Charlie and Somoza’s Piano

February 11, 2008

The headline in the local paper read “Town mourns passing of the man who loved it…Former Borough Manager Charles W. Sterner was 56”

Naturally, it being the times we live in, a lot of us knew it already from phone calls and email.

The other shoe had finally dropped.

Charles W. Sterner III retired after 26 years as Gettysburg’s borough manager in June of 2006, figuring it was time to do something else. He worked part-time for a local engineering firm and we all pretty much figured he was going to spend a lot of time doing things with Bernadette, and spending more time hunting and fishing.

One of my favorite memories of Charlie isn’t really mine. Gettysburg has a sister city in Nicaragua, Leon, about 50 miles northwest of Managua. Charlie went there a couple of times with a local group called Project Gettysburg-Leon.

“Charlie was a big proponent of the three sister-city relationships between Gettysburg and St. Mere Eglise, France; Gettysburg, South Dakota; and Leon,” said Barbara Benton. “He visited all three sister cities from time to time and had a special place in his heart for each. On one occasion” (he was part of a group that) “went to Leon to attend an international sister-city conference.”

The group visited the Palacio National, now a cultural museum but once the formal residence of dictator Anastacio Somoza. In a former ballroom remained a grand piano that Somoza, himself, had once played.

“Charlie, wearing comfy travel togs and a backpack, sat down at the grand and, to the delight of everyone present, proceeded to play a pretty good rendition of Scott Joplin’s rag, “The Entertainer.” In response to the laughter and applause that he’d provoked, Charlie said [off camera] to the ghost of Somoza, “Take that, you bastard!” It was a unique moment and typical of Charlie’s sense of humor,” Barbara said.

Not long after he retired, Charlie was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The news jolted those of us who knew him. It was just wrong. Not him.

As a reporter, I have my own memories of Charlie Sterner. When I covered the borough years ago, he was always accessible, didn’t seem to mind when I called him at home – apparently, there were no “off hours” for Charlie – and gave straight answers in complete sentences, without a lot of gobbledy-gook and jargon.

Unless you’ve ever been a reporter, you have no idea how rare that is.

He fought hard. Most of those diagnosed with the disease, to be blunt, are dead within six months. Charlie wrestled it for 18 months.

Charlie and friend in Leon, NicaraguaIn April, Charlie and his wife Bernadette were there when the town named a new building at the Rec Park after him. From the photo in the paper, you would never guess there was anything wrong. A smiling couple in the bright spring sun, holding hands.

The next month, surgeons opened him up to see what could be done, and closed him right back up again. It was too late.

April 2007 dedication

I talked to him once on the phone, not long after the diagnosis, but never went to see him. Pure cowardice on my part, really. I didn’t want to remember him, fading visibly, and in pain. Selfishly, I did not want to carry that memory. The image of Charlie I’m keeping in my head, though, is not of a public servant poring over budget documents with a baffled reporter or describing the intricacies of municipal government to the borough council, but laughing and tickling the keys of a deposed thug’s instrument. That’s a memory to hold onto.

I’ve gotten to know a lot of people over the years. Charlie, without a doubt, was one of the best.

You can see a video of Charlie playing Somoza’s piano at http://idisk.mac.com/imeistrich1-Public

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© 2007 Marsh Creek Media,

Gettysburg, Pa.

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By T.W. Burger

It’s Super Bowl Sunday. For those of you who, like me, find sports mystifying, (I know you’re out there!) this is typically a season for nodding one’s head, smiling, and appearing interested in what is going on, lest one’s associates think one retarded or gay or both.

As far as sports go, I’m sort of like one of those putative Christians who only show up at church on Christmas and Easter.

We all know people who can sit around for hours and recite statistics on assorted persons numbered among America’s warrior class. They watch sports TV and hang on every utterance of interviews with star players, or least to the ones who can actually talk in sentences.

I have always thought that sports is a big topic for men because it gives them a chance to hang out together and not have to talk about personal things or about something they might have read, since that would mean, you know, reading something outside of the sports section.

That said, this afternoon, we’ll be packing up a Crockpot full of meatballs in chili sauce and heading for a Superbowl Party. It’s an annual event in which a bunch of characters who all worked at the same newspaper at one time get together and catch up, eat good food, drink a little beer, watch the Superbowl commercials and, from time to time, glance at the game.

Frankly, I have always been surprised that I am not at all a fan of the game. After all, I grew up in the Deep South, in Georgia. In that part of the world, football is like a religion; only folks take it more seriously. Our high school was a state champion in one league or another. I can remember, I think, some local clergyman leading everybody in prayer before a big game against an arch rival, beseeching the Lord’s help in whupping those hicks from Tucker.

Coach Sellers was always after me to play because of my size – I was more than six feet tall and around 220 – but I made the tactical error of telling him I didn’t like football at all, that it bored me.

Big mistake.

I ran a lot of extra laps and did extra pushups after that. Funny, how physical education professionals use exercise to punish their charges and then express amazement that the kids come out disliking exercise.

The operative word here is “Duh.”

I played neighborhood football, which was fun because the rules went out the window when everybody got excited. I was the biggest kid in Homewood Hills, and once had my own team pile on me because the other side’s players were too young and small to do the trick. It was great fun. We didn’t have cheerleaders, but our dogs gave us enthusiastic support, often joining in on the action.

If you think regular football is hard, try it with the neighbors’ 100-pound Airedale/Grizzly mix using you for a chew-toy.

I really wasn’t very good at football, unless you count merely getting in the way. I make a good obstacle.

So, I’ll join the happy millions this evening, watching the Patriots play, er, somebody. I’ll have a couple of brews, some meatballs, some of Heidi’s baked hot wings, and God knows what else. And, as I do every year, I’ll ask my more knowledgeable friends what this or that ruling or comment made on screen means.

And wonder why they don’t use Airedales.