Gladys Stern, Longtime Director and Beloved Fixture of GDS’ Past, Dies at 104

Gladys Stern, who, in 42 years devoted to GDS, founded the high school, served as the school’s beloved director and came to embody its inclusive ethos, died on Nov. 14 at age 104. Alumni and former colleagues have recalled Stern’s contributions to expanding GDS and her unwavering care for every member of the community.

Gladys Stern at her son’s wedding in 1981. Photo courtesy of the Stern family.

Stern stumbled upon GDS in 1954, when she enrolled her son, Michael, in first grade and began volunteering as a tutor at the school, according to his wife, Connie Stern. She worked as an assistant to GDS’ founder, Aggie O’Neil, became the high school’s first principal and then spent the second half of her GDS career as director, the equivalent of the head of school.

“There are so many things to say about Gladys,” former Associate Head of School Kevin Barr, whom Stern hired in 1976, told the Bit. “It was Gladys’ school. She was fierce and funny and brilliant in all the good ways.”

While former students and faculty described her easygoing personality, many noted that Stern’s priority was ensuring that everyone at GDS felt welcome and safe. “When it amounted to abusive, harmful, hurtful behavior,” theater director Laura Rosberg said, “she was on top of it immediately.”

Barr recounted a story in which a parent called Stern to complain that her daughter’s Spanish teacher was lesbian while Barr was sitting in his boss’s office. According to Barr, Stern calmly gave the parent three options: leave GDS, change the language her daughter studied or remain in the Spanish class and accept the teacher’s identity. 

While he could not remember the outcome of the situation, Barr said the episode convinced him that Stern was “one of the most impressive people that I had gotten to watch in action.”

Gladys Ruth Meyerowitz was born in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 25, 1917, to two Jewish immigrants from Lithuania and Ukraine. When she was seven, her family moved to Belhaven, North Carolina, where her father ran a deli and then a clothing store, Connie Stern said.

Gladys Stern could not attend her college of choice, the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, because she was female. She instead attended UNC Greensboro, majoring in history and graduating in 1938.

Stern was turned down for teaching jobs in North Carolina because, as a Jew, she could not meet the requirement to teach Sunday school, according to her daughter-in-law. She eventually moved back to D.C., where she worked as an economist for the War Production Board during World War II and met her husband, Joshua Stern.

“Gladys had a head for business, and a heart for children,” Barr said, emphasizing that Stern’s work as an economist gave her financial expertise unique among school administrators. 

Kamal Ali ’80, an owner of Ben’s Chili Bowl and former member of GDS’ Board of Trustees, said he appreciated Stern’s dedication to honoring every student’s identity. “She was particularly impactful during her tenure for the African-American community,” Ali said. “She went the extra mile to make sure that those original tenets of the school of inclusion and diversity were always met.”

Two alumni who attended GDS during Stern’s tenure as director noted the comfortable environment she helped create. Ali said students saw Stern as a grandmother figure.

“Gladys made school feel like a second home,” Julie Fanburg ’89, who serves on the Alumni Board, said. “When I think of Gladys, I think of this big hug. I still can feel her hand touching my back.”

On one weekend while he was in high school, Ali and a few classmates snuck into GDS’ building at 4880 MacArthur Boulevard to play basketball. When Stern found out, she called the students to her office.

Ali feared expulsion, but Stern only encouraged them to “take ownership” of their school and offered a key so in the future they could let themselves in. 

Barr told the Bit that during the height of the Vietnam War, a group of students staged a sit-in in Stern’s office. Stern was unfazed, saying, in Barr’s telling, “Oh terrific, I’m glad you’re here.” Stern grabbed her purse and her coat and left the student protesters instructions for how to answer the phones.

“She was a woman of integrity,” Barr said. “Long before you could hire a consultant to sell you about growth mindset, she had a total growth mindset.”

Stern left GDS in 1996, at the age of 78, and was succeeded by Head of School Peter Branch.

In retirement, Stern continued to be an avid reader, participating in three book clubs and flying through books fast enough that her family would place two Amazon orders a week for more. She adorned her coffee table with copies of The Augur Bit to show guests and read The Washington Post (which published an obituary about her on Nov. 17) daily until the last few weeks of her life.

And GDS continued to be a part of Stern’s life, from regular conversations with Head of School Russell Shaw to visits with students whom history teacher Lisa Rauschart brought to see her. 

Fanburg said she would call Stern at major milestones in her own life, including the birth of her daughter, who now attends GDS. Upon hearing the news, Stern sent Fanburg a piece of GDS-branded clothing for the baby.

Shaw said he regrets that Stern was never able to visit the newly unified campus after the pair of GDS leaders had spoken extensively about the project. “I would have loved for her to see this place,” he said.

When Shaw called Stern on her 104th birthday in August, he recalled her saying, “That’s pretty old, isn’t it?” 

“Yeah, Gladys, that is pretty old,” he replied. 

With gratitude, Stern responded, “I can’t believe I’ve lived so long, but I’ve been so lucky.”

Connie Stern said the last time she saw her mother-in-law alive, she was lying in bed with a GDS blanket. 

CORRECTION (Nov. 28, 2022): A previous version of the article misspelled the name of GDS’ founding director. It is Aggie O’Neil, not O’Neill.