For some, the passage of time in this town is brief. Others settle in, leaving an imprint of their lives over the course of many years. Julie and Pete Stern fall into the latter category, many who know them would say. Through community interaction and support, they have quietly interlaced their fingers with those of Newtown people and organizations for the nearly half century that they have called this town “home.”
They have served on town commissions, joined civil and social groups, volunteered in schools and youth groups, shared their knowledge with young people, and actively supported the C.H. Booth Library. Following a loose philosophy of wanting to be “a contributor, not a taker,” they have given time and talents to improve their lives and those of their fellow residents, however they could.
Letting go of the hand of Newtown will not be easy when they leave on June 2 for their new home in Haverford, Penn., they said. They have donated bags of possessions, given loads of furniture to charity organizations, and pared down their home to the essentials, in anticipation of the move. They are taking with them, however, precious memories of the 46 years they have lived in Newtown.
The move to Connecticut was precipitated in 1968 by Ms Stern’s acceptance of a job teaching English at Joel Barlow High School. Mr Stern was already familiar with the Newtown area. As a metallurgical engineer for the Burndy Company, he had been talking to the Newtown Planning and Zoning about the company’s desire to put a plant in town. While Burndy ended up building in Bethel instead, Mr Stern liked what he had seen of Newtown, and with Redding out of their price range, the move to Newtown seemed ideal.
“We’ve lived in the same house since,” Ms Stern said. She stopped teaching to stay home with their two sons, and it was during those years that she formed many of the same friendships and connections in town that she continues to value today.
Mr Stern returned to school for his teaching degree shortly after the move to Newtown, and even before his teaching certificate was issued, he accepted a position in the Weston school district. “I stayed there until I retired in 2000,” he said, appreciating the numerous scenic routes he traveled between the towns, each and every day.
A More Bucolic Newtown
The Sterns remember a more bucolic Newtown from the earliest years here.
“There used to be a lot more farms. As a matter of fact,” Ms Stern said, “our original phone number was just one digit off from that of Great Ring Farm. We used to get calls that our cows were loose in someone’s yard. I’d just say, ‘I don’t think so. They’re not our cows,’” she chuckled. Their sons, Bill and Joe, walked half a mile down the road to catch the school bus, and dogs ran free. “I loved walking our dog in the neighborhood, and the other dogs would follow along,” she said, as well as following the boys on their neighborhood paper routes.
Volunteer organizations depended on the support from the many stay-at-home mothers, Ms Stern said, and she found a place among them.
Two things in town were really big when they arrived in Newtown, Ms Stern said. One was the League of Women Voters, which regularly attracted a hundred interested women to the group. The other was the Newtown Tennis Association. “For $5 a year, there was this incredible organized tennis, and so many players,” she said. She has continued to play with some of the same members for 40 years.
Linda Doyle has played tennis with Ms Stern for more than 30 years. “When you walk off the court,” said Ms Doyle, “not only are you finished with your exercise for the day, but you have a list of not-to-be-missed books, movies, and plays for the week.” Ms Doyle shared that her friend is a writer and illustrator, among her many talents. “I am a proud recipient of one of her handwritten, illustrated books for our first grandson. Julie’s talents are immense,” she said.
Another longtime tennis pal, Bobbe Bowles, became fast friends with Ms Stern not only through tennis, but school events, as well. “Julie Stern was my first friend in Newtown. My daughter and her younger son attended the Newtown Montessori School. For the school’s annual auction fundraiser, a storybook to be written about your child was one of the items. Howard and I won with our bid,” recalled Ms Bowles, and Ms Stern wrote the book for the Bowles’ daughter.
Tennis player Sonja Haskel partnered up with Ms Stern in the Connecticut Masters Games two years ago in New Britain, winning the gold in women’s doubles in their age category. “I know ‘All good things must come to an end,’” Ms Haskel added, “However, I am not ready to end our long friendship… and look for another partner.” Joanne Klopfenstein is another tennis player who will miss the fierce competition she faced in local tournaments, pitted against Ms Stern.
Even before they moved into town, the Sterns became involved in a local Civil Rights discussion group that met at Edmond Town Hall, inspired to know that Newtown ministers had traveled to march in Selma, Ala., during a stormy period in US history. The Sterns also started a couples’ book discussion group in their first years in Newtown.
“It turned out, though, that the men would talk about chain saws, and the women would talk about their children. We had neither at the time,” laughed Ms Stern, “so that was not so successful.”
Once children were a part of their lives, Ms Stern served as a class mother at Middle Gate, and a Den mother. She co-taught an after school enrichment program for third and fourth graders. “We would read poetry and do projects,” she said. She has taught literature to home school groups, and has belonged to a local women’s Current Events Club.
