Dick & Odile, New York, NY — Married 1952

A Jew from New York and a Catholic from Normandy (who claims Joan of Arc as an ancestor), the amazing Dick and Odile Stern came to my notice by way of their daughter Caroline, who sent me an e-mail after having run across my website.  She lured me with a description of her parents’ unusual courtship:  they saw each other, but didn’t meet, over a three-day weekend; Odile (one of the first Fulbright scholars to come from France to study in the U.S.) was waitressing for the summer at the Lake Placid Club when Dick came up for a conference and spied her there.  They met briefly some weeks later and then Odile returned to France.  After an 8-month correspondence, Dick—speaking no French—worked his way across the Atlantic on a boat and they were married a couple of weeks later in Odile’s home town of Nancy.

The Sterns have filled their large Central Park West apartment with collections of all kinds – from fine art to mechanical toys, found gloves, hubcaps and broken umbrella handles, even the pressed, patterned circles of lint from the trap in their clothes dryer.  It was not until I visited them, however, that I learned of the profound tragedy which stands in stark contrast to their playfulness and altered the course of their lives:  in 1978, their youngest daughter, Michele, was brutally murdered during her freshman year at Emory University.  As a result, both Dick and Odile became activists, involved with handgun control and crime victim service organizations.  Odile is the co-founder and Executive Director of Parents of Murdered Children of New York State.  Their daughters Valerie and Caroline both live in the same Manhattan neighborhood.

By turning their devastation into positive action and embracing spontaneity from their earliest days together, the Sterns have managed to maintain an extraordinary balance between seriousness of purpose and a genuinely whimsical spirit.


Dick:
We met here in this country, and we knew each other for just a few days and Odile went back to France.  And then we wrote to each other, and decided to get married by mail.

Odile:
Well, actually no—this is funny, because Dick said that he was planning to come to Europe—he had never travelled.  And then he invited me to travel with him.  Then, in the next letter, he said maybe it would be a good idea if we got married first and my mother said, “definitely!”

RF:
How does it happen that in 5 days you can… be that sure?  Or were you?

Dick:
You never know.  No one is.  Well, in the five days we certainly weren’t… contemplating marriage, at that particular time.

RF:
But something clicked.

Dick:
Well, yeah.  We were sort of attracted to each other.  And then we met for a few days, and then Odile went back to France.  And we wrote.  So, sometimes you can write more than you can speak.

Odile:
We had to go through paperwork, because I am a practicing Roman Catholic, and the family, you know, has a lot of traditions, so I wanted to be married in church.  So we had to get a dispensation from Rome.  There was an exchange of letters between that office in Rome, and we got a dispensation.  So we had two weddings; we had one at City Hall, and then the next day we had one in church.

Dick:
I was Jewish... now I'm a born-again atheist.

Odile:
Dick did not speak French at that time, he only said, "oui."  When we were in City Hall, and there was a long speech, he did not understand a word; but when he was asked whether he wanted me for a bride, I said (she gestures elbowing him in the ribs) and he said, "oui!"



(Regarding the 1978 murder of their daughter Michele.)

RF:
Something so terrible calls on a lot of strength in a marriage.

Dick:
We had a lot of very good support.  Friends.  My good friend, a physician, he took two weeks off to stay with us.  And we had our two other daughters, who were always here, they weren’t living anywhere else.  But, you know.  We did the best we could, under the circumstances.  Tried to do something positive, after we’d dealt with it.

Odile:
Many families we have come across through the years, the family structure falls apart.  The siblings go their own way, with their own grief; and each parent processes their own grief, but instead of dealing with it together, they split.  And I know many families where there was divorce, or the children don’t speak to their parents anymore.

RF:
Why was it different in your case?

Odile:
I don’t know.

Dick:
It just—

Odile:
Because… that’s the way we are.

Dick:
That’s the way we are, and I think it’s just an individual thing.  There’s nothing that you can just put your finger on, say why this resulted this way.  Odile is the head of Parents of Murdered Children of New York State, so we deal with a lot of people who’ve lost children.  Families really get torn asunder with this sort of thing.  Siblings have a lot of problems… the problem with a lot of these things is that it’s not like a senior citizen died at 90, he has cancer, you know.  A child is killed, it’s a whole different thing.  Even ministers and priests, it’s hard for them even to talk.  I found that out.

Odile:
For a lot of parents, families really are still not able to face what happened. The father blames the mother, the mother blames the father, the siblings blame the parents.  It’s a whole terrible mixture of feelings, and it doesn’t help.  It doesn’t heal.

RF:
What part does blame play in the healing process?

Odile:
When you put the blame or something to someone, then you remove yourself, you distance yourself from that person.  And that creates a wall, and a lack of communication.  And after a while, when people are unable to communicate, either they split, or they go their own way, and couples divorce—I know several—or the children don’t speak to the parents anymore, or they don’t mention the name of the loved one who died.  You know, it’s a lot of very sad things happen.  And it’s like being victimized a second time.  There is a lot of work done by agencies, though, to help those people to— counseling, in teams, work teams.  But it’s not easy.

I have to add that my faith was very helpful to cope—you know, not only with the original shock, but even on a day-to-day basis.  I believe in an afterlife; I believe in some kind of communication between the dead and ourselves.  So our daughter is not lost.  She’s there somewhere.

Dick:
Some people’s own particular make-up lets them do things, continue on with their lives.  Some people are so devastated they can’t do anything.

Odile:
I think that it took longer for Dick to be able even to talk or mention the name, “Michele.”  So I did not say anything, and I walked around his grief, but I knew eventually he would come out of it.  I find through my work with families, very often, male grief is very different.  I was able to talk to the media almost right away, you know, but—from growing up in France during the war, going through all the invasion, bombardments and everything, I got some strength, you know?  And so I was able to deal with that new tragedy because I inherited also the strength from my mother.  My mother was left a widow with five children.  My father died in 1942.  So my mother went through a lot, and she was able to bring us up, so I inherited her strength.  And also I am a descendant, way back, from Joan of Arc.  And I relate to her.  And I talk to her once in a while.

Dick:
Especially when you build a fire.  (They laugh.)


RF:
What's your take on the institution of marriage today?

Dick:
I guess there are more people nowadays who live together and don’t wanna get married.  They don’t want to get entangled, or they worry too much about their assets that they bring to the marriage.  Or how they’re going to divide it up.  They’re planning their divorce while they’re getting married.  You know?  They’re signing papers, this type of thing.  We had nothing that would make any difference, right?  (They laugh.)  If you start with zero, you don’t even—you know, we were lucky we went to a movie once in a while.  So I think the whole thing is a lot different.  A lot of people nowadays have more expectations, having a lot of money, going into a lot more debt.  I mean, I was on the board in this building for many, many years, and it was unbelievable the incomes you see some people have who are young.  Unreal.  Then you see a lot of people—Odile and I, we’ve never paid an interest charge.  How’s that?  In our marriage.  Not a penny of interest in 50 years.  Only bought what we could afford.  But some people live on credit cards, right?  In order to keep their standard up, their mental standard, they have to borrow money.  And money’s expensive.  So we sort of lived, we did what we could.  We never lived above our means.  We never owned a car.  How’s that for an American family?

Odile:
To me, marriage is a sacrament, there’s a blessing involved.  And to me, it’s an institution and I believe this is a good thing.  But I respect also people who have no religious affiliation, and their marriage is sanctioned by law.  If they don’t want to get married, that’s a privilege.  But to me, this is a very personal outlook on marriage, based on faith.  We have a lot of friends who are not married, or divorced; as long as people can be happy, and not hurting each other, I respect that.

 

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