When Theodore “Ted” S. Stern became the College of Charleston’s 16th president in 1968, the College was integrating the campus and facing a financial crisis. Stern proved to be just the right person to get the College through the hardships and move it forward.
A visionary who knew how to make the College grow, Stern transformed the College from a small, private, financially insolvent institution of 481 students to a public liberal arts college of more than 5,000 undergraduates by the time he “retired” in 1978. During his 10 years in office, Stern grew the annual operating budget from $700,000 to more than $13 million with an annual impact on the region’s economy of $38 million.
Stern’s ability to transform the College comes as no surprise to his daughter, Tippy Stern Brickman.
“My father saw everything as a challenge, so he took on growing and diversifying the College with gusto; he was the quintessential change agent,” she says. “He led by example and encouraged people to accomplish and achieve. By inspiring others, he was able to grow the College.”
It was her father’s upbringing that gave him the chops to succeed. He grew up in New York City in a time of anti-Semitism in a neighborhood with what he described as “ruffians.” Stern went on to join the Navy, where he met people from all walks of life, giving him a better understanding of others. It also helped that he played a key role in the construction of two naval bases in the western Pacific. He wanted College of Charleston students to be exposed to the same breadth of experience and varying perspectives that he’d been.
“My father wanted to make sure students were scholars and interested in the community,” says Brickman. “He wanted them to be well-rounded and leaders — people who would be comfortable in any situation.”
Up until his death in 2013, Stern kept the importance of civic contribution and societal equality top of mind. To continue his legacy of creating well-rounded leaders at the College, he and his wife established the Theodore S. and Alva D. Stern Endowed Scholarship.
Dylan Vaughan ‘19 received the first scholarship in 2017, with two Class of 2020 students following him – and all three recipients have been impacted by Stern’s life lessons in leadership and the value of giving to others.
In life, Stern took every opportunity to have a teaching moment with people. He encouraged active disagreement and would give guidance often without people knowing it.
To this day, Erna Womble ’78 (M.Ed. ’81) often thinks back on President Stern’s personal visionary leadership and his style of extraordinary problem-solving and decision-making. She remembers his drive and determination to expand the College’s campus and engage in wide-ranging discussions to absorb divergent views while staying laser-focused on achieving goals for the College of Charleston and the state of South Carolina.
“Throughout the time I was an undergrad, grad and employee of the College, I learned much from the way he elicited sophisticated reasoning and encouraged articulate and civil expression of complex, emotional and controversial topics,” says Womble, who came to the College from a cosmopolitan town in the pristine Himalayas.
Womble fondly recalls Ted and Alva Stern’s generosity of spirit. “The Sterns were exceedingly kind to me throughout my time at the College and afterwards. Both President and Mrs. Stern were each very strong in their own right and served as mentors in many ways. They encouraged anyone, no matter how young or seemingly insignificant, to relax with or ‘take on’ the President or First Lady of the College in expressing disagreement as freely as agreement on any topic.”
Long after her days on campus, Womble enjoyed a close friendship with the Sterns – and remembers President Stern’s 100th birthday celebration: “His bear hug was as strong as ever, and his eyes twinkled with joy!”
Gus Gustafson ’75 also benefitted from Stern’s influence. A student-athlete, he remembers how the Sterns opened their home to students and faculty. Twice, when he had to stay on campus over Thanksgiving because of a basketball game, the Sterns hosted the entire team and coaches for a meal. And, when it was time for Gustafson to graduate, he received the Alva Stern Award, which went to her favorite basketball player.
“My reward was to sit up on the Cistern for graduation. My mother was so proud that I didn’t have the heart to tell her why I won,” he chuckles.
“Ted was and is to this day the most dynamic man I ever met,” says Gustafson. “He was a forward thinker with a gift at forming strong relationships and getting everyone on board.”
He remembers often seeing President Stern and a politician in hard hats standing in the back of the College dump truck. With his hands flying around, Stern would share his vision to build and expand the College. It always seemed that, after one of these tours, the College would be breaking ground on a new building.
When Gustafson looks at the College today, he knows President Stern would be very pleased with the high-quality faculty, students and programs. His vision became a reality.
Now, Stern continues his legacy through his scholarship, which gives students the opportunity to take advantage of all the College has to offer — opportunities for friendship and a quality education. He was a strong proponent of gaining experience dealing with others and accomplishing things for the good of all.
As President Stern once said, “I look forward to doing something to help others because I think that’s the only real joy you get in life — by giving of yourself to benefit others.”
His endowed scholarship will give him the opportunity to do so into perpetuity.