Through a Memorial Fund, A Great Professor’s Legacy Endures

UConn English professors Stern, Wilson and Pickering
Milton Stern (left) and his English department colleagues Ken Wilson (center) and Sam Pickering (right) in 1986. (Credit: UConn Advance)

Students sat up when Milton Stern entered the classroom. He would recite poems, pace up and down the aisles, and ask probing questions. He’d read passages aloud with dramatic flair and leap across the room in order to prove a point.

Milton—better known as “Mickey”—Stern was a longtime professor of English at UConn. He kept company with some of the greatest minds of his generation—even inviting writers like Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer to classes—and advocated tirelessly for public education, turning down invitations from top-tier private colleges to stay at UConn. He was one of those professors you recall fondly well after graduation.

“I remember the first day of the first class I ever took with him.” said Kathleen Walsh (’77 & ’79 CLAS). “He walked in and recited ‘American Names’ by Stephen Vincent Benet. I was spellbound from that first moment and remember it as if it were yesterday.”

Walsh, along with former classmate Jim Carrington (’78 CLAS), have established an endowed fellowship in memory of Stern and other extraordinary English professors. “I really wanted to create something in his name that will live on, to keep his memory alive forever in the English department,” she said.

Stern, who passed away in 2011, taught at UConn for 33 years. His obituary in the Hartford Courant speaks of him as an authority on American literature, particularly Hawthorne, Melville, and Fitzgerald, and a tough but passionate professor. He served a term as department chair, wrote and edited more than 25 books and monographs, and helped found the Connecticut Humanities Council. An article in UConn Today spoke of his love of travel, exotic foods, and department-wide poker games. But teaching remained his top priority.

Walsh remembers a time when she worked up the nerve to comment in lecture and Stern disagreed with her. She went to his office hours to debate—and ended up talking for more than hour. That set off a friendship between Walsh and Stern that lasted decades, exchanging letters and meeting up occasionally for lunch.

She and Carrington were just a few of the many students and colleagues Stern affected profoundly. “He was a spectacular teacher with an astonishing commitment to teaching and studying American literature,” said Michael Meyer, a former student and colleague. “He really believed that teaching literature was an important activity that could really change people in an important way.”

This belief carries through the English department at UConn. Professors have joined Walsh and Carrington to honor other colleagues by making gifts to the memorial fund. Donations to date have honored Stern, Hans Turley, Roger Wilkenfeld, and Tom Jambeck.

“When you’ve read something amazing or heard a phenomenal lecture, it’s really transformational.  You find yourself viewing the world through a different lens and wish that others could experience the moment with you,” said Walsh. “Both my BA and MA in English were labors of love. They afforded me a mindset with which I was able to build a successful career in the financial services industry, but never lose my appreciation for literature.”

The fund benefits English graduate students, some of whom will themselves go on to be educators. And it’s a fitting tribute to Stern. Throughout his teaching and activism, there ran a clear theme: We’re all in this together. “It’s as Faulkner said: ‘Man alone of all creatures has the ability for compassion and endurance,'” said Walsh. “And we do. So I carry that with me, and that’s all from studying American literature. Mickey taught me that.”