Henry "Hy" Giessenbier, Jr. They Called Him “Hy

Henry Giessenbier, Jr. , they called him Hy, had the depth of character appropriate for the founder and first president of the United States Chamber of Commerce. His short 43 year life was one of intense activity, although unfortunately marred in its latter stages by legal troubles and a nervous breakdown.

Even in his most trying periods, however Giessenbier retained the stature of a great man, and was flesh and blood proof of the fact that “Faith in God gives meaning and purpose to human life.”

Opinions have occasionally been voiced that Giessenbier does not deserve the title of Jaycee founder, with a few dissenters claiming the honor for Clarence Howard. Actually, Howard was the Junior Chamber’s number one backer, not its father.

Howard himself would testify to this effect, with evidence offered in a paragraph from a letter of February 12, 1920, addressed to giessenbier:

“The formulating of a national Junior Chamber of Commerce is but a natural result of the good work you have done in the pat, and you now have the opportunity to do for young men of the United States what you have done for the young men of St. Louis.”

Those who would give Howard the primary credit seem to think that he suggested the formulation of the YMPCA in 1915. Howard did call for such a group, as his inaugural speech as president of the Business Men’s League indicates, but the YMPCA was already in existence at that time. Giessenbier and Andrew “Andy” Mungenast went to Howard and told him about the YMPCA. Howard then offered his support. The group had been organized with neither the knowledge nor assistance from the St. Louis industrialist.

Hy Giessenbier was born in St. Louis on June 26, 1892, and that city was to be his home until his death in 1935. The Jaycee founder had broad ideas, but appropriately enough felt the greatest obligation to his own community. The entire organization today rests on this basis of civic service at a local level.

Mrs. E. G. Soell – July 1985
Mrs. E. G. Soell attended July Officers training School in July 1985

There were a total of six children in the Giessenbier family, including Henry, his brother Rudy, and four sisters who died as youngsters. Rudy, about two years older than his brother Hy, passed away in 1955 in Kansas City Missouri.

Little is known about Giessenbier’s early youth, and it is not certain how far his schooling progressed, although it is definitely known that he was not a high school graduate. Since he began work as a helper for photographer George Kaetzel in 1905, it is possible he terminated his formal education then.

Although employed at an early age, Giessenbier’s family must be described as one of medium income rather than poor. Hy’s father was head waiter at the Mission Inn during the most of our founder’s youth, and worked there in a period when his son was most active in the Junior Chamber.

Henry’s mother is described as a most wonderful woman by Mrs. E.G. Soell, wife of Giessenbier. Andy Mungenast, who worked closely with Hy through the early years of the Jaycee movement, also holds this opinion of her. Giessenbier, in turn was unusually considerate to her, which always impressed Mrs. Soell.

The Giessenbier home, which is still standing and in good shape, was a typical four-family flat apartment building, very similar to dozens of others in South Side St. Louis. It provided livable, if not pretentious, quarters.

In 1909, Giessenbier entered the field in which he was to make his living, banking. First affiliated with the International Bank, his beginning years were devoted to intense study in this profession. Years later, his wife recalls that he often remained at the bank until midnight to study bookkeeping and other subjects.

Giessenbier was at the International Bank all during the period he was forming the Herculaneum (1910), Federation of Dance Clubs (1914), and YMPCA (1915).

Then in 1916, he was offered a position as assistant cashier at the Scruggs-Vandervoort and Barney Bank, situated in the huge department store of the same name. The bank was hit hard by the depression and close din 1933, but the store in 1966 was the largest in St. Louis.

As a member of the “Junior Citizens” company, Giessenbier went into the army in 1971, and was discharged as a sergeant in the spring of 1919. While in the service, he was a company clerk.

Following release from service, Giessenbier was active in extending the Junior Chamber movement to other cities, by means of visitations and correspondence. Through all these years, Giessenbier was a voluminous letter writer, and scrapbooks show he contacted many of the famous men of the day. Almost every important man in America was written in hoe of securing a speaker for the first convention in June of 1920, although none accepted.

