Donald E. Lasater, who was once among the most prominent bankers in St. Louis, died Friday (Feb. 5, 2016) of natural causes at Missouri Baptist Hospital. He was 90.
Mr. Lasater, of Creve Coeur, began his career in St. Louis County government and politics, switched to banking and rose to become chairman and chief executive of Mercantile Bank in 1970.
He oversaw construction of Mercantile’s downtown office tower, now the local base for U.S. Bank. He overcame an indictment for perjury, then led the bank through a turbulent period of troubled loans and stymied merger plans in the late 1980s.
“He was a highly regarded St. Louis banker,” said longtime banking analyst Joe Stieven. “He was always especially gracious.”
Mr. Lasater, a native of St. Louis, was reared by a single mother during the Depression, and went to work early. “From his adolescence, he was always working,” said his son J.B. Lasater.
One job was as an errand boy, and one of his errands was to a local bookie. That lasted until the boy’s grandfather discovered what he was delivering, and made him quit.
Mr. Lasater graduated from McKinley High School in 1943 and joined the Navy, where he trained as a pilot but was never sent overseas. After the war, he went to college on the G.I. Bill, then to law school at the University of Southern California.
He returned to St. Louis because “he didn’t want to work for the movie industry,” said son Kevin Lasater.
He worked for a while as a St. Louis County prosecutor in the 1950s, then became an assistant county counselor, and then first executive secretary of the St. Louis County Council.
He quit that to run the campaign of state Sen. Clifford Jones, a candidate for county supervisor. Jones narrowly lost that 1958 race to James McNary.
Out of work, Mr. Lasater landed a position at Mercantile Bank. He rose rapidly through the loan and trust departments and, at age 44, he became chairman and chief executive.
“He loved giving back to St. Louis and taking chances on people who were trying to make downtown great,” said J.B. Lasater. The construction of the Mercantile tower was part of a bigger effort to revive the eastern part of Washington Avenue, he said.
He lobbied the Missouri Legislature, seeking more money for the St. Louis bus system. He chaired the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce in the early 1970s.
Trouble came in 1975. Federal prosecutors was investigating what they suspected to be a roundabout scheme to funnel money from Mercantile to Missouri Gov. Warren Hearnes.
Mr. Lasater was indicted on charges that he lied to a federal grand jury investigating the affair.
Mr. Lasater took a leave from Mercantile while fighting the charges. “It tested his mettle, which was always strong. In that tough time, he found support from people who were his friends,” said J.B. Lasater.
Eventually, a judge dismissed the charges, ruling that Mr. Lasater’s statements, even if they were shown false, were not pertinent to the federal investigation. Mr. Lasater returned to his Mercantile post.
In the 1980s, Missouri law limited cross-border bank mergers, confining banks to their local markets. But Mercantile tried to expand its reach by making loans elsewhere. By the late 1980s, those efforts had led to trouble.
The bank binged on Latin American loans, then sold them off at prices as low as 50 cents on the dollar when debtors couldn’t pay. It piled up losses on energy loans, fumbled an effort to handle store credit cards for a chain of lumber stores and lost money on a bankrupt Kansas City developer. The bank was losing money.
In April 1988, Mercantile executives happily announced a major coup — a marriage with equally troubled Centerre Bancorporation. The marriage would have made Mercantile the biggest bank in Missouri. But joy turned to consternation as Mercantile watched its beau lured away by a higher offer from Boatmen’s Bancshares Inc.
Mr. Lasater retired in 1988, and Mercantile eventually became part of U.S. Bank.
Mr. Lasater served during various periods on the boards of Washington University, the Muny and Interco, a St. Louis corporation.
Mr. Lasater was married to Mary E. Lasater, who preceded him in death.
He is survived by four sons, J.B., Kevin, Timothy and Thomas, and a daughter, Laura, all of St. Louis, and five grandchildren.
A memorial Mass will be at 3 p.m. Feb. 16, at the Church of the Annunziata, 9305 Clayton Road, with a reception following the Mass at the Bogey Club, 9266 Clayton. Interment will be private. Funeral arrangements are by the Bopp Chapel. Memorial contributions may be made to a charity of the donor’s choice.