'I have loved every minute': Photographer Bill DeMestri has captured much of Belleville's history

News-DemocratMay 31, 2014 

In Belleville's 200 years of history, few have witnessed more of it than 93-year-old, lifelong resident Bill DeMestri who spent more than two-thirds of his life looking at the city through the viewfinder of a camera.

DeMestri, who lives in a house on the same lot where he was born in 1921, worked 66 years for local newspapers, first the Belleville Daily Advocate and later the Belleville News-Democrat after the papers merged in 1958.

His work included photographing six United States presidents who visited the area, high profile criminal cases and countless slice of life photos of local folks who made Belleville what it is.

"I got to do what most people consider to be a hobby as my job," DeMestri said as he sat in his Belleville living room decorated with prints of photos he's taken over the years as well as awards and honors he's received. "And I made a nice living at it. I feel like I never worked a day in my whole life."

DeMestri was born in red brick house on Vernier Avenue, where his vegetable and rose gardens are now located. He remembers growing up in the Great Depression when he and his buddies from the neighborhood would have to get creative to find things to entertain themselves because nobody had any money.

"We used to hang out under the street light and play basketball with an imaginary basket," DeMestri said. "Back in those days no one had indoor plumbing, we all had outhouses out back. So when we were 10-12 years old it was our big fun to go around on Halloween night tipping over outhouses."

In addition to no indoor bathrooms, DeMestri remembered that few of the homes in his neighborhood had refrigerators.

"In those days, instead of refrigerators, you'd have an ice box," DeMestri said. "You'd put a sign in your window every day that said how much ice you wanted and a truck would bring it to you. You could get 50 pounds of ice for a quarter."

While times were tough, DeMestri said there was no fear of crime in those days.

"We'd have hobos come knock on the door and ask for a sandwich," DeMestri said. "But no one ever thought about locking their door. You just didn't do that back then. We didn't worry about that sort of thing. I think that's the big difference between the city now and then. The crime."

In 1937, when he was 16, DeMestri was given a hand-me-down, 1925 Hupmobile roadster. The motor was hanging on by a thread and it trailed a big cloud of smoke everywhere he went. But he didn't care because it was a treat to have his own car.

"It had a windshield that laid down flat," DeMestri said. "You'd have to remember to put it up at night or your teeth would be full of bugs."

The car had a horn that played a little tune and DeMestri loved to push the button.

"People would hear that horn before they could see me coming and would say 'two bits says that's Bill,'" DeMestri said.

But one person who didn't care for the horn -- or the Hupmobile -- was Belleville Township High School Principal H.G. Schmidt.

DeMestri drove the old jalopy through the sunken garden in front of the school, belching a cloud of smoke as he went. Schmidt told him he didn't want to see the car at the school again.

'He ran a tight ship," DeMestri said of Schmidt, who was principal of Township High School from its opening in 1915 until 1945. "There was no fooling around at school like there is today. You studied and you studied hard. It was all business."

The car wouldn't be a problem for long. It would only last for a year and a half before the engine went bad. DeMestri sold it to Acme Auto Parts in Belleville and remembered he got $35 for it.

It was about that same period of time, on March 15, 1938, when Belleville suffered one of the darkest days in its history.

A cloudy and rainy day in Belleville, DeMestri said no one had any clue that a tragedy was about to take place.

DeMestri was near the railroad crossing at West Main Street just west of Township High School talking to a friend on the tracks when he noticed the sky turn black as a sudden storm blew up. He ran to his sister's house where he and two siblings hid under the dining room table as a tornado devastated the city.

"It was so loud," DeMestri said. "It sounded like a freight train going by just outside the window. When we went outside it was total devastation."

Both the front and back porches of his family's home were torn off by the tornado. But the house stood firm.

"We had that thing torn down a few years ago and the whole house was built two or three bricks thick," DeMestri said. "They don't build them like that anymore, and that's what saved it."

The neighbors weren't so lucky. The entire row of houses across the street were destroyed and, eventually, replaced. Across an alley to the east, a neighbor was one of 10 people killed by the twister that destroyed 85 houses and damaged 200 more over a five-block path of destruction that went through the heart of DeMestri's neighborhood.

