Irene Sterling

Irene Sterling

Sussex County native Irene Sterling first fell in love with Paterson when attending an urban theology conference there with her fiancé and Drew University theology student, Howard Sterling. After they married, the couple settled in Paterson in July 1969 at a parsonage on the corner of Madison and Market, the old Asbury Methodist Church. They came armed with a grant for street theater. She recalls 1969 as an exciting time for the city, a time of turmoil of antiwar protest and Black power. She says, "It was not a quiet place. It was full of energy." Most importantly, she found Paterson's people willing to engage. The street theater project was orchestrated as a dialogue between different groups as they strove to assess and sort out their power. One particular street theater project was to help get rats out of the North Side. They employed memorable, large rat puppets.

Irene and her husband moved to Englewood in the early 1900s. Howard was ordained in the Methodist Church and he took leadership of an integrated congregation there. In 2000, he was assigned to a church in Paterson and the Sterlings returned.

Irene became involved in various nonprofit organizations, including the Great Falls Development Corporation. She was considered "safe" as an addition to the board because of her clergy connections. She was integral to the integration of the board. Her faith drives her and she firmly believes in Matthew:25 [xxx]. She also participated in the improvement of the school system through leadership positions in the Paterson Education Fund and she's been a member of the library board. She strives to help people create and find their place in the world. Her mission is to raise up others to leadership positions.

Although she lives in Belleville now, she maintains her involvement with Paterson nonprofits.

 
 

Interview Transcript

Barbara Krasner
00:00:00.03
Today is Monday, July 30, 2018. This is Barbara Krasner, oral historian for the National Park Service at Paterson Great Falls. And I'm here at the Bellville Public Library with Irene Sterling. Welcome, Irene.

Irene Sterling
00:00:20.08
Hi.

Barbara Krasner
00:00:20.31
So, I usually start with a very general question and that is tell me about your connection to Paterson.

Irene Sterling
00:00:28.61
Okay. I was a college student, engaged to be married to a seminarian at Drew University when Drew held its very first urban theology course that took place in Paterson. So, I accompanied Howard, who ultimately became my husband, Howard Sterling, on a number of trips to Paterson. And we fell in love with the city- its history, its people, the activity that was happening in town. And we married in 1969 and moved to the city within the month of that so in July of 1969 Howard and I came to Paterson with money from the Methodist Church to do a street theater project in the city. And it's the saying, it's all history after that.

Barbara Krasner
00:01:32.44
Where did you live in Paterson?

Irene Sterling
00:01:33.68
Our first apartment was in parsonage on the corner of Madison and Market, the old Asbury Methodist Church. It's now been sold, I think, twice. There's another church there now.

Barbara Krasner
00:01:55.38
Okay. And what was your first impression of Paterson? Why did you move there?

Irene Sterling
00:02:03.43
It was a really interesting place. 1969 is, you know, we're in the midst of all sorts of turmoil in this country, right? The anti-war movement. The black power movement. Major uproars in cities across the country. Paterson had its social uproar in 1970. And so, it was very- It was a very yeasty time. It was not a quiet place. It was full of energy, lots of young people of various sorts. And just with the fascinating history and with people who were willing to engage. So we, Howard and I, wrote a grant to the Methodist Church to create a street theater company here in town, and we moved in to do that, thinking that it would be lots of fun. It was more fun than we expected.

Barbara Krasner
00:03:12.47
So, say more on that.

Irene Sterling
00:03:14.01
Well, Paterson, as many communities are, when this sort of stuff happens, just in a lot of- From one side you can say turmoil, another side it's really dialogue as different groups try to figure how to re-assess and re-sort power. And in Paterson, at this point in time, the African-American community was really pushing hard to dismantle the segregation that had been part of Paterson, you know. In the '50s, you couldn't be a black person and go down and shop in the Paterson Main Street stores. So, that was starting to shift. And we were connected to a Methodist pastor on the north side who had created something called the North Side Forces as a community organization project which was really making a difference on the north side where there were- There was a day care center for the first time created over there. There were feeding programs. There were push toward affordable housing issues. Ultimately, you know, segue several years down, there's a number of organizations very active over there. Habitat for Humanity, you know, took its foothold in that place. So, we were here as all of this was becoming. And one of the very first things that street theater undertook was a project to help get rid of the rats on the north side. So, we created enormous rat puppets. Howard and I before we came to Paterson had done some work with Peter Schumann and the Street Puppet Theater, who was famous for these enormous puppets. And so, we created four or five big rats and did a street theater project for them. Eventually a big bus with one of the democratic important personages in town that he told us at an anti-war rally that we could not bring the puppets. And I told him, "Fuck you. I'm bringing them." I was such a naughty girl.

