Stern, Bernice (1916-2007)

  • By Frank Chesley
  • Posted 11/07/2006
  • Essay 8003
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Bernice Stern devoted much of her life to public service, starting at age 15, and was the first woman elected to the King County Council, where she served for 11 years, retiring in 1980. Before and after, she participated in a wide range of social-service, civil-rights, political, and governmental activities, often three or four at a time. Though a liberal Democrat on many issues, she worked easily with like-minded Republicans on the council, as well as with King County Executive John Spellman.  After Spellman was elected Governor in 1980, he appointed her to the state Transportation Commission, where she served for 11 years, retiring in 1992. Bernice Stern lived in the Kline-Galland Home for the Aged, in Seattle. She died at the age of 90 on June 29, 2007.

Early Life

Bernice Friedman Stern was born on July 25, 1916, in Seattle to Abraham and Josephine Gumbert Friedman. Abe Friedman’s family had migrated to Seattle from the Midwest around 1900 and Josephine’s family was from Portland, Oregon. Josephine's forebears had immigrated to the United States from Germany, alighting at various times in St. Louis, Missouri, and Salt Lake City, Utah. Abe Friedman operated a wholesale butcher shop in the old market, “near Yesler, where the viaduct is today” (E. Stern) and the family lived on Capitol Hill. A sister, Dorothea, was born in 1914.

Bernice was petite, called “Kleine” (German for "small") by the family, and was a dutiful, shy daughter, learning to cook, sew, and to excel. “She always did everything right. ... she always won everything, including a state posture contest,” according to her sister Dorothea (Debbie Stern). It was a close, loving family with high expectations. "We were brought up on the theory that if you take from a community, you must give to a community. We were raised to do," in Dorothea's words (Debbie Stern). Although there was some sibling rivalry, the sisters were very close. They attended Seward Elementary and Broadway High, from which Bernice graduated in 1933 at 16, an honor student. Extracurricular activities included Girls Club, Campfire Girls and, of course, service.

Bernice Friedman easily and early adopted the caregiving role and the Judaic tradition of tzedakah -- charity, righteousness, justice. Her first social service came in high school, at Settlement House, precursor of Jewish Family and Child Services, where she taught sewing to the children of Russian émigrés. “The Jewish faith of the family was the liberal, Reformed branch. ... The family formed part of a small, like-minded Jewish community that shared friendships and activities” (Grant-Carnegie).

Abe Friedman worked long hours at his shop and though Josephine was ill through most of Bernice’s childhood, she “ruled with an iron hand and from her bed” (Debbie Stern). Although there was domestic help, the family considered itself middle-class. Josephine died in 1931, of cancer, when Bernice was 15. Both girls remained in Seattle to be with their father, rather than exercising the preferable option of attending school in the East. Abe Friedman died in 1941 at age 56, in his doctor’s office, of a heart attack.

Marriage, Motherhood, and Service

Bernice attended the University of Washington for two years where she “mostly played around” (Levine), and then married Edward Friend Stern in 1935. “The families knew each other and when my mother was 15, she told Edward’s sister, Mary Louise, that she was going to marry her brother. ‘No way,’ his sister said. ‘He’s 29, she’s 18’ ” (D. Stern). The Sterns had two sons in quick succession, Edward Jr. in 1937 and David F. in 1938, 11½ months apart. In an interview, Bernice said, “This was before I got on the board of Planned Parenthood” (Levine).

Edward’s mother, Louise, introduced Bernice to the Seattle branch of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), shortly after the honeymoon. “My grandmother was a very tough lady and she had been active in the council. She took my mother to a meeting and said, 'This is what you will do' "(E. Stern).

Bernice recalled: “I was a very pliable, darling young woman” (Dunsire). Her first project involved learning Braille, to help blind students. She threw herself into the National Council of Jewish Women and in 1942 was elected its youngest president, at age 26. Bernice’s father had remarried and his new wife, Etta, had been council president in the 1920s and she further encouraged Bernice. Bernice rose through the NCJW ranks: president of the council’s western region, youngest board member of the national organization, and national vice president. The next step was the presidency, but she declined. The political infighting became increasingly onerous, and she felt that it would take her away from her husband too much.

