Negative talk about East St. Louis spurred Charmaine Savage to do something positive.
The 49-year-old retired Naval officer is launching a slick bimonthly magazine that will celebrate her city. The first issue of I Am EStL (I am East St. Louis) will be available Jan. 3. Its theme is civil servants. Highlights include interviews with former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Donald McHenry and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin. Both were born in East St. Louis. Mayor Emeka Jackson-Hicks is on the cover.
Charmaine had Reggie Petty, an East St. Louis historian and former Peace Corps director, pave the way for the McHenry interview.
“Mr. Petty, he was able to talk to Ambassador McHenry personally,” she said. “I thought, ‘If I could get an interview with the ambassador, other people would be willing to get on board. ... I talked to Ambassador McHenry on the phone. I sold it to him. I just wanted to be able to tell our children about him, all the things he was able to achieve, so children will know they can do that, too.”
Charmaine, interviewed the 79-year-old dignitary in Washington, D.C., where he lives.
“I had carved out two weeks in September. Southwest had great fares,” said Charmaine who is passionate and driven, yet soft-spoken and kind. “I said, ‘Let me know which week because I have to buy tickets by this day.’ Then, I emailed, ‘Tomorrow is the last day to buy tickets.’ He invited us to his home, me and photographer Stephen Bennett. We got there at noon. We were there four hours. He had all these stories to tell about the work he did, working in the Carter administration, talking to the Russian ballerina on the tarmac. ... Listening to his stories, I am sitting there thinking, I want to read his memoir. I felt I was hearing stories that might not make it to the memoir.”
But they will make it into her magazine.
Charmaine and husband Lorenzo, who have two grown children and a grandchild, lived most recently in San Diego. That’s where she was when she heard bad publicity about her hometown.
“I saw the trailer for a documentary. It was everything negative you could say about the town, statistics about the murder rate. ‘You would be safer in the Fallujah than at a stoplight in East St. Louis.’ I had been in Iraq. That upset me. I’ve never seen anything like that happpening in East. St. Louis. I stop at all the stoplights. I’ve never been accosted. This is my home town.
I saw the trailer for a documentary. It was everything negative you could say about the town, statistics about the murder rate. ‘You would be safer in the Fallujah than at a stoplight in East St. Louis.’ I had been in Iraq. That upset me.
Charmaine Savage on her inspiration
“Sometimes, you get upset about things and they go away. I thought, ‘I just have to do something.’ I came home in September 2014. I wanted to do something but I didn’t know what that was.”
How did Charmaine get the magazine idea?
“I would have to say it was just a vision from God,” she said. “There’s no way I could have thought this up. It’s not my area of expertise. I was in human resources since I joined the Navy in ’89.”
In a way, it was serendipitous. Charmaine had reconnected with friend Gerrian Hawes at their 25-year Lincoln High School reunion in 2010. Gerrian “has a very successful community publication in Clayton County, Georgia. I was thinking about some way to reintroduce people to the side of East St. Louis they don’t know. ... I sent her a message on Facebook. Here are all the things on my mind right now. I want to be of service, saying all the good things about East St. Louis.”
Gerrian was happy to help her friend.
“East St. Louis has so many great stories to tell,” said Gerrian, owner of Oliver Imprints, a brand communications company. “We need someone to shine a positive light. But I knew what she was taking on. I do a community magazine on a county level. The county resembles East St. Louis. It was the black eye of the metro-Atlanta area. No one wanted to move here. Families were moving out, but we still have good people. I am educated. My husband is a highly decorated police officer.”
Gerrian started her magazine five years ago.
“You have to have a love for your community to do this. It cannot be about the money. Money will show up.”
Charmaine traveled to Georgia in February to watch Gerrian put together an issue.
“I shadowed her for three days,” said Charmaine, who then returned and got busy.
She networked. Reggie Petty and his wife, artist Edna Patterson-Petty, were excited and supportive.
“So many people say what they are going to do, and go on about it, but it never comes to pass,” said Edna. “Charmaine was totally a breath of fresh air, and Reg and I wanted to help in any way that we could.”
Back to where she started
Charmaine’s office is on the first floor of a red brick building at the corner of 25th and Lincoln streets, just a few blocks from where she grew up. It’s not unusual for her mom, Barbara Brown, to stop by.
Did her daughter’s magazine project surprise her?
“I don’t even know what to say about her,” said Barbara, the mother of three. “She’s awesome. She just keeps amazing me.”
On one office wall, there’s a shadow box from Charmaine’s 21-year Navy career, a poster of renowned dancer-choreographer Katherine Dunham and other artwork. The dark wood floors are shiny. Furniture is casual and comfortable. She and Lorenzo, an architect, live in one of the building’s five apartments as they renovate.
“We have 20,000 square feet to do something with,” he said. “This is our passion for the rest of our lives.”
He supported his wife’s newest passion from the start.
