hallelujah bye and bye
Three hours ago the news came to me by email that my friend of 40+ years, Ted Stern, left the body this morning. The email came from Robert Macdonald who is writing his biography. He was hoping Ted would live long enough to see it. He's projecting to be finished with the writing around April. This morning I found an email from Macdonald telling me Ted was not feeling well. I responded by email and then his return email was to tell me Ted had gone on. All morning I'd been thinking about calling Ted. I thought I'd wait until 11:30, before lunch and plenty of time to be alert after getting up. Macdonald's email came through at a quarter to eleven. I set out to send Stern's grandson Eric an email. I'd started to put down his address, had written "eric" and the phone rang. It was Eric to tell me he'd had a call from Uncle Sandy. I sit here looking out the windows at the birds picking up sunflower seeds on the surface of the snow. When I gaze back at the monitor it turns pink and aqua from snow blindness, followed by a moment unable to see at all, then I can see ok. Caterpillar is on her window seat watching the slate-gray snowbirds hopping about and flying against the white background. From time to time she'll squeak and her whiskers will twitch in the Maine Coon way. It excites her so much to watch the birds that it triggers this involuntary twitch of the upper lip.
I find myself reminding self from time to time that this is the day Ted Stern left the body. I've only seen him a few times in the last years. I knew he was in comfortable circumstances at the very expensive assisted-living facility nursing home where they're paid to pay attention to you, not just to clean up after you. He had his own apartment with his own decorations on the walls, furniture from home, and people of his society for neighbors. His peers. He had his books he read during the daytime and football, basketball and baseball to watch in the evenings after the news and a drink. He was a master of self-discipline. It gave the appearance of a neurosis, but I felt like I knew him well enough to see that it was learned. He didn't operate by reaction. Unless somebody really pist him off. It wasn't then that the other would suffer the consequences, but later when it counted. Hitting was not a solution for him. He learned a very great deal of his public service acumen from his cousin in New York, where Ted is from, Robert Moses, the man who could be said to have designed modern Manhattan. I'd met him a few times in his 90s and found most notable Ted's visible respect for him. Ted regarded everyone with respect, so it appeared no more than with anyone else, but his respect for Moses had a golden glow about it. Reverence for the Master. Robert Moses was his teacher, sensei, his spiritual master, guru, cousin and close friend, confident. Moses was the only of Ted's relatives who went to Ted's wedding when he married outside the family religion.
My respect for Ted Stern is that kind of high. He has been my teacher in many ways since we first became acquainted. He was hired to be president at the College of Charleston when I was in my last year. Straight out of the Navy, which I'd been in too and had no love for. I had a hard time respecting a lifer from the military. It was the time of campus activism, not that anything political was going on at College of Charleston. Charleston is not a place for a demonstration. It's like, suppose you gave a demonstration and nobody came. There were half dozen of us that played the anti-war role in our minds. I went to DC in 68 for the march on Washington concerning Vietnam. I'm glad I went, only because it killed my interest in politics except to look at from afar and never commit to. I was a bit insolent after that time. A week or more later my thinking from what I'd seen educated me with new data I needed to know. Stay out of all of it. I hold Johnson down there with Reagan as the very lowest. My regard for Johnson took a nose dive and crashed. Not from what happened at the rally, but from learning afterward the lie he told the press to report in a press conference before the event. The press reported as told, like the good soldiers they're paid well to be, all of them knowing that if they reported what actually happened they'd be shut out of journalism as a career, or any other corporate job. I saw it first reported by Nat Hentoff in the Village Voice, the only journalist brave enough to tell it. Then it turned up in Norman Mailer's book Armies Of The Night. He was at the press conference too.
I pained under the disillusionment that was also a dissolution, beliefs falling away. I didn't know it then, but learned later that disillusionment equals enlightenment. So enlightenment must be the result of being disillusioned. I can't say that Ted Stern saw through the illusion, because I don't know, but he saw through an awful lot of illusion. He spoke in favor of government decisions at the time, respected Westmoreland, and I took it he bought the package. Did I ever find out different. Some years later I saw him in the hospital after an operation; I don't remember what was removed. He was sailing on some pain medication. He spoke freely and conversationally like he was largely unable to do otherwise. He wasn't much for talking unless it had to do with some sort of action, like relating to a mind full of decisions to make every day. He told me his vision of what he sees civilization coming to in the near future. It was darker than my own. Mine has a light at the end of the tunnel, albeit down to like f22. His tunnel was a long cave. I never heard any of that kind of talk again. In his fully conscious mind he saw the illusion of taking care of business, but also saw we need something to keep us going or we revert to shoot-outs, no law enforcement, heavily armed bandits plundering until the ammunition runs out. His desire to make the world a better place as a result of him having been in it transformed the College of Charleston, a little Southern college going under the third time like somebody drowning, into a nationally respected South Carolina state university inside ten years.
He was instrumental in getting the Spoleto Festival to happen in Charleston. He became a friend and confident to Jean Carlo Menotti, the self-centered composer nearly no one could get along with for any period of time. Arbitration was Stern's talent, his learned talent from Robert Moses and possibly an admiral or two along the way. Menotti needed an arbitrator at his side like he would need a translator if he didn't know English. For Menotti, Ted Stern was his harbor pilot who guided Menotti through the minefield of troubles he created for himself. I think Ted took Menotti for somebody who needed help, the kind of help Ted had to give. The way a big kid will sometimes take care of a little kid. He respected Menotti and liked him. He gave him the Ted Stern treatment that he does for everyone close to him, if they'll allow it. Respect is what the Ted Stern treatment amounts to, an encouraging pat-on-the-back respect. The middle class has lost respect for just about all but money and things associated with money. The Ted Stern kind of respect, respect for your humanity first, stands out. In the mountains he was respected by the people that knew him because he respected them first. Respect is very important in the mountains. He was respected here for his respect.
He has told me his life over the years I've known him. I've also learned in conversations with Robert Macdonald writing the biography that I know very little of his early life. I knew upper West Side New York, Jewish, somewhat privileged, the very definition of Capricorn, Johns Hopkins, Navy 27 years, Charleston. At the same time he transformed the College, he did the same with Charleston, transforming it into the ultimate tourist town that is gracious and beautiful, rewarding to visitors. It's odd how a New York Jew's parachute landed him in the quadrangle of a Southern college going under, a truly Southern place in the latter days of the Old South, and it wasn't very long before he was received like the latest thing from Goodwill Planet. The spirit of friendliness that runs through Charleston now is a part of Ted Stern's making, too. His is the optimistic can-do spirit that supports and encourages. The new Charleston was built in that spirit. There was a time in the early 1970s he told me he was president of 35 civic organizations besides the College. The business community paid close attention to him. He became a friend to the black community because he didn't bullshit them. I suppose he would best be called a visionary in that he visioned the new College of Charleston and the new Charleston into existence, step by step. He has been a loyal and true friend to me all the time I've known him. He was instrumental in getting me to the mountains, my home sweet home, before I knew Air Bellows Mountain was the home of my soul. I know he is being received happily today on the other side of the veil.