Voices

Living color

A couple of childhood icons come tumbling down

Issue: "Crossing borders," June 23, 2007

To have even one of your childhood icons knocked unceremoniously off its prominent perch is enough to rattle your roots. But when two such symbols tumble by the wayside in a few short days, it's enough to make you worry that civilization itself is falling apart.

Such has been my anguish while trying to digest the news that The Wall Street Journal, which must certainly be the greatest newspaper of all time, is now likely to be sold to a man who gives newspapers a bad name. And with that sad word also comes the news that sometime this fall, the elegant name of A.G. Edwards & Sons, a brokerage with more than a century of service, will be subsumed into the corporate label-spinning maelstrom of high finance.

Neither the newspaper nor the brokerage is about to disappear. And the people most recently responsible for both companies, it appears, will be handsomely rewarded for giving up their ownership-as will other stockholders in both enterprises.

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But that doesn't lessen the sadness that overwhelms us when big names that have been part of our culture for a lifetime either disappear or are substantially diluted. It raises the question: Are we talking only about a nostalgic twinge-or something more vital and basic to who we are?

For me, it's both. My first exposure to A.G. Edwards-or to the stock market, for that matter-came in the fall of 1955 when I was just 14 years old. I personally made up 25 percent of the student body at the little Christian high school I attended, and my dad loaded all four of us into our seatbelt-less '48 Ford for a 300-mile field trip to St. Louis. While he attended a meeting, we high-schoolers spent two whole days visiting Brown Shoe Co. (that's an industry mostly in China and Brazil these days), the Federal Reserve Bank (the swinging vault door protecting stacks of currency was four feet thick), Lambert Field (where we saw our first-ever Boeing 707)-and the home office of A.G. Edwards. Who could forget bedlam taking place between those huge walls broken up into mosaics of blackboards? Grown men raced all over the littered floor and up and down ladders with different colors of chalk, while others yelled for attention. But what made all this especially memorable was that our hostess for the whole two-day visit was Virginia Edwards, wife of the brokerage's CEO, Presley Edwards. We country kids toured the city in their Lincoln Continental. It was spiffy.

That, of course, was exactly the kind of personal attention that made A.G. Edwards one of the top brokerages in America-the only one of the top 10, I learned much later, not headquartered in New York City. It was both literally and symbolically a mid-American business. The reputation that A.G. Edwards developed wasn't for slick products or hot-shot salesmen nearly so much as for honest dealing and a physical presence in your own relatively small town. In 2001, Edwards analysts were among the very first to call the dot-com bust-and their clients were appreciative.

Is my memory larded with nostalgia? Of course. This morning I drove by the sleek headquarters of A.G. Edwards in St. Louis-the buildings covering several city blocks whose signage in a few short months will give way to the very neutral sounding "Wachovia Securities"-and I had to wonder what a 14-year-old touring the present facility might see that could possibly produce parallel kinds of memories 52 years from now?

Or have laptops and PCs brought such uniformity to everything we do that brokerages, banks, travel agencies, real estate offices-and even magazine editorial offices-have all come to look exactly alike? Is there anything left to make anybody stand out? To provide anything worth remembering?

On second thought, maybe The Wall Street Journal needs an owner as colorful as Rupert Murdoch.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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