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Tuesday, November 15, 2011


        american zeus by tj worthington, 1991, 30"x30"

A week ago today I had an appointment to meet with the biographer of Ted Stern, owner of the farm I once worked, the farmwork that brought me to the mountains. He had come into the College of Charleston as the new President in my last year there. The president before him who served one year was more of a problem than the solution he was hired to be. The board of directors hired Ted Stern, recently retired Navy Captain for damage control. Every semester it was a question of it being the last one. A lot of people transferred anticipating the end of the College. When the board hired Ted Stern, they were looking for action after a year of less than inaction in a time of crisis. They found action in abundance. Nobody saw coming what started on the day they hired Ted Stern, sailor of the dense marine. That was the day they cranked the smaller engine on a bulldozer that cranks the big engine. They didn't have a clue what they'd started. Even their hopes didn't go as far as what took place over the next ten years.

In short, he transformed a small municipal college about to go under into a state university with a population that was approx 450 when he arrived and 5,000 when he retired after ten years. He transformed the main building, which was the building where all the classrooms and offices were when I was there, into offices eventually when the classroom buildings and the new library were built. They went up in a hurry, too. With the contractor's bid he also was given a date it would be finished. Each day after that would have a fine of some sort. He was strict with it, too. It was enough to make them finish on time. He didn't fool with any dilly-dallying. He kept his finger on every construction activity, individually, as well as the faculty, student body and administration. He knew everything that was going on, and he, personally, was in charge of every aspect of making the college into a state university physically after getting it on paper. He was the captain of the ship.

Parallel his work with the College of Charleston, he quickly became at one time president of 35 different business organizations in the city. Charleston was still in the Old South in that time. The New South was starting up in Atlanta, but hadn't yet reached Charleston. Ted Stern worked with the businessmen of the city inspiring them to get going, teaching them how to maintain what he helped them set in motion, then he stepped out and went on to assist another. Individually, he went around Charleston teaching conscientious altruism. He taught that it works out better for self to work toward the good of the whole; then self gets his own reward and everyone around self benefits too, making self's world all the better to live in. I saw the change in Charleston, gradual in the beginnings as nobody wanted change, and once it started rolling it was overnight a new city, self-sustaining, flourishing new businesses, law offices, brokerages, etc.  Restoration of the whole city from its low place after a century long Depression following the Civil War, until it has become certainly the most beautiful and perhaps most prosperous the city has ever been.

I believe the rule is that to put in one thing, another thing has to go. It was the city's diversity of population that had to go. Every income level lived on the Charleston peninsula, and every educational level. The well off and the poor often lived next door to each other. Corner grocery stores here and there. By now, the poor and the black have been squeezed out to North Charleston, the middle class and upper middle class have taken over, run real estate prices so high no one else can live there. The city, like the college, was going under. Shopping centers out in the suburbs across the rivers, a short drive, kept business out of the old part of the city. As real estate went up and Spoleto Festival put Charleston on the international map, upper middle class moved in, a white tsunami, as happened in the mountains with the white middle class moving in. Joe Riley, Jr, the mayor from then to now, orchestrated the changes with conscience, in the same manner as Ted Stern orchestrated the changes at the College. Both the College and the City of Charleston were transformed into their new styles with integrity. Anyway, that's been my observation, the integrity. The integrity is what I've learned to respect in Ted Stern.

The biographer, Robert Macdonald, looks as Irish as his name. Black haired Irish. Before our appointment, I googled his name to see what he'd been up to. Retired curator of the Museum of the City of New York. Evidently, he raised it from a minor museum to a museum of note. Ted Stern is from New York. It tells me Macdonald knows New York, which I'd think would be essential for Stern's biographer. Stern grew up there. WW2 put him in the Navy and 27 years later he retired from the Navy and went straight into the College. I thought it funny how close to my case it was. I was out of the Navy on a Friday and started at the College on Monday. Both of us came to the College from the sea. While Macdonald was here, I found he knew all the fact information about his life. He has a good bead on what Ted Stern is. He was looking for who Ted Stern is, talking with people in Sparta who knew him in the part of his life here. I was struck by the blank I drew when it came to looking for some experiences that would have bearing on defining his character. Though I could think of hundreds hypnotized, but with my atrophied left brain, I have to seek, and when I seek, it all goes away. I have to not think about it and let it come in on its own. I call it the white hair disease.

All week I've looked for samples of who Ted Stern is, the man himself. That is, the Ted Stern I've known for the last 40 years, and I have a hard time finding samples of who he is. That's because I'm thinking about it. I'll close my eyes and wait. One thing came up. He was a bit awkward at social behavior, always, though he handled it. He handled it going way overboard, so much so it reeked of bogus, "HI, I'm SO GLAD TO MEET YOU!!! so loud and so over zealous it's like you're inside the house next door and the windows are closed. It's kind of overwhelming and drips of the appearance of phony, but it's real. It's who he is. He is glad. And next time he sees you he'll remember. On the telephone it's like phone service in some place like Albania, talking loud like it's a bad connection and he can barely hear. He sounds distant and far away, yelling to span the distance. But he's not. He was a man with a mission, no time or room for the extraneous. In one of our conversations on the highway, we were talking about our individual approaches to living on earth. I said I'm like in a canoe, I let things happen. He said he's like in a bulldozer, he makes things happen. That's why he'll have an obituary in the NYTimes and I won't.

Kindness is a word that comes to mind. I believe his kindness was so innate as to be in the nature of his soul. It's automatic and there's never a lapse because it's not directed by mental command. It may have been early in his life, but by late in the life kindness was the same as breathing. His years as an officer in the Navy gave him the charisma of someone to salute. He walks into a room and the people in the room feel in the presence of a leader. A leader he indeed was. I don't mean past tense like he's not living now, but his time of active involvement in the big decisions in Charleston are in the past. He has told me several times he has outlived himself and become a has-been, a once-was. He accepted it, but I can't say he has ever been comfortable with once-was for his self-identity. He's noted for his past achievements, not what he's involved in now. It's difficult for him not to be involved. I remember in the years of working Stern's mountain farm, old man Tom Pruitt in his 80s, when I'd be splitting wood, he couldn't watch me work without helping. He wasn't able to help, so he couldn't watch, had to go to the house where he stared at the wall and thought about whatever crossed the screen of his mind. Ted Stern, now 97, watches tv sports and thinks about whatever is crossing the screen of his mind.


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