*Editor’s Note: The latest installment in the Ole Miss Retirees features is J. Stern, an Ole Miss Sports Productions retiree. The organization’s mission is to enable all of the university’s faculty and staff retirees to maintain and promote a close association with the university. It is the goal of the Ole Miss Faculty/Staff Retirees Association to maintain communication by providing opportunities to attend and participate in events and presentations.
Stern is synonymous with Ole Miss football operations. His significant contributions to enhancing the football game experience for Ole Miss fans ushered us into the technology age and includes the “Are You Ready” Hotty Toddy cheer that heightens the excitement at the start of the game. Here’s his Ole Miss story:
Brown: Where did you grow up? Describe your home town and what was special about it.
Stern: I grew up in Opelika, Alabama, a small industrial town in east Alabama, next to Auburn. My father, Henry J. Stern, immigrated from Nazi Germany in 1937 to Opelika, and I grew up in the same house that he grew up in. Opelika is a neat little town.
Brown: Please talk about your childhood, family, and siblings.
Stern: We lived about four blocks from the city park and local schools and about three blocks from downtown. My parents were very active in the community so we were very involved in everything. My dad ran a department store and then he was the Director of the Chamber of Commerce. My mother, Roslyn Brock Stern, taught private art lessons in our basement until I started school, then she went back to teaching in the school system.
We lived with my German grandmother, Hedwig Israelsohn Stern (we called her “GaGa”) until her passing in 1977. My sister Ginger is a year and a half older than me. She moved back to East Alabama in 2014 after a long career in local television in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Brown: What’s your earliest memory?
Stern: One of my earliest memories is my mother hosting an Art Show in our backyard. She had all of her students show their work. It seemed like everyone in town came by and walked through the backyard. (I also have home movies of it). A few years later this ultimately became the Opelika Arts Festival and was moved to the city park. We also had a small cabin on Lake Martin which is about 30 minutes outside Opelika. We enjoyed summers and weekends hanging out there. It was a very simple time and a very simple cabin—but it was wonderful! And I’m pleased to say that I now make my home on Lake Martin.
Brown: Where did you go to school?
Stern: Let’s say I was a little academically challenged. Okay, I was academically lazy. I spent more time doing clubs than studying. I started at the University of Alabama. After a couple of years, I decided that I wasn’t ready for college so I worked in radio for a short time while taking classes at a junior college. Later, I “dropped-in” at Auburn, and had several amazing job offers before my last quarter. So, I ended up “dropping-out” and pursuing my career in television.
Brown: What subjects were hardest for you in school?
Stern: Math was my most difficult subject, mainly because I found out in my adult life that I was dyslexic. I was never diagnosed.
Brown: What was your first job? Who influenced your career path?
Stern: I was always fascinated with DJ’s and radio announcers. My first job was at WJHO, a local AM radio station in Opelika. I covered some local golf tournaments. A few years later I got a job on Sunday nights “engineering the Larry King show,” meaning every half hour, I played a commercial. When I was a junior maybe senior in high school I would call the TV networks and find out who was producing a game in Auburn or Birmingham. Then I would call the producer and ask if they needed a runner or a go-fer. After a year or so I ended up making a good connection with Fred Gaudelli who produced primetime games for ESPN. He is now the Executive Producer of Monday Night Football. Fred was my mentor.
Brown: Tell us how/when your Ole Miss “story” began? Who hired you? How long did you work at Ole Miss?
Stern: In 1989, while working at ESPN in Connecticut and USA Network in New York City, I wanted to get back down south. I also wanted to produce college football. I saw there was an opening at Auburn University and I called the Sports Information Director David Housel and asked him about it. David told me it was more of a print job and that his friend Langston Rogers at Ole Miss was looking for someone on the television side. I connected with Langston and got an interview.
My interview process was kind of interesting. I was doing the Big 10 women’s basketball for ESPN, so I flew down between games. Marie Antoon picked me up at the airport in Memphis. She did a good job maximizing the time that I was on campus so I was able to visit with almost everyone in the Athletic Department: Langston Rogers, Warner Alford, Reed Davis, Coach Billy Brewer, Coach Van Chancellor and Coach John Blair. I had meetings with everyone in the Communication Resource Center (CRC) and all divisions of Public Relations, all the way up to Dr. Ed Meek and Chancellor Gerald Turner. I enjoyed the experience of the Square, dinner at Syd & Harry’s (now City Grocery), then cheesecake at The Hoka, where I met my long-time friend Ron Shapiro with whom I had mutual friends in Memphis.
After the interview process, I was offered and accepted the job of Sports Producer for CRC and thus began my Ole Miss career in 1990 which lasted until my retirement in 2013. I was the primary liaison between CRC and the Athletic Department. After several years with CRC, I was moved into the Athletic Department and started Ole Miss Sports Productions. We had a staff of three!
Brown: What did you know about Ole Miss before you accepted a position here?
Stern: I had a childhood friend, Kate Asbury, who went to Ole Miss. I also knew a little of history from my time at ESPN, but I learned so much more when I became a part of it.
Brown: You came up with the idea of the Are You Ready introduction to the Hotty Toddy cheer done by a celebrity for the Jumbotron. Tell us about that.