Occasionally, Bernice would set up a card table at home and enlist the boys to lick envelopes for one of her mailings. The Sterns were well-off for the times and could afford full-time help, and the boys were otherwise expected to develop self-reliance, not always easy during the formative years. David remembered going to a child psychologist at age 11. Edward, active in sports and a standout in tennis at Lincoln High, said his parents “only occasionally came to events.”

In addition to fostering the National Council of Jewish Women's traditional social-service role, Bernice was instrumental in expanding its political activism. In an undated memo, she wrote that the NCJW should not participate in bond drives for Israel or “affiliate ... with an organization of American Jews, Zionist or non-Zionist, created to advance the interest of Israel. We should act independently, avoiding centralized control of any kind” (Bernice Stern archives)

War and Cold War

The National Council of Jewish Women constituted only part of Bernice’s volunteer world. During World War II, she served as a Red Cross volunteer -- what would later become known as “Gray Ladies” -- at the Naval Hospital in North Seattle, now the site of Fircrest School. At a hospital dance, Bernice and some other volunteers danced with some of the recuperating black sailors because “there were no black girls with whom they could dance.” At the next meeting, the Gray Ladies director forbade further dancing with black sailors, so Bernice quit the organization. She recalled that “A few others did but not many. I have taken stands on organizations like that” (Jewish Women’s Archive).

Edward Stern, a lawyer and financier, had developed ulcers in 1943 and underwent an operation that left him paralyzed for four months. Bernice devoted her energies to her husband’s recovery, sometimes forcing him in his rehabilitation. He remained frail but recovered enough to enjoy his favorite pastime of bowling, and become president Temple de Hirsch Sinai. He was a Republican, not particularly interested in politics but supportive of Bernice. He not only encouraged her volunteerism but often helped by fielding phone calls for her, prompting her to dub him “the power behind the phone” (Levine). He had a light view of the circumstances, sometimes identifying himself as “Mr. Bernice Stern” (D. Stern).

In 1953, Bernice was instrumental in taking a public stand against U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957), R-Wisconsin, whose demagogic anti-Communist crusade from 1950 to 1954 infected the country. She helped initiate a campaign by the National Council of Jewish Women and the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) called “Speak Up -- Freedom Needs Exercise,” to counter the climate of fear, and some attempted book-banning at the Seattle Public Library. She felt the work “was one of the most important things she has ever done” (Debbie Stern).

Politics in the Sixties

In 1959, Bernice Stern was active in the Seattle Committee for Open Housing and marched to support the campaign, which failed. She also participated in a range of other community activities, from United Way to various other equal-rights, school, and youth programs.

Bernice’s first exposure to politics was not particularly encouraging. She was a National Council of Jewish Women representative at the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles and in a post-convention report found it an “outmoded routine which thoughtful and intelligent Americans should seek to change” (Bernice Stern archives).

Bernice was an early and dedicated participant in the women’s rights movement of the 1960s and this would be a primary focus for the rest of her life. She was one four women from Washington state invited to President John F. Kennedy’s (1917-1963) White House meeting on civil rights in July 1963. They joined some 300 other leaders of nearly 100 women’s organizations to “guarantee human rights to every citizen regardless of color” (Washington Post). She went on to help form the Washington State Women’s Civil Rights Committee.

Bernice became further involved in politics in 1968, when she campaigned for United States Senator Eugene McCarthy (1916-2005), D-Wisconsin, who was challenging Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) for the Democratic presidential nomination. She supported McCarthy’s stand against the Vietnam War, but didn’t approve of the sometimes-unkempt, long-haired hippies (many were students and anti-war activists of various kinds) who formed his base. She became disenchanted as his campaign wore on and ultimately left it. But she didn’t remain on the sidelines for long.