Barbara Krasner
00:05:56.79
How long did you live in Paterson?

Irene Sterling
00:06:00.58
We moved to Englewood in the early '90s. And then, came back to Paterson for a while. And we were there in 2001. Our daughter was actually teaching on 9/11 when the towers went up. And Howard had a church over in the south side of Paterson at that point where people were affirming that, you know, Muslims were dancing in the street. And he went over to walk those streets and be able to say to people, I was there, and there was no such thing going on. People were scared. They were in their houses with their doors locked.

Barbara Krasner
00:06:54.57
So, why did you leave and why did you come back?

Irene Sterling
00:06:58.60
Well, you know, my husband was a third or fourth career person. And so, at one point he was ordained in the Methodist Church, and at that point we moved out of town to his new cure which was in Englewood. The community that was very much like Paterson. In fact, our very first Christmas party, we invited his folks from Englewood and our folks from the Paterson church that we belonged to to come to our Christmas gathering. And they all thought the other belonged to the other community. It was like it was really funny because both congregations were integrated congregations with a variety of immigrant background people and them. And so, it was just- It was hysterical!

Barbara Krasner
00:07:52.29
And the move back?

Irene Sterling
00:07:54.52
And then, the move back was Howard was, got a church, you know, assigned to a church in Paterson. We came back to town. That was 2000.

Barbara Krasner
00:08:07.04
And then, you moved out again.

Irene Sterling
00:08:08.40
And then, we moved out again. He retired and we had to empty that parsonage out. We actually moved like ten blocks away up to Totowa to another parsonage where he wasn't serving as the pastor, but they had an opening in that church and needed somebody in the place that was ordained so we went there for a period of time.

Barbara Krasner
00:08:30.84
And then, when did you come to Bellville?

Irene Sterling
00:08:33.78
We came to Bellville two years ago. Yeah. He died in 2014.

Barbara Krasner
00:08:40.65
I'm sorry.

Irene Sterling
00:08:41.73
And I moved here with my daughter and son-in-law. Still heavily connected in Paterson. One of the reasons I'm so embarrassed that I lost track of this meeting was that I'm involved with the organization called the Paterson Lions, which is a group of not-for-profits in town. And we've had a member bring a political problem to the board meeting on Friday and so I'm in conversation with several people trying to figure out, okay, what's the strategy? How do we maneuver the city council person in this organization so that we don't have a blow up? What are we going to do?

Barbara Krasner
00:09:17.51
So, what do you think ties you so tightly to Paterson?

Irene Sterling
00:09:47.26
I think it's a deep love for this community and how it is working out the American Dream. You really see the American Dream play out over and over again in different ways in different groups of people with different agendas.

Barbara Krasner
00:09:47.75
Do any particular anecdotes come to mind about how people are living that out?

Irene Sterling
00:09:53.65
Well, you know, I think the Great Falls Development Corporation is a really good place to start. I was recruited to that board before the corporation was created. But, the Great Falls board it was- I guess, we did call ourselves the Development Corporation. It spun into something different than had [?]. But, I got invited to do it, I realized later, because they only knew how to invite white people. They couldn't get any of the sons and the daughters of the traditional white populations to come because those guys were all moving out. And so, as a reputable, you know, clergy-connected person, I was safe to be asked to involve- And at that point, I was also doing more for the street theater and the Professional Children's Theater Company. And the board kept talking about how it had, we had to diversify. We had to get- We had to find an African-American to sit on the board. And this group of people included the mayor's wife and all of the folks that-

Barbara Krasner
00:11:20.09
Which was Mary Ellen [Kramer], right?

Irene Sterling
00:11:21.89
Right and Mary Ellen and all her circle. And you know, they're like, we're really perplexed. They couldn't figure out what to do. And I had met some people through the connections we had, and so I found somebody that I thought would be really good and talked to him about would he be willing to go on the board. Yeah, he thought about it for a while, and he's willing to be on the board. And okay, this is great. I'm so proud. This is so great! I've helped them break through. We go to the NAACP banquet that year, and the people, African-Americans at the banquet, are just lampooning the situation that it took them that long to get this guy on the board. I'm like, ah! But, that was my naivete at twenty-five.

Barbara Krasner
00:12:12.10
But at least there was one on the board.