Stern: Actually my friend Connie Braseth Pierce came up with the idea of the Hotty Toddy on the Jumbotron. We were having a “brainstorming session” on the balcony of City Grocery when she thought it would be great to have Coach Vaught do it prior to an LSU game. Then we started getting different Ole Miss people to do it which evolved into recruiting “famous” people who would be interested in doing it. It was a lot of fun and a lot of phone calls.
Brown: Do you have a favorite standout celebrity who has done the Hotty Toddy “Are You Ready” cheer? If so, why are they your favorite?
Stern: Russell Crowe and Dennis Quaid are probably two of my favorites. I also have to include Snoop Dogg in there. I guess I especially liked Crowe and Quaid because they were both kind of wacky. Russell Crowe really, really got into it. And Dennis Quaid was just hysterical when he walked into the “Porta-potty” at the end. The really cool thing about Snoop Dogg was Connie and I got to go to Nashville and hang out with him and videotape it.
Brown: Describe your most memorable days at work.
Stern: I really loved the old days when our office was in Bishop Hall—especially game days! We would all get to work early and take the TV truck over to run the cables for the cameras. Then we would prep for the game, and after the game. I actually enjoyed all of those overnight edit sessions putting together a coach’s show and having to be finished before 10 o’clock Sunday morning. It was a lot of work and a lot of headaches, but a lot of fun.
Brown: What do you consider to be the highlight of your career?
Stern: I think the move to the Athletic Department and starting Ole Miss Sports Productions is probably what I’m proudest to have been involved with at its inception. I never realized the magnitude of what it could be. We did a lot of unique things. No doubt the current staff has done an amazing job making that department one of the best in the country.
Brown: What’s your creative outlet?
Stern: Since I have retired I have started painting. That is probably my creative outlet. I also do a lot of acrylic fluid art and paint pouring.
Brown: What are the most useful skills you have?
Stern: I’m not sure what my most useful skill throughout my life has been but I try to be kind and courteous to everyone. My sense of humor is very cynical and sarcastic so sometimes things get mixed up in the delivery.
Brown: What are some skills that you think everyone should learn?
Stern: I think everyone should learn to listen a little bit more, react a little bit less, and be a little bit nicer in their dissensions. We do not always have to agree but we don’t have to hate those that we disagree with. There is way too much hate and vitriol in this world.
Brown: If there was something in your past you were able to go back and do differently, what would that be?
Stern: I really don’t think I would change anything. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and have done some good things too. But if I were to change something back then, I don’t know what the outcome would be.
Brown: What’s the best part of your day and why is it the best part of your day?
Stern: Since I retired the best part of my day is finding a cool back road to explore. I also try to find a different little roadside place to stop and have lunch.
Brown: Talk about something that always cheers you up when you think about it?
Stern: When I think about the summers as a child, it always makes me smile.
Brown: To what do you attribute the biggest successes in your life?
Stern: I really don’t know what I would attribute the biggest success of my life to. I hope I have a lot of life still to live. I hope I’ve left a positive mark on every place I’ve lived and worked.
Brown: What are some of the events in your life that made you who you are?
Stern: I think the way my parents raised me is what made me the person I am. I’m a little bit of both of my parents–a bit of an artist and free spirit like my mother, and a bit of a businessman/community person like my dad.
Brown: An epic feast is held in your honor, what’s on the table?
Stern: If there were an epic feast in my honor that would probably be a lot of crow served. I don’t know why anyone would ever want to do such thing, but I would hope it would be something like a cheeseburger banquet, and since it’s epic, add truffle fries and poutine (mix of French fries, gravy, and cheese curds).
Brown: What do you do to improve your mood when you are in a bad mood?
Stern: I have been doing my best to avoid stress and not be in a bad mood, but when it does happen I tend to just listen to music or paint . . . or both!
Brown: What are you passionate about?
Stern: I’m pretty passionate about animal rights and animal safety. I have some friends that run animal shelters and I try to support them and help them however I can. There is no excuse for people not treating animals right!
Brown: What has become your routine since you retired? Do you have hobbies?
Stern: In my adult life I’ve never had a real hobby. In retirement, I’ve tried many different hobbies and so far I’ve enjoyed painting the most.
Since I retired I bought some rental property in my hometown. And since my father passed away, my sister and I have been running the Henry J. Stern Family Foundation, named for him in his honor. Last year we built a park and donated it to the city of Opelika. It has a dog park, a pavilion with some picnic tables, a little free library, and a one-eighth of a mile walking path. This month we are finishing Phase 1 of The Art Haus Project. We have been converting an old church into the Opelika Art Haus. We formed a Board of Directors (11 local friends, educators and artists) to help us with this project. It’s a space for artists to teach art classes and have exhibits. By the end of this year we should have the garage space converted into two private studios that artists are waiting to rent. Next year, we will begin Phase 2 and converting the former fellowship hall into 4 to 6 private art studios that we will rent to local artists. The Art Haus is right across the street from the park, both of which are two blocks from where we grew up.
A first for me—and the Art Haus—is that I taught the “ceremonial” first art class there with four kindergarteners and a 2-year-old!
Brown: What’s left on your bucket list?
Stern: I’m not really sure if I have a bucket list or not. There are many things that I would like to do but they involve things that I’m not sure I want to do like getting on airplanes. I very much enjoyed taking the long way to avoid the interstate and traffic. I’m very blessed and very lucky. So, actually my bucket list consists of what the next adventure is for the next day!