How SLUH’s First Asian Student Made His Way to the U.S. and Found the Secret to Enjoying Life
By Justin Seaton ‘13
Jerry Shen ‘58 first fled his family home in Shanghai in 1945, when he was five years old, driven out by the attempted Japanese occupation of the city during the second Sino-Japanese War. He and his family returned later that year, only to be permanently driven out four years later by the Chinese Communist Revolution. At age nine, Jerry Shen had been twice displaced and forced to adapt to a new culture in a foreign place – St. Louis, Missouri.
Now 81, with a gentle smile etched into his face and many years removed from the hardships that preceded his enrollment as St. Louis U. High’s first Asian student, Jerry has one piece of advice for young people: “Enjoy life,” he says with a laugh.
Jerry was born to Jerome Shen and Theresa Yao in 1939 on the Shen family’s 24-acre Shanghai estate. The Shens had made their fortune as power brokers between foreign industrial leaders and the Chinese government. As a member of Shanghai’s elite, Jerome got the best education money could buy – Bachelor’s and M.D. degrees from St. John’s University, a prestigious Catholic school in Shanghai. At his mother’s behest, Jerome planned to move to St. Louis to complete his medical residency at Saint Louis University, which was closely affiliated with St. John’s, in 1947.
However, in 1945, the impending Japanese occupation of Shanghai forced Jerome to take his wife and two young children on a 3-month journey by horse and cart 1000 miles west to the refuge of Chongqing. Later that year, the Japanese forces retreated, and Jerome was able to safely return his wife and children to the family estate in Shanghai while he finished his medical education in America.
As Jerome practiced and studied in the States, he watched the Second Chinese Civil War unfold across the sea, anxious for the family he had left behind. In the spring of 1949, Jerome gathered from American news reports that the Communist Party of China had nearly seized control. He acted fast.
Following a harrowing series of close calls and sly negotiations – all documented in Francis Shen’s ‘96 biography of his grandfather – Jerome, Theresa, 9-year-old Jerry, and his younger sister Elizabeth managed their way onto the last ship out of Shanghai, the President Wilson, in May of 1949—one week after the successful communist takeover – and successfully made it to St. Louis – the only other home Jerome had ever known.
The Asian immigrant community in St. Louis at the time was small and fractured, meaning the Shen family had little choice but to break from the culture they had left behind.
“We came here with the intention of being American, not Chinese,” says Jerry in a recent interview with SLUH Media. “We came here to escape an untenable situation. The American story is that people can come here for a better system of government. Immigrants bring their spirit. If they have the courage to leave their home, they bring a spirit of freedom; a spirit that they don’t want to be dominated; a spirit that opposes coups and systems of oppression; a spirit that all people are created equal.”
Jerry’s mother and father chose to speak only English in their St. Louis Hills home. They became parishioners at St. Raphael’s church and sent their children to St. Joan of Arc grade school. By his freshman year at St. Louis U. High in 1954, Jerry Shen was the quintessential South City boy, with new roots being nourished by the city’s massive Catholic network and no concept that his enrollment would become a highlight in the deep archives of SLUH.
Jerry was a very introverted student. His English, which he’d mostly learned from American cartoons in China, was solid when he entered SLUH, but his identity as an Asian-American student – by his estimation, one of the only Asian-American students in the entire city at the time – was shaky.
“I never really sensed overt discrimination, but I did sense being strange and people not knowing how to relate to me, not having confidence that I did really belong,” says Jerry. “In St. Louis, being Chinese was a curiosity. It was hard for me to make friends.”
Though he looked and felt different than most of his peers, though his background was exceptional and unique, and though he didn’t consider himself much of an orator, Jerry quickly found a niche in SLUH’s Bellarmine speech and debate club.
“[Rev.] Tom Curry with the speech club got me outside of myself for a while. Not only did I learn how to speak; I learned how to analyze and to think. I was on the debate team and the extemporaneous speaking team. In fact, nowadays when I’m planning to write a speech or a paper, I still pace up and down the hall, which is a habit I picked up from Tom... I don’t know why I joined, but I’m glad I did. Otherwise, I would’ve been just a nerd,” says Jerry with his trademark, joyful laugh.
From SLUH, Jerry went to Saint Louis University for his undergraduate degree, then Harvard for post-graduate studies in Chemistry. After two years, however, he flunked out of Harvard, which he admitted with another laugh. Jerry is as proud of his missteps as his successes, because he so ardently believes in the providence of God. Everything that happened to Jerry Shen, happened for a reason.
“God has been with me all the time, and I’m just learning where his glory is, where his blessings are. And I’ll keep learning. I spent two years at Harvard, and I was asked not to come back, and actually that was a blessing,” says Jerry, “because if I had finished at Harvard I would have gotten a job in the Northeast, and I would’ve never come back here and met Bridget. I would’ve never had the life I have now.”
Jerry ended up completing his post-graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, then returned to St. Louis in 1973. Here he met his wife Bridget while he was working at Ralston-Purina. They met through a Christian Life Community group for SLU graduates, called “John: 23.” When they met, Bridget was taking spiritual direction from an old friend, Rev. Tom Curry, SJ, who would eventually preside over their wedding in 1976.
Nearly 50 years later, Bridget and Jerry have published two books on marriage and the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius. They have counseled many St. Louis couples on faith and marriage, and been positive examples for many others, including their sons Francis and John Paul.
Francis ‘96 and JP ‘98 Shen both graduated at the top of their respective classes at SLUH. Francis was a track star. JP was a starting defensive end. Each of them went on to thrive at prestigious institutions and become leaders in their professional fields. (You can read about their many impressive accomplishments at www.sluh.org/trailblazers.) But when they think back on their childhood, neither of the Shen boys remember being pressured to succeed. Instead, they remember being raised in faith and humility. They remember being given a credit card so they could treat their classmates to meals. They remember their dad leaving work early every afternoon and driving to SLUH in his 20-year-old Buick Skylark to watch their football and track practices.
“He was there so often I remember one of my teammates asking, ‘Does your dad have a job?’” says Francis.
In fact, while his boys were at SLUH, Jerry was working full-time as a research director at Ralston-Purina, where he worked for 28 years. He then taught chemistry at SIUE for 10 years, led marriage counseling with his wife and eventually rekindled a serious interest in the game of bridge.
Jerry has always been busy, always with the things that he finds compelling – his travels, his wife, his boys, his faith – and much like his father before him, he has gone to great lengths to provide his loved ones with a good life. He relishes in their joy, and you can hear it in his laugh.
“I’m not one of those dads that insists his sons do super well and forces them to do certain things. I want them to do what they want to do, and I want to support them as they do it, not because they need my pressure or support, but because I enjoy doing things with my sons… That is my best advice for young people. Enjoy life. That was something I couldn’t see while I was young, but now I can say about my life: I’ve enjoyed it. I never really worried about anything. The thing about eternal life is that you are experiencing some of it right here, right now."