‘Bureaucrat with a heart’ celebrates 100 years young

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Sons, Howard and Russell Stern, recall their time growing up in Kendall Park

Donald Stern has been known as a “bureaucrat with a heart” in the state of New Jersey.

At his 100th birthday party at Brandywine Living at Princeton, his sons, Howard and Russell Stern, spoke about their dad reaching such a milestone.

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“I’ve known for a longtime he was really looking forward to making 100 and we were hoping he’d do it,” Howard said, noting his dad is the longest living Stern.

“His dad made it to 99 and a half, most of his uncles made it into the 90s, one also made it to 99.”

For his family and the staff at Brandywine Living at Princeton where he has been living since 2017, the excitement was hard to miss.

The staff led by Stephanie Gaber, escapades producer, threw the elder Stern a birthday celebration with pomp and circumstance and all with a Frank Sinatra impersonator and a Marilyn Monroe impersonator to roll out his cake and sing Happy Birthday to him.

PHOTO COURTESY OF BRANDYWINE PRINCETON
PHOTO BY KATHY CHANG/STAFF

Donald Stern was born on April 25, 1923, in New York City and settled in the Kendall Park section of South Brunswick in 1960.

“The thing I’m amazed about him after all these years is I’ve never seen him angry,” Russell said. “I’ve seen him upset with us growing up as two boys, but I’ve not seen him say anything bad about anybody. It’s an amazing trait that character of kindness. You can see that in him now even [with] dementia.”

Howard said, with a laugh, unfortunately as the older son, he may have known how to push those “anger” buttons.

“However, like Russell said, I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about my dad,” he said. “He was known as the ‘bureaucrat with the heart in the state of New Jersey’ and he never said a bad word of anybody else. He was very even keeled, always relatively calm and in control, except with me occasionally.”

Howard and Russell said growing up their father made sure they experienced life to its fullest with travel and activities.

“It didn’t matter what the circumstance of that year financially was, [that experience] was always on a trip,” Russell said. “If that just meant going on a ride to Gettysburg, Pa, we were always doing something. We were always out there and seeing things every year. Driving to Florida to see family and eating cold pizza. Fighting over the one cassette tape recorder listening on the car ride down.”

Howard and Russell said they have provided the same experiences for their children.

Donald Stern is a World War II veteran. In October 1944, after extensive training, Donald boarded a troop ship in Norfolk, Va., spending over a month zigzagging across the Atlantic, dodging Nazi submarines.

PHOTO BY KATHY CHANG/STAFF

Making landfall in southern Italy, Donald was assigned to the 817th Squadron of the 15th Air Force’s 483rd Bombardment Group (H). From an airfield located in the village of Sterparone.

Donald flew 32 combat missions in a B-17 Flying Fortress as a Bombardier from January through April 1945.

His last combat mission took place on April 24, the day before his 22nd birthday.

Donald returned home from Europe in the fall of 1945 and earned a degree in Architecture from Cooper Union, married his wife Barbara and had two sons.

PHOTO BY KATHY CHANG/STAFF

He worked as an architect for the state’s Division of Building and Construction (DBC). He started in 1968 and retired after 19 years, having earned the moniker, “The Bureaucrat with a Heart.”

“When I grew up, I loved listening to him tell his stories [of his time in the military],” Howard said. “I heard so many of the stories over the years now.”

Howard said when his dad retired in the 1980s, many of the Bombardment group got back together.

“All of these guys were pretty much in their 80s when they got together,” he said. “We were lucky enough, a year after my mother passed in 2004 to go with him to San Diego for [the Bombardment group] reunion.”

Howard said it was amazing and special to hear the same stories that he heard growing up in a slightly different perspective.

“Regrettably after the reunion, many of [the men] started to pass on,” Howard said. “All those guys did great in life, that greater generation.”

In retirement, Donald authored a book on his old military outfit, the 483rd Bombardment Group (H). He chronicled the harrowing combat missions the 483rd undertook, the herculean efforts of the ground crews to get the battle-damaged B-17s back up into the air and the daily events of life on an air base between missions. He also volunteered his time to provide presentations of his World War II experiences to middle schools, high schools, senior clubs, veterans groups and other civic organizations.

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