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Focus on People: A Profile of "Big Lou" Stith, Excavator, North Sarah Apartments, St. Louis, Missouri

February 14, 2013 | McCormack Baron Salazar

Central to all we do at McCormack Baron Salazar is our focus on people –our residents and their families, our employees, and all the folks who help make our communities home.  Our series of resident profiles aims to introduce some of the remarkable people who inspire us to do what we do.

Louis Lee Stith, Jr. grew up on Cook Avenue in North St. Louis, in the shadow of public housing. "It was rough," Louis says, a rough neighborhood, and rough on his mother, raising her children alone – his brother, sister, sometimes a cousin, all in two bedrooms – not far from where the North Sarah community now stands.

Since then, "Big Lou" has lost the extra pounds that earned him his childhood nickname – he works out almost every day – but he very much remembers what it was like to grow up in a community on the brink.

"I never had any positive role models in my life," he says. Around the age of 12, he got involved selling drugs because he "thought that was the thing to do," the only way to earn a living. Predictably, five years later, he was headed to prison.

Lou left his neighborhood at 18 and didn't come home until 27. "I grew up in prison," he says, "and I was determined not to be back once I got out. My first thing was, I got me a job."

For seven years, Lou worked in hotel maintenance. By the time he was ready to move on, he had developed a support system to help him aim higher. A mentor connected him to a friend who helped find Lou work as a laborer. A few years later, when his employer closed its doors, Lou left with his Union card in hand.

The economic downturn hit the construction industry hard, though, and Lou again struggled for work.

One night, at a friend's wedding, he confided in the groom that he needed a job. His friend gave him the go-ahead to send a text message to some of the wedding guests, many of whom were in the construction business. 'I'm a union laborer,' he wrote, 'and I need some help.'

"Everybody texted me back; I got feedback from everybody," Lou recalls, still humbled. He ended up with an interview with MOKAN, a local nonprofit that advocates for minority contractors.

At the time, MOKAN was collaborating with McCormack Baron Salazar to open access to minority bids at North Sarah, and MBS was working to support ex-offenders in reentering the workforce. Such initiatives led to 87% of contracts for the first phase of construction going to minority- and women-owned businesses.

Lou got the job, hard-earned. He started work with McFry Excavating that very afternoon.

"Every morning," Lou says, "I hit the ground running for those guys. I'm there before time and it doesn't matter to me when we leave."

Soon, McFry assigned him to work at the North Sarah community, and Lou's new job took on new meaning: "People ask, 'How's it feel to be putting the 'hood back together when you helped tear it down?' And I say, 'It feels great. Honestly, it feels great.'

"Most people moving back down there are from the neighborhood. They see how things are looking better for me," he says, "and they want to do the same."

When someone asks him about a job, he tries to pass along some leads, to make connections, as others have done on his behalf. "It's somewhat my calling. I try to help everybody. I've always been a helper.

"Hopefully we can keep on making that area look the way it's looking [now]. It's been an eyesore for over 20 years. But the most important thing is to have guys like me down there, because [other] guys look up to me."

Today, Lou surrounds himself with "positive people" and makes an effort to reach out to others every day (part of the reason for those nightly sessions at the gym). He's engaged to be married on Valentine's Day, 2014, in St. Thomas.

"We're inviting everyone," Lou says, "but you're gonna have to pay your own way, cause my bank ain't that big yet." Not yet.