Irene Sterling
00:12:12.77
Oh yeah, no, absolutely. And that began to open up more possibilities.

Barbara Krasner
00:12:16.89
And who was that?

Irene Sterling
00:12:19.56
James- gosh!- I can't think of his last name. He's past on. His family has moved out of town. But, that was the first sort of break into the power structure in not-for-profits. You know, so subsequently you started to see, okay, the boys’ club. And once the Great Falls did that, and Mary Ellen did that, then everybody had to find one.

Barbara Krasner
00:12:52.00
So, Mary Ellen broke through the boys’ club.

Irene Sterling
00:12:56.31
The Great Falls Development Corporation. Mary Ellen never belonged to the boys’ club board. It took a long time for the boys’ club to let women on, much less anybody else. But you know, you see this- So, the African-American community had been there forever. In fact, at the 200th anniversary of Paterson, there's this call out for to find the family that had been in Paterson the longest unbroken. And when it turned out to be an African-American family, I thought everybody was just going to croak. Unexpected but Bill Kline was able to show. And again, you know, that begins to open up channels of opportunity for others because, you know, the other conversation I keep having at this point with folks is that there isn't an African-American community. There isn't a black community. And they'd look at me like I was cross-eyed. So, there was the African-Americans who came up from the South. Bill Kline is one of those and so was Jim- and I'll come up with his name eventually as we keep talking. But, there's a whole other segment of folks from the African Diaspora who are from the Caribbean. And these two are competing folks. They're like, "Really?? I didn't know." [?] open these dialogues up, but you know, once the Jamaicans and the other Caribbean people start to come in, then you see some of the Latin community start to show up. And Puerto Ricans have been in Paterson since 1945 or even a little bit earlier. But again, newcomers. Now, we're talking 1980. Newcomers. They've been here for generations over you guys. But you know, this happens over and over and over again so now- And I had the conversation yesterday with somebody saying, "Well, Andre is Arabic." Like, no, not quite. He is from the Middle East. He's a Syrian. He's a Syrian Christian. He's not, you know. “Really?” You have the Syrian Christians left pogroms at the early 1900s. They've been in Paterson since like 1910, you know. There's all this uncovering.

Barbara Krasner
00:15:27.12
Yeah, that happens.

Irene Sterling
00:15:30.39
And it takes three generations.

Barbara Krasner
00:15:33.25
Do they come to work in the mills?

Irene Sterling
00:15:34.87
Mm hmm.

Barbara Krasner
00:15:35.98
Yeah, I think I've seen that. So, when you came to Paterson the first time, and you had an affinity for it, you raised a family in Paterson?

Irene Sterling
00:15:57.20
I have a daughter, yeah. She teaches at- Well, she taught in Paterson Public Schools. She's now the Director of Science.

Barbara Krasner
00:16:06.22
What schools did she go to?

Irene Sterling
00:16:09.08
She attended the School #3 because she was at the Memorial Day Nursery, which is the oldest nursery in Paterson. And then, went to School 7 and then went to School 5. And then, graduated from School 5 from 8th grade and went for two years to private school while I was fighting with city around the takeover of the public schools. And they started to take it out on her, like okay, get her out of the way. She came back and finished at Rosa Parks once the hysteria had died down.

Barbara Krasner
00:17:07.68
And which school is Rosa Parks? I've not heard that.

Irene Sterling
00:17:08.27
Rosa Parks High School was the performing arts high school over on the East Side.

Barbara Krasner
00:17:12.40
Oh, okay!

Irene Sterling
00:17:13.90
-east side.

Barbara Krasner
00:17:18.81
Is that new? I mean, relatively new?

Irene Sterling
00:17:20.91
No, it's been twenty years now.

Barbara Krasner
00:17:22.68
How many years?

Irene Sterling
00:17:24.87
Twenty.

Barbara Krasner
00:17:26.78
Yeah, I've not heard it mentioned before. But people may have pre-dated that so-

Irene Sterling
00:17:35.78
Yeah, well, Rosa Parks was a really interesting situation. It was one of the last things the first black superintendent was able to pull off before he left. And they weren't able to purchase the former elementary school of the Jewish community and put Rosa Parks over there. And I still remember being at the school board meeting because my job was to head of the Paterson Education Fund, and I went to all the school board meetings. They used to call me the tenth member. With the parents from Rosa Parks the first year coming in and dumping age-old textbooks, going, "You promised us when we opened this school and put our kids there, that it would be special. And these are twenty-year-old textbooks. What are you going to do about it?" So, much was done after that, but it took a dramatic ask.

