The Resurrection of Carl Officer

East St. Louisí prodigal son is back ó but is he the man to save Sin City?

Carl Officer is seated at the reception desk in the foyer of his family's Missouri Avenue funeral parlor, answering phones. The 52-year-old mayor of East St. Louis, who typically favors dark tailored suits, is uncharacteristically casual today in a mustard-green turtleneck sweater and olive slacks.

"It's election day," Officer rationalizes. "I never know when I'm gonna have to wrassle."

The mayor rises, strolls to his office and commences slurping on a Styrofoam cup of soup. Always svelte, Officer looks even skinnier than usual on this late-February afternoon, perhaps because he's given up meat for Lent. Not that the mayor, an ordained minister, thinks the Eye in the Sky is keeping score.

Jennifer Silverberg
When people speak of the change that's occurred in 
Carl Officer, they inevitably circle back to his wife, 
Lisa, and his four-year-old daughter, Carli.
Jennifer Silverberg
When people speak of the change that's occurred in Carl Officer, they inevitably circle back to his wife, Lisa, and his four-year-old daughter, Carli.

"I don't think God gives a crap whether or not I eat a cheeseburger," he deadpans as he welcomes a stocky woman in her mid-sixties into his office.

As it turns out, this woman is enrolled in a program called Fore Thought, which allows an individual to start planning and paying for her funeral long before the day of reckoning. She is here to establish a financing plan to pay for the basics: flower arrangements, steel-blue casket, plot of land, et cetera. The woman, who subsists on a fixed income in a housing project in the East St. Louis suburb of Venice, winces when it comes time to talk about a down payment.

Not to worry, Officer interjects. He proposes an arrangement, based on his firsthand appreciation of her proficiency with all foods soul: He'll take care of the down payment, he says, "as long as you keep feeding me for the next sixteen years."

The deal sealed, Officer beckons a mortuary employee to fire up his jet-black 1974 Stutz Blackhawk so he can drive the client home. (At one time Carl's late father, Marion -- his predecessor as funeral director and the founder of Officer Mortuary -- owned more than 80 cars, many of which he kept stashed in Arizona to guard against rust.) After depositing his client in Venice, Officer speeds to city hall, parks in his reserved stall and ascends to his third-floor office, where his four-year-old daughter, Carli, is camped out with a blanket and pillow on the floor near Officer's desk, eating popcorn and watching Nickelodeon in the dark under the supervision of the mayor's lone full-time aide, Girt Clemons.

"Daddy, you've been a bad boy," she says. She allows herself to be scooped up in her grinning father's arms and toted through city hall's front double doors, repeating the phrase over and over, as four-year-olds are wont to do. Placing her in the back seat of the Stutz and plopping himself in the cockpit, Officer turns the key in the ignition.

The engine fails to respond. The Stutz is dead.

But then, Carl Officer is plenty comfortable with death. The possessor of a degree in mortuary and funeral services from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, he's comfortable looking a living, breathing woman in the eye and telling her precisely how she's going to be remembered after her ability to witness such a ceremony in the flesh is rendered moot by her Savior. And he's comfortable plotting the resuscitation of East St. Louis, a decrepit urban relic of Industrial Age politics, even though some claim Officer himself had a heavy hand in squeezing the last drop of life out of the city during his first go-round as mayor in the 1980s.

It could be said that Carl Officer began and ended his tumultuous twelve-year reign as mayor of East St. Louis chest-deep in trash. When he took office at the age of 27 in 1979 with the full backing of East St. Louis' influential Democratic Party machine, he hopped in the back of a garbage truck to personally haul litter amid a refuse-collectors' strike.

"He's a go-getter, he's young, he's trusted," recalls Andrew Theising, a Southern Illinois University Edwardsville political science professor and author of Made in USA: East St. Louis. "It really did look like a new day was dawning."

The college-educated, affluent heir to a revered East St. Louis family of morticians, Officer, then the nation's youngest mayor, was unlike any politician the town had ever seen, seemingly free of the shackles of political-capital deficits and personal financial need that had hamstrung past leaders.

"A new day really did dawn for a while," says Debra Moore, director of SIUE's Institute for Urban Research and an East St. Louis native. "He was not only the mayor, he was the hope for the city. Carl came to the position well-educated and having a financial capacity that did not dictate a need. So he came from a perspective that he could make a difference and really turn the city around."

By all accounts, Officer spent his first term doing just that, aided by federal and state grants and a large staff over which he had direct supervision. But in time the task proved daunting. Officer had inherited a city that had lost nearly two-thirds of its commercial base and nearly half its population in the 1960s and '70s, with a citizenry ground down by Depression-era unemployment levels that led to high rates of crime and poverty.

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