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


© 2007 Marsh Creek Media,

Gettysburg, Pa.

“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.

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3 Responses to “Charlie and Somoza’s Piano”

  1. Charlie Sterner IV said


    Thank you so much for the article about my dad, and especially for the video clips. Mom and I enjoyed them tremendously.

    Charlie Sterner IV

  2. burger2go said

    Thank you. It was an honor to have known your father.

  3. Daniel said

    Very interested.
    Actually The Palacio Nacional was the Congress, not Somoza´s residence. The famous Somoza´s home was El Retiro. That piano looks like the piano of Hope Portocarrero, Somoza´s wife. She was an american lady.

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