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Joseph R. L. Sterne, former foreign correspondent and editorial page editor of The Baltimore Sun, dies

Joseph R.L. Sterne was editor of The Sun's editorial pages for 25 years.
Joseph R.L. Sterne was editor of The Sun's editorial pages for 25 years. (BARBARA HADDOCK TAYLOR/Baltimore Sun)

Joseph R.L. Sterne, who rose through the ranks from police reporter to foreign correspondent and then served as editorial page editor of The Baltimore Sun for a quarter of a century, died April 4 from complications of dementia at the Broadmead Retirement Community in Hunt Valley. The former Sparks resident was 92.

“Joe was the consummate journalist, a hard-news reporter to the core,” Barry Rascovar, deputy editorial page editor during Mr. Sterne’s tenure, wrote in an email.

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“He was a relentless questioner with a steel-trap memory, a facile wordsmith and a demanding editor,” wrote Mr. Rascovar, now a professor, writer and consultant. “It’s no accident his self-published autobiography is titled ‘A Newspaper Life.’ Joe always zeroed in on the heart of a conversation. He loved the give-and-take with public officials, be they mayors, governors, presidents or prime ministers. He was the best boss I ever worked for.”

Robert A. Erlandson, a former foreign correspondent and Baltimore County reporter, was a longtime colleague and friend.

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“Joe always reminded me of a college professor — thoughtful, judicious, thorough. Those qualities and his lack of obvious ideology made him such a good choice to lead the editorial section,” Mr. Erlandson wrote in an email.

Shale D. Stiller, a lawyer and partner at DLP Piper, was both Mr. Sterne’s lawyer for more than 40 years and a close friend.

“All looked up to Joe as an honorable man. It’s hard to imagine that he had any enemies,” Mr. Stiller said in a telephone interview. “Joe was just a brilliant guy who knew and read history and liked reading about other things. He loved Greek and Roman history and loved talking about it.”

“What I really liked about Joe was his fairness,” said Antero Pietila, a former Sun foreign correspondent and editorial writer who worked for Mr. Sterne for eight years. “His editorials were always fair, accurate and complete. He and William Donald Schafer were cheerleaders for the city.”

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Joseph Robert Livingston Sterne, son of Robert Livingston Sterne, owner of a commercial real estate business, and his wife, Edith Eisner Heymann Sterne, was born in Philadelphia and raised in the city’s Germantown neighborhood.

After graduating from Central High School in Philadelphia, he graduated at 16 from Lehigh University in 1945, with a bachelor’s degree in English literature. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

While at Lehigh, Mr. Sterne honed his taste for journalism writing for The Brown & White, the college newspaper, and also founded a college magazine. His first newspaper job was with the Salt Lake Telegram in Salt Lake City, and then he spent 1949-1950 at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, from which he earned a master’s degree.

After working briefly for The Wall Street Journal, he joined the staff of the Dallas Morning News, where he became acquainted with Werner Renberg, another cub reporter.

“I’ve known Joe since 1951 when he became my desk mate in the newsroom of the Dallas Morning News,” said Mr. Renberg. “Joe had a sense of humor, was knowledgeable and could always write and think clearly.”

Wanting to return to the East, Mr. Sterne said he chose The Sun because it had foreign and Washington bureaus. He began a 44-year career in 1953.

Mr. Sterne worked as a police reporter, rose to night rewrite on the city desk and then was sent to Annapolis to cover the General Assembly. His next major assignment was covering Gov. Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin.

Four years later, Charles H. “Buck” Dorsey, editor of The Sun, summoned Mr. Sterne to his office and asked, “How’s your British accent? I’m sending you to London.”

Mr. Sterne was 28, and his rise was meteoric. He spent much of 1959 traipsing through Africa reporting on the decolonization of the continent while “living out of a suitcase,” he explained.

During the Congo crisis, he was wounded while aboard an Army helicopter.

In 1960, he came to the Washington bureau, covering the 1960 presidential campaign and traveling with Richard M. Nixon’s running mate, Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts.

