Tuesday, September 9, 2003

42-year tale ends happily ever after



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Forty-two years. Hundreds of meetings. Thousands of volunteer hours. Millions of books. And $1 million.

After all this, Joseph S. Stern Jr. officially stepped down Monday as a unpaid trustee on the board of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

"I'm 85," he said. "No one should serve forever."

An exception could be made in his case. Stern loves his library. And his hometown of Cincinnati.

He's also a salty-tongued nonconformist. At Monday's meeting, he scolded foot-draggers holding up the establishment of the library's nonprofit foundation by calling them "skunkeroos."

Stern speaks out of a passion for community service. In addition to his time on the library's board - seeing the collection soar from 2 million to 10 million items - he helped found the Friends of the Public Library and headed the commissions that created Tall Stacks and Cincinnati's bicentennial in 1988. Both events helped reconnect the city with its riverfront heritage.

After heading the family firm that became U.S. Shoe, he could have devoted his spare time to his many hobbies.

He collects first editions and presidential letters.

"I have all the presidents. Each letter's handwritten."

He likes to go fly fishing.

"I had a stroke 10 years ago. Affected my left side. And I'm left-handed. So, I fish with one hand."

But, his hobbies take a backseat to his calling: boosting Cincinnati.

"I love this city," said the descendant of German Jewish immigrants. "They came here in the 1840s and were in the fertilizer business." They shoveled manure from the streets of Cincinnati.

Aside from Mary, his wife of 61 years, and their three children, Stern considers Cincinnati to be his other great love. He knows his city has seen tough times recently.

"But I'm an optimistic guy," he said. Cincinnati will solve its problems "because there are a lot of people like me who love this city."

At Monday's meeting, his love came through.

He told the board of a family tradition. The Sterns like to play games.

In any contest, they are highly competitive. But at the end of the day, he always reminds everyone: "End on a good note."

With that, he gave $1 million to the fledgling foundation that will someday help the cash-strapped library pay its bills.

That was more than a good note. It was 1 million of them.

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E-mail cradel@enquirer.com.




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