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John T. von Stade, longest-serving president of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, dies at 83

John T. von Stade was elected as president of the National Museum of Racing in 1989.
John T. von Stade was elected as president of the National Museum of Racing in 1989. (handout)

John T. von Stade, the longest-serving president of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, died Nov. 25 at his Lutherville home after a long battle with cancer. He was 83.

Mr. von Stade was an avid lover of sports — particularly horse racing and steeplechase — music, art and traveling. He was born in Old Westbury, New York, on June 28, 1938, the youngest of F. Skiddy and Katherine von Stade’s eight children.

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Mr. von Stade’s family had deep roots in New York, and most of his relatives were involved with the equine industry. His father was a well-known polo player, and often while growing up Mr. von Stade found himself in Aiken, South Carolina — a spot known as a winter getaway for horse lovers and competitors.

Though he did not like to ride, with his wife, Phyllis von Stade, saying it “just was not his thing,” horses were in Mr. von Stade’s blood. So, getting into the thoroughbred racing industry was a no-brainer. As a child, he would drive the tractor in between races at Saratoga Race Course, helping level the track footing.

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His father was also a founder of the National Museum of Racing in 1950, president of the National Steeplechase Association and the final president of the Saratoga Association, which owned and operated Saratoga racetrack, before its assimilation into what is now known as the New York Racing Association.

His wife described him as “very devoted” and a “gentleman in the truest sense of the word” who was fond of his whole family.

“He was a deeply kind person,” Mrs. von Stade said. “And he was not the least bit stuffy. Just humble, a modest person, who never tooted his own horn ever. Even with me he was very, very quiet about what he was proud of.”

Mr. von Stade graduated from St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, in 1956 and went on to Harvard University where he majored in history. Throughout his school years, Mr. von Stade developed a passion for art and music. He managed his high school’s choir and was a member of Harvard’s glee club as a bass baritone.

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After graduating from Harvard in 1960, Mr. von Stade attended the Aspen School of Music and served in the Army Reserve. He had a quick stint in the banking world before opening the Essex Gallery of Sport in Far Hills, New Jersey.

Mr. von Stade was particularly drawn to English and American sporting art of the 19th and early 20th centuries.He would often take regular trips to London and France to procure and sell art.

A few years after graduating, Mr. von Stade married his first wife, Sandra Carnahan von Stade, who later died in early 2000. The two had one son, John von Stade Jr.

Mr. von Stade briefly owned thoroughbreds at a small stable with his friend, which led him to develop a relationship with New Jersey’s Far Hills Race Meeting and the National Steeplechase Association.

He ended up serving as a co-chair at Far Hills for 50 years, helping develop the event from a few thousand people to more than 50,000. He also helped the event raise millions of dollars for charity.

Guy Torsilieri, who spent 35 years leading the Far Hills Races with Mr. von Stade, said he would do everything from helping bed the horses’ stalls to managing the volunteers.

“He was like an old school guy, but he managed to change with the times,” said Mr. Torsilieri, the former president of the National Steeplechase Association. “He had an incredible way about him, so gentle and focused. He knew which way things needed to go and should go.”

Mr. Torsilieri added that Mr. von Stade was the “fabric and the glue” that held things together between the races and the foundation that donates to the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in Somerville, New Jersey. The hospital houses the Steeplechase Cancer Center and the von Stade Lobby, built on $18 million raised from the Far Hills racing proceeds.

Mr. von Stade also followed in his father’s footsteps at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, serving as a trustee for over a decade before being elected as president in 1989.

During his tenure as president, Mr. von Stade oversaw a multimillion-dollar project helping modernize the space and increase the size of the facility to more than 45,000 square feet. He was also awarded the F. Ambrose Clark Award in 1995 — the highest honor in steeplechasing — which is given periodically to an individual who has done the most to promote and improve American steeplechasing. Once he stepped down as the museum’s longest-serving president in 2005, he remained a trustee and continued to serve on various committees.

Mrs. von Stade said she first met her eventual husband in the 1990s. She was working at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center, helping with fundraising when leadership decided it wanted to incorporate racing and steeplechase as a moneymaker.

That’s when she was told to call Mr. von Stade — he was the expert.

It wouldn’t be until late 2001 that she would see him as someone she could date. Their romance blossomed from there and the two were married about a year later at St. James Episcopal Church in Monkton.

“As I got to know him I thought, ‘Never in my life have I ever met someone so kind, generous-hearted, sincere and nice’,” she said. “So I fell in love with him.”

Mrs. von Stade, a Baltimore native, moved to New Jersey with her husband where they lived for 13 years. In 2015, she finally persuaded him to relocate back to her home state so she could be closer to family, and the two settled in Lutherville.

Throughout their almost 20 years of marriage, Mrs. von Stade recalled the trips, museums and theater shows the two would attend. Their most recent trip was around March 2020, shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a halt . The two went to Paris and Amsterdam, visiting art museums.

The couple enjoyed going to concerts and attending the opera in New York City, and they were members of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Mr. von Stade was also a longtime box-holder at Saratoga Race Course.

In addition to his wife, Mr. von Stade was preceded in death by his first wife, Sandra Carnahan von Stade. He is survived by his son, John von Stade, Jr., and daughter-in-law, Ann von Stade of Rowayton, Connecticut; Phyllis’ daughters and son-in-law, Anna DuVal and Joseph Cutrone of Baltimore, and Olivia DuVal of New York City; grandchildren, Lily, Talbot and Charlie von Stade, and Orlando, Sophia and Nico Cutrone. He was also the uncle of numerous nephews and nieces, among them opera singer Frederica von Stade.

Services will be held on , Dec. 19 at 2 p.m. at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Owings Mills.

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