The Resurrection of Carl Officer

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

Just as confidently, Officer predicts that the festivities are winding down. How he can make this determination without being able to see the pulpit is anyone's guess, but for a man who officiates a dozen such services every week, it must be second nature. Once upstairs, Officer gracefully ushers weeping old women to the casket, where they pay their last respects.

After ensuring that the coffin is snugly ensconced into his mortuary's white hearse, Officer distributes orange pennants emblazoned with the word "Funeral" to motorists who will be following his white Cadillac down Route 3, across the Jefferson Barracks Bridge and on to the military cemetery for an early-afternoon burial. As he leads the procession, Officer takes a long drag off a Salem and peers at a tacky spackling of cartoon dog stickers on his vehicle's right-rear window. This is where his daughter sits, and his daughter likes to talk to the cartoon dogs. And so the stickers stay.

"They give a certain ambiance to this Cadillac," observes Officer, whose family's commitment to death's silver lining has spawned East St. Louis' version of the Kennedy dynasty.

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.

"His family's done so much for so many, and Carl continues that tradition," says SIUE's Debra Moore. "A lot of people have enjoyed very respectable funerals at no cost, and people remember that. People could never thank them enough."

Seconds St. Clair County Circuit Judge John Baricevic: "Carl's mother and father and sister and brother have been great leaders to the community. They are very good people, not just from a business standpoint, but religious and social. They help folks."

That Baricevic omits Carl from his roll call of esteemed Officers is no accident. If he were to be presented with the choice of having a deaf-mute two-year-old run the city of East St. Louis or having Carl Officer run the city, Baricevic would tap the silent toddler, reasoning that he couldn't possibly fuck things up as spectacularly as the judge believes Officer did in the '80s.

"When I was state's attorney from 1979 to 1990, in almost every instance East St. Louis' problems had to do with Carl," Baricevic says. "Carl was interested in Carl, not his city. The city of East St. Louis got a criminal conviction [for failing to repair its sewer system] when Carl was mayor. Police would go on the street without gas, without their radios. Cops would literally have to take a quarter with them to make a phone call.

"There was a public housing project with a leaking sewer," Baricevic recounts. "Carl just made excuses: It was the white man trying to bring burdens on him. When in reality it was an African-American system putting African-American children in danger. One time in 1981, there were twenty inches of snow and the county offered to help with snowplows. Carl's response was: 'Don't come into my city, or I'll confiscate your trucks and you'll never get them back.' In every one of these instances, his response was: 'It's the white man trying to take over East St. Louis.' As far as I'm concerned, he's never done a thing for the city. A lot of us would have said he'd have run for statewide office one day. Not anymore."

Still, Baricevic didn't get serious about holding Officer's feet to the fire until late 1989, when he successfully convicted the city of failing to clean up the aforementioned sewage spill. That resulted in Officer getting thrown in the slammer for contempt of court. During his couple of hours behind bars, the mayor penned a letter in which he likened his incarceration to Martin Luther King's arrest, 26 years earlier to the day, in Birmingham, Alabama.

Similar histrionics marked Officer's entire third term. Furious at the machine's decision to back another candidate in the 1987 mayoral election (which Officer won narrowly amid great controversy and allegations of corruption), he referred to the East St. Louis Democratic Party as the "Nazi Afrika Corps," the St. Clair County Democratic Party as the "Nazi Democratic Party," the Southwestern Illinois Development Authority as the "Ku Klux Klan Development Authority" and city council chairman Oliver Hendricks as "Rommel the Desert Rat." And when Officer was invited to accompany a group of U.S. mayors on an economic-goodwill excursion to Zaire, he publicly expressed concern that he would be transfused with "monkey blood," whereupon he was dropped from the delegation.

These outrageous utterances might have been viewed as eccentric chinks in a small-town mayor's armor, had they not landed on the likes of 60 Minutes and Donahue and on the pages of the New York Times.

"As local issues begin stirring and a new day doesn't appear to be dawning, you have Carl at the center of media attention -- and a lot of that attention is negative," says SIUE's Theising. "You'd see the audience clapping on Donahue, but it proved to be very destructive to him in the big picture."

Sums up fellow faculty member Debra Moore: "Carl was the ultimate postmodernist in terms of defying authority. The county felt like there was a way you did things, and he would come back and say East St. Louis would not be dictated to by anyone. Had he been amenable to dialogue, the city would have benefited more."

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