If everything goes as expected next month, nearly 150 years of tradition will come to an end in St. Louis as Boatmen's Bancshares goes the way of the Mississippi River paddleboat.

On Jan. 7, NationsBank Corp. plans to formally complete its $9.6 billion acquisition of Boatmen's, a company founded in October 1847 to serve fur traders and riverboat operators.

That has St. Louisans wondering not just about job cuts, but about charitable giving, business leadership, and overall commitment to this Midwest river town, a place so filled with civic pride that residents still talk about the 1904 World's Fair as if it were held here last year.

The angst being felt in St. Louis is typical of that plaguing small towns and midsize cities throughout the nation, as regional banks get swallowed up by larger out-of-state institutions with less of a stake in local matters.

The loss of a hometown company places new responsibility on NationsBank as it completes its biggest deal to date. Pressure to keep up with Boatmen's legacy will weigh heavily on the Charlotte, N.C.-based company over the next several months.

Boatmen's shares more with St. Louis and Missouri than its name linking it to the days of waterway commerce in the last century. Like other large St. Louis companies, the $40 billion-asset Boatmen's is a major philanthropist. The bank merger, combined with Boeing Co.'s recently announced takeover of the area's biggest employer, McDonnell Douglas Corp., has St. Louisans worried that the city is losing its corporate identity.

Despite reassurances by company officials, observers believe it's unlikely NationsBank will continue the same level of commitment in leadership and charitable giving to this city of 2.5 million people. Boatmen's championed several causes in St. Louis, which NationsBank may not. "You have to divide that over a lot of cities," said Michael Ancell, an analyst with St. Louis-based Edward D. Jones & Co., referring to NationsBank's wide corporate reach. "That money gets spread out over 16 states."

Others point to the intangible loss when a company disappears. While there is another major bank based in St. Louis - Mercantile Bancorp. would add to its $18 billion of assets with the acquisition of $9 billion-asset Roosevelt Financial Group - Boatmen's has been the dominant local bank.

"I think the reflective reaction is 'Oh my goodness, another St. Louis institution has gone away,"' said Stuart Greenbaum, dean of the John M. Olin School of Business at Washington University in St. Louis.

Mr. Greenbaum also questioned who would fill the leadership gap when Boatmen's is gone.

"Boatmen's was the leading indigenous bank in the community. (Boatmen's chairman Andrew) Craig was involved in almost every civic undertaking. Who's going to replace Andy Craig?"

For the record, NationsBank officials said they would maintain the same level of commitment to philanthropic spending.

David Darnell, recently named president of NationsBank Midwest, promised the bank wouldn't cut charitable giving. "If our community thrives, our business thrives," Mr. Darnell said. "Our message is we know Boatmen's has been an outstanding community supporter ... We want people to know NationsBank will continue these things and expand and broaden them."

NationsBank officials readily tick off a number of the company's benevolent community activities in cities from Washington to Austin, Tex.

In 1995, NationsBank donated $30 million in charitable contributions. But Boatmen's gave a larger sum based on percentage of total assets. Boatmen's, a company that was one-sixth the size of NationsBank at yearend 1995, contributed $9.9 million in 1995. Over the first nine months of 1996, Boatmen's donated $7 million to charitable programs.

Some large beneficiaries of Boatmen's donations were in St. Louis: The Saint Louis Art Museum, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Washington University, and various affordable-housing and educational programs for low-income people.

Some of those responsible for raising money for their organizations are looking at the merger with cautious optimism.

"Whenever there's a merger, you don't really know," said Jon Limbacher, development director for the St. Louis Symphony. "In a lot of cases, companies cut back after mergers. On the other hand, a merger doesn't always mean less philanthropic spending," he added.

Mr. Limbacher is trying to find a greater number of companies and more individuals to donate. Twenty-eight percent of the $10 million the symphony raised in its last fiscal year, which ended in July, was from corporations. Boatmen's was among the top 10 contributors, Mr. Limbacher said, and the bank has traditionally been represented on the symphony's board.

Likewise, Boatmen's was one of the 10 largest contributors to the art museum, said James Weidman, the museum's development director. He said corporate donations have declined from 10 years ago when they were at an all-time high. The museum, which receives less than $1 million from corporations a year, has also benefited from Mr. Craig's participation on its board.

Washington University's Mr. Greenbaum said it's too early to tell what effect the Boatmen's takeover will have. "I'm reluctant to jump to a quick judgment because it's far too complex," he said. "Five years from now, we may consider this the greatest thing to happen to St. Louis since the (Gateway) Arch. Or maybe not."

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