Steven P. Kuenzel Sr. has a love for Washington that runs deep — and long. It began in childhood and has only become more rooted as the years have passed.
A Washington native, Kuenzel is the oldest of three children born to Paul and Shirley Kuenzel. He attended Our Lady of Lourdes Grade School and graduated from Washington High School before earning a law degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law.
As an attorney and managing partner with Eckelkamp and Kuenzel LLP, Kuenzel has continuously looked for ways to give back to the community.
Over the years, he has served on numerous boards and community organizations, including the Greater St. Louis Area Council-Boy Scouts of America, from 1992 to present, and has served as president of just about every civic group he has been involved with:
Washington Ambassadors Club, president, 1998-99; Washington Park Board, president, 1988-97; Washington Area Chamber of Commerce Board, president, 1983-85; Washington Lions Club, president, 1984-85; Washington Jaycees, president, 1978-80; Washington Elks Club; and Washington Knights of Columbus.
Washington Town & Country Fairgoers may recognize Kuenzel more by his voice than anything else, since he has served as emcee of the Fair’s queen contest since 1984.
This year will be Kuenzel’s 35th and final time serving as emcee. He’s decided to walk away from the role that he’s held longer than anyone else in the Fair’s history, not because he isn’t up to the task, but because it’s time.
“Thirty-five years is a nice round number, a good time to bow out,” he said, noting in recent years he’s seen the third generation of queen candidates on stage.
“So I thought maybe it’s time to let a younger person take over this job . . . like an athlete — you like to go out on top,” he added. “I’m in perfect health, at the top of my game in the legal world. It just seems like it’s time to let somebody else carry on the torch.”
OLL Founding Family
Kuenzel learned about civic responsibility from his parents, and he hopes he and his wife, Susan, have passed that same lesson on to their son, Steven Jr.
“You have to give back to the community you are in,” Kuenzel remarked. “That was always my goal — to leave whatever institution I was involved in better than it was than when I started with them.”
Kuenzel’s family was a founding member of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in 1958, and he has been an active member his entire life.
“I can still remember as a kid, 5 years old, Mass was held at the Washington High School gymnasium on Sunday because they were still building the church, which was built to be a multipurpose room,” said Kuenzel.
When the OLL School opened in September 1959, Kuenzel was in the second grade. Years later, he sent his son to OLL for grade school, and now his granddaughters are enrolled there.
“I have an incredible fondness for that parish,” said Kuenzel.
That’s what motivated him to head both the fundraising and building committees when the parish began plans to build the current church.
“It was my parents’ dream, as with all of the parishioners who started that parish, to one day build what they called ‘a real church,’ ” said Kuenzel. “For me to have the opportunity to do that back in 1990 while my dad was still alive, although my mom was gone by then, was pretty special to me.”
The project was long — 14 years from start to finish, from a blank piece of paper in 1990 to the completed church in 2004.
“If I have anything in my career to be most proud of, that’s it,” said Kuenzel. “In terms of something that will benefit people in this town long, long after I’m gone. A hundred years from now, that church will still be there. It’s a gorgeous structure, very functional. It was an incredible experience.
“It was carrying the torch for a lot of people who spent their lives putting the school needs over building a church. It turned out to be a really, really special project,” he said, one that helped grow both the parish and the school.
At the Top of His Career
Kuenzel received his Bachelor of Science degree in business administration from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1974 and his Juris Doctorate degree from the same institution in 1976.
“I was on a fast track,” said Kuenzel. “I did three years of undergrad. In those days, if you got your degree requirements out of the way, you could take 30 hours of electives, so I elected to take them in the law school.
“I didn’t have a lot of money in those days, so saving a year of college was a big incentive,” he remarked. “I had a plan the day I walked onto campus, and it worked.”
At Eckelkamp and Kuenzel LLP, he is a general practitioner attorney, which means he handles a wide variety of cases. He jokes that one law professor has described him as “a dinosaur.”
“You won’t find many lawyers who are trial lawyers and also do document preparation, office work and that sort of thing,” said Kuenzel. “We do everything from estate planning to contracts, mergers, business deals, divorces, criminal law and we do a lot of civil litigation for banks, insurance companies, larger corporations. It’s a diversified practice.”
