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Longtime Straus owner and Fargo civic leader Edward Stern dies at 94

FARGO - Whoever said "Nice guys finish last" never met Edward Stern.

The 94-year-old Stern, who died of natural causes Saturday at Innovis Health in Fargo, was the longtime owner of Straus Clothing and an active civic leader. Exhibiting excellent communication skills and a gentle manner, he diligently pushed for diversity, better schools and a stronger community.

He received numerous accolades and honors for his efforts, most recently the 2008 Legacy Leader Award from the Chamber of Commerce of Fargo Moorhead.

And yet he accomplished these things without steamrolling anyone.

His children remember him as a great dad. His former employees described him as a caring boss. And some of the state's most notable citizens have nothing but kind words for the quietly effective leader.

"Ed was a very decent man who had great abilities," said former North Dakota Gov. George Sinner. "He had a very special interest in human rights and the enhancement of human life with arts and education. I loved the guy."

Federal Appeals Court Judge Myron Bright had known Stern since 1947. "He had a very interesting and a very full life," Bright says. "He was in practically every worthwhile community endeavor. He also had quite a national reputation as a retailer. His family is one of the few independent retailers of men's clothing that has still survived."

Straus Clothing, North Dakota's oldest family-owned retail business, dates to 1879, when Stern's great-uncle, Adolph Sternberg, launched his first store in Sanborn, N.D. Young Stern began working as a salesman for the Straus Clothing Store in Valley City, N.D., in 1932.

His parents, Herman and Adeline Stern, sent their son to Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania, "hoping that, in addition to getting a terrific education in business, he'd find a nice Jewish girl to marry," his son John wrote in a biography about his dad.

But Stern joked that he already had his eye on Louise McCutcheon, "a nice Presbyterian girl in Valley City." They married in 1942.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Army Air Force and later served as an officer in the 385th Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force. For 50 years after his military service ended, he continued to serve as the editor of the bomb group's newspaper.

Following the war, Stern continued running a Straus store in Fargo, plus opening other shops around the state.

Bright remembers dropping by Stern's Fargo store in the 1950s with another friend to convince the young businessman to give some money to the Democratic Party.

"One of the interesting things about Ed Stern was that he was really low-key but he was also a really good salesman," Bright says, chuckling. "In the end, he'd written a check to the party for $25 and he'd also sold Eli and me a new suit of clothes."

But Stern was also committed to community service. He founded the Fargo-Moorhead Area Foundation, served as president of the school board for two terms, led the Fargo Chamber of Commerce and was a Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra board member, money raiser - and violinist in the orchestra.

Community involvement and humanitarian causes were wired into his DNA. During World War II, his father, Herman, became "an angel of the prairie" by personally sponsoring more than 130 Jews who lived in Germany or other German-held countries, or who were confined in concentration camps.

Despite a 1963 fire that destroyed the family's Fargo store, Stern rebuilt and continued to expand.

In the late '60s, Louise, the mother of his five children, died. But before doing so, she implored him to get married again. In 1970, he wed Jane Lontz, one of Louise's friends.

Stern also got involved in Menswear Retailers of America, a group of independent men's clothing retailers from across the country. He served as president of that group in 1974, and traveled throughout the U.S. - while singing the praises of North Dakota - to represent the organization.

He remained president of Straus Co. until 1997.

After retirement, he and Jane moved to the Waterford retirement community, where they established themselves as superb bridge players. In the past few months, there had been talk of possibly presenting Stern, a dedicated Bison fan, with an honorary doctorate from NDSU.

His son Rick, who now runs the company with John, thinks his father was proud of how Fargo-Moorhead had grown.

"I think just seeing Fargo grow and prosper from when he moved here ... just to see all the progress ... that was important to him."

Funeral arrangements are pending.