As their boys grew older, Ms Stern returned to teaching, this time as an adjunct professor at WestConn. She leaves the area having contributed 30 years to that institution, leading classes in Human Studies.
Both have coached Parks and Recreation soccer teams, “Even though,” confessed Ms Stern, “I knew nothing about playing soccer. Each team had its own team colors. When each season began, it was always so exciting to find out what color your team was going to be.”
“I loved seeing the marching band at all of the football games,” Ms Stern said, with both sons members of the band, and Mr Stern noted that under director Joe Grasso, the high school band marched each year in the New York City St Patrick’s Day Parade.
Mr Stern has delivered Meals On Wheels for 14 years to Newtown shut-ins — not quite matching the 25 years that his wife has delivered the prepared meals to residents unable to get out.
He served for seven and a half as an alternate to the Planning and Zoning Commission. Mr Stern has served on the board of trustees of the C.H. Booth Library for nine years, as well.
“Peter has been an active, dedicated member of the library board of trustees as the Friends of the Library representative to the board,” said board of trustees President Martha Robilotti, praising Mr Stern for his enthusiastic service. “He has been a passionate supporter of the library and worked tirelessly on its behalf,” she added.
Mr Stern speaks statewide on the Holocaust, in Newtown schools and beyond.
He has been an active member of the Friends of the C.H. Booth Library, as has Ms Stern. One or the other, or both, are regularly sorting books in the lower level of the library, or packing boxes and loading the trucks to take the donations to the Reed Intermediate School for the Annual Book Sale.
Sorting books and supporting the library through the Friends is not Ms Stern’s only contribution to the C.H. Booth Library. She facilitates two book groups there.
“It began when the Connecticut Council on Humanities would give the library books — about eight years ago. They asked if I would lead a group. We started with a Willa Cather book, and it was so much fun, I asked to do another,” Ms Stern said. Since then, she has led the Wednesday evening discussions on books that cover topics from baseball to the Civil War to Mark Twain, most of them historical fiction. On Thursday evenings, she is now the unofficial leader of another book group at the library.
When former Young Adult Librarian Margaret Brown and former Newtown resident Liz Arneth discovered how popular the writing programs they presented were with young people in town, they asked Ms Stern if she would lead a young adult group in writing mysteries and thrillers. It has been an easy task, said Ms Stern, with the young writers already highly motivated and well versed in the skills of writing. “It’s really just a space to let their imaginations go,” she said, and she is there to listen.
(The Friends of C.H. Booth Library recently thanked the couple for their many years of volunteer service to the town library. See related story here.)
Any Newtown Bee reader interested in the arts is familiar with Julie Stern’s name. She has served as the theater reviewer for 25 years, covering plays by the Town Players of Newtown as well as many theaters in the region.
Paulette Layton, publicity and public relations for the Ridgefield Theater Barn, was saddened to hear that Ms Stern would be moving from the area, and no longer covering the plays there. “She’s going to be greatly missed,” said Ms Layton. “We could always count on her to be fair in her reviews, and her love of good theater shone through. It’s a loss for the local theater,” she added.
“We lived by those reviews,” said Marge Rogers, a former president of the Little Theatre in Newtown, and member since 1963. “As [member] Mike Nichols said, ‘She stuck by us through thin!’ Julie was a true friend of the Players and any comment was well thought out. She understood what it takes to do what we do,” Ms Rogers said.
Friends may have run into them at Club NewFit on Commerce Road, a gym they have belonged to since its inception as the Newtown Health and Racquet Club, many years ago. Two to three times a week, Mr Stern still hits the racquetball on one of the gym’s courts.
George Lincoln and Mr Stern go “ a long way back” as gym members and racquetball players. “He has a great sense of humor, and great sportsmanship,” Mr Lincoln said. “As a graduate metallurgical engineer and school teacher, we initially had Pete keep score,” laughed Mr Lincoln. “But Pete went undefeated the first several weeks, so we changed scorekeepers, and his winning percentage declined.”
Leaving the beauty of the town and the beauty of the townspeople is not easy, the Sterns admitted. “And then there’s The Bee,” Mr Stern said. “We always tell people, where else can you know that at some time your child’s picture is assured to be in the paper? We’re leaving family that isn’t blood,” he said.
There might be more traffic and development than when they moved to Newtown in 1968, Mr Stern said, but there has been one thing that has never changed: “Newtown has always been a friendly town. There are so many people here who are really good people, people we love and admire,” he said.
The memories of Newtown they pack will be augmented by a serendipitous daily reminder, nearby their new Haverford home, though. “The property backs up to a 300-acre space that was formerly a mental institution,” Ms Stern said.
Newtown has been a good place to live. The move, they said, is merely a new adventure.