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Start Stratford: Unsung Heroes
As published in Start Stratford, Issue #23, January - February, 2013.

John David Sterne

article by Janice Middleton, photos by Ann Baggley

To see all the photos, please go to the Start Stratford website.

Like knights of old in shining armour, in modern day Stratford, John David Sterne has embarked on a quest as noble as any undertaken in King Arthur's realm, though his steed is a sturdy LandRover and his sword a pen.

In his trademark navy pullover and khakis, Sterne's a familiar figure on the Stratford social scene, serving as a volunteer board member on various Stratford and Perth County organizations: Perth Arts Connect, Inner Chamber, Vivace and PAL Stratford.

Sterne has stepped up to rescue, if you will, the Performing Arts Lodge Stratford effort to raise $400,000 to finish renovating a Stratford heritage property into a residence and meeting space. When Sterne is finished his task, its debt-free downtown headquarters will be a beautiful landmark and a source of pride for the city. A voluntary organization, PAL Canada's eight chapters across the country are dedicated to providing affordable housing and other services to the performing arts community and others in need of assistance by reason of low income, age or disability.

In early 2013, 101 Brunswick Street will offer spacious oak panelled meeting rooms, reception and office space on the ground floor and five affordable and character-filled apartments on the upper floors. “Lots of activity but with sound-proofing to ensure privacy for the residents,” Sterne says.

Embracing a Servant-Leader philosophy of management, Sterne's hallmark objective, whether it's running a symphony or a community project, is to create an environment of care and goodwill for the musician-artists, board, staff, volunteers and patrons alike. Joking about being a FOOF (from one of Ontario's fine old families), Sterne was born in Brantford, Ontario, to Francis Eddy Sterne, a chemical engineer, and Margaret Eileen Hitchon, a homemaker and a descendent of the Verity family of the Verity Plow Company that evolved eventually into farm-machinery giant Massey-Ferguson, Sterne is proud of his nation-builder agricultural background.

Although his father loved music ,“an audiophile with a large collection of records that he introduced me to,” Sterne's exposure to the business of managing symphonies across the country came about quite accidentally. “I was asked to be a volunteer usher for The Brantford Symphony and that led to [the position of] house manager which became assistant general manager and then manager.”

His roots are why Stratford and its theatre company, the largest in Canada with an annual budget close to $70 million, is such a good fit for him, he says. “I love Stratford. The community is so diverse, a mixture of agriculture and culture. I'm not just passing through.”

In the theatre, “Places, please,” the name of PAL Stratford's fund-raising campaign, is the cue or the stage manager’s signal that the action is about to begin. The curtain is about to rise. So, like a stage manager, “A manager and administrator's job is to do things seamlessly, as if they grew there," Sterne says.

It's a strategy to copy, judging by the success of last month's Expect the Extra-ordinary's seventh annual fundraiser at the Avon Theatre. Featuring a star-studded cast and a silent auction, the 1,100-seat house was 80 per cent full ( a turn-out to die for) and the auction raised $9,450, says Sarah Drake, PAL Stratford's treasurer.

Just after the concert, Sterne succeeded once again with a legacy to PAL Stratford from the estate of Bernard (Bunny) Behrens, well-known television and stage actor with the Stratford and Shaw Festivals. Behrens died on September 19, 2012 in Perth, Ontario, where family resides. He was just shy of his 86th birthday.

“It's serendipity,” Sterne said in an interview. “I was looking for a way to partner Shaw with PAL Stratford.” Although Gemini-winner Behrens, who appeared in hundreds of films and TV shows, lived most of his final years in Niagara-on-the-Lake, “most actors and stage people with Shaw simply can't afford to,” Sterne says. He would like to expand PAL Stratford's residences to accommodate Shaw veterans as well.

Focused, logical and determined, “My skill is in creating strategic alliances or unusual partnerships that strengthen both parties,” he says. citing the one he created between King's University College at the University of Western Ontario and Orchestra London. “It became a fundraiser, a major contributor of revenue for both.”

In Stratford, Sterne has brought city leaders, levels of government and the arts together to honour those who have made such a significant contribution to the Stratford Festival's 60 years of excellence. “PAL Canada chapters take pride in safeguarding the well-being of their artistic community,” Sterne says. “Here, at Deacon House, we'll have a library and archives for plays and all sorts of theatre memorabilia.”

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