First Election Campaign

Democrats asked her to run for precinct committeeman in the 36th District (Magnolia, Queen Anne and Ballard) against Lloyd K. "Luke" Graham, who was Democratic National Committeeman for the state and a power in the party. Her son, David, an advertising and public relations executive, helped with her campaign and advised her to doorbell in the pouring rain, on the assumption that no one would forget a 52-year-old woman out in the rain with oversize campaign signs. They didn’t.

Also in 1968, voters angered by a rash of political scandals approved a reformist King County Home Rule Charter, which replaced three County Commissioners with a County Executive and a nine-member County Council. Democratic Party leaders, including 36th District activist Dave Wood, asked Bernice to run for the new 4th District Council seat, and she agreed, without a lot of optimism. She was a woman, a Jew, and a liberal Democrat in a heavily Republican district. Wood recalled: “She was outspoken, never pussy-footed, and was a delight to work with. The Sterns had a beautiful house on the Magnolia bluff and during the campaign she would whip up wonderful lunches and buffets from time to time.”

She may have been a neophyte in politics, but was hardly new to public life. When she announced her candidacy, she was on the Forward Thrust Committee, the Attorney General’s Commission on Crime, the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women, the Seattle-King County Youth Commission, and other youth-related services.

"We Need a Woman"

Again her son David ran her campaign, using the theme: “We need a woman on the new nine-man King County Council.” Of the 80 names on the ballot, only three were women. Robert D. Ashley won the 4th District Republican nomination, but The Seattle Times revealed that Ashley, in fact, had been a member of the Metropolitan Democratic Club and Bernice won by a slim margin. It was her first paid job: $18,000 a year.

John D. Spellman (1926-2018), one of the three County Commissioners, was elected County Executive. And, while the new Republican-controlled council was slow to organize itself, Spellman recalled, “There were things wrong with county government and we came up with a long list of executive orders (to reform and streamline county government). We just took it for granted we had the power to do this.” Bernice’s oldest son, Edward Jr., said: “I remember her saying it was ridiculous because some of these guys had this job, and they treated it like it was just a way of making some extra money, and they didn’t have to do very much.” Spellman, while declining comment on the second-hand allegations, did allow that: “I think in a way that helped me to work with them.”

Like many Democratic Party leaders of the day, especially Senator Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson (1912-1983), with whom she had a close relationship, Bernice was an outspoken social and environmental progressive but a fiscal and law-enforcement conservative. She labored for advances in social services for seniors and delinquent youth and was a vocal member of the council’s bipartisan growth-management coalition. An avid sports fan, she supported the proposed stadium, which eventually became become the Kingdome. She favored a metropolitan police force and greater cooperation with Seattle, including the merger of some services, and favored making the County Council nonpartisan.

Governing and Mentoring

She had no problem with controversial issues, advocating some gun controls and a laissez-faire approach to “victimless crimes,” such as prostitution, topless dancing, and gambling. “She reasons that prostitution has been with us for a long time and has survived all attempts to kill it. Bernice feels that the most practical solution to the prostitution problem would be to legally sanction what is already going on, and tax it” (Grant and Carnegie, 19). She also was instrumental in establishing the Seattle-King County Arts Commission.

Bernice easily won reelection in 1971 and again in 1975. In the 1971 campaign, arguing that “there must be campaign reform at every level,” she limited campaign contributions to $25, and in the 1975 campaign she limited them to $20.

Women’s issues were always high on her agenda: lobbying for more women in government, in finance, and for women’s empowerment in general. She was an early proponent of high-occupancy lanes (HOV) so that women could “get home to feed their children dinner at night” (Jewish Women’s Archive). She eschewed the more radical rhetoric of a United States Representative Bella Abzug (1920-1998) or a Betty Friedan (1921-2006), but acknowledged: “They led the way for the more moderate, for people like me” (Raleigh).

Along the way, her skill at compromise grew, but not enough to threaten a stubborn streak. If she joined certain fellow council members on a particular issue, there were others with whom she couldn’t or wouldn’t deal. Her Democratic Party loyalty also was highly situational. “She did what she thought was the best interests of the people, regardless of party. Sometimes she would get in trouble but she didn’t give a damn” (E. Stern). She worked well with Spellman, the County Executive, which occasionally irritated other Democrats, on the council and off. Spellman said, “She was such a vibrant person.”

