Thomas J. Guilfoil, an influential lawyer and Democratic Party leader who helped arrange the departure of the football Cardinals in 1988, died this morning (Feb. 29, 2012) of infirmities at his home in Des Peres. He was 93.
Mr. Guilfoil grew up south of downtown, a son of a widowed dressmaker, and worked his way through Washington University as a playground supervisor for the National Youth Administration, a New Deal agency. Through his career, he ran Democratic political campaigns, worked as a lawyer for public agencies and became a prominent corporate lawyer, whose role in business mergers inspired the nickname "Takeover Tom."
He was a lifelong Democrat, fundraiser and advisor to presidents and national candidates who once called the late Ronald Reagan the strongest president since Franklin D. Roosevelt.
It was his role as advisor to Bill Bidwill, owner of the Arizona Cardinals, that made him a household name among the area’s sports fans. He helped to engineer Bidwill’s failed campaign for a new stadium here, and then his move of the football Cardinals to Phoenix in 1988. The Cardinals played here from 1960 through 1987.
Mr. Guilfoil managed a trifecta of sorts in lawyering for local professional sports. He also worked with the St. Louis Blues during the Mike Shanahan era (1986-1995) and was a key player in 2002 in the deal that led to a new Busch Stadium. He got into the ballpark deal for Mayor Francis Slay, formerly one of the young lawyers in his firm.
Mr. Guilfoil claimed Irish and Cherokee Indian ancestry and was fond of talking about his humble beginnings. He grew up on the 1600 block of South Jefferson Avenue in a flat above his mother’s dress shop. His father died when he was six. He attended McKinley High School and Washington University, and graduated from the university’s law school in 1941.
"I don’t know why I wanted to be a lawyer," he said during an interview in 1986. "It was a respected thing to be, I guess. I never knew a lawyer when I was young. I grew up in the Depression and (in) a pretty tough neighborhood. I was socially disadvantaged, I guess, and didn’t know it."
He entered the Army in World War II and, after a stint in an office in Omaha, Neb., volunteered to become a bombardier for the 8th Air Force in England, from which he flew 35 missions on B-17 Flying Fortresses.
Returning home, he joined the prominent law firm now known as Bryan Cave. Entering Democratic politics, he managed the St. Louis-area campaign office for Forrest Smith’s successful campaign for governor in 1948. That led to his appointment as general counsel for the state insurance division.
He resigned from that post in 1950 to manage the U.S. Senate campaign for Thomas C. Hennings of St. Louis, and managed Hennings’ re-election six years later.
In 1953, Mr. Guilfoil was co-counsel with Morris Shenker for James P. Finnegan, chief collector for the Internal Revenue Service in St. Louis, who was convicted of bribery. In 1960, when Sen. Hennings died in office of cancer, Mr. Guilfoil and Shenker were two of the senator’s pall bearers.
That same year, Mr. Guilfoil ran the St. Louis campaign office for President John F. Kennedy and, in 1964, ran the state campaign for President Lyndon B. Johnson. He became law partners with Stuart Symington Jr., a son of then-U.S. Sen. Stuart Symington Sr. The firm, Guilfoil, Symington & Petzall, later became Guilfoil, Petzall & Shoemake. Mr. Guilfoil retired from active law practice in 2002, but remained a partner in the firm.
He served as legal counsel for the Bi-State Development Agency for nearly 20 years before resigning in 1973.
He was state Democratic chairman in 1982.
In 1974, he was appointed by the U.S. District Court to represent three former inmates of the old St. Louis City jail, then at 124 South 14th Street. He prevailed in the case, winning a ruling that its conditions violated the inmates’ constitutional rights.
In 1972, he became vice president of the football Cardinals. A close friend as well as partner of Bidwill, Mr. Guilfoil remained a team officer until 2005.
In a statement Wednesday, Mayor Slay said:
“Tom Guilfoil was my boss, law partner, and advisor for many years. I cannot recall a conversation with him that did not make me re-think something. I named my City Hall conference room after him to remind myself that the decisions made there are only as good as the advice that is given. Tom was smart, fierce, and funny – though the humor was the kind that they use to cut diamonds. He left an indelible mark on the law, on his city, and on those who worked with him.”
Mr. Guilfoil is survived by his wife, Dianne Meyer. He had no children.
Funeral arrangements are pending.