“I said, ‘Let’s go for it, let’s do it.’ Anything she puts her mind to, she does it.”
She’s in the Navy now
Charmaine, a 1985 graduate of Lincoln High School, graduated with a business degree from McKendree College in 1989 and enlisted in the Navy.
“I didn’t want to graduate from college and just come home,” she said. “I wanted to have a career right after graduating. ... One of my high school classmates said you should join the Navy as an officer. That sounded good to me.”
By then, she and Lorenzo were married. The two had met in high school.
“My mom said, ‘You’re joining the Navy? OK, then.’ We were in the car in the driveway. My daughter was all buckled in. Mom said to my husband, ‘You are taking my baby away from here.’ He said, ‘She’s the one in the Navy, not me.’”
Her Navy career included stops in the Norfolk, Va., area; Great Lakes, Ill.; Scott Air Force Base; San Diego; Millington, Tenn.; and Baghdad, Iraq. While stationed in the Great Lakes area, she earned her master’s degree in management from Webster University.
Recurrences of breast cancer in 2009 figured into her decision to retire. Charmaine had a lumpectomy and radiation when she was 30, then a bilateral masectomy and chemo.
“I still tried to go to work every day. I am an overachiever. This guy at work was saying, ‘Why are you here? “I feel OK.’”
No sooner had she retired than an admiral she had worked for called in January 2011 about a civilian job in San Diego.
“I forget all the reasons I said I was going to retire. ... We had been there two years before. I wanted to go back to San Diego.”
So did Lorenzo.
“How could I say no when I had been hauling him around all those years? It’s good for his career to be so diversified.”
By then, their two children were grown.
“I really wanted them to go. I asked the kids, ‘If Mom and Dad went to San Diego, would you go, too?’ It was not just yes, but hell yes. ...
“I kept working. I loved my job (as military personnel officer, a human resources coordinator for civilians). I was there when the Navy Seals got Osama. It was just like a holiday. The next day at work it felt like the work we were doing was really making a difference.”
Recurrences of cancer in 2012 and 2013 caused Charmaine to retire again.
“I was thinking it’s time to go home. This has always been home for us. We always planned to come back to East St. Louis.”
Her children, Charay Dupard, 27, and Lorenzo Jr., 25, still live there. Charay is married with a 6-year-old granddaughter Kenley. Lorenzo is in the Navy.
Ready to launch
Charmaine’s 44-page I Am EStL makes its debut with a launch party from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 3, at the Katherine Dunham Museum.
“It’s going to be a free publication,” she said. “I want eveyone in the community to have access to it. What we are really doing is documenting East St. Louis’ history, telling stories of people who have gone on to reach the top of their career fields and telling stories of people who have been in the community their entire lives, and are doing really well for themselves. ... I’m also telling the story of young people who are trying to figure out their way in life, but doing positive things in the meantime.”
The magazine makes a stop at Billie’s Pastry Shop (“It’s been in Edgemont forever”) and shows off high school students’ art and poetry. There’s a relationship column and a piece on persevering.
“The story is in the words of the person,” said Charmaine. “(She) talks about how she triumphed over adversity. This young lady was in the wrong place at the wrong time. She’s confined to a wheelchair. She talks about how families who are new to the experience cope.”
The first edition is rich in content, but short on advertising.
Charmaine paid to print the first edition’s 1,000 copies.
“I wanted people to know how committed I am,” she said. “I am a staff of one. I didn’t have the opportunity to be seeking advertisers the way I wanted to. I did reach out to several. They want to see what it’s going to be first. I understand that.
“I also have a Go Fund Me campaign out there. I raised enough money to pay contributors to the magazine — writers, photographers.”
Charmaine is excited with the results.
“I look at it like this is my new baby,” she said. “I finally birthed it and am so proud of it. I’m excited about the potential of what it can do for us. I want people to be proud of where they are from. We have kind of lost that. I want to change some hearts and minds about East St. Louis. We are almost there.
“We are not those images that come up when you google East St. Louis. We are more than that.”
I Am EStL will be available at city hall, banks and the library in East St. Louis. Charmaine also hopes to distribute at universities and at Barnes & Noble.
East St. Louis’ new magazine
- What it is: I Am EStL (I Am East St. Louis), a bi-monthly publication that promotes the city
- When it will be available: Launch party is 2-4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 3, at Katherine Dunham Center, 1005 Pennsylvania Ave., East St. Louis. Includes music and light hors d’oeuvres. A $10 donation also gives you access to Dunham’s collection of symbolic and functional art. All are invited.
- Where to get it: Public places such as City Hall, libraries, in East St. Louis, the doughnut shop at 73rd and State streets, the old medical building at 4601 State St., at nearby colleges and Barnes & Noble bookstore in Fairview Heights.
- Cost: Free
- Information: www.facebook.com/iamestl
- Online: Check for www.iamestl.com about the second week in January. There also will be a link on the Facebook page.