Mary Lou Wyatt Stern, 1932–2008

By Andrew Stern
Thursday September 11, 2008 - 09:45:00 AM
Mary Lou Wyatt Stern
Mary Lou Wyatt Stern

Mary Lou Wyatt Stern was born on May 16, 1932, in North Wilkesboro, Wilkes County, North Carolina. Her father was killed in an auto accident when she was 1. Her mother died from a heart attack when Mary Lou was 10. She had a mean stepfather and was shunted between relatives and a loving grandmother. While finishing high school, she cleaned people’s homes, worked the night shift at a hospital, and did various odd jobs. Still, she often reminisced about freshly picked green beans and potatoes from her grandmother’s garden. The memory of these flavors and tastes remained with her for the rest of her life.  

When she graduated as valedictorian from high school at age 15, she received a $30 prize. That night she went to the bus station and left for Bristol, TN, as far as the money would take her. She worked in Bristol as a waitress and in a hospital. When she had saved enough, she moved to Richmond where she got a job at the phone company, and also modeled at Montaldos, an upscale department store. In Richmond, she met Jules Pagano, who was to become her husband, at the phone company where he was a union organizer. Eventually they moved to Washington, D.C., where she continued to work for the phone company until she was hired as a stewardess by American Airlines.  

Notable achievements there were: her refusal to shake Richard Nixon’s hand (she was rebuked for this, but replied it is always the lady that presents her hand first) and being chosen to fly with Adlai Stevenson’s campaign plane. In 1956 she and Jules got separate Fulbright grants to study labor issues in England, where Mary Lou was exposed to many new ideas and people. This experience had a profound impact on her. Upon her return to Washington she worked for the National Cotton Council, the democratic study group, and the National Rural Electrification Council.  

We met in 1958 when I moved to Washington to take a job with the Voice of America. The first week there, I was invited to a party hosted by a Turkish poet who also worked at the Voice. We went to my apartment that night and have been together ever since. We were married on May 24, 1959, in Baltimore by the only rabbi we could find in the area who would marry a Catholic and a Jew (both non-practicing). We continued working in our respective jobs, until we were both hired to work for Howard K. Smith at ABC News. When that broadcast folded, we took our savings and drove 10,000 miles to Mexico and back in our used 1956 Porsche. She loved that car and was a great driver.  

On our return we both found work at PBS, then a brand new organization. We worked on many broadcasts together, but Mary Lou eventually was fired because we had shared a hotel room (Essex House) on a trip to New York. Later we moved to New York City where she developed an interior design business. We had begun the process of trying to adopt in Washington, but the agencies had rules against mixed marriages, and they gave Mary Lou a particularly hard time because she had not gone to college. For example, she once was asked by an adoption social worker if she would be capable of joining a conversation with my colleagues. Luckily, we found an adoption lawyer in San Francisco and Alexandra Minna Stern entered our lives on May 3, 1966.  

Coincidentally we moved to the Bay Area in 1969 when I was offered a job at the university. Once established in Berkeley, Mary Lou balanced family responsibilities and a variety of interesting careers, including interior design for diverse clients and becoming the proprietor of a lovely store, Wyatt & Duncan, located for many years in Walnut Square. Mary Lou quickly became an integral member of the community and made many life-long friends. She spent 20 years as a leader of PACT (Parents and Community Together), a community organization that helped parents whose children had drug problems. She provided counsel that was tactful, practical, and sensitive to many families, was instrumental in obtaining community grants to further PACT’s work, and served as a dynamic spokeswoman for the group. During this period she earned an associate degree in drug and alcohol counseling and received a Jefferson Award from KRON-TV to recognize her community service. 

In more recent years the garden became Mary Lou’s most cherished project, and she collaborated on its design and flora with her dear friends, Anne Simpson and Barbara Davison. Mary Lou was a renowned cook with a versatile repertoire and insatiable appetite for learning new recipes and cuisines. She maintained a vast library of cookbooks and enjoyed trying new dishes and flavors in her travels to places as varied as Cambodia, India, Kenya, France, and Chile. Mary Lou is survived by husband Andrew A. Stern; daughter Alexandra M. Stern and her partner Terri Koreck; and granddaughter Sofia Maria Stern.