Todd Epsten, civic and business leader, dies of cancer at 52
When the news of Todd Epsten’s death got around on Saturday, many men and women, some prominent, some not so, had many good things to say about the young family man, businessman, civic leader and philanthropist.
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay’s remarks were economical.
"Todd was truly what many other pretend to be: someone who brought the best values of business leadership to his community's challenges. He was informed, engaged and decisive."
Mr. Epsten died of cancer early Saturday, May 26. He was 52 years old.
He was a native of Kansas City, but after moving to St. Louis in 1988 he went quickly into a position of prominence in the region. His wife, Sue McCollum, said he fell in love with St. Louis and its many resources, including his neighborhood.
“We moved to the Central West End in September of 1988 and we were hooked,” she said.
Indeed, Mr. Epsten was an effective, passionate, hands-on advocate for St. Louis. He served as chairman of Forest Park Forever, the organization that brought new life to the vast urban recreational resource situated just around the corner from his family’s house. He was vice chairman of the dynamic Regional Business Council and was chairman emeritus of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri. He was a trustee of the St. Louis Science Center, the Greater St. Louis Community Foundation and the St. Louis Art Museum. He formerly served as a St. Louis Airport commissioner and was a former president of the St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners. He belonged to the Central Reform Congregation and the Jewish Federation.
Todd Epsten was the third generation of his family to lead Major Brands Inc., Missouri’s largest wine and spirits distributor. The company was started by his grandfather in Saint Joseph, Mo., in 1934, and now has more than 700 employees working in offices in St. Louis, Kansas City, Columbia, Springfield and Cape Girardeau.
In 2001, Mr. Epsten received the St. Louis Business Journal’s “Reinvest in St. Louis Award” for encouraging involvement and investment in the region and its future. In 2006, Major Brands received the St. Louis mayor’s Spirit Award, given to businesses that make major expansions or improvements in the city of St. Louis.
Mr. Epsten graduated from American University in Washington, from which he received his Bachelor of Science degree in political science, with a concentration in criminal justice.
Before becoming chairman of Major Brands, he was the chief executive officer and chief operating officer of the St. Louis office and executive vice president of sales. In 1988, he relocated to St. Louis to oversee the company’s expansion into eastern Missouri. Prior to that, he had been the marketing director of the Kansas City operation and was a marketing manager for Forman Brothers, a wholesale beverage distributor in Washington, D.C.
Reflections on his life, his abilities, his generosity and character were glowing.
Andy Abbott is head of school at John Burroughs where Mr. Epsten’s sons, Michael and Brian, are students. Abbott knows the Epsten family both from having their children at his school, but also from New City School, an independent elementary school in which both Abbotts and Epstens have had children at one time of another.
“The things that are striking to me,” Abbott said, “were that Todd was so down to earth and approachable, as well as funny and kind and passionate. All this comes through in his boys, who are passionate as well, and have social consciences and a sense of the world around them.”
Abbott spoke with respect and affection for the Epstens and their sons. “Michael is to graduate on Thursday. He is widely known as the person you’d least like to debate: he is that passionate and knowledgeable. Both boys are strong forces in their classes, and that comes from their parents. Todd was a great success in business, but was always at his sons’ games, and knew their friends and loved their friends. Theirs was a relationship I deeply admire.
“Throughout his illness,” Abbott said, “he talked to me often about his concerns for his boys should he not pull through.”
Becky James-Hatter is president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri. She traced Mr. Epsten’s involvement with the organization back to Kansas City, where he was first a “big brother.”
“I met him when I moved here in 1994. He was a member of the board of the Eastern Missouri agency, and thus a member of the team that hired me. It is not an overstatement to say that if there was a major project or a major idea, he had a role in its development, and he played a huge role in moving us forward. He had a remarkable relationship with the agency and with me as CEO.
“I was,” James-Hatter concluded with evident emotion, “Todd Epsten’s little sister.”
On Sunday morning, U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., reflected on her decades-long friendship with Mr. Epsten, which goes back to their Kansas City days, to a time when she was just out of law school and soon to begin a political career, running for the Missouri legislature. She recalled going door-to-door campaigning, and how Mr. Epsten’s father welcomed her into his home when she was on his doorstep, soliciting his vote.
“When I think of Todd, I think of him with a smile on his face and a brain that was always working. He was astute both in the business world and the world of politics.”
Sen. McCaskill said that Mr. Epsten was a contributor to her campaigns. “So yes,” she said, “he contributed, but he always asked questions. He was interested in the big picture, the macro picture, whether it was about fiscal policy, about the St. Louis Police Department, about the safety net, the arts – all the things he thought were part of a vibrant community.”
She emphasized that those questions were not related to his personal business, and were not transactional, not “what have you done for me lately.” Rather, she said, his questions and concerns were about the public good.
She spoke of his success in business and public life, and how he built Major Brands into one of the best-run beverage businesses in the county. She recalled making a contribution to Big Brothers Big Sisters, and receiving a thank you note, not of an impersonal sort, but handwritten by Mr. Epsten. “His thanking me personally said a lot about who he was as a man.”
Sen. McCaskill said he maintained a balance between his personal life and his life as a husband and father. The generosity he extended to the community was a vital element of his life at home as well.
McCaskill recalled his reaction to his wife’s entering law school.
“There was a lot going on in their lives already. Two teenage boys, lots of pressure from his business. But Todd, rather than questioning the wisdom of Sue McCollum’s back-to-school plans, was proud as a peacock, she said. “He couldn’t wait to tell me she was going back. He was incredibly supportive of her law school career.”
Jim Mann and Mr. Epsten became friends and colleagues through their involvement in Forest Park Forever, the organization established to help to bring the park to its current resplendent condition. Mann was the organization’s president and executive director and Epsten was on the executive committee, and also chair.
“He was the chair at a pivotal moment in the fund raising campaign,” Mann said. “He looked at issues from every possible angle and applied his creativity to making our programs work.
Mann described a fund-raising activity called “Restaurants For Restorations.” Major Brands sold wine to restaurants and directed a certain percentage of the revenues to Forest Park Forever. In addition, information about the park was printed on wine lists and in menus. “It was a brilliant fund-raising campaign and served also to get the word out about the park in the community,” Mann said.
Businessman-philanthropist John Ferring and Mr. Epsten have been friends and neighbors for years, and Ferring shared Mr. Epsten’s love of the park. Ferring said a friendship between his wife, Alison, and Sue McCollum came first, then developed into a strong foursome. The core of his relationship with Mr. Epsten, Ferring said, was an interest in philanthropy. “Todd helped me with my work for the Contemporary Art Museum, and I became increasingly involved in Forest Park Forever.”
He said, with great affection, “Todd was ADD. He went in many directions simultaneously. It was part of his charm.”
Mr. Epsten is survived by his wife, Susan McCollum, and their two sons, Michael and Brian; his parents, Jacqueline and Robert Epsten of Kansas City; three sisters: Judith McLaughlin of St. Louis, and Jane Girson and Jill Epsten, both of Kansas City; and a brother, Brad Epsten, of Kansas City.
A funeral service will be at Central Reform Congregation, 5020 Waterman Blvd., at Kingshighway, at 10 a.m. on Monday, May 28.
The family asks that in lieu of flowers contributions be sent to Forest Park Forever, Judith and Dennis Jones Visitor and Education Center, 5595 Grand Dr., Forest Park, St. Louis, Mo. 63112.