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Monday, October 29, 2012


ted stern by jack alterman
charleston magazine

The present edition of the College of Charleston magazine appeared in the mailbox a week or so ago. I flipped through it back to front briefly and put it down. On the cover is a blonde in pink boxing gloves, an '00 graduate. Inside, a picture of a sniper caught my eye, thinking, What? Of course. Snipers go to school someplace. It brought mental images from Tom Berringer's movies, Sniper one and two, and the third one literally son-of Sniper, though not cliched. I enjoyed every one of those movies. I like Tom Berringer as an actor, and saw the films as fictional documentaries giving an unrealistic movie version of an experience that I'm sure is not exactly the same, but enough to give a movie watcher a sense of that world, living in dense jungle with the grace of a wild animal. Having these three views of what it's like in the forest hunting and being hunted at the same time, I felt a profound respect for him. Though my initial response to the picture in the magazine was, What's a Guns N Ammo article doing in there? But a second or two of images from the films running through a slideshow in my head punched my awe button. I saw him for a moment reading the wind, figuring the distance in yards, the pull of gravity and force of the wind in relation to the particular gun he's using. It's impressive. It's impressive like driving in a nascar race at 200mph bumper to bumper, side to side in the pack.

I put the magazine down and left it, thinking about picking it up later to read the sniper article. A few hours ago I went into the kitchen to pour a cup of coffee. Returning to the chair I saw the babe in pink boxing gloves and picked up the magazine, thinking I'd read about her too. It's a cold, windy, overcast day, a good day for reading. I'd been in the first pages of a 1987 Chinese novel by Jia Pingwa, TURBULENCE. Howard Goldblatt translated it. It's so beautifully written that I foresee 500 pages of all-out good reading. He doesn't write like James Joyce, but has a quality that brings Joyce to mind. I can read a page from Turbulence and see it visually, feel like I understood an insight into a character, easy flow in the reading. I go back and read the page again; it's the same information, but it's so much more clear it's like I completely missed it the first reading, even when I got it, almost like I had never read it. I love that quality. I may reread frequently through it. Though it's translated into English, the writing is some of the very finest that characterizes contemporary Chinese writing in attention to detail, appreciation for subtleties, so visually written it's like watching a film.

I'd applied two colors to the new canvas earlier and was feeling good about getting a few things done and slowing down enough to read for awhile. Opened the magazine and there was Ted Stern's almost full-sized face looking exactly like he looks in this time of his life, which is not a great deal different from before. Under the picture it said, Wisdom Of The Century. I thought: somebody has been paying attention. I used to wonder if I'm the only one to see it. I only know a few people in his world, so I really have  nothing to go by, having no idea how other people see him, except that each one is uniquely itself. I looked at the next couple pages and saw him doing pushups on the wall, as he would do, the photo of the dedication of the Stern Center piece of what struck me very respectable architecture in a very functional occupation of its given space. I thought it a beautiful building. It carries the integrity of the campus's older architecture translated into the latter 20th Century. Inside, it feels spacious everywhere, plenty of room for a lot of people to flow in opposite directions at the same time. I was there for the christening and felt good for him; it was a major big day in his life, a monument to his devotion and his ability to get things done.

I'm remembering the day on his farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Air Bellows in Whitehead Township, where I worked as caretaker for seven years, '76-'83. He said, "I don't understand my successes and the money that has come to me. I don't know how to do anything." He was watching me sharpen the chainsaw during a break cutting firewood toward a long winter. I understood his meaning, because operating a riding lawn mower and a weed-eater were the apex of his mechanical abilities. I said to him something on the order of, Your work is of the mind. It pays better than making a chainsaw buzz. On the page opposite the dedication photo, a b&w of the Captain of the Ocean Sea, four gold bands on his sleeve, a studio portrait. Turn the page and there is the Ted Stern I know, sitting back holding a vodka and tonic with a quarter of a lime, the welcoming smile, the paper on the SPORTS section. I started reading a few sentences in the list of questions followed by an answer. Straight-ahead questions and straight-ahead answers. I read the columns of questions and answers backwards, not by intent, but the one at the top of the third column caught my eye and attention, then the one under it, then the one under it. It became amazing right away. I was hearing the Ted Stern I know answering these questions that by the end, in my case the beginning, gave a broad range of insight into the man most people know of making speeches, fund raising, talking on tv, in an office. This interview brought forward who the man is behind his decision-making that transformed the college and the city together.

Soon into it I couldn't stop reading. I was seeing the Ted Stern I've known over 40 years as I know the man. Question: Most critical item in a man's wardrobe. Answer: "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." That is the Ted Stern I know. Another Question: Best lesson from the playground. Answer: "Be fair. Don't cheat." Reading over his answers on the pages, it sounds like him talking, like him thinking. I liked this form of interview better than the talkative kind. This interview covered a great deal of who Ted Stern is, better than an article about him. I felt like the content from this interview made a good preview to the biography Robert Macdonald is working on with what I believe is an integrity equal to Ted Stern's integrity. It tells me the biography will be the true story of a man whose ethics and attitude toward life have been good examples for me through the greater part of my adult life. The interview is online, can be found at:


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