JOE STERNE NO LONGER works here. Come July 1, his name disappears from the editorial-page masthead. After 44 years at this newspaper -- 25 of them as editor of this page and the one opposite -- Mr. Sterne retires at age 69.
That is big news for those of us inside this grand institution. But for most of our newspaper's readers, the end of the Sterne era doesn't hold much meaning. Their lives will go on much as before. Yet Joseph Robert Livingston Sterne had an impact far greater than readers would suspect -- on this city, this region and this state.
The job itself doesn't come with inherent powers. It's the equivalent of Maryland's lieutenant governor -- or the vice president in Washington. An editorial-page editor is only as important as the newspaper's publisher allows. And like a lieutenant governor or a vice president, an editorial-page editor really can't change anything on his or her own.
Presiding over a daily opinion page simply gives an editor permission to marshal thoughts on issues in such a way as to shape the public debate. Joe Sterne did that as effectively as anyone around.
His page acted as a vocal cheerleader and promoter for Baltimore. It was a public scold of government officials and politicos. The goal: Produce well written, thoughtful editorials potent enough to persuade influential people to do the right thing. Come election time, he saw his job as giving readers clear guidance on the best candidates for office.
Perhaps the most vital rule the Sterne editorial pages fulfilled was to act as a stabilizing force. Great changes have occurred in Baltimore and Maryland over the past quarter-century. Today, people's lives are concentrated in the suburbs, not in the city. We tend to lose touch with our old ties and loyalties.
A local newspaper ties us together. Where else can you learn what is happening not just down the street but in the city you once called home, in other counties and in the state capital? It is the editorial page that focuses attention on hot-button topics and puts them in perspective.
Joe Sterne's editorial page became the place where issues of local import were debated and where advocacy for a stronger region was pursued. If you wanted to feel part of the community known as ''Baltimore,'' you could turn with confidence to his page.
This is vital for a region. So many factors are pulling us apart that it is important to know there is a unifying element, a reliable friend who can keep us centered.
In the Sterne years, you could rest assured his page's well reasoned editorials would cover national, foreign and local developments -- and let you know what to make of them. For readers in Carroll, Howard and Anne Arundel counties, there was also that zoned editorial each weekday.
A Goldstein on the job
His long tenure provided readers with an institutional memory. Joe Sterne was the Louis L. Goldstein of The Baltimore Sun. He knew what it had been like at the newspaper and in this city back in the 1950s, when Tommy D'Alesandro (the elder) ran City Hall, when Ted McKeldin was governor (and a decade later mayor).
He was here before the Jones Fall Expressway, Harborplace and the Mechanic Theater. He covered local stories at the Emerson Hotel and the Southern Hotel. He was around as workers rushed to complete Memorial Stadium in time to welcome major-league baseball.
He understood the historical context of recent local developments, just as Mr. Goldstein is invaluable in his knowledge of everything that has occurred in state government since the Great Depression years.
Joe Sterne is vacationing with grandchildren in Colorado. He will return as a Johns Hopkins senior fellow, with an office next to William Donald Schaefer's at the Institute for Policy Studies. He wants to write a book, too, on his years covering the U.S. Senate during the 1960s, specifically on the Senate's change of heart over American involvement in Vietnam.
He will be busy. He always is. Those who worked with him know Mr. Sterne as the consummate journalist -- a dogged reporter and writer agonizing over every word, checking every fact, tinkering to make sure an editorial delivers precisely the right message. He understands that what you write on an editorial page makes a difference to your community.
We will miss Joe Sterne's drive for perfection, his belief that each word matters, on every topic covered. Readers will miss him, too. He gave them so much in those 25 years of opinionizing. Everyone who picks up this newspaper and turns to the editorial page owes him a debt of gratitude for a job exceptionally well done.
Now he is off to his next assignment. Just like any dedicated journalist. That's something you learn at a newspaper. Your prose may be read in the morning, but it will be tossed in the trash that night. Tomorrow always presents a new challenge and a new opportunity, with the slate wiped clean.
Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.
Pub Date: 6/29/97