John David Sterne 1953-2020
article by Janice Middleton, photos by Ann Baggley, originally published in 2012
Like knights of old in shining armour, in modern day Stratford, John David Sterne has embarked on a quest as noble as any undertaken in King Arthur's realm, though his steed is a sturdy LandRover and his sword a pen.
In his trademark navy pullover and khakis, Sterne's a familiar figure on the Stratford social scene, serving as a volunteer board member on various Stratford and Perth County organizations: Perth Arts Connect, Inner Chamber, Vivace and PAL Stratford.
Sterne has stepped up to rescue, if you will, the Performing Arts Lodge Stratford effort to raise $400,000 to finish renovating a Stratford heritage property into a residence and meeting space. When Sterne is finished his task, its debt-free downtown headquarters will be a beautiful landmark and a source of pride for the city. A voluntary organization, PAL Canada's eight chapters across the country are dedicated to providing affordable housing and other services to the performing arts community and others in need of assistance by reason of low income, age or disability.
In early 2013, 101 Brunswick Street will offer spacious oak panelled meeting rooms, reception and office space on the ground floor and five affordable and character-filled apartments on the upper floors. “Lots of activity but with sound-proofing to ensure privacy for the residents,” Sterne says.
Embracing a Servant-Leader philosophy of management, Sterne's hallmark objective, whether it's running a symphony or a community project, is to create an environment of care and goodwill for the musician-artists, board, staff, volunteers and patrons alike. Joking about being a FOOF (from one of Ontario's fine old families), Sterne was born in Brantford, Ontario, to Francis Eddy Sterne, a chemical engineer, and Margaret Eileen Hitchon, a homemaker and a descendent of the Verity family of the Verity Plow Company that evolved eventually into farm-machinery giant Massey-Ferguson, Sterne is proud of his nation-builder agricultural background.
Although his father loved music ,“an audiophile with a large collection of records that he introduced me to,” Sterne's exposure to the business of managing symphonies across the country came about quite accidentally. “I was asked to be a volunteer usher for The Brantford Symphony and that led to [the position of] house manager which became assistant general manager and then manager.”
His roots are why Stratford and its theatre company, the largest in Canada with an annual budget close to $70 million, is such a good fit for him, he says. “I love Stratford. The community is so diverse, a mixture of agriculture and culture. I'm not just passing through.”
In the theatre, “Places, please,” the name of PAL Stratford's fund-raising campaign, is the cue or the stage manager’s signal that the action is about to begin. The curtain is about to rise. So, like a stage manager, “A manager and administrator's job is to do things seamlessly, as if they grew there," Sterne says.
It's a strategy to copy, judging by the success of last month's Expect the Extra-ordinary's seventh annual fundraiser at the Avon Theatre. Featuring a star-studded cast and a silent auction, the 1,100-seat house was 80 per cent full ( a turn-out to die for) and the auction raised $9,450, says Sarah Drake, PAL Stratford's treasurer.
Just after the concert, Sterne succeeded once again with a legacy to PAL Stratford from the estate of Bernard (Bunny) Behrens, well-known television and stage actor with the Stratford and Shaw Festivals. Behrens died on September 19, 2012 in Perth, Ontario, where family resides. He was just shy of his 86th birthday.
“It's serendipity,” Sterne said in an interview. “I was looking for a way to partner Shaw with PAL Stratford.” Although Gemini-winner Behrens, who appeared in hundreds of films and TV shows, lived most of his final years in Niagara-on-the-Lake, “most actors and stage people with Shaw simply can't afford to,” Sterne says. He would like to expand PAL Stratford's residences to accommodate Shaw veterans as well.
Focused, logical and determined, “My skill is in creating strategic alliances or unusual partnerships that strengthen both parties,” he says. citing the one he created between King's University College at the University of Western Ontario and Orchestra London. “It became a fundraiser, a major contributor of revenue for both.”
In Stratford, Sterne has brought city leaders, levels of government and the arts together to honour those who have made such a significant contribution to the Stratford Festival's 60 years of excellence. “PAL Canada chapters take pride in safeguarding the well-being of their artistic community,” Sterne says. “Here, at Deacon House, we'll have a library and archives for plays and all sorts of theatre memorabilia.”