Her sphere of influence expanded with the years among state Democrats. Randy Revelle (1941-2018), King County Executive from 1981 to 1985, recalled that in 1972, flying home from the Democratic Party Convention, Bernice encouraged him -- then a political neophyte -- to run for a Seattle City Council seat. He did, and he won. Revelle considered her one of the key mentors of his political life, one “who had a major impact on whatever success I’ve had, on what I’ve learned” ("Revelle, Randy"). “She also did a lot with [former Seattle City Councilman and Mayor] Norm Rice and [State Representative] Helen Sommers (D-Seattle)” (E. Stern).

A Doting Jewish Grandmother

Bernice apparently felt conflicted about her grandmotherly duties. In 1973, she said, “I’m not nearly as attentive a grandmother as I should be” (Modie), but in 1978 confessed to being a “doting Jewish grandmother” (Raun).

She had manifested the latter in 1976 when she and Edward took their five grandchildren on an 18-day trip to Washington, D.C., and other Eastern Seaboard historical sites to mark the country’s Bicentennial. The excursion to the sights of Washington, D.C.; Independence Hall, Philadelphia; Valley Forge; the U.S.S. Constitution, Plymouth Rock, and Williamsburg, Va., also included lunch with “some guy named Scoop,” as Peter Stern, then 7, recounted (Foote). Senator Scoop Jackson, in fact, had helped Bernice organize the venture. Also on the trip were Debbie, then 13, and Ruth, 10, daughters of David and Margaret Stern, and John David, 12, and Paul, 10, sons of Edward and Susan Stern. In 1978, Bernice and Edward took the grandchildren on a 10-day cruise through Southeast Alaska. Both trips apparently were enjoyed by all.

The Original Progressive Voice

Bernice enjoyed especially warm relations on the council with Republican Bob Dunn. “[Dunn] and his Democratic colleague Bernice Stern built a coalition credited with reforming the county's political patronage system, providing legal defense for indigent criminal defendants and preserving endangered farmland. "A 1979 Seattle Times article called the collaboration between Dunn and Stern 'The Bernice and Bob Show' " (Ervin).

She had more testy relations with some Democrats. The election of newcomer Mike Lowry (1939-2017) as council chairman in 1977 angered Stern. When she finally was elected chairman the following year, she said, “I certainly was mad as hell at him. ...” (Raun, p. 38).

Democratic Councilman R. R. (“Bob”) Greive (1919-2004), a veteran politician who openly scoffed at the political altruism manifested by Stern, said at the time, "She’s no leader. She made a deal to become Lowry’s puppet" (Raun). She also didn’t get along with Democrat Ed Heavey, “who was a nemesis” (D. Stern). She definitely had shared a chilly relationship with Democrat Ruby Chow (1920-2008), since the flamboyant restaurateur -- the second woman and first Asian American on the council -- was elected in 1974.

On Stern’s accession to the council chair, however, The Seattle Times lauded the choice on January 4, 1978: “Mrs. Stern, a Democrat, is recognized widely as one of the county’s most able legislators.” The Argus, on January 6, 1978, editorialized: “Stern was the original progressive voice on the council. For years she has been advocating the kind of thoughtful planning efforts which comprise King County’s only chance to grow with grace ... .” In 1979, the Municipal League of King County named Stern Outstanding Public Official.

She retired from King County Council in January 1980, because her husband wouldn’t retire until she did, and he wanted to travel more. However, Edward F. Stern Sr. died on April 6, 1980, at 74, of lung cancer.

Housing and Highways

Despite the loss of her husband, 1980 was a busy year for Stern. She had planned “since well before her retirement to start a program for housing for the elderly. ... a terribly neglected area in the state” (Debbie Stern). With grants from King County and the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), she and Virginia Westberg, “two widows milling around together” (Hadley), enlisted 16 volunteer retirees to help operate the King County Senior Housing Counseling Service.

