Sarah Fenske | KBIA

Sarah Fenske

Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.
She won the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her work in Phoenix exposing corruption at the local housing authority. She also won numerous awards for column writing, including multiple first place wins from the Arizona Press Club, the Association of Women in Journalism (the Clarion Awards) and the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.
From 2015 to July 2019, Sarah was editor in chief of St. Louis' alt-weekly, the Riverfront Times. She and her husband, John, are raising their two young daughters and ill-behaved border terrier in Lafayette Square.

In January, Derek Fordjour’s first major solo museum exhibition opened at St. Louis’ Contemporary Art Museum. SHELTER features Fordjour’s paintings and sculptures in a space transformed by a dirt floor and corrugated metal walls, a ramshackle look designed to place visitors in the “heart of a storm,” according to the museum, and evoke “notions of safety, crisis, and impending harm.”

Then came an actual storm, as the coronavirus pandemic plunged the world into crisis. Museums across the U.S. shut down for months, CAM among them. 

Now the museum is again open for visitors, with extensive safety protocols. And for its final seven weeks of display, SHELTER has gained a new component, one that connects its themes to the way St. Louisans sheltered at home during CAM’s hiatus.  

We’ve all seen the photo: A beaming President Harry S. Truman holds aloft a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune from Nov. 3, 1948. The headline: “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.” 

The image was snapped in St. Louis’ Union Station just two days after Truman had defied public opinion polls and media predictions to win election to the job he’d inherited three years earlier. It was, Time magazine decreed, “the greatest photograph ever made of a politician celebrating victory” — and the perfect symbol of the upset victory no one saw coming but the president himself.

But if the photo has achieved icon status, the election that preceded it has largely been forgotten. A.J. Baime’s new book seeks to correct that.  

The secret to Brian Owens’ success is no secret at all. “I always tell people I get these heavenly hookups,” he explained. “God’s favor in my life. It’s begun in spite of me to position things to happen.”

The Ferguson-based soul singer, a devout Christian, can cite numerous blessings of late where he sees God’s hand in the works. There’s the former church building donated to his nonprofit Life Arts; he’s working on its renovation now. There’s also $200,000 in funding for that nonprofit from a New York-based benefactor.

Owens said Tuesday on St. Louis on the Air that he met the benefactor by chance online (or, to be more precise, by “heavenly hookup”). He’d posted a video on Facebook of his 6-year-old son, who has autism, playing the piano. As he recalled it, “some random person” chimed in suggesting a potential resource.  

In 2018, a powerhouse trio of nonprofits and activist groups set off on an unlikely quest: They wanted to close the city’s notorious Medium Security Institution, better known as the Workhouse. ArchCity Defenders, Action St. Louis and the Bail Project argued that the fraught racial history of the city jail and its hellish conditions meant that St. Louis was better off without it, moving all of its detainees to the Justice Center downtown.

After two years of advocacy, the Close the Workhouse campaign believed its goal was finally within its grasp. Organizers announced they had a majority of the members of the Board of Aldermen on board for an amendment to strip the Workhouse funding from the city’s upcoming budget.   

Author J. Courtney Sullivan has a knack for probing the interior lives of women. Her four bestselling novels — “Commencement,” “Maine,” “The Engagements” and “Saints for All Occasions” —  tackle many different ideas. The marketing of engagement rings. The gift of religious devotion. The difficulty of families.

But they have one thing in common: The women in them seem utterly real and completely sympathetic, even when readers might be horrified by their choices.

That is also true of the women in Courtney Sullivan’s new book, Friends and Strangers. The novel tells the story of Elisabeth, a Brooklyn journalist who finds herself living in a small college town just as she becomes a new mother. She’s lonely — and the college student she pays to watch her baby, Sam, becomes her main confidant.  

Ali Araghi’s debut novel, "The Immortals of Tehran," spans four decades of Iranian history — from what would prove to be the nation’s final shah taking power to the 1979 revolution. It’s a sprawling family saga, with a dose of magical realism and a few surprising twists. Who would believe the surprising role meddling cats played in Iran’s tumultuous 20th century? 

Araghi is an Iranian-born translator and writer, but he’s spent the last four years living in St. Louis, where he is a Ph.D student of comparative literature at Washington University. He explained on St. Louis on the Air that he was inspired to incorporate cats after a chance encounter on the streets of Tehran.  

COVID-19 remains a mystery in many ways, but as it continues to rampage through the world’s population, some things are becoming more clear. One of them is that cytokine storms — a “deranged immune response” to the virus, in which the body literally attacks its own cells instead of the invading coronavirus — appear to be one reason some patients end up extremely ill.