Work in the Junior Chamber was most important to Giessenbier, but a listing of his activities in 1920 indicates just how widespread his interests were:

  • Member of St. Louis Zoological Society
  • Junior Advertising Club (one of the founders)
  • St. Louis Salesmanship Organization
  • Ad Club
  • Fred Stockton American legion Post
  • American Institute of Banking
  • Tuscan Lodge of the Masons
  • Office of the Optimists Club!

In addition to these pursuits, Giessenbier had been continuing his self directed studies in a wide variety of fields. His wife remembers that one of his favorite subjects was public speaking and he practiced by imitating voice recordings of renowned orators.

Activities alone do not make the man and it is important to remember that Giessenbier was a person with a tremendous desire to help serve his community and mankind in general. This was combined with a health ambition, not to be rich, but to be respected.

To some extent, Giessenbier seems to have had inherent qualities of leadership, but for the most part, he was the product of his own striving for self-improvement. During his entire life, reading played an important role and he gained even more from his active participation in civic affairs.

Giessenbier was more a visionary with a persistent streak than a dynamic salesman. A good speaker through much practice, he was still not the handshaking promoter type.

G. Edwin Popkess, first editor of the national Junior Chamber magazine, EXPANSION, formed in 1925, is emphatic in his praise of Giessenbier as a prophet of the Jaycee movement:

“Of all the Jaycee presidents and leaders I have known, Giessenbier had by far the best grasp of the movement’s true purpose, and form the very start, seemed to know in just what direction the Junior Chamber should move. He was a serious young man with ideas, not just a salesman. Actually, his friend and co-worker, Andy Mungenast, was more valuable in that promotional respect.”

Though most of his life Giessenbier was a religious man and read his Bible daily before beginning work. As he told his wife on occasion:

“Not to do so would be like going to battle without my armor.”

Giessenbier was born a Lutheran, but later joined the Baptist church and attended it through most of his Jaycee years. In the late 1920’s, he acquired a great interest in Christian Science, though never a member of that denomination, gained much comfort in his time of greatest personal stress from reading “Science and Health, with key to the Scriptures,” by Mary Baker Eddy. At his request, Giessenbier was buried from the Episcopal Church following his death in 1935.

Giessenbier was always a clean-living individual. He would take a drink in his younger days, but after his marriage in 1922, was a virtual abstainer. He preferred that his wife not drink and he did not want to impose any standard on her that he could not meet himself.

At the same time, Hy was always a well-liked person. Good testimony of this is given in a letter form George Wilson, second president of the USJCC, who was a political opponent of Giessenbier’s actually defeating him in a 1921 bid for re-election:

“… your sterling qualities place you in the lead wherever you go, whether it be in the company with representatives of the stronger or weaker sex.”

Giessenbier had good facility for meeting and impressing his elders and testimony of this is given in his relationships with melville Wilkinson, President of Scruggs-Vandervoort Barney Bank.

The “Shell Hole” of War

Henry Giessenbier spent nearly 2 years in France as a sergeant and company clerk for Company L, participating in some of the worst fighting of World War I.

In a letter sent home, the young sergeant described the war conditions and told of passing comrade who was taking cover in a shell hole during intense artillery fire. The other soldier urged him to take cover also, but as Giessenbier related, “something urged me on.”

A few moments later, the shell hole received another direct and deadly hit. Giessenbier’s persistence in commitment to duty had saved his life for important work yet to come.

While in the army, Wilkinson and Giessenbier corresponded and the bank president was a strong backer of the Junior Chamber movement form the beginning in 1915. He became one of the trustees of the David Francis home when it was secured by the Junior Chamber in 1920.

As a banker, Henry was a quick success. In 1916, he was hired as an assistant cashier at Scruggs-Vandervoort and Barney, following his work at the International bank and in October of 1919, was promoted to full cashier.

Only 26, Giessenbier was the youngest bank cashier in St. Louis and possibly America, although records to verify that are not available. A traditionally conservative business, such advancement in banking was phenomenal in those days.

