Wisdom of the Century

Wisdom of the Century

Former College of Charleston president Ted Stern titled his auto-biography No Problems, Only Challenges. It’s an appropriate title for the memoir of a man who’s possessed a cheerful and confident can-do attitude for nearly 100 years, no matter what the circumstance.

Stern became the College’s president on Sept. 1, 1968, just one day after retiring from the Navy as commanding officer of the Supply Center at the Charleston Navy Base. During the next 10 years, he’d prove to be one of the College’s most able and most revered presidents, overseeing a financial rescue of the beleaguered school, racial integration of the student body and faculty, the College’s transformation into a state-supported university and a bold expansion of the campus as well as the preservation of its historic buildings. To top it all off, Stern was instrumental in helping Charleston become the home of Spoleto Festival, USA.

Later this year, on Dec. 25, Stern will celebrate his 100th birthday. During his century on this earth, Stern has accrued many memories and much wisdom. Before taking the helm of the College, Stern grew up in New York City, was a top-notch swimmer who nearly competed in the Olympics, served in the Navy during World War II and enjoyed a distinguished post-war military career. He and his beloved late wife, Alva, raised a family, too. These are just some of the highlights of Stern’s life, but there are many, many more.

As Stern nears 100 years of age, his mind is sharp, his body strong and his enthusiasm overwhelming. In anticipation of the centennial of his birth (Stern’s mother once joked he was a Christmas present that couldn’t be exchanged or returned), Stern was asked to reflect on his life and share some of the secrets of his success. What follows are 100 thoughts of a true gentleman and leader.

Favorite spot on campus: There’s no question about it: the Cistern.

Class every college student must take: History. They say if you remember history, you won’t make the same mistake twice.

Ted Stern, former CofC president, performs push-ups against a wall

Favorite CofC professors: Harry Freeman ’43 (marine biology) and Edward Towell ’34 (chemistry) were stalwarts. They were the ones who supported me when the College faculty thought they were bringing a Navy captain here with no academic background.

Most surprising thing upon arriving at the College: The lack of controls and that the Board of Trustees was operating the College instead of the administration. The board even got down to the menial task of hiring the garage man and the various sanitary people.

Most surprising thing upon leaving the College: I was very pleased that we made the progress that we had: the academic progress, particularly the employment of Ph.D.s on the faculty, starting the business program, making it a true college and ultimately a university.

How can a bottle of Old Crow change the world? [Stern famously used a bottle of Old Crow whiskey to seal a deal with S.C. Speaker of the House Sol Blatt to have the College of Charleston become a state school.] I know it can have an influence on South Carolina politics, but I don’t think it has worldwide connections.

What brings out the best in people? Their moral compass.

Favorite pet: A Great Dane named Heidi.

How do you motivate an apathetic person? The greatest motivation is to lead by example. Don’t expect others to do the things that you can’t do. Impress them with what you can do and what you will do.

When do you wake up? All my life, I’m an early riser. I get up every day, including my days currently, at six o’clock.

When do you go to bed? Same time every night, usually, except in my wild days (which we all have), 11 o’clock.

How important is a good breakfast? It’s the most important meal of the day, and I think the most enjoyable. I’m a big breakfast eater, not just coffee and toast. This morning I had orange juice, bacon and eggs, raisin toast, milk and coffee.

How critical is daily exercise? I have done exercises every day as long as I can remember. I don’t say it’s responsible for my centurial life, but it certainly hasn’t done any harm. I used to do 100 pushups every morning. It was about eight or nine years ago I had a stroke while doing my pushups (at pushup No. 50). I do pushups now against the wall, because if I got on the ground I’d never get up!

What brings out the worst in people? Passion and anger. One of my philosophical things is that when emotion and intellect combat each other, emotion always wins.

Best advice you can give someone about to start college: Take advantage of all the opportunities that are provided. Opportunities for friendship, for education. College comes to you at a very impressionable age. While we get basics in morality from our parents, we get experience by dealing with others and trying to accomplish things for the good of all rather than for the good of one individual.

Best advice received: The only real joy you have in life is giving to others. It’s not acquiring things. It’s being able to give to help others. That was probably parental advice from my mother.

Most critical item in a man’s wardrobe: I’m not a materialist. I don’t think a man of honor or integrity, or a man of force, needs physical attributes. He needs moral, social attributes to be successful.

America’s greatest achievement in the last century: The promotion and protection of liberty and democracy.

When you close your eyes and think of New York City, what do you see? The Empire State Building. Or our apartment at 305 Riverside Drive, sitting by the window with my mother and sister, looking at the Hudson River and the New Jersey Palisades.

Who is the first president you remember? Standing out to me is [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt.

Childhood hero: Robert Moses, New York City’s public works and urban planning extraordinaire, and Nathaniel Ellsberg, a New York state senator. [Both were first cousins of Stern’s mother.]

