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Harold J. Stern died Jan. 25 from complications of prostate cancer at Brightview Senior Living in Towson.
Harold J. Stern died Jan. 25 from complications of prostate cancer at Brightview Senior Living in Towson. (HANDOUT)

Harold J. Stern, a piano teacher, actor and chorister who had been associated with several Baltimore organizations and congregations through the years, died Jan. 25 from complications of prostate cancer at Brightview Senior Living in Towson.

The former longtime Bolton Hill resident was 87.

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"He was a wonderfully warm and compassionate man," said Pat Hawthorne, a student who took piano lessons from Mr. Stern for 30 years and was a close friend for more than 40. "He was talented and self-effacing and such a sweet person."

"He got to know his students personally and they were devoted to him," she said. "He was not a strict teacher, and no matter what your ability he wanted you to enjoy and appreciate the music."

"I was 17 and a student at Gilman when I began taking piano lessons from him and then we became friends for the next 40 years," said James Wetzel who teaches philosophy at Villanova University.

"Harold was a very gentle soul who had a genius for making people feel at home with themselves," he said. "He was an incredibly kind individual who loved pointing out the nuances of music but didn't take himself too seriously. ... People considered him family."

The son of David Stern, a Hampden men's clothing store owner, and Sarah Zetlin Stern, a homemaker, Harold Jerome Stern was born in Baltimore and raised on Fernhill Avenue in West Arlington.

He was a 1946 graduate of City College where he performed in many student musicals directed by the legendary music teacher Blanche Bowlsbey.

He served in Korea with the Army — often playing piano for military gatherings, friends said. After being discharged, he attended the Peabody Conservatory of Music on the GI Bill, and graduated in 1958.

In addition to teaching piano to young and old, Mr. Stern for years was an active performer and a familiar figure in the city's theater and music scene. He also sang in church and synagogue choirs.

"I first met Harold at the Baltimore Actors' Theatre at a rehearsal in Hampden in a hall that was above what is now Café Hon," said Lynn Summerall, a Baltimore actor and trombonist.

"He was not only a performer, he also was a composer of children's shows. He brought a great sense of humor to the stage that he conveyed to audiences so nicely," he said. "Everybody who met him instantly felt his gentleness and that he was the kind of person who loved to laugh. He had such a great laugh.

"I remember when he played a witch in 'The Wizard of Oz.' at Ford's Theater. He also played roles for the Harford Opera Co. He had an excellent and sweet voice," Mr. Summerall said. "And like any good pianist, he was malleable musically."

Mr. Stern also performed with the Wixie Children's Musical Theater and the Barn Theater in Catonsville.

In 1962, Mr. Stern joined with Don Walls, a silent movie buff who later became movie critic for The Daily Record, and Martha Ann Sherman, and collaborated on a musical version of the 1914 silent film classic, "The Perils of Pauline," which they re-titled "Oh, Pauline."

"Harold composed the score and it was quite good for the show. [It} was produced at the old Strawhat Theater in Owings Mills," Mr. Summerall said. "However, his first love was classical music and among his favorite composers were Chopin, Liszt and Bach."

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Dick Forman and Mr. Stern sang together for more than 40 years at Chizuk Amuno Congregation.

"He was a very funny man and also very talented and extremely musical. He sang well with anything we did," said Mr. Forman, who lives in Pikesville. "We sang at services, concerts and at special events. It was absolutely magical singing with Harold.

"I remember when he sang the role of Papageno in 'The Magic Flute' for the Harford Opera and he was magnificent. He was a comedic opera singer and the operatic life fit him well," Mr. Forman said.

Mr. Stern was music director for three decades at the Episcopal Church of the Guardian Angel in Remington and also had been choir director at Memorial Episcopal Church on Bolton Hill.

He "had a loving willingness to work with whatever people brought and brought out the best in them. Whatever we had, he made the most of it," said the Rev. Alice Jellema, the church's longtime pastor.

"He was also unfailingly kind to children who were captivated by him. He was the sweetest guy," she said.

Prior to moving to Brightview Senior Living in 2014, Mr. Stern made his Bolton Hill apartment a welcoming venue.

"You were always welcome at Bolton Hill whether you were a student, parent or a tradesman," Mr. Summerall said.

"He made you feel good being part of his life. You didn't go to Harold just for piano lessons you went to learn about life," Mr. Forman said. "We all were very happy to have him in our lives."

Every spring, his students and their families would gather in his apartment for an end of year performance.

"On other occasions, he would sit at the piano with one of his adult students and the twosome would play four-hand pieces to an audience gathered in his living room," Ms. Hawthorne recalled.

When Mr. Stern was in his 50s and 60s, he enjoyed playing piano for parties, and after moving to Brightview continued playing for residents and guests.

Mr. Stern donated his body to the Maryland Anatomy Board. Plans for a celebration of life service are incomplete.

He is survived by a nephew, David Stern of Portland, Maine; and a step-niece, Amy Lippmann of Israel and Portland, Maine.

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