One of his qualities as a banker was a sympathy for the person seeking loans, far beyond the customary concern. He was also a staunch friend of the investor, although his dealings in this field were to involve him in a court battle in later years.

In gratitude of his groundwork in forming the Junior Chamber it was only natural that Giessenbier should be elected provisional USJCC president at the 1920 caucus and first president at the convention which was held in June of 1920.

As it was seen later, Giessenbier was the most outstanding of the early presidents and an excellent man to head the USJCC when the primary need was to expand into other localities. As the founder, he afforded prestige so valuable in that respect. Records prove real progress in his term, although the organization had virtually no funds with which to carry on its work.

In 1921, Giessenbier sought re-election, but was defeated by George Wilson of Dallas. The loss was a disappointment to Giessenbier, but at the same time, he lost none of his interest in the organization and attended conventions and headed national committees thorough the 1920’s. He had been named honorary vice-president for life at the 1921 Dallas convention and had a vote as a director.

Of particular concern for Giessenbier during his late civic career was the relationship between the U.S. Junior Chamber organizations and Junior Chambers being formed in Canada. Both he and Howard visualized the international Junior of Chamber movement almost form the beginning.

The growth in membership which had been experienced by the U.S. Junior Chamber through the 70’s is amazing to some old-timers. It would not be to Giessenbier or Howard since they visualized 500,000 members a goal only 3/5 realized 50 years later!

Marriage came in 1922 and Giessenbier’s bride was Leona Georgia Julow. She was 20 at the time, while he was 30. They had first met during the war when she was a YWCA volunteer passing out donuts to departing soldiers. She ran onto him again just after the war and they met again at the bank. At this stage they began seeing each other regularly and were eventually married.

Giessenbier’s son, Henry, was born in 1924, and a daughter Dorothy, in about 1928. Hy loved his children very much and is described as an excellent family man and father by the former Mrs. Giessenbier, now Mrs. Soell. However both he and the family paid the price of civic activity. He had few nights at home!

Henry’s health was poor all through the 1920’s and he had several operation, as did his wife. his prevented much acquisition form a material standpoint, even though he had a good-paying job. Despite illness, Giessenbier would always replay, “Just fine” in answer to questions of “How are you?” Once he was writing out a Jaycee report en route to the hospital for an operation!

In 1931, due to strain of banking and a financial complication which also was to lead to his indictment and subsequent acquittal on a charge of misapplying bank funds, Hy Giessenbier suffered a nervous breakdown.

For several years, Giessenbier was nearly a complete invalid and lost control of his physical and mental powers to the extent that he could not walk or write. For Mrs. Giessenbier, his convalescence meant the hardest type of work, she actually had to carry her husband around the house.

With Henry out of work, the family was broke, although family and friends provided some help.

Miraculously, Giessenbier recovered, learned to walk and write again and his memory, which had slipped, returned to full power. This enabled him to assist in his case involving misapplication of bank funds.

The case referred to concern supposed irregular dealings in July 1931. As a banker, Giessenbier wa sin charge of investment accounts. On one of these where he purchased and sold stock for the clients, losses resulted because of the depression and it was charged that Giessenbier had handled transactions in an illegal manner.

Indictment resulted in 1933, the same year in which the bank itself folded and the case came to trail in February 1935. The result was an absolutely clean bill of health for Giessenbier. This matter is best summarized in a news story found in the St. Louis Globe Democrat, March 3, 1935:

“After a three-week trial, United States District Court Judge C.B. Davis yesterday directed a jury in his court to return a verdict of not guilty for Henry Giessenbier, former cashier of the closed Scrugs_Vandervoort and Barney Bank, who was charged with misapplication of $19,763 of the banks funds and making false entries to conceal them.”

“Judge Davis’ decision was made after close of the prosecution’s case and after counsel for Giessenbier had argued that the government had failed to prove any of the eight counts against him.”

Pressures had taken their toll on Henry Giessenbier and he would survive until November 7, 1935.
Henry Giessenbier, Jr.

