News Branch's Stern Retires, Leaves 'Em Laughing
By Rich McManus
If laughter turns out to be the best medicine after all, then NIH lost one of its leading apothecaries on Jan. 3, when longtime Office of the Director News Media Branch maven Marc Stern called it quits after 34 years of deadlines and punchlines.
His genius was in combining a sort of hugely solicitous helpfulness in any matter requiring his assistance with a compulsion to entertain, to make sometimes of airy nothing something amusing and uplifting. Though physically a large man, with gestures to match, his gift was lightening any company he kept. Even his gravity, in solemn times, bore traces of barely suppressed gaiety. He was like a compulsively honest character actor who could never bring himself to fake the inhuman sobriety expected of the Good Worker.
That's why, in the days leading up to his retirement, the buzz in NIH's information community was a mixture of real regret that NIH was losing one of its large personalities, and a desire to do something for this giver of goodwill: go to his Wilson Hall sendoff, appear in a tribute video, add his beaming and rotund visage to archival photos as a gag slide show.
Stern came to the campus in March 1967 to be founding editor of The Pulse, a newsletter published by NIH's Recreation & Welfare Association. A native of Cleveland and graduate in journalism and English of Western Reserve University's Adelbert College, he had a slew of freelance work behind him, including having been a teen columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, editor of Central Ohio Bowling News, and contributor, along with his wife Jessie, of photos and feature stories to the Washington Post's old Sunday rotogravure magazine, Potomac. Immediately prior to joining R&W, he was director of information for Washington's B'nai B'rith Youth Organization.
As a young man, he yearned for the world of work. He rushed through high school in three years, and completed college in another three. "I was very anxious to get into a professional field," he says. "It was just impatience to start working."
While at The Pulse, which was only a part-time job, Stern covered a story that both launched his NIH news career and left a lasting impression. The lead story of his third newsletter in May 1967 was a photo and article of then President Lyndon Johnson arriving by helicopter to the front lawn of the Clinical Center, where he was met by NIH director Dr. James Shannon. "That was a big deal for a guy from Ohio," recalls Stern, eyebrows dancing in a playful sort of mock-awe. "There were people staring out of every window of the hospital."
Four months after Stern's LBJ story appeared, he was hired full time by NIH's top communications officer and assigned to the Features Branch, where he prepared articles about the agency for publications of general interest. Stern eventually became assistant chief of NIH's News Branch, then chief in March 1980, topping out at a post within a reorganized News Media Branch in OD's Office of Communications and Public Liaison. He spent his entire career in OD news offices in Bldg. 31.
Two kinds of news especially appealed to him: research advances from NIH that would result in better public health, about which he could crow with sometimes comedic earnestness, and any sort of news at all that dealt with celebrity; Stern had an undisguised admiration for famous people. These two streams merged in the person of Dr. Albert Sabin, a hero whom fate delivered literally to Stern's doorstep.
Stern remembers SOS Sabin Oral Sundays when families lined up at elementary schools in 1961 to take their polio vaccines via sugar cube. "I had a neighbor who died at age 5 of polio," he recounts. "I could easily have been a victim. I've always been terrified of polio. I can remember beach closures on Lake Erie: 'Okay, everybody out of the water!'" he bellows authoritatively.
"Twenty years later, in Room 2B37, the very same Albert Sabin comes to NIH as a Fogarty scholar-in-residence, just a few doors down from my office," Stern marvels. "I would see him lots of times and talk to him, and tell him how impressed I was with his work."
It turns out that Stern's grandmother escaped, during World War I, from Sabin's home town of Bialystok, Poland. "We talked about that," Stern continues, "and I ended up taking him as my guest to the annual White House Correspondents Dinner."
Those dinners would become prime hunting ground for photo ops with celebrities; Stern has pictures of himself and Jessie with a galaxy of stars including Christie Brinkley, Christopher Reeve, Elizabeth Taylor, and a Miss America (Maryann Mobley) from Mississippi. In other venues he met actresses Mary Tyler Moore and Victoria Principal, actor Pierce Brosnan, and scientific luminaries including Christiaan Barnard, Jonas Salk, NIH'ers Robert Gallo, Marshall Nirenberg and Francis Collins, and breast cancer research advocate Rose Kushner. "I could believe in many of the things these people were doing," he says. He is also proud of having helped out at visits by Presidents Johnson, Ford, Reagan, Bush Sr., and Clinton.
For years, Stern was NIH's point man for the annual announcement of Nobel prizes, a job that entailed coming to work in the wee hours of Columbus Day, a federal holiday, and checking on behalf of reporters whether winners in any of the categories either worked for or were funded by NIH.
In addition to the routine of clearing press releases, giving campus tours, helping reporters do their jobs more accurately, and acting as overall ambassador for the NIH information community, Stern traveled to many extramural sites. "I went to 62 of the 125 grantee medical schools in the U.S.," he reports. Those sojourns merged nicely with his penchant for travel; Stern and his wife have been to all 50 states, and have visited 30 countries on six continents, a habit that will continue in retirement.
He also plans to lavish attention on his three grown kids, four (and soon five) grandchildren, and resume hobbies of photography, coin collecting, and reading stories to children at county libraries.
"I was on a weekly radio show in Cleveland when I was in high school called 'We're Pretending,' which was a play on the station's call letters, WERE," he recalls. "I did the deeper male voices, and performed with a local theater troupe. I was on the radio every Saturday for three years during high school." His scripts adapted everything from Macbeth to Peter Pan for an elementary school audience.
"I'd say things like, 'Out, out, brief incandescent lightbulb,'" he chortles. "So I'll continue reading stories to kids. That will fulfill my wish: trying to entertain in a friendly, safe way." Just like he did for decades at NIH.
RSB's Earl Johnson Retires
Earl Johnson, a physical science technician in the Radiation Safety Branch, retired on Jan. 2 after a 34-year federal career. He began in the federal workforce in 1967 as a security guard at the Smithsonian Institution. In 1969, he came to NIH as an industrial washer system operator. He worked in the Bldg. 14 animal complex until July 1981, when he transferred to RSB as a motor vehicle operator. Many purchasing agents remember Earl's smiling face as he delivered radionuclides throughout NIH labs for medical research. In 1992, Johnson became a physical science technician in RSB and performed the inspection, ordering and inventory duties for the branch. He and his wife Marie have purchased property in North Carolina where they plan to build their retirement residence. His fellow branch members, who wish him a healthy and happy retirement, will miss Johnson's jovial presence.
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