First movie ever seen: Charlie Chaplin’s The Tramp.

Favorite actor and actress: Buster Keaton and Loretta Young.

Favorite kid’s toy: Toy fire engine and Lionel electric trains.

First car: A used Pontiac convertible.

Favorite car: When I first came to Charleston, I bought my first Cadillac from Miller Cadillac Company and I must have had a half dozen of them since then.

Would you want to relive your teen years? I don’t think I ever want to go back. I was a wild one. The only stories I remember are the things I did that I’m not very proud of.

Most impressive athletic feat: I won the New York Championship and qualified to try out for the [1928] Olympics. I made the squad but never made the first team. We had Olympic tryouts in Hawaii. The coach had us swimming in the irrigation ditches they had for pineapples (which flowed at seven knots). You swam against that. You stayed in one place.

Favorite color: Blue.

Favorite day of the year: I’ve always liked Thanksgiving, although Christmas, you know, is my birthday.

Most reluctant activity: I always say that I have an ear for music. My mother would take me by the ear to the young people’s concerts. She used to take me by the ear to the theater, to the Shubert Theatre. She used to take me by the ear to art museums …

What makes you marvel? I’m overwhelmed by the progress of civilization. Watching the progress of the last 100 years and thinking how primitive it was before. And the fact that we are sort of sitting in the lap of luxury, and yet in faraway lands, whether it’s Africa or Asia, and people are starving, people are having children, not having food, or water, potable water. It’s a reflection that disturbs me because in the midst of extreme wealth, there’s extreme poverty to the point of starvation.

Opera everyone must attend: Amahl and the Night Visitors [by Stern’s late friend, the composer Gian Carlo Menotti, who founded the Spoleto Festival, USA in 1977 with the help of Stern and other Charlestonians].

What music relaxes you? I love classical music: Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms. I like Handel. I like Wagner.

Favorite snack: I don’t eat snacks. I guess it’s because I look forward to my meals.

Who’s the most famous person you’ve met? President Eisenhower. I had been in the Navy as the chief of naval operations in charge of petroleum, and the president had asked the chief of naval operations to give him a personal assessment of the petroleum situation in the world and the military, and the tanker situation. Admiral Burke, Arleigh Burke, who was the chief of naval operations, assigned me the task. I had the opportunity to brief President Eisenhower at 7:30 in the morning on the world oil situation, the world tanker situation and the military oil situation. I was very impressed. Eisenhower was knowledgeable and interesting. He was very, very friendly.

What the Navy taught: Follow through. Don’t leave anything hanging.

What fears have you overcome? I couldn’t answer that. I’ve been on the front lines, I’ve been in combat, but I was never fearful.

Most phenomenal natural event experienced: The 1949 Ambato earthquake in Ecuador [where Stern was stationed at a U.S. Navy base]. It just felt like I was standing on Jell-O. It lasted a minute or so, but it seemed like a year.

Favorite ice cream flavor: Vanilla or coffee.

The one place you’d still like to see but haven’t: St. Petersburg, Russia.

What never to do at a job interview: Tell an untruth, and never demean others.

On joke telling: I know I can’t tell them. I can’t remember them either, but I enjoy them.

What books do you read? I don’t like fiction. I read biographies, histories and so forth and enjoy them thoroughly. Recent books include biographies on Walter Cronkite, Steve Jobs and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Favorite TV show: I’m not a devotee to television. In fact, I limit my participation to sports events. And I might listen to the president when he speaks. Other than that and special programs, I don’t turn it on.

Most beautiful sight: [A sunset seen from Stern’s 150-acre farm, Chestnut Hill, in western North Carolina.] We’re at the crest of the Blue Ridge and I can see
all the mountains. I look west and see the sun setting behind the mountains. It’s beautiful.

What owning a farm taught: How rich nature is, and remarkable.

Best place to get away from it all: The farm. In the wintertime, I guess I’d like to go to Florida.

What have your biggest mistakes taught you? I don’t think I’ve made many major mistakes, but I’ve made an awful lot of minor ones. I think mistakes that cause you embarrassment are the worst mistakes. I think a terrible mistake is to downgrade people.

Greatest technological invention in the last century: Computers and the Internet.

When did you learn how to use a computer? I really haven’t learned. [Stern, though, checks his email daily and uses the Internet.]

Who do you respect? Steve Jobs, as an innovator and inventor. More locally, Jerry Zucker [CofC honorary degree recipient in 2007]. Here was a guy who invented, discovered and patented over 300, maybe 600, new patents. There’s a genius.

Current hero: Winston Churchill.

Wedding location: At the home of my wife’s parents, in the Northway Apartments in Baltimore.

