The Champ

Bill Bangert wanted a world-class domed stadium in St. Louis County, but all he got was a tiny town. Now the 77-year-old dreamer is back in Missouri with a few more nutty ideas.

The village of Champ sits on a plot of land overlooking the busy interchange where Interstates 70 and 270 meet in a tangled web of concrete. It isn't much. There's a massive limestone quarry carved into the hillside, owned by Fred Weber Inc.; a sprawling set of buildings belonging to Grace Church; and, beyond a metal gate bearing a faded "No Trespassing" sign, four neatly kept ranch-style houses lining one side of a street. A fifth home is under construction.

Champ is so small, in fact, that with just 14 residents, it ranks as the tiniest municipality in all of St. Louis County. There are no signs delineating its boundaries, no City Hall. And Champ's five-member board of trustees, which governs the village, comprises half of the adult population.

More than four decades ago, when Champ was officially incorporated, the village's founder, Bill Bangert, pictured more. Much more. In his mind's eye, he could imagine a massive 115,000-seat domed stadium that could accommodate virtually any sport -- baseball, football, track and field, swimming and diving, basketball or hockey -- and the largest of conventions. His vision included a huge restaurant with enough seats for 1,500 people, suspended nearly 400 feet in the air at the apex of the dome and accessed by moving sidewalks 600 feet long. His sports center would include a shopping mall with 2 million square feet of retail space and a 27,000-car underground parking garage that could be converted into a fallout shelter large enough to accommodate 600,000 people.

Bangert won a medal in the 1985 World Veterans Games in Rome. He continues to throw the shot put and discus.
Bangert won a medal in the 1985 World Veterans Games in Rome. He continues to throw the shot put and discus.

This wouldn't be just any stadium. "METRO," as he called it, was meant to be an Olympic stadium, an $87 million behemoth grandiose enough to lure the Pan American Games and the Summer Olympics. As a former mayor of Berkeley who'd founded a successful road-building company, Bangert was an imposing man who figured anything was possible. This was a man who had literally dodged a bullet fired through his car window and once competed in a national shot-put competition at Madison Square Garden while blind in both eyes, finishing in second place. He figured he could overcome the odds with his planned municipality, which he hoped to pay for using an unusual bond-financing scheme. He eagerly promoted his grand plan, taking a scale model of his stadium to meetings with potential backers in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and even far-away Yugoslavia. "I can't miss, absolutely," Bangert said in 1959, the year the village of Champ was incorporated. "I believe construction will start this spring, that it will be in operation by 1962."

But the stadium Bangert envisioned was never built, and numerous obstacles meant that Bangert would never develop his 300-acre village or adjoining industrial park, either. His 4,800-square-foot home built in the village was foreclosed on, and he was forced to file for bankruptcy. In the late 1970s, his personal and professional life in shambles, Bangert moved west to California to get away from it all. But the village of Champ remained on the map.

More than two decades passed before Bangert returned home to Missouri. He now lives in a comfortable frame home with a big front porch in rural Marthasville, more than 40 miles from Champ. And so much time has passed that his idea of a domed stadium is no longer futuristic; nor is his proposal to develop the vast floodplain, now called Riverport. Bangert, now 77, figures his timing was off. "They accused me of being 30 years ahead of my time, and they were just about right," he says, chuckling. But Bangert isn't sitting around reflecting on the past. He's still throwing the shot put and the discus and winning medals across the country, and his mind continues to churn out unusual ideas, albeit on a smaller scale -- from staging a "commemorative Olympics" in St. Louis in 2004 to displaying a long-forgotten religious painting at Busch Stadium.

The seeds for Bill Bangert's dream for the village of Champ were planted long before he took steps to incorporate the swath of farmland near the site of what was to be a major interchange of two highways. Athletics had long been important to Bangert, a man who stood 6-foot-5 and weighed 265 pounds then, and he dreamed of becoming the first athlete to compete in the Olympics in both boxing and track and field.

Bangert played football and baseball at Berkeley High School and, later, at the University of Missouri, where he established a reputation as a top track-and-field competitor as well, winning the NCAA discus throw in 1944 and 1945. He was also an accomplished singer, a baritone who attended his final year of college, at Purdue University, on a glee-club scholarship. He later met his wife, a former Muny Opera singer, while both were soloists at Central Presbyterian Church in Clayton.

Bangert continued to compete after college, holding the Amateur Athletic Union championship for the shot put in 1945 and 1946. He gained fame as a St. Louis Golden Gloves champion and hoped to qualify for the Olympics in boxing, but he lost in the semifinals of the Olympic Trials.

Bangert's family owned a successful road-building company and St. Louis County Transit Co. In 1947, he started Bill Bangert Construction Co. as a one-man hauling venture, but he would later go into business with his two brothers, including his twin, in Bangert Bros. Road Builders Inc. And he ventured into politics: Elected mayor of Berkeley in 1950, he served for more than six years. For Bangert, that time was punctuated by tremendous swings of fate.

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