Anthony J. Sestric: Lawyer, civic leader, author of book on slavery
Anthony J. Sestric, a politically active attorney for more than 40 years who, in a recently published book, methodically chronicled 57 years of Missouri lawsuits that gave slaves their day in court – and sometimes freedom – died Sunday. He was 71 and a life-long St. Louis resident.
Mr. Sestric died at SSM St. Clare Health Center in Fenton of complications precipitated by a fall May 3, said his son Michael.
A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Friday at Saints Mary and Joseph Catholic Church in south St. Louis.
In "57 Years: A History of the Freedom Suits in the Missouri Courts," Mr. Sestric wrote about Missouri lawsuits that set many slaves free during the first half of the 19th century.
“It was his passion,” said his son Michael. “It was something he always wanted to write because St. Louis was such a focal point for the legal activities that were happening in the U.S. at that time.”
Lawyering for freedom
"57 Years" ranged from the first “freedom suit” brought in St. Louis by the descendants of an African-Indian slave, Marie Jean Scypion, in 1806, to the case of Dred Scott more than 40 years later.
Mr. Sestric wrote the story of people who worked to undo the nation’s “peculiar institution” one case at a time and the people they defended.
“This book,” he wrote in the introduction, “is also about the bravery and courage of the more than 400 slaves who fought for their freedom.”
For their efforts, he said, slaves were often “sold down the river,” never to be seen again, or worse. Their attorneys sometimes suffered the same fate.
In the book, lawyers and judges get first billing, he said, “not because their efforts were more courageous or significant than those of their clients, but merely because a description of the lives and personalities of the players aids in our understanding of the dynamics of the freedom suits.”
Jenna Kopff, Mr. Sestric’s paralegal and researcher whom he acknowledged in the book as “the most valuable contributor to this project,” said he knew exactly what he was looking for; nevertheless, he found an unexpected pleasure.
“Tony and I went through the actual documents,” Kopff said. “Just to touch the original documents, to see the way they wrote, he was excited about that.”
The 224-page book was published last February, less than two years after Mr. Sestric retired from full-time lawyering. He had book signings scheduled through August, including one for June 1, at the Carondelet Historical Society.
Civil rights, civil servant
The book’s subject matter was not surprising in light of Mr. Sestric’s life’s work.
Despite the landmark 1954 ruling Brown vs. Board of Education, which declared school segregation unconstitutional, St. Louis City schools remained segregated two decades later. In 1981, the U.S. District Court ordered the elimination of all vestiges of government-imposed school segregation in St. Louis.
Representing community groups like Concerned Parents for Neighborhood Schools, Mr. Sestric tried to speed up desegregation.
When he began his career, Mr. Sestric clerked for Judge Roy Harper, the chief judge for the U.S. District Court of Eastern Missouri, before joining his uncle in private practice. He would spend more than 40 years in private practice specializing in local government law, small business, probate and estate planning.
Over the years, he served as special assistant to the Missouri attorney general, hearing officer for the St. Louis Police Department and provisional municipal judge and special assistant circuit attorney for St. Louis.
Trumpets and bugles
Mr. Sestric’s numerous civic engagements included the St. Louis Municipal Airport Commission, the St. Louis Air Pollution Board of Appeals, Full Achievement, Inc., Polar Star Lodge No. 79, A.F. & A.M., Greater St. Louis Area Council, Boy Scouts of America, St. Elizabeth Academy and Legal Services of Eastern Missouri.
The former head of Legal Services, Richard B. Teitelman, now chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court, said there won’t be any trumpets or bugles to herald his friend of 30 years passing.
“But we will all know he was here,” Teitelman said.
“Tony was an intelligent and independent thinker, a real trailblazer in the legal community,” Teitelman said. “When our national office (for Legal Services) mandated a change we didn’t want, Tony said ‘no’ and it worked out just fine. He strengthened our programs.”
Mr. Sestric received the Legal Services’ Volunteer Lawyer of the Year award in 1982.
He vigorously served three bar associations: the American Bar Association, the Missouri Bar Association and the Bar Association of Metropolitan St Louis. He was president of the St. Louis Bar 1981-82. During his tenure as president, he wrote "Desegregation of Public Schools," for the St. Louis Bar Journal.
It was one of the few articles he penned that did not have a clever name like "Kill All the Lawyers" or "Miles to Go Before We Sleep.”
He had also belonged to the Lawyers Association, American Judicature Society, Mound City Bar Association, Fairfax Bar Association, Chicago Bar Association and the Federal Bar Association.
‘An intelligent grunt’
Anthony James Sestric was born June 27, 1940, the oldest son of Judge Anton Sestric and Marie Gasparovic Sestric. He graduated from Saint Louis University High School in 1958 and Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in 1962. He received his law degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1965.
While at Georgetown, he worked for the Democratic National Committee, his first foray into politics. He would go on to serve as campaign chair for the election of the president of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, a U.S. senator and a mayor of St. Louis.
He had no personal political ambitions. He called his chosen status “an intelligent grunt.”
“He preferred to work behind the scenes and support the best person,” said his son Michael. “He liked to get his hands dirty.”
And speak his mind.
In one of his frequent letters to the Post-Dispatch in 2009, he castigated Republicans for failing to field local candidates in some races.
“If the Republican Party does not want to be a political party in Missouri, it should turn over its mechanism to someone who does,” Mr. Sestric said.
“Tony was dedicated to his community and to his family,” Teitelman said.
He was equally patriotic. After being rejected for military service because of blindness in one eye, he tried to sneak into the Air Force.
“Everyone should do a little bit of something for their country,” Michael recalled him saying.
Mr. Sestric was preceded in death by his parents and a sister and brother-in-law, Kathleen and Richard Kaslick.
In addition to his son Michael (Suzette) Sestric of St. Louis, Mr. Sestric is survived by his wife, Carol Bowman Sestric; two daughters, Laura (Dan) Schulte, of St. Louis, and Holly (Shawn) Staley, of Kirkwood; a sister, Phyllis (James) Siedler, of south county, and five grandchildren: Ben and Joe Schulte, Joshua Staley and Mia and Annie Sestric.
Visitation will be 3-9 p.m., Thurs., May 31, at Kutis Affton Chapel, 10151 Gravois. Funeral Mass will be at 10 a.m., Fri., June 1, at Saints Mary and Joseph Church, 6304 Minnesota Ave., St Louis, Mo. 63111. Entombment will be in Saints Peter and Paul Mausoleum.
In lieu of flowers, if desired, please make donations in Mr. Sestric’s name to Saint Louis University High School or Rosati-Kain High School.