About 160 people gathered in the lower/middle school gym on April 24 for a brunch celebrating the life and legacy of former Director Gladys Stern. The event featured music and dance performances and speeches by a slate of people who knew her through GDS. Several speakers tied Stern’s guiding principle of valuing children to the school’s mission and attention that GDS received during Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation process.
Stern, who was the high school’s first principal and then held a role equivalent to head of school, passed away on Nov. 14, 2021 at 104 years old. The celebration brunch coincided with Alumni Weekend and attracted alumni and current and former parents and teachers.
After the attendees mingled in what Head of School Russell Shaw described as a “family reunion,” he began by having those at the event observe a moment of silence for Tony Harris, a member of GDS’ security team who was injured during an April 22 shooting on Connecticut Avenue.
Shaw said that Stern was “a GDS legend,” adding, “Gladys loved this school. She loved this community.
“She loved the arts,” Shaw continued, “and today, we will be honoring her by sharing the talents of some GDS alumni, students and faculty.”
Former GDS dance and drama teacher Sammi Rosenfeld ’09 performed an interpretive dance to various soundtracks that revolved around the GDS community, including a recording of Jackson’s description of GDS at her Senate confirmation hearings and an audio recording from a class Rosenfeld taught at the school.
D.C. artist Jay Coleman ’90 painted a portrait of Stern that was revealed at the event to applause and will be displayed at the school. He said that his multicolored portrait was meant to represent the diversity that “GDS has shown the world.”
Former Associate Head of School Kevin Barr, now the school’s director of hiring, introduced speeches by four people, each representing a different part of the GDS community: faculty, parents, students and administration.
Former teacher and administrator Walter Ailes represented the faculty and shared a letter that he sent to Stern in 2015. He wrote to her, “You had an internal compass shaped by your humility, your intellect and heart that allowed you to make countless decisions both large and small that would move the school forward.”
Alumni Board President Cordenia Paige began her speech by offering a definition of the word “legacy,” followed by a story about something her father and Stern had in common: Neither watched TV. “The something that I received from Gladys and my father was a love of learning and reading,” Paige said.
Multiple speakers proudly talked about Republican senators’ misrepresentations of the school during Jackson’s confirmation hearings.
Peter Branch, the previous head of school, said that after hearing a senator accuse the school of progressive indoctrination it was “clear to me that she had never met any GDS students. None of them could be taught what to think, because all of them have been taught how to think.”
Shaw presented Michael Stern, Gladys Stern’s son, with a gift from the school—an image of his mother etched in crystal. “It’s a great honor to be associated with such a famous, or should I say infamous institution,” he said, after a previous speaker had mentioned the Jackson hearings.
And Stern reminded the audience, “Actually, I can lay claim to being responsible for you all being here.” His mother began working at GDS after enrolling him in 1954.
Beginning at 11 a.m, the attendees mingled for half an hour while a high school band, 9 AM Lemonade, played blues music.
According to Director of Community Relations Joyce DePass, who helped organize the event, planning for it started shortly after Stern’s death. All attendees were required to show proof of COVID vaccination and were asked to wear their masks when not eating or drinking. Over 300 people RSVPed, DePass told the Bit. Only about half of that number attended, according to a count by the Bit.
In an interview with the Bit, former French teacher Gail Massot called the event a “wonderful tribute to the salient philosophy of Gladys: What is good for the child?” Massot said that Stern “always knew exactly who you were and what was going on in your life.”
The event was concluded by performances from GDS lower school dance teachers who are members of the Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company and one by a group of eighth graders.
Barr told the Bit that Gladys helped to build a school that “had a heart and valued intellectual prowess.” According to Barr, when it comes to his attitudes towards school, “I pretty much just open my mouth and out pops Gladys.”