Best advice for newlywed couple: Mutual respect to me is more important than anything else. And what happens behind the bedroom door stays behind the bedroom door. That’s the holy of holies.

Favorite place to return: Coronado, Calif., to me, is a special place. I was stationed at San Diego. I was in a ship home ported there, and I went on my honeymoon to the Del Coronado Hotel. My mother used to stay at the Del Coronado, and I had a house at Coronado. I rented a house while I was at the Naval Station San Diego as chief staff officer.

Alva and Ted Stern at the College of Charleston’s dedication of the Stern Student Center, 1975

Oldest memento: A money clip given to me by my grandmother.

Best part of being a father: Seeing the children grow both mentally and physically, and avoid doing things their father did. I’ve always been afraid that my children might revert back to my behavior. As far as I know, they’ve avoided it.

Best vacation with the grandkids: Washington, D.C. – for the history, architecture and monuments.

What makes you cry? My children tell me the only time they’ve seen me cry is when my wife passed away [three years ago].

What does the smell of a cigar remind you of? The first cigar I ever smoked was offered to me by my father when we were vacationing in Lake Como in Cernobbio, Italy. I willingly took it and subsequently got quite ill. That’s the last of my memories with a cigar. Never touched it since.

If you could go back in time, what would you tell yourself at age 50? Enjoy life and be productive.

Favorite age: I think all ages have their high points and their low points. I just feel lucky I’ve been able to go this far and still be fairly normal, although I can’t see out of one eye and I can’t hear so well out of one ear, but after all, being 99, I think I’m pretty lucky.

How do you clear your head after a bad day? I always have a cocktail at five o’clock, so we know we can clear the head. Whether alone or with company, I enjoy it. I have only one drink, one cocktail, a vodka and tonic. Without hesitation, either.

Most challenging aspect of aging: Breathing.

Funniest fashion trend: The Flappers of the 1920s. I can see them doing the Charleston in New York.

Most contemptible foods: I hate beets and cabbage, and I’m not a great chocoholic.

On dreaming: I very seldom dream. It’s very unusual. Maybe once a year.

Still vote? Oh yeah.

Best money ever spent: The greatest enjoyment is giving it away. My parents taught me generosity and philanthropy and I’ve continued that heritage, more or less.

Best lesson from the playground: Be fair. Don’t cheat.

Still write letters? No, I don’t. In fact, I’m reluctant because my hands are wavy. I have enough trouble writing checks.

Most thrilling experience: Being responsive, positively responsive to my superiors. When your superiors ask you to do something and you do it and do it well. I think that’s exhilarating.

Worst illness: Having hepatitis in 1962 and being hospitalized for three weeks in Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. You just don’t like anything, particularly food.

Mankind’s worst invention: War.

First thought in the morning: Breathing. Staying alive, although I have no fear of demise. I think I’m on borrowed time.

Ever wear blue jeans? I’ve never worn ’em, but I see everyone else wearing them.

What brings you joy? Giving.

Favorite chore: Exercise – every morning.

What are you proud of? My relationship with Johns Hopkins, and ultimately receiving the distinguished alumnus award in 1978.

Favorite sports team: Used to be the Baltimore Orioles. I guess, currently, it’s the Atlanta Braves.

Hottest place visited: It was a boiler room somewhere. I remember sweat coming off me.

Coldest place visited: Sleigh riding on Riverside Drive in New York City.

What melodies do you like to whistle and hum? Classical music.

Favorite type of Spoleto event: Chamber music.

How do you keep your mind so sharp? I don’t know if it’s so sharp, but it’s alert. One of the reasons, I think, is because I do a great deal of reading and I use my mind before I go to sleep every night, memorizing and repeating things: poems, prayers.

Languages spoken: English, partially.

Favorite childhood memory? Naturally the thing I remember most is the birth of my children. It’s a very unique experience.

Childhood nickname: Teddy.

What did you want to be when you grew up? A doctor, a physician, because I think that’s how my family kind of guided me.

What surprises you today? The technical revolution.

Favorite part of the day: When I wake up in the mornings, with a full day ahead of me. I like to be busy. There’s a fear and trepidation when I know I don’t have some appointments the next day.

Best leadership tip: Lead by example.

What potential did you see in the College when you were asked to lead? I was very impressed with the community itself. I wanted to make the College and the community partners. Cooperation rather than competition.

What makes you lose your temper? Blatant lies.

Best way to seek forgiveness: Recognize your own humility.

Key to friendship: Loyalty.

Nicest gift received: My birth.

What do you think your legacy is? Two legacies. One is the College (including integration of the College) and the other is Spoleto.

What’s left to do in life? To have an opportunity to contribute to society. I look forward to doing something to help others because I think that’s the only real joy you get in life – by giving and giving of yourself to benefit others. I hope that I get the opportunity to do that.

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