Neighbors pitched in and spent weeks picking up the bricks, splintered lumber and broken trees left by the tornado.

The house where DeMestri was born was built in 1900 and had to be razed a few years ago because its electrical system was outdated and would have been too expensive to repair. The house couldn't be occupied in its condition, so it was torn down to make more room for Bill's gardening hobby. He lives on the east end of the lot in a house he built in the 1950s.

"The bricks from the old house were put on pallets and taken to New Orleans where they're used to build new houses," DeMestri said. "But I still find one or two of them every time I try to till my garden."

As outdated as the electrical work in the house was, DeMestri said it wasn't original to the house.

"When I was a kid we had gas lights in the house," DeMestri said. "You had to light them with a match."

When he was a teenager, DeMestri got a job delivering the Daily Advocate during the afternoon. It was a good job for a young man, he remembered.

"I was making $1.90 a week, which doesn't sound like much now," DeMestri said. "But you could buy a set of new shoes for $1.95. You could buy a new suit back then for eight bucks."

He could afford to take in a movie at the Rex Theater in the 1400 block of West Main Street which cost a nickel or a dime. Once he won a duck there. He was forced by the driver of one of the street cars that used to travel what is now West Main Street, to fashion a diaper for the duck out of an old newspaper before it was allowed onboard.

DeMestri said he's not sure why the theater gave away ducks as prizes. But he thinks his family ended up eating the prize. It was a welcome change to the chickens the family raised on its property which were used to feed the family. Bill raised his arm in a swinging motion over his head to show how his mother broke their necks before butchering them.

After five years of delivering papers, in 1942 DeMestri moved up to the business of producing them.

"I heard they needed a proofreader and I applied for the job," DeMestri said. "I did that for about three months when a photographer and photo engraver, Harold Mathes, got called into the service."

The Daily-Advocate editors got Mathes a six-month deferment from military service and asked him to teach DeMestri how to do his job while he was away at war. Bill had found his new passion. But it seemed that it would be short-lived.

"After a year and a half, I was called to the service," DeMestri said. "So they got me a six-month deferment and asked me to show my replacement the ropes."

DeMestri ended up in the Army Air Corps using his photography skills to make maps that helped Allied bombers find their targets in Europe. When he came home, his job at the paper was filled and he was prepared to move on to something else when the Daily Advocate's president paid him a visit.

Mathes, was leaving to go work for Popular Mechanics magazine. The president wanted Bill to come back to the Daily Advocate to work for him.

Before he left for the war, DeMestri made $18 a week as a photographer and engraver. To lure him back, the Daily Advocate offered $42.50 a week.

DeMestri was living the high life as a single guy with a pocket full of cash.

He and his buddies would head to the Belleville Hotel on the southeast corner of the Public Square. On the lowest level of the building that later became the Meredith Home, there was a nightclub called the Carnival Room.

Bill and his friends would have a few beers, and listen to music by live bands. He dated one of the singers and didn't have a care in the world.

But his new profession would help to change his fate.

One night a polka band was performing and a woman in the audience named Arlene couldn't wait to dance. She polkaed around the room with a dance partner while DeMestri ran to get his camera to get a photo of the spectacle. The chance meeting led to an eventual marriage. The couple has been together 59 years so far.

When the Belleville Daily Advocate was bought out by the News-Democrat in 1958, DeMestri was one of only five people from the old paper who were asked to come work at the new combined company.

"Things were really competitive in those days," DeMestri said. "They didn't like us, and we didn't like them."

DeMestri's experience and reputation earned him a new job at the News-Democrat, it also earned him the trust of local police who for many years had a gentleman's agreement with the photographer to document their crime scenes.

Bill was granted exclusive access to murder scenes where he would snap shots of the grizzly scenes and provide prints to the police department. He didn't get paid for his work. But he did benefit from getting scoops over competing papers like the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and St. Louis Globe-Democrat.

Although he retired in 1989, DeMestri continued to work for the News-Democrat on a part-time basis for 18 more years.

"I haven't worked a day in my life because I have loved every minute of it," DeMestri said. "It was something new and different every day and I got to meet so many wonderful people. I couldn't have asked for anything better."

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at swuerz@bnd.com or call 239-2626.

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