An extract from the story quotes Judge Davis:

“If stock market transactions handled by Giessenbier for customers of the bank were not expressly authorized, they were nevertheless ratified by the customers.”

“It may be harsh to say, but if the market had gone up instead of down, you would never have heard of this lawsuit.”

The tragedy of the lawsuit is apparent, especially in the instance of a an who had dedicated his life to public service. Fortunately, none of his friends or business associates ever gave serious thought to the possibility he could have
been guilty.

In 1966, it was reported that both children lived in St Louis were each married and neither had taken the public spotlight. Young Henry was nearly a carbon copy of his father in appearance.

The greatness of Giessenbier will ultimately depend upon the progress of the organization he founded. More than
any other person since that time he had the true Jaycee vision. This truth is proven by the fact that until 1987
there had not been a basic shift in philosophy since the organizations birth, and he was the chief prophet.

John Armbruster, a pioneer Junior Chamber member and Keeper of the Log of the SS Fellowship (until his death in 1978) , paid high tribute to Giessenbier in a newsletter published shortly after Hy’s death:

“His was a life that knew no resentment though he was persecuted far beyond any that we have had to endure; his was a Christianity that was not worn as a badge for public display, but was deep in his heart. I have never known any man who so closely parallels Lincoln’s attitude of ‘malice toward none, but charity toward all.’ He knew glory and he knew adversity, but he treated them both alike. He was not spoiled by glory nor was he embittered by adversity.”

“Henry’s influence will be felt for time immemorial because his was the idea of a Junior Chamber of Commerce and he lived to see its benign influence felt throughout the country and into foreign lands. If it were not for him, our beautiful friendships would never have been formed because there would not have been a Junior Chamber of Commerce as a medium for forming such friendships.”

Henry Giessenbier, Jr.
from FUTURE, the magazine of the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce.
(No author given)

In the Exhibition Hall at The U.S. Jaycees War Memorial Headquarters stands a bronze bust of a man known as Henry Giessenbier, Jr.

The two-foot, copper-colored statue is but a small reminder of the valiant man “Hy” Giessenbier was. He was known for his persevering character. He was driven by a desire to conquer the impossible. Giessenbier’s pursuit of success was not marred by selfishness, however. It was enhanced by his determination to serve others and his community.

Giessenbier’s desire to serve others began as a dream. Hy envisioned young men participating in the civic affairs of their communities to help and benefit people of all ages. This vision eventually gave birth to one of the world’s strongest organizations–Jaycees.

Although distinguished for his strength and character, what is known about Hy’s childhood is that he was born on June 26, 1892, and was raised in St. Louis, Missouri. Henry was one of six children in the Giessenbier family. His father was a stern, yet kind German immigrant. Hy’s mother was highly respected for her gentle and kindhearted nature.

The Giessenbier family was typical of most middle-income families in St. Louis during the early 1900s. Though they were never poor, Hy began working at an early age. He never completed high school, and just how far his education progressed beyond that is uncertain.

In 1909, Giessenbier entered the field of banking, which eventually became his life’s vocation. His beginning years in banking were devoted to intense study of the profession. He often stayed at the bank until the early morning hours studying bookkeeping and other subjects.

At the age of eighteen, Giessenbier started the Herculaneum Dance Club (in 1910). Though this young leader originally formulated the group for social reasons, in 1915 it became the Young Men’s Progressive Civic Association (YMPCA). This forerunner of the Jaycees organization was a step beyond dancing and was directed at the involvement of young men in civic and community affairs. A few years later, the organization’s name was changed to the Junior Citizens. (The first time “JC’s” came into use.) The organization became the Junior Chamber of Commerce after its affiliation with the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce in 1918.

The Jaycees founder’s dedication to serve others wasn’t limited to the organization. Hy’s patriotism led him to serve two years in the army during World War 1. In a letter sent home, the young sergeant described the war conditions. At one point, Henry described passing a comrade taking cover in a shell hole during intense artillery fire. The other man urged Giessenbier to take cover also, but as Hy related, “something urged me on.” A few moments later, that shell hole received another direct hit. Giessenbier’s persistence had saved his life.

