Mary Sternberg, 87 loved the language, fought for animals
She was a guardian of grammar with a poet’s touch and an English teacher’s discipline.
She wrote essays, short stories and books, including “Short Shots and Rituals,” which matched her epigrams with the woodcuts of her acclaimed artist husband, Harry Sternberg.
Mary Sternberg, who was known to many North County residents as much for her animal-rights activism as for her literary skills, died Feb. 20 at Las Villas del Norte Retirement Community in Escondido. She was 87.
The cause of death was a combination of age-related ailments, said Linda Kramer, her niece.
“Mary will be remembered for her quick wit and great mind, for her humor and kindness, and her intense interest in people and everything else around her,” said Erika Torri, executive director of the Athenaeum Music and Arts Library in La Jolla.
In 1982, Mrs. Sternberg received a national award from the International Society for Animal Rights for a short story, “A Life,” that appeared in New Age magazine.
As an animal rights advocate, she organized the Festival for Animals and the Environment to benefit the Escondido Humane Society.
North County clergymen blessed a variety of animals at the festivals, including a tiny mouse and a boa constrictor in 1991, when more than $5,000 was raised at Kit Carson Park.
Mrs. Sternberg, a longtime vegetarian, insisted that meatless fare be served at the animal blessings, which included talks by animal-rights supporters and environmentalists.
“We wouldn’t eat meat and help animals,” she told The San Diego Union in 1991.
A book of verse published in 1988, “Fur, Feathers and Feelers,” further reflected her love of animals.
Mrs. Sternberg began writing in earnest after retiring in 1977 as an English instructor at San Dieguito High School in Encinitas.
“She was the kind of woman who tried to change things,” said Jeanne Orphan, a former colleague at San Dieguito. “She was a devotee of practicing the art of language.”
In 1995, Mrs. Sternberg contributed an essay to the Wall Street Journal decrying misuse of such words as “myself” and “hopefully.”
Noting that “basically” seemed to be replacing “hopefully” in the vernacular, she said that “It’s now passe to say, ‘Hopefully, I’ll see you tomorrow.’ Instead, one says, ‘Basically, I’ll see you tomorrow — that is, if you’ll be there, basically.’ ”
Said James Aitchison, a longtime friend: “Hearing an educated speaker pepper his or her speech with ‘hopefully’ would drive her up the wall. She much preferred the use of expletives to ‘bad English.’ ”
Mrs. Sternberg contributed freelance pieces to the former Escondido Times-Advocate, including book reviews and guest columns. She also wrote for AV Magazine, a publication of the American Anti-Vivisection Society, in the 1970s.
Mrs. Sternberg was working on a novel based on characters created by Mark Twain, one of her favorite authors.
Her birthplace, Paris, Mo., was 10 miles from that of Twain’s, she noted in an application to the San Dieguito Union High School District in 1967.
She attended Wellesley College in Massachusetts for two years. Then, with visions of pursuing an art career, she enrolled at the Art Students League in Garden City, N.Y.
It was there that she met her future husband, a native New Yorker who had begun teaching at the students league in 1934. They were married in 1939.
In New York, she worked as a commercial artist and later taught English. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Adelphi College in the 1960s and became principal and head of the English Department at Weber Junior High School in Port Washington, N.Y.
After settling in Escondido, Mrs. Sternberg taught at San Dieguito High while her husband entered a new phase of his painting career by venturing into landscapes and woodcuts.
Known for his graphic depictions of the downtrodden during the Depression, he had established himself as an American expressionist with humanitarian overtones.
He was 97 when he died in November 2001. Mrs. Sternberg arranged for exhibits of his work at the Athenaeum in 2002 and at Founders Gallery at the University of San Diego early this year.
Survivors include a daughter, Leslie Sternberg of Maui, Hawaii; and sister, Sue Baty of Point Reyes.
A private graveside service has been scheduled. A reading of Mrs. Sternberg’s poetry and writing is planned for this month at the Athenaeum Music and Arts Library, La Jolla.
—obituary written by Jack Williams of the San Diego Union-Tribune, published March 4, 2004