Kuenzel started his career in 1976 with Leo Politte and Sid Thayer, whose firm rapidly became Politte, Thayer and Kuenzel.
“I tried my first jury trial alone five days after they handed me a law license,” said Kuenzel.
He credits that ability to the law school, but also to the Eckelkamp brothers, attorneys Bill and L.B., for whom he had clerked.
“I always give credit to Bill Eckelkamp for having taught me how to try lawsuits, and to L.B. Eckelkamp for teaching me politics and how to do the business end of the law deals,” said Kuenzel.
Two years after graduating law school, Kuenzel ran for prosecuting attorney. He lost the election, but won a lot of name recognition.
“My name was out there so much that it vaulted my career to a level that’s incredible,” he said.
Joining the Eckelkamp law firm in the early ’80s vaulted it even more. He began there in January 1984.
Looking back over his career as an attorney, Kuenzel named a few big moments:
He argued a murder case in Union and was able to get the accused acquitted.
He was the local counsel on a fatal airplane crash suit that resulted in a $48 million verdict, and was the lead lawyer on two condemnation cases that resulted in large verdicts. Those three results are among the four biggest verdicts in the history of Franklin County, said Kuenzel, proudly.
“Those were big deals . . . but I’ve also done a lot of big business deals that are not glamorous,” he said, noting he enjoys both sides of it.
Being a top attorney demands long hours, but for Kuenzel it never feels like work. He enjoys it that much.
“I work a lot of hours, and it’s because I love what I do,” he said. “It’s a lot of 80-hour weeks from November to May, but it’s a demanding business if you want to be good at it.
“I really like what I do, plus I have good clients and a good set of partners. These guys are my friends first and my partners second. It’s been a lot of fun along the way.”
Inducted Into American College of Trial Lawyers
Along with overseeing the OLL new church project years ago, the other accomplishment that Kuenzel is equally as proud of is one that was bestowed upon him by his peers: being inducted to the American College of Trial Lawyers in spring 2017.
“The American College of Trial Lawyers is an invitation-only fellowship of exceptional trial lawyers of diverse backgrounds from the United States and Canada,” the group’s website notes.
“The College thoroughly investigates each nominee for admission and selects only those who have demonstrated the very highest standards of trial advocacy, ethical conduct, integrity, professionalism and collegiality.”
Kuenzel said there are 140 or fewer members out of the 30,000 lawyers in the state of Missouri.
“It is very difficult to get in,” he said. “They interview every lawyer and judge who is still alive that you tried a jury case against, so you have to meet the ethics standards and the abilities and experience and skill level standards.”
‘Big Believer in CPR Training’
Among the many groups that hold a special place in Kuenzel’s heart is the Washington Volunteer Fire Company.
Back in 1991, Kuenzel’s father, who worked for many years at the Bank of Washington as head of installment loans, was serving on the Washington City Council when he suffered a heart attack and had his life saved through CPR administered by two Washington firefighters.
“Basically, you have four to six minutes to save someone, and they saved him,” said Kuenzel.
It was already a high profile save, since Paul Kuenzel was a city council member, but he also happened to be friends with then-Fire Chief Bill Halmich, who worked alongside him at the Bank of Washington.
“After that, Dad was on the front page of the newspaper with the two guys who saved his life, and he kind of became the poster boy for the fire department,” said Kuenzel. “Eventually they made him an honorary lifetime member of the fire department.”
The connection between the Kuenzel family and the Washington Fire Company continues today. Every year the fire company honors its firefighters who have made CPR saves by presenting them with a Phoenix Medal during its annual Ladies Night banquet, and the Kuenzel family helps make the presentation.
“There is a fondness for the fire department,” said Kuenzel. “For me it’s derivative through my father. They saved his life and gave him another 17 1/2 years. So I’m a big believer in CPR training.”
Queen Contest Emcee
Like many Washington natives, Kuenzel had been a Fairgoer all of his life, and when Bonnie Eckelkamp, who was chair of the queen committee for the 1984 Fair, approached him about serving as emcee, he proudly accepted.
“I enjoyed doing it the first year. I’m in the business of being up in front of crowds — being in front of a jury, being in front of an audience, so I was comfortable doing it,” said Kuenzel.
It was a hectic time in his life — his only son had just been born and he was serving as president for both the Washington Area Chamber of Commerce and the Lions Club. But he wanted to support the Fair.