On Nov. 22, 1963, Mr. Sterne and his colleagues were at the press table in the Senate cafeteria when word came that President John F. Kennedy had been fired upon in Dallas.

Merriman Smith, White House correspondent for United Press International, who was riding in a pool car equipped with a mobile phone, fourth from the presidential limousine, dictated the flash that stunned the world at 1:34 p.m.

“It was about 1:35 p.m. Suddenly everyone stood up and rushed out. There were a lot of unpaid bills that day,” Mr. Sterne told a Sun reporter on the 50th anniversary of the assassination.

Mr. Sterne rushed onto the Senate floor, where he encountered Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and Minority Leader Everett McKinley Dirksen. The Senate took an emergency five-minute recess as the UPI ticker and AP teletype in the Senate lobby kept up a drumbeat of bad news from Dallas.

Back in session, Frederick Brown Harris, the Senate chaplain, asked all to stand for a moment of silence before intoning the prayer that Dirksen had requested for the for the president.

Official word of President Kennedy’s death swept the Senate floor at 2 p.m., and Mr. Sterne with other colleagues raced back in a taxi to the National Press Building, where stepping of the elevator on the 11th floor, he was greeted with the news from bureau chief Gerald E. Griffin, that because the president was so young, there was no advance obituary.

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: “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.”

In what remains a feat of writing in the annals of Sun history, Mr. Sterne wrote a detailed history of the 35th president mainly from memory. He wrote steadily until Mr. Griffin told him that Baltimore could take no more.

“It was the longest thing I’ve ever written,” he said in the 2013 interview, and by the time he stopped typing. he had gone through four packs of cigarettes and never smoked again. He admitted that he had never read what he wrote on that tragic day.

As a congressional correspondent, Mr. Sterne covered the “political battles over the civil rights bills of 1964, 1965 and 1968.” Mr. Rascovar wrote.

In 1969, Mr. Sterne was named The Sun’s Bonn bureau chief, and when publisher William F. Schmick Jr. visited him in Germany, he 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.

He often said that during his 25-year tenure he had to deal with six publishers who never interfered with what went on the editorial page. Other achievements included hiring Denton Watson and Jerelyn Eddings, the paper’s first two African American editorial writers.

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“One of the great things about Joe that he brought to the news business was he wouldn’t write about anything he heard from a third party. He wouldn’t write about something until he was certain of it,” Mr. Stiller said. “It’s a thing called ethics and he had it.”

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He was in a constant battle during Mayor Schaefer’s years leading the city, who often took exception no matter what he put on the editorial page.

“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,’ ” Mr. Rascovar wrote. “He’d let Schaefer vent, then calmly ask him questions or make a humorous remark.”

When Mr. Sterne retired in 1997, a party was held at the Peabody Library to which Mayor Schaefer had been invited. Mr. Schaefer couldn’t resist telling the assembled guests, “Joe Sterne is retiring. This is the happiest day of my life.”

Mr. Sterne also made Sun history as the paper’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,” Mr. 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.

“Everyone who picks up this newspaper and turns to the editorial page owes him a depth of gratitude for a job exceptionally well done,” Mr. Rascovar wrote.

In his retirement, Mr. Sterne was a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies. He also wrote “Combat Correspondents: The Baltimore Sun in World War II” and in researching the book read all of The Sun’s wartime reportage.

He enjoyed hiking, attending the opera and acquiring opera records, and, naturally, reading.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, plans for a memorial service are incomplete.

He is survived by five sons, Robert Sterne of Chevy Chase, Paul Sterne of Santa Barbara, California, Edward Sterne of Littleton, Colorado, Adam Sterne of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Lee Sterne of Lexington, Massachusetts; two brothers, Harry Sterne of Naples, Florida, and John Sterne of Brewster, Massachusetts; 15 grandchildren; and 13-great grandchildren. A marriage to Barbara Adele Greene ended in divorce.

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