One citizen's crusade to fix what's wrong at Tucker and Market

On his job at a local mortuary in the city, Robert Diepenbrock takes "death calls" from midnight until past dawn, arranging pickups of the deceased and making appointments for bereaved families to meet with the mortician. When he's not dealing with the inevitable -- death -- he concerns himself with other vicissitudes of life, including city politics. Somewhere on his list is City Hall and its broken clock.

Diepenbrock wants the giant clock on the eastern exterior of City Hall fixed. He's made numerous calls to the citizen-complaint bureau, and still, for any unsuspecting pedestrian walking down Tucker Boulevard, it's perpetually 4:30, no matter what time it really is. One recent late night/early morning, the 53-year-old city resident decided to send a letter to the daily paper of record. He faxed it in around 3 a.m. and by 4 p.m. that same day, he says, he was called by the Post-Dispatch editorial department for verification. But when he started calling in to see when the letter would surface, Diepenbrock learned that it wouldn't run. Too "smart-assed," he says he was told, "too sarcastic." People in St. Charles might not get his reference to the city's 11th Ward.

The letter followed a cover sheet bearing the question "HEY KIDS, WHAT TIME IS IT?" written above a rough sketch of the clock with the frozen hands, and the answer, "IT'S CLARENCE HARMON TIME," written below the clock. Having voted for Mayor Clarence Harmon in 1997 ("I was suckered," he confesses), a disappointed Diepenbrock took the obvious tack of using the broken clock as a mayoral metaphor.

"If it seems like time has stood still since St. Louis elected Clarence Harmon mayor, well, actually it has. The clock on the east side of City Hall says 4:30, 24 (hours) 7 (days a week). That's right folks, the same mayor that goes to China for advanced technology, can't even get the clock to work at City Hall," is how Diepenbrock opened up his letter, before voicing the usual criticism that Harmon is too indecisive. "St. Louis can be grateful Mr. Bosley was mayor during the flood of '93, because if Harmon was in office at that time, Red Villa's beloved 11th Ward would have floated halfway to Memphis before Mr. Harmon ... would have decided what action should be taken."

The unpublished letter to the editor closes by stating, "What must people visiting our city think when they look at our City Hall and see a clock that looks like someone pulled the plug on City Hall."

As to why the clock doesn't work, deputy city engineer Joe Kuss says city workers have made minor repairs on the clock "quite a number of times" over the last year, sometimes getting the clock running for a few days or a week before "it conks out again." Kuss, who has worked for the city for 27 years, thinks it's time for a transplant. "From what I can understand, the whole mechanism that makes it work -- the gears and all that -- are really basically shot. So all that needs to be totally replaced," says Kuss. That will be done, but it will take months, not weeks.

"There's not anybody in our maintenance department or anybody else I've managed to talk to that ever remembers any of that stuff being replaced before, and some of these electricians have been around for close to 30 years," says Kuss.

As to why the P-D rejected Diepenbrock's letter, letters czar Ray Gunter explains that the odds weren't with the mortuary worker, because the paper prints only about 10 percent of the 600 letters and e-mails it gets each week. Gunter recalls that Diepenbrock objected to the way Gunter wanted to edit the letter, and that the letter was sarcastic and smart-assed. "All our decisions are subjective," Gunter admits. "Normally we don't get involved in any big negotiations, but he kept calling back, so I just figured it wasn't worth the hassle."

As for the clock, maybe the real reason it hasn't been fixed is that this way, city workers think it's 4:30 and they get off in 30 minutes.

Give us your feedback by e-mailing "Short Cuts" at sho[email protected], faxing 314-615-6716 or calling 314-615-6711.

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