A drug developed in St. Louis aims to combat those cytokine storms. Called ATI-450, it was originally developed by Confluence Discovery Technologies in 2013 with the idea of helping people suffering from autoimmune diseases, particularly rheumatoid arthritis.    

St. Louis Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards said Monday that he believes body and dashboard cameras will help to “close the trust gap” between the police and the public.

Last Wednesday, the city approved a $5.7 million contract to outfit its police officers with body cameras and dashboard cameras. City officials said some officers could be wearing cameras within a month.

And while Jeff Roorda, the business manager of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, has argued that his union has a say in how cameras are implemented, Edwards pushed back on that. The collective bargaining agreement holds that the city has to discuss such changes in equipment, he said. That doesn’t mean they have to be negotiated.   

St. Louis’ beloved City Museum has long prided itself on having very few rules — “don’t run” being one of them. But when the 600,000-square-foot playland reopened Wednesday after months without visitors, it had a host of new policies and procedures in place. 

Those new rules are designed to stop the spread of the coronavirus, even while allowing guests access to the giant tunnels and slides that have long been the museum’s raison d’etre — well, most of them, anyway. In addition to some features being closed, now visitors have to reserve their spots ahead of time. If they’re over 9 years old, they have to wear masks. And the museum will be given a complete cleaning between groups of visitors.

On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, general manager Rick Erwin discussed the difficulty of bringing order to a place that has long promised near-total freedom. 

Racism isn’t just a topic in the streets, as St. Louis has joined cities across the nation in marching against police brutality toward people of color. It’s also a topic at bookstores and libraries, as readers increasingly seek out books that examine and critique racism. 

That’s true nationally and locally. Nine of the top 10 books on the most recent New York Times’ nonfiction bestseller list were focused on topics related to race. At EyeSeeMe African American Children's Bookstore in University City, sales are up significantly. “We’ve seen an exponential increase in desire for these books,” owner Jeffrey Blair said.

And at Left Bank Books in St. Louis’ Central West End neighborhood, staffers can’t even keep display copies of some books on racism in stock. Bookseller Danielle King says as much as one-third to a half of to-go orders (the shop is still only open for curbside or delivery) include a book about racism or a book centered on the black experience. 

In 2016, Ed Wheatley retired from his job as an engineer at AT&T. But Wheatley has kept busy — to the point that Reedy Press recently published his third book in as many years. Wheatley’s “Baseball in St. Louis: From Little Leagues to Major Leagues” surveys the city’s rich baseball history, from the Major Leaguers who got their start here to the semi-pro and amateur leagues that flourished for decades.

In the book, Wheatley posits that the classic St. Louis question asking where someone went to high school works just as well when framed around the national pastime and asking where you played baseball. 

“It’s just kind of gauging the enemy, if you will,” he explained on St. Louis on the Air. “‘You played baseball. How good are you? What club were you with? Who did you play with?’ It’s all those same kinds of identifying answers as people ascertain when you ask, ‘Where did you go to high school?' It tells a lot about you.” 

Three years ago, a Tennessee man made a wrong turn and ended up lost in rural Missouri. The man, Tory Sanders, sought help from local law enforcement — only to end up dead in a Mississippi County jail cell eight hours later. 

Sanders, who was black, had been tased repeatedly. Pepper spray had been blasted into his cell. In an altercation just before his death, a barrage of officers rushed into his cell and tackled him in what became a dogpile. Two top jail officials reportedly pressed down on his neck for more than three minutes even as a colleague urged them repeatedly to ease up, according to a lawsuit later filed by Sanders’ family. They didn’t listen until after Sanders passed out.   

As a professor of political science at Washington University, Clarissa Rile Hayward had a front-row seat for the protests and disruption that followed the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014. She paid attention as activists blocked highways, demonstrated at a symphony performance and even interrupted brunch at fancy restaurants to agitate for the Black Lives Matter movement.

And she found herself thinking about what tactics work, and why. She believed that the conventional wisdom about such protests — that they only work if they present a “stark confrontation … between good and evil” in the words of noted sociologist Doug McAdam — was incomplete. She set out to develop a new model, one that accounts for protests that disrupt “elites’ agenda-setting,” and thereby transform the political calculus.   

This interview will be on “St. Louis on the Air” over the noon hour Wednesday. This story will be updated after the show. You can listen live.

As a professor of political science at Washington University, Clarissa Rile Hayward had a front-row seat for the protests and disruption that followed the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014. She paid attention as activists blocked highways, demonstrated at a symphony performance and even interrupted brunch at fancy restaurants to agitate for the Black Lives Matter movement. 