Barbara Krasner
00:18:32.30
So, you've been quite a crusader over the years.

Irene Sterling
00:18:36.95
Yeah.

Barbara Krasner
00:18:37.58
What drives you?

Irene Sterling
00:18:44.04
Well, I think my faith, for one. You know, Matthew 25 really is important to me. Whatever you do unto others, you do unto Me. And then, also I grew up in a little town in the north part of New Jersey with 1,000 people in it. I always felt like there was a sign on my forehead that said, "Weirdo!"

Barbara Krasner
00:19:08.79
What was the town?

Irene Sterling
00:19:09.96
Branchville

Barbara Krasner
00:19:12.63
And where is that?

Irene Sterling
00:19:14.10
It's in Sussex County. It's in the northernmost county.

Barbara Krasner
00:19:17.43
Okay.

Irene Sterling
00:19:18.23
There were more cows than people there when I grew up. And I was fourteen years old when I went to New York for the first time on a church field trip. I got into New York City and took a deep breath and went, "I'm finally where I belong!"

Barbara Krasner
00:19:30.07
So, you're a city girl?

Irene Sterling
00:19:32.20
I'm a city girl. I'm a different girl. I'm about helping people find their place, you know-

Barbara Krasner
00:19:39.88
Oh, I like that.

Irene Sterling
00:19:40.89
-or creating a place because I needed one and I needed others. And in our children's theater company, both the African fairy tales in order- folk tales, not really fairy tales- African folk tales- in order to provide that set of stories to people. We worked hard to have female characters as the main lead because we wanted, you know, women to feel empowered and heard.

Barbara Krasner
00:20:15.09
Is there anything you wish you had done differently?

Irene Sterling
00:20:19.67
No, not particularly. Made lots of naive errors over time in my introduction to the Great Falls Development is a perfect example of I didn't know what I'd done. But, you know, overall I feel very good about the work that's happened. And one of my jobs, I've felt, is to help raise up others who can provide leadership and then get out of their way and help them move forward.

Barbara Krasner
00:21:01.89
Is there anything you wish you had done that you didn't or couldn't?

Irene Sterling
00:21:08.56
Oh, well, how about improve the school system. I worked really hard at that, but boy, that's been tough, tough work. The political system locally is difficult to move, and then when it was in state takeover and all these - So, now in addition to all the power groups within the city that were contending for resources, now you had folks from outside the city controlling whether groups of people got access.

Barbara Krasner
00:21:40.77
Yeah.

Irene Sterling
00:21:41.44
You know, we spent tons of money on external partners and other people that didn't really benefit in the long haul for the city.

Barbara Krasner
00:21:50.90
Let alone the students.

Irene Sterling
00:21:51.27
Yeah. Right, well, I mean broadly, that's on the other hand, I don't know what you'd do differently in the situation, but nonetheless.

Barbara Krasner
00:22:07.29
So, what's ahead for you?

Irene Sterling
00:22:08.62
Well, I think I'm about to be retired five years. I continue to be active in the St. Paul's Episcopal Church as that institution has morphed from the power church into an empowering church.

Barbara Krasner
00:22:27.89
I'll be there tomorrow.

Irene Sterling
00:22:30.04
Cool. I continue to be active in the not-for-profit community, no longer directly with the Paterson Education Fund but within the alliance to sort of be the old guard. I can say anything because I'm not responsible for that anymore. I also sit on the library board. I feel very passionate about increasing literacy and here in Belleville, my granddaughter is at school here-

Barbara Krasner
00:23:04.89
Okay

Irene Sterling
00:23:05.52
-so I go and volunteer at her school and read to the- The first few to break in. Who is this person? And why is she coming to our school? Paterson twenty-five years ago was this community. I know this group. I don't know them, but I know them. So, I went in and volunteered to read to the kindergarten once a week. So, I read to the kindergarten. Last year, I was- Well, I would have followed the kindergarten into first grade, but I read to the kindergarten too so now I'm in there two days a week. I still haven't negotiated this year's contract. But, I'll be in there. And this is the case, and this is true in lots of places like this, Englewood, Belleville is a diversifying community. It's now got more than 50 percent of its population is Latino background but multiple-

Barbara Krasner
00:24:04.62
Yeah.

