The Sacred & the Profane

Father Lawrence Biondi is praised for revamping the campus of St. Louis University and boosting its endowment. But the enemies he's made along the way claim that behind the fountains, statues and donations stands a Jesuit bully who's more interested in th

Randy Furrer, owner of Twenty North and guitarist for Jake's Leg, didn't want to sell his bar and move his band, but once Biondi got an alderman to his liking, the skids were greased. Previously, Velma Bailey was the 19th Ward alderwoman, but when she and Biondi had a falling-out, SLU and its influence went to Mike McMillan, who was elected in 1997. Biondi had already acquired the property at the northeast corner of Vandeventer and Laclede.

One of Twenty North's neighbors, Bruton Stroube Studios Inc., 38 N. Vandeventer Ave., is owned in part by local attorney Gary Carr. "We have been in discussion with the university for nearly two years," says Carr. "They are looking to buy our building." Carr's building might be used as is, if bought by SLU, but Biondi needs the land under Furrer's bar to fulfill the plan for an L-shaped art museum, rumored to cost up to $15 million and to have more square footage than the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Whatever comes of the plan, Furrer didn't want to move.

"We never got together until the mayor signed that bill to blight my property," says Furrer. "They waited until they had the upper hand. I'm still confused about the whole process -- how one business can take over another business just because they want to expand onto their property. I still think (Ald.) Michael McMillan didn't represent me as a business owner as much as he represented SLU. I think all that crap was just that, crap. As far as SLU goes, they did what they had to do, I guess." McMillan has previously said that he supports SLU's plans simply because he thinks it represented a major improvement for the area.

After some haggling, Furrer accepted Biondi's final offer instead of dragging the condemnation case out in court. Furrer plans to use the money to open a different bar, near Barnes Hospital. He thinks he did the least painful thing, considering the circumstances, but wishes he didn't have to sell out and start over.

"When you have that power, and an agenda to go with it, you do what has to be done," says Furrer of Biondi. "Is a Catholic priest supposed to do that? I don't know."

The casualty rate in DuBourg Hall, where much of the SLU administration works, is high. One estimate is that up to 30 vice presidents have come and gone during Biondi's 12-year regime. Richard Breslin, demoted from his job as provost, has a lawsuit pending against the university. George Otte, who ran SLU's program at the University of Orleans in France, sued the university in a French court after he was fired. The French court found in Otte's favor, and a $50,000 judgment was issued against SLU. The verdict and the ensuing ill-will were part of the reason SLU closed the program in France.

Sandy Wallick, who worked at the university for 19 years, was director of public relations at the medical center when she was discharged. She says SLU is a rough place to work.

"The politics at St. Louis U. -- and I've heard this from so many people -- are probably the ugliest in town," says Wallick. "You don't run a Catholic university on politics; I think you run a Catholic university on values. I've seen Biondi smirk when people are getting ready to lose their jobs the next day. I've been in meetings planning on how we're going to do the exit and how we're going to make life a little less bad for these people who are leaving. I've actually seen the smirk on his face. I can remember him saying, 'You have to remember, these people are probably going to be ready to wet their pants tomorrow.' What a stupid thing to say about people who are going to lose their jobs."

Wallick says that Biondi has done some good for the university externally, and that she even basically likes him, but she also sees "these ugly components of his personality." One of those attributes is ego.

One former student who dealt with him describes him as "incredibly Roman," almost a "Nero figure. He's an egomaniac."

One aspect of his ego is that he doesn't want former presidents, particularly the Rev. Paul Reinert, S.J., to get much of the spotlight. When Reinert finished his retrospective book about St. Louis University last year, The Riverfront Times requested an interview with Reinert to discuss SLU's future. Word came back that if any interview dealt with the future of St. Louis University, Biondi would have to be involved. Clearly Reinert was part of the past.

"At the very beginning Biondi had this thing in his mind that he was going to run the university and he was not going to depend on other experts in the university, particularly those who had looked to other masters before him," says one former staff worker.

At least one faculty member believes that Biondi is not at ease with many people and that he has turned out to be a bit of a loner.

"We don't know who his friends are," says the faculty member. "I don't know. We knew who Reinert's friends were. They may have been all from Civic Progress and rich Catholics in St. Louis, but Reinert had loads of friends. People he saw all the time, who'd call him up, he'd answer; he'd try to do something to get their kids into school if necessary. I don't know. Who knows Larry that well? Kim Tucci?"

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