After his stint in the army, Hy fully resumed his involvement with the Junior Chamber. In the summer of 1920, at the first national convention, the organization officially became The U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce (USJCC). Giessenbier was elected as the first president. His vision for the USJCC was expressed when he said “. . . may I say that in your hands lies the destiny of a great organization. Let us build it to national recognition. Let us organize it in the interest of young men for a greater America.”

Besides his participation in the Jaycees, Henry exerted himself and his leadership abilities in other organizations and clubs. Among many activities, he started an advertising club and an avidly pursued affection for speaking. Giessenbier’s success was not limited to extracurricular activities. Hy was also becoming a prominent banker. (An uncommon occurrence for young men during that time in history.)

Despite good-fortune in his career and activities, Hy’s subservient nature pervaded. Some attributed Hy’s disposition to his religious convictions. His wife, whom he had met during WWI and married in 1922, once described Giessenbier as a man who daily read the Bible. And as Hy told his wife on one occasion: “Not to do so would be like going into battle without my armor.”

Hy’s strong, gentle nature impressed all who met him. George Wilson, Hy’s successful political opponent in the 1921 USJCC presidential election, said of him “. . . your sterling qualities place you in the lead wherever you go.”

Henry Giessenbier had always been plagued by health problems, and by 1930 they began to take their toll. Even after several operations Henry continued his vigorous lifestyle until disaster struck in 1933. Giessenbier was charged with mishandling funds and illegal transactions at the bank.

For a man dedicated to public service, the event was devastating both mentally and physically. The case was dropped after it was shown the losses resulted from the depression. But even though Hy was acquitted and recovered from his breakdown, the event shadowed his life like a dark cloud.

Less than a year after the court hearing, Henry Giessenbier died of kidney complications. It was November 7, 1935. John Armbruster, another pioneer member of the USJCC, eulogized Henry: “He knew glory and he knew adversity, but he treated them both alike. He was not spoiled by glory nor was he embittered by adversity. His was a life that knew no resentment though he was persecuted far beyond any . . . ”

The statue is only a small representation of a man. Henry Giessenbier’s personal qualities shall forever be reflected in the organization he founded.


(Death for Hy Giessenbier came on November 7, 1935. A life of service was outlined in the following short obituary from the St. Louis GLOBE DEMOCRAT, November 8, 1935)

“Henry Giessenbier, 42, founder and first president of the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce and the United States Junior Chamber of Commerce, died suddenly last night in the City Hospital. He was admitted to the hospital early yesterday morning in a critical condition, suffering from an internal disorder.

Formally associated with the old Scruggs-Vandervoort and Barney Bank, Giessenbier for the past year has been connected with BeMac Transportation Company, Incorporated, 2131 Class Avenue, as a director of freight shipments.

In 1915, Giessenbier founded the present local Junior Chamber of Commerce under the Young Men’s progressive Civic Association and five years later was the man most instrumental in calling a caucus which resulted in the formation of the United States Junior Chamber of Commerce.

Because of his efforts in organizing the young businessmen of the country, Giessenbier was made an honorary vice president of the national association for life. He also was formerly active in the Optimist Club and organized the old Herculaneum Dancing Club. He was responsible for forming the Federation of Dance Clubs in St. Louis. He was also a member of the Tuscan Lodge of the Masonic Order. (No. 330)

On May 31, 1933, Giessenbier was indicted on charges of misapplying $19,788 of the funds of the Scruggs-Vandervoort and Barney Bank and with false entries to cover the alleged speculations. He had left his position as cashier of the bank more than a year before it closed on January 13, 1933.

He was acquitted of the charges when, after a three week trial, Federal District Judge Davis directed a jury to return a verdict of not guilty.

Mr. Giessenbier is survived by his widow, Mrs. Leona Giessenbier and two children, Henry, 12 and Dorothy, 8. Funeral arrangements have not been completed.

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