The remarkable Ted Stern: Charleston’s wise ‘compass’

Ted Stern with Spoleto founder Gian Carlo Menotti. (File/Staff)

How did Ted Stern, a Jewish kid from New York’s Upper West Side, help transform Charleston and make it the city we know today?

Joe Riley Jr., Charleston’s mayor for the past 40 years, has said, “Ted was the most amazing person I have ever known. By the force of his energy and leadership; he positively changed our community in so many ways. No person of this last half century, or maybe in our entire history, did more for the benefit of Charleston than Ted Stern.”

South Carolina’s legendary Sen. Fritz Hollings added, “Everything Ted touched in Charleston blossomed.”

Theodore Sanders Stern celebrated his 100th birthday on Christmas 2012. He passed away a month later. His headstone at Beaufort’s National Cemetery reads, “The Readiness is All,” the motto Ted used when he commanded Charleston’s Navy Supply Center in the mid-1960s. It is taken from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and is a fitting epitaph to a man who was ready for all that fate brought him.

Ted, as he was universally known in Charleston, lived through a century of change that spanned two World Wars, the inauguration of commercial radio and passenger flight, women’s right to vote, Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, the atomic bomb, the end of segregation, men on the moon, and Charleston’s revival from a shabby Southern city to a world-renowned urban model.

Ted was a spirited teenager; a scholastic swimming champion involved in everything but academics. He was a student leader at Johns Hopkins University where he attended from 1930 to 1934, but did not graduate because of failures in the classroom. Ted spent the years after his non graduation as a strikingly handsome Baltimore bachelor tooling around with a bevy of girlfriends in his Chrysler convertible. He became engaged and disengaged, held a series of non-descript jobs, worked at summer camps in New York and Maine, and involved himself in politics as president of the Young Maryland Democrats. He was a member of the Variety Club which held weekly smoke-filled poker games at Baltimore’s swanky Belvedere Hotel. One of his poker cronies was Frank Durkee whose daughter Alva would become Ted’s wife. Alva, known for her dry wit, would tell startled Charlestonians that, “Ted won me in a poker game.”

As it often did during Ted’s life, fate intervened to give Ted a chance to escape his fruitless and disappointing life in Baltimore. In late 1939, as war overtook Europe, Ted joined the Navy, was called up for duty the very next day, and sent to the Panama Canal. There, as a newly minted Ensign Stern he was Officer of the Day on December 7, 1941, when the teletype clanked out, “This is not a drill.” The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. Twenty-nine-year-old Ted, with no formal Navy training — “I saluted everything that moved” — was promoted to lieutenant junior grade, and sent in command of 400 men to establish an air patrol base in Salinas, Ecuador.

Ted’s completing the base ahead of schedule brought him to the attention of the Navy brass in Washington. He was transferred and appointed chief of staff to the admiral responsible for building what at the time were the largest American bases outside the continental United States. For his four years of service in the Pacific Ted was awarded the Bronze Star with a V for valor.

In August 1945, Ted was back in the United States planning bases to be built on the Japanese mainland after what was expected to be a bloody American invasion. He was listening to a Brooklyn Dodger baseball game on the radio when the announcer broke in to report the Japanese surrender. Ted was relieved and at the age of 33 decided to make the Navy his career. He became an officer in the Navy Supply Corps and for the next twenty years advanced to become one of the Navy’s oil and computer experts, talents that eventually brought him to the command of the Navy Supply Center at Charleston’s Navy Base. Ted’s appointment was approved by the powerful chair of the House Armed Services Committee, South Carolina’s Mendel Rivers.

In three years Ted transformed the Navy Supply Center into a model for similar facilities throughout the country. When it came time for Capt. Stern to be promoted to Rear Admiral Stern it was discovered that Ted was too old by five days. Fate again intervened when Rivers arranged for Ted to be appointed president of the then, small, private, almost bankrupted College of Charleston.

In September 1968, Ted took over the historically all-white, 480-student school with a rundown campus of barely more than one city block, a dispirited faculty of 29, and an uncertain future. When Ted retired a decade later in 1978 the College of Charleston was a state school with an integrated student body of 5,000 and a faculty of 181. The school’s annual budget had gone from $800,000 to $13 million. There were 10 new buildings and 75 restored and adapted historic buildings, three of them National Historic Landmarks. If saving the College was Ted Stern’s single accomplishment, he would be numbered among the Charleston’s most important benefactors. But fate once again intervened.

While Ted was saving the College, Charleston elected 32-year-old Joe Riley Jr. mayor. Like Ted, Riley had a vision for Charleston. The two collaborated publically and privately to advance their dreams. The rejuvenated College of Charleston was a key to Charleston’s renaissance. There was also Ted’s role in creating the Spoleto Festival USA. The young Joe Riley turned to Ted to save Spoleto when it was about to be stillborn. Ted serve as the founding Spoleto chair for 10 years and was called on by the mayor to save Spoleto a second time in the early 1990s.

But there is more. With a $9,000 Rotary grant, Ted was instrumental in creating what is today the $125 million Coastal Community Foundation where he also served as board chair. He helped found Palmetto Goodwill Industries, was instrumental in the creation Charleston Place, Waterfront Park, and the South Carolina Aquarium. In one of his last public roles, the 93 year old Ted chaired a successful private fundraising drive for the College’s Addlestone Library.

Ted’s famous greetings were “How’s my boy? “How’s my girl?”

Almost everyone who met him wanted to be one of Ted’s boys or girls. Riley in his eulogy at Ted’s funeral on the College’s Cistern said, “We all wanted to be like Ted. Ted came to a city more focused on its past — conservative about change and seeing our differences as barriers not gifts, not ready to believe in our collective capacities to excel. Ted touched us, led us, and loved us. He put us on a new course; reset the needle of our community compass. The new heading was Ted Stern’s way.”

With Ted’s passing and Joe Riley’s retirement, Charleston seeks new leaders that are ready with similar visions and energies.

They will be wise to look to Ted Stern as an example of integrity and public service and follow the needle of his compass.

Robert R. Macdonald is director emeritus of the Museum of the City of New York and vice chair emeritus of the South Carolina Aquarium.