Joseph R.L. Sterne, Baltimore Sun editorial page editor, dies at 92
By Frederick N. Rasmussen,
Barbara Haddock Taylor The Baltimore Sun
Joseph R.L. Sterne, a Baltimore Sun journalist who rose through the ranks from police reporter to foreign correspondent and then served as editorial page editor for 25 years, died April 4 at a retirement community in Hunt Valley, Md. He was 92.
The cause was complications from dementia, said his son Paul Sterne.
After joining the Sun in 1953, Mr. Sterne covered the General Assembly and the administration of Gov. Theodore McKeldin (R) before one of the top editors tapped him as a foreign correspondent by asking, “How’s your British accent? I’m sending you to London.”
Mr. Sterne spent much of 1959 traipsing through Africa reporting on the decolonization of the continent. During the Congo crisis, he was wounded while aboard an Army helicopter.
He was in Washington as a congressional correspondent in November 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was fatally shot in Dallas. Armed with an Associated Press biographical sketch and a few reference books, Mr. Sterne sat down at his typewriter at 3 p.m., and began writing an obituary.
He began: “John Fitzgerald Kennedy attached the label of the New Frontier to a career of daring and vision. … His rocking chair, his Boston-Harvard brogue, his shock of brown hair, his zest for political combat, his instinctive humor, his quest for peace through strength … all left their mark on an era of American history.”
Mr. Sterne wrote a detailed history of the 35th president mainly from memory. “It was the longest thing I’ve ever written,” he recalled in a 2013 Sun interview, and by the time he stopped typing, he had gone through four packs of cigarettes and never smoked again.
A few years later, Mr. Sterne was serving as Bonn bureau chief when publisher William F. Schmick Jr. visited him in Germany and offered him two choices: He could become the paper’s editorial page editor or Washington bureau chief. He chose the former and took over the editorial page in 1972.
During his tenure, Mr. Sterne hired the paper’s first two African American editorial writers, Denton Watson and Jerelyn Eddings. He also was in a constant battle with the notoriously autocratic mayor, William Donald Schaefer.
“Schaefer would often call Joe and scream at him. Joe always handled these calls diplomatically, saying, ‘I treat him like I did my sons when they were young and threw temper tantrums,’ ” Barry Rascovar, deputy editorial page editor during Mr. Sterne’s tenure, wrote in an email. “He’d let Schaefer vent, then calmly ask him questions or make a humorous remark.”
Mr. Sterne was the Sun’s longest-serving editorial page editor.
“His page acted as a vocal cheerleader and promoter for Baltimore. It was a public scold of government officials and politicos,” Rascovar wrote in a farewell tribute at the time. “The goal: Produce well written, thoughtful editorials potent enough to persuade influential people to do the right thing. Come election time, he saw his job as giving readers clear guidance on the best candidates for office.”
Joseph Robert Livingston Sterne was born in Philadelphia on April 25, 1928. His father owned a commercial real estate business.
He graduated in 1945 from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., and received a master’s degree in 1950 from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He worked for the Wall Street Journal and Dallas Morning News before joining the Sun.
In retirement, Mr. Sterne was a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies. His books included “Combat Correspondents: The Baltimore Sun in World War II” and in researching the book read all of the Sun’s wartime reportage.
His marriage to Barbara Greene ended in divorce. Survivors include five sons; two brothers; 15 grandchildren; and 13-great grandchildren.
— Baltimore Sun
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