Irene Sterling
00:24:05.42
- [?] Latino There’s no such thing as a Latino. There's Ecuadorians. There's Columbians and henceforth. So, I've been doing a lot of work to bring the literature of those communities and other things that impact these kids into the classroom because what's in the classroom [?] like the literature section that they're using is very boring and not really very relevant to the kids that are here. And so, and teachers are so beaten up about it that they don't have time to look so part of my job is to go, brand-new book just off the shelf. Look at this one! This is called Yo Soy Muslim. The husband is Latino. He's from Puerto Rico. He became Muslim. His wife was from Egypt. And here's this gorgeous book. And we're going- Oh wow, this is so great. Can I borrow? Yes, you can. That's part of my job at this point. And then, at church I run a monthly what we call the Souper Family Cafe, where we provide a lunch and activities for kids and families.

Barbara Krasner
00:25:29.04
So, you're pretty busy!

Irene Sterling
00:25:29.80
Yeah. You have to worried if I'm bored, I get in terrible trouble. Not a good thing.

Barbara Krasner
00:25:39.95
What memories do you have of everyday life in Paterson?

Irene Sterling
00:25:45.14
Everyday life in Paterson.

Barbara Krasner
00:25:50.18
And did you go shopping on Main Street?

Irene Sterling
00:25:54.66
Early on, yes. As the two big department stores closed down, Quackenbush’s and the one that followed it at Stern's ended up going out and like most people do who can is you're going to the periphery [?] basically. Well actually the town splits. Half of the town goes to Wayne and the other half of the town goes to Paramus. And that's for food, for, you know, most everything except now, of course, we all use Amazon. What is my-? One of them is in the early days when my daughter was little, there was a strip of stores along the periphery of what's now the historic- Picapiedras which means Flintstones in Spanish. And we probably went there every Friday night for dinner-

Barbara Krasner
00:27:05.57
Yeah.

Irene Sterling
00:27:06.58
-when my daughter was little.

Barbara Krasner
00:27:08.96
What was the name in Spanish?

Irene Sterling
00:27:09.92
Picapiedras.

Barbara Krasner
00:27:13.08
You don't know how to spell that, do you?

Irene Sterling
00:27:14.55
No. Spell it like it sounds. You'll be able to find it.

Barbara Krasner
00:27:19.42
Yeah, it's not one of my languages.

Irene Sterling
00:27:23.07
And you know, that was just a really fun neighborhood place and talked with people and knew the owners. The owner kidded my daughter who even today if somebody starts with that one, she's just oh! Your folks money is no good. You're going to have to come and wash dishes.

Barbara Krasner
00:27:53.76
Any movie theaters?

Irene Sterling
00:27:56.29
Movie theaters were-

Barbara Krasner
00:27:56.42
Parks?

Irene Sterling
00:27:57.98
gone by the time we got to Paterson. Parks, yes. You know, we worked really hard around the Great Falls. My husband connected to the Kramers early on. Worked for his campaign. One of my favorites is the first time that John Bell, who's the first African-American to make a serious run as the mayor [?] of Paterson, Howard supporting Kramer had been a strong supporter. And my family background, my dad worked for McBrides up in Franklin Lakes. And their strategy, they had lots of money. We didn't. But, their strategy was one brother was a Republican, and one brother was a Democrat so they always [?]. Love Pat, but I'm going to support John. But, Bill Pascarell who's currently is Congressman called my husband and said, "You have to tell your wife that she's got to stop this and go work for us, support Kramer." And my husband said, "Bill, you know my wife. If you want to talk to her about this, you're talking to the wrong Sterling." Bill never called me. Never mind. You know, then so part of my work in Paterson was to always have a good connection to the politicians without being one of their cohort [?] so I had a relationship with Bill. I had a relationship with Frank Graves, who scared the bloody bejesus out of me but I didn’t let him know it. I sit here now with Andre who I helped in Andre's first run for office did not work and came and cried on our shoulders at the end because we had been supporting him. And we could, “Come on, Andre. It's just the first time. We'll go do it again.” And he's like I'm hopeful, but I'm not really optimistic. We'll see.

Barbara Krasner
00:30:31.14
What do you want people to know about you?

Irene Sterling
00:30:34.04
About me?

Barbara Krasner
00:30:35.06
Mm hmm, in connection to Paterson?

Irene Sterling
00:30:38.74
That I worked really hard to help make it a better place and that I tried to find ways to help people help make it better.

Barbara Krasner
00:30:58.08
Great. That's pretty much all I had.

Irene Sterling
00:31:03.59
Okay.

Barbara Krasner
00:31:06.05
Yeah, it was very interesting. I'm going to stop the tape.

Irene Sterling
00:31:11.24
Okay.

Last updated: June 10, 2019

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