St. Louis Alderman Albert L. Red Villa, the last of the city's line of saloonkeeper-politicians, was an institution at City Hall. During his 37 years in office, his trademarks were fat Dominican cigars, a gruff wit and an indifference to political flummery.
Mr. Villa had served on the Board of Aldermen longer than anyone since the board was set up in 1914. He had been aldermanic vice president since 1979. In July, the board named its City Hall chamber in Mr. Villa's honor.
Red Villa's first bid for public office in 1938 was heralded with the headline, Bootlegger Runs For Constable. He was convicted twice of misdemeanors for violating the National Prohibition Act. But there are key differences between Red Villa and the old pol image. Among other things, Villa has always had a reputation for honesty and a willingness to take the heat when the cause is just.
Mr. Villa, a Democrat, represented the 11th Ward, a working-class area that generally covers the Carondelet area in south St. Louis. He was born there and served drinks to its boatyard workers long before he was elected alderman in 1953.
"His legacy isn't in having written the city's zoning ordinance but in being a wise and calming influence," said Vincent C. Schoemehl, a former alderman. "He could keep things within reasonable bounds."
House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-St. Louis County, said in a statement that Mr. Villa "was truly committed to his constituents.... No problem was too small or too large for Red Villa."
Mr. Villa operated a saloon called The Cottage, at 8129 South Broadway, from 1931 to 1977. He held court at Table No. 1, listening to requests for favors and arranging jobs at City Hall. "Always, my political base was the saloon," he once said. "Politics is for saloonkeepers."
Mr. Villa got the nickname Red because he had red hair as a young man. Gray took over long ago, but his cigars and the brass spittoon at the foot of his aldermanic desk stayed with him. Mr. Villa used to smoke 10 or 12 cigars daily.
Mr. Villa's parents were immigrants from Milan, Italy, and his father worked here as a bricklayer and laborer. Mr. Villa attended St. Boniface Catholic School in Carondelet. He married Effie Spesia in October 1939.
He co-owned two taverns before he joined with James H. McAteer, now deceased, to buy The Cottage in 1931. McAteer later became clerk of the old city Circuit Court of Criminal Causes. Mr. Villa was appointed to succeed McAteer in 1951 on the condition that he sell the tavern. He couldn't, and resigned the job.
But he became 11th Ward alderman on April 21, 1953. Mr. Villa's time in office was unbroken except for two days in February 1967, when he resigned because of an ouster suit that alleged that he did not live in the ward. In fact, he had been living at 3841 Holly Hills Boulevard in the 13th Ward. But he quickly was reappointed to his old seat and moved to a new home at 510 Dover Place, next to Interstate 55 - a highway he had tried to stop. He lived there until his death.
Mr. Villa was proudly old-fashioned about his politics. He gave groceries to the poor, helped youngsters find jobs, raised bail for constituents and appeared in court for them.
In 1969, he refused a $2,500-a-year pay raise approved by the Board of Aldermen. Instead, he turned the money over to pay for lighting baseball diamonds in Carondelet Park.
One of Mr. Villa's most noted accomplishments was the bulldozing through the Board of Aldermen in the early 1960s of the Public Accommodations Bill, a controversial measure that guaranteed minorities equal rights in all public places in the city.
Mr. Villa held picnics every summer for about 25 years at a 13-acre site he owned in Jefferson County. More than 300 guests - a who's who in St. Louis politics, business, and labor - attended every year, mixing serious politicking with beer and barbecue.
He was an avid baseball fan, and during the 1950s and 1960s he sponsored a semi-pro team, the Red Villas, which he put in uniforms that were almost identical to those of the old St. Louis Browns. Among his players were two who later played for the St. Louis Cardinals, Mike Shannon and Jerry Buchek. He also was a founder of the old Villa Athletic Club in Carondelet.
Mr. Villa also was an usher for many years at Sts. Mary and Joseph's.