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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

MEMORIES OF TED STERN

 jim dine, gate



I'm flooded with memories of Ted Stern over the last few days. Today I was remembering his first year at the college, my last year, when the sound throughout the campus every day in class was the pounding of telephone pole sized steel tubes driven into the ground in a grid where the new library was being built, and another place nearby where a new classroom building was being built. BAM - BAM - BAM all day long, the pile-drivers beating those huge things into the ground. This was every day. It was not objectionable. It was the new college. It was evidence that the college was going to survive the financial crisis it was going through. In a way, it was hope. Charleston the city was wasting away after business went to North Charleston and the suburban malls. Charleston then was in a place similar to what Sparta is in now, businesses barely making it and shutting down. Four movie theaters closed. Only one restaurant and two greasy spoon diners. Even the sailor bars and strip joints moved to North Charleston. For students, faculty and staff at the college, a new university was being built around us. Big change. Some liked it. Some didn't. I didn't like it at first, but when I saw what was happening, I liked it.

Progress was Ted Stern's guiding light. At that time in my life I took progress for a dirty word. It was progress that was messing everything up. I recall a time after I had been in the mountains some years, Ted Stern retired and needing to go back to Charleston for some meetings, I drove his new Cadillac, a really nice ride on the highway, going with him to visit some of my friends there. Charlotte was putting up a beltway all the way around the city during that time. Going out of Charlotte on the southern end of I-77 we saw what to my eyes was uttermost devastation. Not anything growing as far as could be seen, a red clay desert. Big cement structures were up and a highway being built between them for an up in the air experience cloverleaf sort of configuration. Big earth-moving equipment, the kind with tires ten feet high, real American he-man Heavy Equipment. Giant Tonka toys. Ted remarked about how beautiful this was, progress, people at work, new highway being built to accommodate more cars coming into the world every year. It lit him up like it would light me up to see that much acreage in virgin forest. Knowing him taught me to appreciate progress. Years later, I passed over that same stretch of highway, even drove around on it, feeling eerie that high up in the air. It's a beautiful area, really beautiful to my eye.

I'm remembering the time he told me of how his father, Hugo, died. The telephone rang, somebody told him the stock market crashed, the phone hit the floor, he hit the floor and that was it. Ted said the people that came in to clean the body stole his gold cufflinks, his money clip and the money in it. He said he was not going to die over money. He never let money be that important to him. Money was important in that he kept track of it and did his own taxes every year, kept up with the new loopholes. Every time he bought something he'd ask what kind of deal could be worked for him, and he'd get a good deal. In his later years he leased a new gray or silver Cadillac every other year. It was a better deal than buying them. I came out of the College of Charleston thinking I was educated. Over the years post-college knowing Ted Stern as the caretaker of his farm and one he could talk to about decisions he's involved in with the college, Spoleto, whatever it was, aware that I would not be telling any of his business around, I learned that compared to Ted Stern I was a dumb shit every way I can be looked at. I was his ear in that way to the point I taught myself to forget Charleston business he told me, because I was serious about not letting any of  it slip. I did one time, but by chance it did not go any further than the moment. It taught me. Never again will that happen. It was good training for other aspects of my life too. Several old mountain people have told me the stories of their lives with the confidence I would not blabber any of it around. I've told them that if-when I write about them it will never embarrass them.

Ted and I have had some differences too. That I look up to him, respect him highly, it doesn't mean I haven't seen his human side too, which is more on display at home than at work. A year or two after I came to the mountains to work the farm, Ted Stern was having a cocktail party event for the business leaders in Sparta. He said I would wear a white shirt with a bow tie and serve drinks. I told him I would not. He told me I would. I could not convince him I would not, and he could not convince me I would. His final word down at the wire was that I would do it. Mine was you'll see. I told him I have to live here. I was not Ted Stern's step-n-fetch-it, and the gossip around Sparta would never be that I was. I did not know those people then, but knew I would eventually. It might have been a pride thing. I don't care. There wasn't any way in this world I was going to do such a thing. Not that I have a problem with pouring a drink for somebody. I worked among people in bib overalls, bluejeans, workboots and ballcaps. This was my new world I was having to learn in a hurry working the farm. Nobody was ever going to see me in a bow tie, anyway. Especially in my new life among hillbillies that I was quickly coming to appreciate. Ted Stern did the drink pouring at the party or made it a communal pour-your-own. I don't know. I wasn't there. I had to problem with it. I never once told him I would. I only told him I would not. He never let on later like he had a problem with it. I know I paid for it in some way, but don't know how and don't care to know how. If he'd told me to get my ass off the farm, I'd have said ok.

As for somebody to work for, I've only worked for one employer his equal when it comes to being consceintious toward employees. Attorney Donna Shumate. Tom Pruitt, the old farmer who lived nearby and helped me with the farm had a great deal of respect for Ted Stern because all his financial dealings were straight up, on time. He never had the first money issue with the man. That impressed Tom mightily. After living in a culture of poverty awhile I learned why. In a life of poverty people need money all the time, really need it. A dollar or two you're entrusted with won't last long. It's a culture where you have to know somebody very well before you can trust them. Trust doesn't extend beyond family very often in the mountains. By now I've come to understand and feel the same way. I don't ever trust somebody I've just recently come to know, from here or from Away. It now takes me years to know somebody before trust becomes an option. I was told by a smart-ass one day at lunch when we were talking about trust and I mentioned my hesitation. "I'm sorry for you," he said in his superior tone of voice that says: how stupid you are compared to me. I didn't pay him any mind. I knew him for a long time, would never think of trusting him. He taught me not to several times. Ted Stern never talked down to anybody about anything. He regarded everyone with respect and was someone who could be trusted absolutely.


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