ago I inherited a dedicated board of directors and a file cabinet that was virtually empty except for a copy of the U.S. Constitution filed under ‘Long Range Planning.’”


He immediately set out to expand the organization. The first step: an executive director. Armstrong filled that bill. He then significantly beefed up the litigation docket, helping to build it from a handful of cases into one with dozens of cases with local and national impact.


An award from the local ACLU in 2005 for 40 years of local and national service was just one of many he received for a lifetime of service. A 1953 graduate of University City High School, he was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 2004. He was lauded for opening the day-care center with the National Council of Jewish Women, St. Louis Section Hannah G. Solomon Award and the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council Honor: Emissaries for Youth Awards. Mr. Epstein was named Businessperson of the Year in 1991 by the Brentwood Chamber of Commerce.


He chaired the Desegregation Monitoring Committee for the U.S. District Court overseeing the St. Louis public schools in the 1980s, was a Board Member of the Missouri Capital Punishment Resource Center, was president of Citizens for Modern Transit, a group that supported building and expanding MetroLink, and served on the board of the St. Louis Beacon and St. Louis Public Radio.


The Last to Leave


Frederick Solomon Epstein was born in St. Louis on Jan. 28, 1935, the son of Zelda Priwer Epstein and Milton Epstein. He earned a degree in physics from the Massachusetts institute of Technology in 1957, the same year he married Sara Pepper.


For five years, he taught atomic physics at Washington University.


In 2003, Mr. Epstein formed Sage Consultants LLC to advise nonprofit organizations.


He spent the first five years of his “retirement” working for the Open Society Institute (now Open Society Foundations), a charitable foundation in New York City dedicated to promoting democratic institutions around the world. He had been an adviser to the Constitutional Accountability Center and its predecessor organization, Community Rights Counsel, since 2006, first as a management consultant and, since January 2011, as a member of the organization’s board.


“Fred was incredibly helpful in our transition,” said Doug Kendall, founder of the Constitutional Accountability Center. “He adds a business touch to a nonprofit and he was the kindest, most enthusiastic, committed board member you could imagine.”


Indeeco was sold in 2011 to ASPEQ Holdings.


Mr. Epstein spent time biking through the U.S. and Europe, sharing groan-worthy puns with family and friends and season tickets to the St. Louis Symphony with his wife. He read The New Yorker and watched the Cardinals. He saw them win the 1946 and the 2006 World Series. His greatest pastime, however, was socializing.


“We were always the last to leave,” said his wife, Sara Epstein. “He didn’t want to miss out on anything.”


In addition to his wife, Mr. Epstein’s survivors include their four children, Rebecca Goldstein (Stewart) of Clayton; David Epstein of New York City; Theodore Epstein (Anna Maria) of Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., Michael Epstein (Silvia Vergani) of San Francisco, and six granddaughters. He is also survived by his sisters, Beryl Brasch of Denver and Elizabeth Mullener (Nathanael) of New Orleans.


Mr. Epstein will be eulogized by Rabbi Susan Talve at Central Reform Congregation, where he was a founding member and sang bass in the choir. Services will be at 3 p.m., on Sunday, Sept. 14, at 5020 Waterman Boulevard, in St. Louis.


If desired, the family would appreciate memorials to Central Reform Congregation, the ACLU of Missouri, 454 Whittier St, St Louis, MO 63108, or a charity of the donor’s choice.