Stern also campaigned for Spellman in the 1980 gubernatorial election. Spellman had expected to run against Governor Dixy Lee Ray (1914-1994), but instead faced state Senator Jim McDermott (b. 1936), who had defeated Ray in the primary. Said Steve Excell, campaign staff member and later Governor Spellman’s chief of staff: “Bernice openly supported Spellman ... . She actually came into HQ and stuffed envelopes, a waste of her considerable talents, but she was a true mensch and wanted to inspire the troops.”

Stern served on Spellman’s transition team and in 1981, Spellman appointed her to the Washington State Transportation Commission and reappointed her in 1983. “Bernice was known as the ‘Mother of the HOV lanes.’ She advocated them as a County Council member and WSDOT Commissioner long before anyone else, and long before they were fashionable to advocate nationwide” (Excell).

“I believe her favorite committees were Food on the Ferries, the building of the Albert D. Rosellini Floating Bridge and the rebuilding of the Mercer Island Floating Bridge and approaches to the east and the capping of Mount Baker. She was frustrated by the failure to build rapid transit of some kind” (D. Stern).

Time for Change

In 1992, at age 75, after 11 years on the Transportation Commission, Stern quit because “It’s time to change careers” (Godden).

But again, she had been more than a transportation commissioner. In 1982, she campaigned for Senator Jackson’s sixth term and, after Jackson's death in 1983, actively supported former Republican Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925) to replace him, again infuriating Democrats. She worked on King County Planning Department Special Projects in 1983-1984 and in 1983 served as a member of Seattle Mayor Charles Royer’s committee on city capital improvements. For many years, until about 2003, she was a mentor at Beacon Hill Elementary School. In between, she continued her needlepoint, bowling, bridge, and entertaining.

In her later years, she spent some winter months in Palm Springs and Palm Desert, California, where she also occasionally mentored. She served on the board of the Kline-Galland Home for the Aged, where she live her last years, and on the board of Seattle-King County Municipal League. Bernice Stern died at the age of 90 in June 2007.


Raphael Levine, Profiles in Service (Seattle: Evergreen Publishing, 1985), 92-193; Frank Chesley interviews with David Stern, October 19, 20, 2006; Frank Chesley interview with Edward Stern Jr., October 23, 2006; Frank Chesley interview with John Spellman, October 23, 2006; “Weaving Women’s Words,” Jewish Women’s Archive website accessed October 25, 2006 (; “JFK Enlists 50 Million Women in Civil Rights Fight,” Washington Post, July 10, 1963; Frank Chesley interview with Dave Wood, October 27, 2006; Leon Grant and Maggie Carnegie, “Bernice Stern,” typescript dated December 1, 1975, p. 5, undergraduate political science thesis, University of Washington, Stern family papers; Debbie Stern, “Bernice Stern,” typescript, Stern family papers; Bernice Stern archive, Accession No. 1936-001, Special Collections, University Archives, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington; Sally Raleigh, “Heavy Schedule Her Dish,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 25, 1977, p. C-1; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Revelle, Randy” (By Frank Chesley), (accessed November 1, 2006); Charles Dunsire, “Saving for a Rainy Day,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 5, 1978, p. A-2; Judi Modie, “A Council Member by Any Name,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 12, 1973, p. E-3; Laura Raun, “Bernice Stern, “A Lady or a Tiger?,” View Northwest, March 1978, p. 36; Keith Ervin, “Ex-councilman Bob Dunn, 87, Served 10 Years,” The Seattle Times, August 25, 2004; Jane Hadley, "Needy Senior Citizens Have a Friend," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 2, 1980, p. E-1; Steve Excell email to Frank Chesley, October 25, 2006; Jean Godden, “Just Do It,” The Seattle Times, January 19, 1992, p. B-1; Casey McNerthney, "Bernice Stern, 1916-2007: King County Councilwoman," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 30, 2007 (
Note: This essay was updated on June 30, 2007.

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