Moe Bleckman was Fair chairman that year, and Shari Young was crowned the Fair Queen.
Back then the queen contest was held where the motor sports arena is today, Kuenzel noted. The land was designated a baseball diamond, and the “main stage” was built using a couple of tractor-trailers pulled alongside each other.
“Back in those days, the Queen Contest was the featured event on Wednesday night. It started at 8 p.m.,” Kuenzel recalled. “It drew a big crowd, all the families of the girls came.”
The thing that stands out in his mind even today is the fact that the main stage crew had to build and tear down the stage two or three times throughout the Fair to accommodate whatever activity was being held — horse show, entertainers, motor sports.
As Queen Contest emcee, Kuenzel was taking over for Frank Lohmeyer, a well-known radio personality from KLPW who had served as emcee for many years.
To prepare himself for the role, Kuenzel said he thought of the famous Bert Parks, who had emceed the Miss America Pageant for so many years. But he knew one thing would be very important to being successful:
“You have to be yourself. It’s like trying lawsuits — you can try to emulate someone else, but at the end of the day, you better be yourself,” said Kuenzel.
“I had a cadence I thought would work for it and a style that I wanted to follow.
“One of the things I’ve tried over the years is they give me the girls’ applications with their bios, and my goal was always to try to look at what might be her biggest accomplishments and try to feature that,” he said. “That could be sports, academics, band or music related . . . Even in the early years, that was always my goal, to make it special for the girls.
“I don’t think what I say has any impact on the judges, but it has a big impact on the girls’ families who are watching . . . they want to hear what you’re saying about their girl,” said Kuenzel.
Pronouncing each girl’s name correctly was always important to him, followed by saying their parents’ and their sponsor’s name correctly.
“My greatest fears are mispronouncing someone’s name or choking down a bug and then hacking over someone’s part, because then they are cheated out of that experience,” said Kuenzel.
Hours and Hours of Prep
To anyone watching the Fair Queen contest, it can appear easy to stand on stage and announce each of the queen candidates. But things only go so smoothly on stage because of the many hours of prep work that Kuenzel has put in ahead of time behind the scenes.
It all starts with writing a script.
“It takes hours and hours to go through their bios and tailor the script,” he said.
Kuenzel dictates the script in the tone and manner in which he wants to say it on stage and then revises it, marking words to show how they should be pronounced.
Kuenzel credits his staff at the law office for helping him prepare for the contest each year. They type the script and prepare the edits, he said.
Sometimes the script gets revised multiples times, especially after meeting with the girls for practice. And for Kuenzel’s part, practice is much more than just going over the script.
As the girls take turns walking out on stage, Kuenzel is making notes about when he should start talking.
“What I’m looking for is, when should I start introducing them. I’m looking for a spot, if you will. Then I’m constantly trying to either speed up or slow down what I say based on how they walk,” he said. “I’m reading and looking for spots.”
There have been years that some of the girls will walk one way — fast or slow — during practice, and then walk the opposite during the contest, Kuenzel noted. So he’s taken to making sure he says all of the most important information for each candidate up front, in case he runs out of time.
Kuenzel said he has considered it “an incredible privilege” to have been asked to serve as emcee of the queen contest for 35 years. And the last couple of years have been extra special because his son, Steve Jr., has served as co-emcee with him.
Every year, despite the blistering August heat, Kuenzel has worn a tuxedo as emcee. That’s not for nothing, he said.
“You have to make it special. It’s a way to let the crowd know this is special, and to show respect for the event,” said Kuenzel.
With this year’s queen contest just around the corner, it’s hard to think ahead to next year’s contest, when he won’t be on stage for the first time in 35 years. But Kuenzel imagines he’ll have mixed feelings.
“I’m sure I’ll miss it on that first Wednesday in August. But I won’t miss the prep or the heat,” he said with a smile.
Not Retiring From the Law
While Kuenzel is stepping down from his role as emcee, he has no plans to walk away from his law career. He enjoys it all too much.
“I am still working 80 hours a week, and still consider myself at the top of my profession,” he said. “If it was work to me, and I was counting the days . . . But it’s been a hell of a ride, and I’m not really ready to give up the ride.
“It’s like playing in the World Series — once you’ve been there, you always want to go back.”