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BALLWIN • Dwayne Miller didn't have the luxury of self-pity when InBev, the new owner of Anheuser-Busch, brought his 24-year tenure with the beer maker to a premature end in late 2008.

“There were a couple of weeks around Christmas when I didn't do much,” said the longtime project manager. “But I knew I needed to get going after the first of the year. I'm still the major breadwinner for my family, and I couldn't afford to do nothing. And feeling sorry for myself was not going to get me anywhere.”

To find another well-paying, full-time job, Miller heeded a friend's suggestion and showed up one February Monday morning at St. Mark Presbyterian Church  in Ballwin.

There, at a Businesspersons Between Jobs (BBJ) meeting, Miller encountered the fellowship and counsel he needed to get back on track. He didn't know it at the time, but Miller was following a path traveled by thousands of St. Louisans since 1972.

On Monday, the nonprofit organization will commemorate its 40th year in the service of displaced executives, middle managers and tradespeople reeling from the life-altering experience of job loss.

The psychological boost the group has provided to displaced workers over four decades has strengthened the regional economy in countless intangible ways, said Denny Coleman, president and chief executive of the St. Louis County Economic Council.

“They've helped the unemployed understand they're not alone,” said Coleman. “They've shown that there are others in this with you, who are there to help you along the way. And that's a terrific plus.”

No one appreciates the irony of the group hitting the four-decade mark more than the organization's volunteer leadership.

“In the 40-year history of BBJ, we still haven't accomplished our primary goal – full employment,” pointed out Roger Stoll, the retired steel executive who serves as the group's president.

The national unemployment rate stood at 5.6 percent in August, 1972 – the month now retired St. Mark Presbyterian pastor Howard Gleason offered to help five laid off parishioners with their job search.

Gleason shared the word of the support sessions with other area ministers, and by that fall a formal organization – Businessmen Between Jobs – was born. (The group hurriedly changed its name after a displaced female worker began attending meetings.)

“There was a stigma to being laid off from a job at that time,” Coleman points out. “And to think that (BBJ) was getting people together and helping them get their next job in that era is tremendous.”

In moving the jobless toward that objective, BBJ can boast that its members were networking decades before LinkedIn and social media turned the term into a buzzword.

“Back then, you'd hear a lot about the Rolodex,” said Mike McCarty, who joined as a member three times while between jobs in the 1980s and 1990s and is now a director of the group.

The membership was stuffing envelopes for the 1989 equivalent of networking - direct mailings – when McCarty attended his first meeting in 1989.

The advent of the Internet however exacerbated the isolation of unemployment, an outgrowth of joblessness that dates back further than BBJ itself.

“I had a tendency to hibernate, and a big part of that was embarrassment about getting laid off,” said Jack Martin, who joined the group after losing his job in 1989.

Now retired, Martin is currently the vice president of the organization. Martin credits BBJ with helping him over the hump in the same basic way it assisted Dwayne Miller nearly two decades later.

“People can do everything at home on the computer, except actually interact personally with other people. And that's crucial,” said Martin.

Twenty-five years removed from his last job search, Miller availed himself of every BBJ opportunity to build his skills in resume-writing, networking and interviewing.

“It became a huge learning experience,” said Miller, who subsequently took an active role in passing the lessons along to other BBJ members.

McCarty says much of what BBJ does on behalf of the unemployed that come from as far as 70 miles away falls under the category of “damage control” - a weekly haven that provides the jobless with solace, support and a kick in the rear when need be.

“We don't make a big difference, but we make a little bit of a difference. And that's a lot,” said McCarty.

Attendance at BBJ meetings tends to run between 25 and 40 in decent to good times. But a bad economy can bring far more to St. Mark Presbyterian. Longtime executive director George Fish, who passed away in July, used to call BBJ attendance the most accurate barometer of unemployment in St. Louis. 

The latest spike, of course, came in 2009 when standing room only crowds of 200 or more jammed the church gymnasium.

Over the past year, attendance has leveled off. This past Monday, about 35 people showed up. BBJ officials attribute the drop-off in part to an uptick in hiring. And in part to more dire circumstances.

“I think people have just given up,” said McCarty.

With 40 years down, Stoll says BBJ is setting its sights on a commemorating a Golden Anniversary in 2022. The economy, unfortunately, seems poised to do its part to help the organization meet the milestone.     

BBJ expects a larger-than-normal crowd to converge on St. Mark Presbyterian Church Monday morning for a celebratory breakfast and reflections on the group's 40 years of service.

Conspicuously absent will be a BBJ alum forced to skip the occasion for the best possible reason.

“I can't go,” said Dwayne Miller. “I have to work.”

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