Irene Lawson Sterling ’69, grew up in Branchville, a rural corner of New Jersey where, she says, “There were more cows than people.” But a course in urban ministry at the Drew Theological School, taught by the late theologian Nelle K. Morton, took Sterling into the streets of Paterson and changed her life forever.
Sterling adopted Paterson as her hometown and never left, spending more than four decades there working for social change while raising a daughter with her husband, Howard Sterling T’91. For the past 20 years, as director of the nonprofit Paterson Education Fund, Sterling has been a tireless advocate for the city’s children. Now 66, she plans to retire this fall, though she has no desire to step away from the city’s civic life. “My husband and I are both very interested in nurturing local institutions,” she says.
Sterling says she plans to return to the arts, something she pursued in her 20s. After she and her husband moved to Paterson in 1969, they started a street theater ministry funded by the United Methodist Church. They also founded a regional children’s theater, and Irene produced and co-wrote plays. She says she might revive a play she wrote years ago called Children of the Mills, or maybe write a children’s book about the Great Falls. And then there’s Danforth Memorial Library and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, both in need of restoration. “They are wonderful institutions,” Sterling says, “serving some of the poorest folks in this community.”
Sterling actually majored in history at Drew. When Howard, her boyfriend and a theology student, enrolled in Morton’s urban ministry class, Sterling tagged along. She remembers the professor as a trailblazing feminist who challenged churches to become more socially active. “In the urban ministry course, she looked at social change and civil rights and took her students into Paterson,” Sterling says. “It wasn’t a place I knew, but I got hooked. I couldn’t wait to get out of the countryside.”
Sterling joined the Paterson Education Fund soon after the federal government published its 1983 report, “A Nation at Risk,” warning that schools were failing to educate students. By then her daughter was a student in the Paterson system. Today Sarah Laldee, now 36, teaches science at Paterson’s School No. 2.
The state Department of Education took over Paterson’s troubled schools in 1991 and still runs the district, and in the past three years the high school graduation rate has risen to 60 percent from 50 percent, according to Sterling. “The schools are hostage to political forces that are beyond their ability to change,” Sterling says. “No one has come from the state with a solid vision. It’s been churn, churn, churn. But 30 years ago no one expected that every kid would finish high school, never mind go to college. Since then expectations have changed radically. The new expectation is that all kids be highly educated. That’s been a hard shift, but we’ve made it.” —Mary Jo Patterson