And she found herself thinking about what tactics work, and why. She believed that the conventional wisdom about such protests — that they only work if they present a “stark confrontation … between good and evil” in the words of noted sociologist Doug McAdam — was incomplete. She set out to develop a new model, one that accounts for protests that disrupt “elites’ agenda-setting,” and thereby transform the political calculus.   

Corey S. Bradford Sr. chose a tough time to come home to the St. Louis metro. The native St. Louisan took office as president of Harris-Stowe State University on May 4 — an unprecedented time for higher education, which is grappling with both funding shortages due to the economic downturn and complications from the coronavirus.

And, indeed, the coronavirus complicated his move. On St. Louis on the Air, Bradford recalled living at a near-empty Chase Park Plaza Hotel for a week. So many people working remotely, he said, “delayed us from getting our furniture here in St. Louis.”

But Bradford feels up for the challenge. 

Bradford described his background as “very humble.” In answer to the all-important high school question, he said he graduated from the Academy of Math and Science, now known as Gateway Tech High School, before earning a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a master’s in applied math and statistics from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. 

When was the last time you saw the St. Louis metro’s most prestigious arts organizations all sharing the same bill? If you can’t remember, you may want to tune in Sunday. 

That evening, more than a dozen local organizations including the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, the Muny and Repertory Theatre St. Louis will perform a telethon-style benefit concert under some very unusual circumstances — not limited to the event’s host, actress Andrea Purnell, performing her role from a near-empty Powell Hall. Other participants stitched together their pieces virtually, editing submissions by individual performers to create ensemble pieces. 

It’s not just parents of young children trying to balance caregiving with other responsibilities during this pandemic. People whose loved ones suffer from dementia are also finding themselves under increased stress. Adult day centers are closed to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Many therapists and other support staff no longer offer in-person visits. And people with Alzheimer’s or other cognitive impairments may not realize why masks are necessary, much less remember the explanation from hour to hour.

Gail Brown is the primary caregiver for her mother, Delores, who has Alzheimer’s. She knows those challenges well.   

As a 9-year-old, John O’Leary nearly died. He was playing in his garage in St. Louis when he accidentally set off an explosion. He was left with third-degree burns covering his entire body — and even had to have his fingers amputated.

O’Leary recounted the story of his near-death and ultimate survival in his book “On Fire,” which became a national bestseller. And now he’s back with another book: “In Awe: Rediscover Your Childlike Wonder to Unleash Inspiration, Meaning, and Joy.” 

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, O’Leary explained his thesis: that we start life with all the right tools for happiness, only to have childlike senses such as “wonder” and “expectancy” drilled out of us. 

More than 260,000 Missourians filed claims showing they were unemployed as of May 2. It’s a staggering number, and it’s likely only to grow.

For Jeff Mazur, executive director of the tech training nonprofit LaunchCode, the numbers are a wakeup call. In his view, workforce training programs have failed to keep up with the realities of the modern workplace.

As one example, Mazur points to the local job training programs funded through the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act program. Workers seeking to learn what opportunities they’re eligible for have generally been required to show up for an in-person conversation at a job center, he explained on St. Louis on the Air.   

St. Louis County officially opened for business today. But after nearly eight weeks of coronavirus-related stay-at-home orders, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said it won’t be business as usual, much less party time. 

Reduced capacities, masks and barriers between customers and employees will be “our new normal,” Page previously explained. And for now, other St. Louis County businesses remain closed entirely, including gyms, swimming pools and bars that do not serve food. 

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, Page explained that he believed the county was ready to reopen thanks to a 14-day dip in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

As executive director of the St. Louis Fire Department Foundation, Laura Keller is tasked with helping the department in any way she can. Lately, that’s meant helping purchase much-needed protective equipment for firefighters, who remain on the front lines even as the coronavirus spreads across the U.S. 

And Keller recently did that work under challenging circumstances: She herself was diagnosed with COVID-19, the illness caused by the same coronavirus that firefighters need protection from. While she’s now recovered from the disease, her illness shows the reality that firefighters now face daily: The coronavirus might be lurking at every stop they make.

Four years ago, Dan Kolde sued the University of Missouri. His clients, a California-based nonprofit called the Beagle Freedom Project, had sought to obtain records about the dogs and cats the university was using for research. 

Those records were indisputably open to the public under Missouri’s Sunshine Law. What fell into dispute was the cost. The Beagle Freedom Project had made their request as narrow as possible, asking only for records the university was required to maintain for federal inspectors. Still, the university announced it needed $82,222 from the nonprofit to produce them.  

