FEATURES • Fall 2001

Hans Mayer, B.S.B.A. '57, M.S.W. '61, learned at an early age the importance of community to personal survival. Fleeing Germany to escape the Holocaust, Mayer's family depended on others in the United States. This reliance has shaped Mayer's life and work—throughout, he has served as a leader helping build a strong Jewish community.

by Nancy Belt

Hans Mayer gravitates toward building things. As a 12-year-old, he was building a soapbox racer to run in St. Louis' Soapbox Derby. Ever since his teen years, he's been helping build Jewish communities.

His family—parents Arthur and Hertha, 3-year-old Hans, and two older brothers—relied on support from the Jewish community when they fled from Stettin, Germany (now Poland), to New York City in 1939 to escape the Holocaust. His father, vice president of sales for a firm making lining materials for fine suits, and his mother, a medical school student turned homemaker, prepared for their new life by training themselves in candy-making before they left Germany. Even so, the family's survival depended on help from others in the community—during their three months' stay in New York City and in their subsequent move to St. Louis.

"I know the importance of community," Mayer says, "both in terms of receiving and giving back." From grade school on, Mayer's life has centered on Jewish institutions. Growing up in St. Louis, Mayer attended Clark Elementary and Soldan High School, both near the "Y" (Young Men's Hebrew Association) on Union Boulevard. (Both schools and the Y were close to home, at Delmar Boulevard and Clara Avenue. Part of the family's apartment was devoted to making Mrs. Arthur Mayer's Candies.) In summertime, he loved attending the Y's Camp Hawthorn on the Lake of the Ozarks.

As a teenager, Mayer became a youth leader for after-school and weekend programs at the Y. After his father died in 1951 (Mayer was 15), he worked a string of part-time jobs—at Western Auto, where he was the top salesman; at Spiegel's, a chain of retail outlets for camping supplies; and as a bagger at Bettendorf's (now Schnucks), in Clayton. His main hobby was folksinging. Pete Seeger's "This Land Is Your Land," Woody Guthrie songs, and "We Shall Overcome," from the civil rights movement, were favorites, especially at camp songfests.

When Mayer enrolled in Washington University in 1953, he lived with his mother in a small house in University City. He balanced his studies and work (partly at the family's candy business, which now had a retail/wholesale shop on Clayton Road). "I didn't know what I wanted to do," he says, "so I took two years of liberal arts then drifted into business." Mayer, who drove an "old jalopy" to school, says, "I belonged to AEPi (Alpha Epsilon Pi) fraternity, but I was not a social butterfly. There wasn't much time for socializing; I was rather unsophisticated and, besides, devoted most of my time to studies and work."

 
Shanti K. Khinduka (left), dean of the Washington University George Warren Brown School of Social Work (GWB), and Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton (right) honored Hans Mayer with a GWB Distinguished Alumni Award in 1998.

 

After graduating with a B.S.B.A. degree in 1957, Mayer worked as a junior accountant—only until tax time was over. "I was not cut out to be an accountant," he says. Instead, he began work as a regular employee at the Y, which by then had moved to the Yalem Branch in University City and was part of the St. Louis Jewish Community Centers Association (JCCA) later headquartered in St. Louis County. In 1959, he began graduate studies in the University's George Warren Brown School of Social Work. Through a mutual friend, he met Marjorie Goldenberg, from Brooklyn, and the following summer he worked at the camp where she worked in New Jersey. They married in June 1960 and spent that summer living and working at Camp Hawthorn.

In graduate school, Mayer's field placement was with the JCCA, which awarded him a scholarship. From 1959 to 1971, he rose through various staff positions there until he became assistant executive director. (Mayer received a Master of Social Work degree in 1961.) Then in 1971, he became executive director of the Jewish Community Center of Houston. "I think I got the job because of my rare combination of business and social work skills," Mayer says, "and, as manager of a large organization, the business skills involving finances, personnel, and delegating came in handy." He then served 18 years as executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston before retiring in 1995.

 


"I want to support the infrastructure that benefited my family and has continued to benefit domestic and immigrant Jews in the United States and that supports Israel's struggle to become a land of peace."


A prominent leader in the Jewish community, Mayer says, "As Jews become more integrated into the American lifestyle, it's important to maintain Jewish identity—through education, as well as through social/cultural organizations."

He continues to work as a consultant on community organization and fund-raising issues for private sector social service and education agencies, including the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life (Hillel), at the University of Texas in Austin; the Akron Jewish Federation; the Memphis Jewish Federation; and the Liverpool (England) Jewish Youth & Community Centre. All the while, he has remained committed to maintain and strengthen the Jewish social service system that contributed to creating a strong Jewish community during the past century. "I want to support the infrastructure that benefited my family and has continued to benefit domestic and immigrant Jews in the United States," he says, "and that supports Israel's struggle to become a land of peace."

An active leader and board member of various professional organizations during his career, Mayer currently serves on the board of the Holocaust Museum of Houston, on the advisory council for the Ashkenazic Jewish Genetic Study under the auspices of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, and on the program review committee of the Greater Houston Chapter of the American Red Cross.

Mayer, who says Washington University made a "very substantial contribution" to his career, actively supports the University through the Alumni and Parents Admission Program and was named a distinguished alumnus by the School of Social Work in 1998. He recently was named Houston area chairman of the University's Eliot Society. Describing the University as "a very special place" for his family, Mayer notes that his wife, who graduated from the University of Houston, attended classes here and that their two daughters graduated from Washington University. Lisa Mayer Estes earned a bachelor's degree in sociology in Arts & Sciences in 1984 and a Master of Social Work in 1985, and Miriam Mayer Lichstein earned a bachelor's degree in business in 1989.

The father also of two sons, Jonathan and Benjamin, and grandfather of five, Mayer balances his professional activities with family activities, such as camping; get-togethers with camp friends, who have rousing songfests; and marathon events in running and biking. A Boston marathoner, he often runs with his younger son and cycles in the MS 150 with his son-in-law, Larry. He ran with both sons in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., in 1996.

Throughout his life, Mayer's competitive spirit and drive, ability, and concern for others have helped him achieve much, with society becoming the true winner.

Nancy Belt is the associate editor of this magazine.

 

 

Left: Hans Mayer is a member of the board of the Holocaust Museum of Houston.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Mayer is an avid cyclist and marathon runner.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He ran with sons (from left) Benjamin and Jonathan in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., in 1996.