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Noe Valley's Friend, Harry Stern, Dies at 70
By Sally Smith
Noe Valley has lost one of its champions. Harry Stern, a 16-year resident and longtime activist in Friends of Noe Valley, died Oct. 31, of complications stemming from lung cancer. He was 70.
During his rich, full life, Stern walked down many roads. In his last year alone, he was newsletter editor and co-president of Friends, a representative to the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods, an active member of the Noe Valley Democratic Club, a volunteer for Project Read, and a member of a city agency set up to keep an eye on Muni.
"Harry stood for all the good things that a neighborhood person is supposed to stand for," said Claire Pilcher, a founding member of Friends. "He was a great watchdog for us at the Board of Supervisors. He'd go down to City Hall, speak at the hearings, keep track of legislation -- all good contributions."
What's more, said Democratic Club President Dave Monks, Stern had great rapport with friends, family, and colleagues.
"Harry's passing is a real loss to our neighborhood. He was an elder and a teacher about how the city works, and he passed on a lot of that information to those who are newer to the city," Monks said. "He also had a wonderful, warm, gentle demeanor. He was a great guy."
Harold H. Stern was born in 1930 in Tübingen, Germany. When he was 9, his family emigrated to the United States, landing at Ellis Island, N.Y. He spent the rest of his youth living and going to school in Manhattan ("That's the only part of New York there is," he used to say), eventually obtaining an engineering degree from City College of New York.
In 1958, he moved to San Lorenzo, Calif., and took a job as a mechanical engineer for Lawrence Livermore Labs. It was there that he met and married Gloria Morgan, with whom he maintained a close friendship all his life. "We liked to joke that we'd been married for nine years, but happily divorced for 28. He was really my very best friend," said Morgan, who came from her home in Livermore, Calif., to take care of Stern during the final days of his illness.
The couple were married from 1963 to 1972, and during that time Stern became a father to Morgan's children from a previous marriage. "He was the only father my children ever had. He was wonderful to them," Morgan said.
Stern stayed at Lawrence Livermore until 1961, and Morgan now wonders whether his exposure to beryllium dust at the Labs may have triggered his lung cancer. "He never smoked a day in his life," she said. "My children are just devastated that he's gone."
From the 1960s through the '90s, Stern continued to pursue a career as an industrial or "human factors" engineer. He worked for Ford Aerospace and later LORAL, Inc., of Palo Alto, retiring about five years ago. He moved to San Francisco in 1978, and was married and divorced again in the early '80s.
In 1984, Stern moved into his house on 25th Street in Noe Valley. Within no time, he was striding up and down the hills, going to the theater and the symphony, and trying out all the new restaurants in town.
"He especially loved good restaurants. He considered himself a 'foodie,'" said Morgan. "He also loved to walk," she added. "He did the Bay to Breakers five times!"
Eunice Rosenberg, who got to know Stern through Friends of Noe Valley, was one of his walking buddies. "He and Claire [Pilcher] and I used to walk around together on weekday mornings, up to Portola, down to 30th and Church, all over," said Rosenberg. "He loved the neighborhood and had a lot of enthusiasm for daily living. He also had a wonderful sense of humor and an enormous interest in many things--art, architecture, figuring out how to fix Muni," she said.
As an active member of Rescue Muni, Stern was constantly tinkering with ways to get people out of their cars and onto public transit. One of his dreams was to have small shuttlebuses or minivans running loops throughout the neighborhood.
He also practiced what he preached. "He rode Muni all the time. He didn't just talk about it. He did it," Morgan said.
Stern's strong opinions often made their way into the Voice. In 1997, he spoke out against the proliferation of restaurant chains in Noe Valley. He also fought to preserve the 84-year-old Carnegie library on Jersey Street, and mediated the debate over cell phone antennas in the steeple at the Noe Valley Ministry. In 1998, he voiced his concern about the Planning Department's alleged bias in favor of developers.
In early 1999, at the age of 68, he took a sabbatical from all this activism and spent five months in Paris, studying French and visiting art treasures.
Later that year, he returned to his role as newsletter editor of the Friends. Soon he was elected co-president with Jean Amos, and appointed by Supervisor Mark Leno to a citizens advisory board watching over Muni.
Then in February of 2000, his doctors discovered a lesion on his lung. Over the next six months, the cancer spread to his bones, then to his brain.
During his last weeks, he was fortunate to be able to be in his own home and getting extra assistance from Coming Home Hospice on Diamond Street. "The hospice nurses were wonderful, coming every day," said Morgan. He died peacefully on Halloween night.
On Nov. 5, friends and family held a service at Sinai Memorial Chapel, attended by many of the people whose lives Stern had touched. Supervisor Leno was there. "It was a very moving ceremony," said Rosenberg. People remembered "what a kind and loving person Harry was."
They also talked about his zest for doing and learning. "It's hard to believe that a little over a year ago, Harry was in Paris, studying French. He was planning to go to Florence and study Italian this year. He was really looking forward to that."
In addition to Gloria Morgan, Stern is survived by his second wife, Laura Shumay of San Jose; his children Lynda, Ronald, and Thomas Morgan; his grandchildren Samantha and Robert; and great-granddaughter Ashley. The family suggests that if people would like to make a donation in Harry Stern's name, they send it to Coming Home Hospice, 115 Diamond St., San Francisco, CA 94114, or to the American Cancer Society.