More than a friend, a guide to oneself

A remembrance of Gail Stern

By: Ilene Dube
   Why is it that the good people die before the rest of us scoundrels?
   Gail Stern, 55, director of the Historical Society of Princeton since 1993, headed my list of top-10 people on the planet.
   I can hardly remember how we met, but I do remember always being charmed by her. Because of Gail, I hogged all story assignments for HSP, just for the chance to interact with her and the exciting work she was doing: exhibits on Princeton’s Italian, African-American and Jewish communities, moved houses of Princeton, glass plate negatives from the Rose Collection, The Princeton Recollector.
   Gail had a way of surrounding herself with gracious people. Through her I met Sally Davidson, curator of the Rose Photography Collection; Maureen Smyth, past curator, HSP; Emily Croll, past director of HSP and curator of an exhibit on Princeton architect Rolf Bauhan; Alice Ward, curator of the exhibit on the Jewish community; and board members Wanda Gunning and Elric Endersby.
   I always felt at home at the Historical Society, where I could research various aspects of Princeton’s past. Gail always made the society’s resources available. So it made sense to facilitate a gift of Princeton Packet archival photos to HSP, which resulted in an exhibit I co-curated. It was a celebration of our "families" coming together.
   Gail and I would get together for lunch at Masala Grill in Princeton to update each other on various history projects and newspaper happenings — amazing how newspapers themselves have become history projects. We talked about family and kids and kids getting into colleges. She had been through it with me and my kids, and now her kid was up.
   Over lunch in January, Gail complained of back problems and told me she would begin therapy. We commiserated about the aches and pains of growing old. "Pilates," I told her. "As soon as your back gets better, try Pilates."
   "I will," she said in her most upbeat way.
   But Gail wouldn’t get better. Shortly after that, I learned Gail had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I went to visit her at Fox Chase in Philadelphia. In a few short weeks, she had grown frail but was still sharp, alert, and laughed that special laugh-smile I thought was uniquely hers until I met her mother, who has the same laugh-smile.
   I met her father, too, and her cousins — people who shared Gail’s gift, whether because they were related to her or because we all knew we were losing her. With all the comings and goings of relatives in the hospital, and pain medication, I didn’t expect Gail to be paying careful attention to our conversation. But when the relatives passed out of the room, she brought me back to the exact point where we’d been interrupted. In all her pain and confusion, Gail would still reach out to others.
   She talked about regaining strength, going through the initial two weeks of chemo, then taking her son, Jonathan, to look at colleges. This was so important to her, I know.
   A week later, back at home, Gail told me she wasn’t going to fight it. "How does your family feel about that?" I blurted, insensitively. "I mean, I’m selfish. I want you to stick around for a while."
   She didn’t even pause. "Of course they would like me to get strong and go through the chemo and be well," she said, "but they also support me in whatever decision I make."
   I visited her at home in Hopewell. She looked so tiny on the oversized couch in her living room. I had wanted to bring food, but she said no food. The entire community had been bringing Tupperware containers, and they had way too much to eat. Two wicker chairs on the porch had become receptacles for all the serving containers to be returned.
   "How about something from Masala?" I asked.
   "Not yet," she said. "I’m not ready for that." She nibbled on a corner of a cookie.
   As I looked around the room, there was so much of her personal history: her childhood in Atlantic City; whimsical antiques that she collected with passion; some paintings she had done while an undergraduate at Brown; art projects by Jonathan. There were ancestor photos in frames, and for a moment I nearly cried out, "We’re related!" There was a family photo that looked just like one of my ancestors from Russia. But of course everyone has that family photo — how many like it had I seen at the Historical Society?
   We weren’t really related. And yet we were; at that moment, I realized, we came from the same place, and in that way were so deeply connected. It’s why I feel so at home with her parents. I want to hold on to them, and to Gail’s sister and brother, and to Jonathan — because that’s where Gail remains.