Walter Johnson’s new book reframes American history so that St. Louis sits at the center. No more looking at the nation as if it’s that New Yorker cartoon where everything important happened in New York City or Los Angeles, and the vast middle was mere flyover country. In Johnson’s telling, the St. Louis story is the American story — and it’s a messy, often ugly, one.

The book is titled “The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States.” Discussing it on St. Louis on the Air, Johnson explained that he came to the topic almost by accident. 

The Winthrop Professor of History and African and African American Studies at Harvard University, Johnson had written two well-regarded books on slavery in 19th-century America. Then he found himself at Washington University giving a keynote address in October 2014, two months after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson. His visit coincided with a “Weekend of Resistance” — and plunged the historian, and Missouri native, into a far more recent history.   

In March, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed a lawsuit against Branson-based televangelist Jim Bakker. His office alleged that Bakker had touted a product called “Silver Solution” as a treatment for the coronavirus. Consumers, Schmitt suggested, could be victimized by the false information.

But a former Missouri attorney general says Bakker is the real victim.

Now a partner at the St. Louis law firm Dowd Bennett, Jay Nixon is the state’s former governor, as well as its attorney general from 1993 to 2009. He is now representing Bakker in the lawsuit.

On St. Louis on the Air Friday, Nixon explained that Bakker has a First Amendment right to urge viewers of “The Jim Bakker Show” to get their bodies ready for the end times, even if the methods of doing so might not hold up to secular scrutiny.   

For more than 10 years, Nate Burrell has trained his camera lens on musicians. The St. Louis-based photographer has produced indelible concert images and also shot album art for an array of rising stars in the scene, including Pokey LaFarge and Kevin Bowers.

But last month, with the coronavirus shutting bars and music venues, Burrell turned his eye to a different subject. Captured in a two-week dash around the city, his “Covid Days” project shows the city’s residents outside shuttered businesses or closed-up offices, their faces masked.

In Swahili, the word “vitendo” means action. And taking action is what Geoffrey Soyiantet had in mind when he founded Vitendo4Africa in St. Louis 10 years ago: action to help connect and empower African immigrants in Missouri, action to preserve their culture.

A native of Kenya, Soyiantet moved to St. Louis 16 years ago after graduating from college in Nairobi. Now he works full time as Vitendo4Africa’s executive director, seeking to provide the support and community he wishes he had been able to find as a newcomer to the Midwest.

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, Soyiantet explained that he initially struggled. “It was a big challenge,” he said. Even language was a barrier, as Soyiantet was proficient in English, but had learned to speak in the British way.   

A rundown camp in the Catskills ended up fomenting the disability rights movement. That’s the remarkable story told in the acclaimed “Crip Camp” documentary, which was produced by Barack and Michelle Obama and is now on Netflix. 

The documentary has won raves for its unflinching depiction of how Camp Jened brought together young people with wide-ranging disabilities and allowed them to experience life without their parents. The community they formed and the self-reliance they cultivated within it led to the landmark 1970s protests that opened doors for disabled people — and, ultimately, to the Americans with Disability Act.   

Tim Youd is an artist, but his medium may surprise you. Youd types. The Los Angeles resident uses old-fashioned typewriters to painstakingly retype classic works. He originally set out to complete 100 novels in 10 years, typing them in unusual places including cemeteries, churches and writers’ residences. In March, he finished his 66th.

In 2018, Youd presented “St. Louis Retyped” at the Contemporary Art Museum, typing works by T.S. Eliot, William S. Burroughs, Stanley Elkin and Marianne Moore at meaningful spots around town. That included CAM itself, as museum-goers looked on.   

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft said today on St. Louis on the Air that he is convinced the “plain language” of state law does not allow voters to cast an absentee ballot simply because they fear the coronavirus. 

“There is no mention of someone that is scared of becoming sick … in which case it would not apply to a fear of the coronavirus,” he said.

But he vowed to have personal protective equipment in place for upcoming elections — and said he will not repeat Wisconsin’s mistakes. 

In Missouri, you may only vote by mail if you apply for an absentee ballot — and cite one of just six specific reasons detailed in state law. Among them are illness or disability, or the fact you’ll be traveling out of the area. “Fear of contracting COVID-19” is not listed among them.

The ACLU of Missouri argues that should, in fact, be sufficient cause for receiving an absentee ballot. Working in concert with the Missouri Voter Coalition, the organization filed a class-action lawsuit last Friday against the state of Missouri, the Missouri Secretary of State and a few local boards of election. It argues that the “illness or disability” clause in state law should apply to those staying at home to avoid the coronavirus, since it specifically mentions “confinement due to illness” as a qualifier.