Herbert Whittaker, Critic Emeritus for The Globe and Mail, got PAL Stratford started with a suggestion in 1998 to Tom Patterson, founder of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Whittaker had been long on the waiting list to live in the PAL Toronto residence. Incorporated in 2002, PAL Stratford received charitable status in 2006.
“For many people in the arts, life and income is job-to-job and involves travelling for work from one side of the country to the other and going abroad as well,” Sterne explains on a tour of the PAL Stratford construction zone. He expects the house will be home for several artists within two months, quite a lovely Christmas gift for the recipients; a beautiful and affordable place within walking distance to all that's good in the city.
Built in 1907 by Dr. George Deacon, one of Stratford's most prominent physicians, x-ray technology pioneer and district surgeon to the Grand Trunk Railway, Deacon House served as an office and family home. It was purchased by PAL Stratford in February 2012 with $750,000, or 65 per cent of the home's cost, in affordable housing funding from the City of Stratford. PAL is to contribute 35 per cent or $400,000 to complete its purchase and renovation.
Designated under the Ontario Heritage Act in 1987 as a fine example of Craftsman architecture using wood shingling, stucco, concrete and finished wood, its solid oak mill work remains in splendid condition throughout the house. The doctor and his wife, Jeanette, raised four children in 101 Brunswick's roomy three stories and wide verandah. The patients' entrance can still be seen on the west side of the house just off the driveway.
Managing Canadian symphony orchestras and opera companies means Sterne is well acquainted with the needs of those who work as self-employed artists. "They are just not able to afford to invest in the financial retirement plans that most of us take for granted. There are no employer-sponsored pensions and seasonal work and low salaries mean for many in the arts, RRSPs are a financial tool that's out of reach.”
Actors Frances Hyland, Murray Westgate and opera star Maureen Forrester called PAL Toronto their home. Sterne has a sheaf of testimonials from such well-known names, all of them referring to the importance of affordable community living for artists. “For artists, other members of the profession frequently become their 'families' but at career's end, they often find themselves alone.”
Kenneth (Kenny) Wickes has been a PAL Toronto resident since its beginning, “20 years next February.” In an interview, Wickes enthuses that living downtown, joining a slew of friends for morning coffee, walking to theatres, shops and restaurants certainly adds glitter to the golden years. At 87, with a very long list of acting credits, Wickes is still working and his upbeat mood, strong voice, “neighbours say they love hearing me sing,” and his ability to “still remember my lines” is in no small way due to his happy home. “It's nothing but beneficial and provides peace of mind and equanimity about the future. If any of us (in the 200+ PAL Toronto residences) were to need help with shopping when it's pouring with rain or take a fall, somebody will be there in no time.”
Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, an upcoming Vaudeville show in PAL Toronto's own theatre “add warmth and flavour to life,” Wickes says. PAL Stratford president John Banks is anticipating that Sterne's fundraising skills in conjunction with strong Stratford connections of “Places, please” co-chairs John Wilkinson and Des McAnuff will not only cover the costs of 101 Brunswick, but lead to the purchase and renovation of two more properties east and west. “The three buildings will create an outstanding residential community for seniors in theatre arts.”
Among the companies Sterne has lead are: the International Opera Festival (Montreal); Orchestra London Canada; the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra; and the Francis Winspear Centre for Music. In the eighties he served for seven years as Registrar and Faculty Manager of the Faculty of Music, the University of Western Ontario. For three seasons he served as Executive Director of the Stratford Symphony Orchestra and remains as a strategic advisor.
Randi Patterson, a French horn player and owner of Woodmont, a Stratford bed and breakfast, introduced Sterne to PAL Stratford. “He did such a lovely job of presenting the orchestra to the community with polish, finesse and style, and he has a lot of connections.”
Another knight's favour for Sterne is that Christopher Plummer – who launched his career at the Stratford Festival in 1956 – has agreed to be Patron of this PAL Stratford campaign.
In assuming the role, Plummer recalled Hamlet instructing Polonius that the players be well looked after: “Will you see the players well bestowed? Let them be well used, for they are the abstracts and brief chronicles of the time. ...They’ve given us such joy – let us see that they’re cared for.”