August 16, 1999

Philip Stern in Market Square at stone with inscription he composed in 1975.

"Pause O restless passers-by
Hear ye the lively stir of trade
Whilst echoes of freedom's fury
Rise above the reek of burning tea
Mingling with the brisk breezes of the sea."
--- Philip Stern

Webmaster's note: This story is offered in fuller context with the retrospective "Reflections of the Waterside ... throughout the generations" (link within).


Written in Stone

Almost 25 years later, Market Square poem's author is recognized

By Sonya Vartabedian
Daily News Staff

For 24 years, people have walked across the poetic inscription carved in granite in Newburyport's Market Square, often oblivious to the words below their feet.

Those who did take notice may have momentarily stopped and pondered the five lines extolling the virtues of the city's forebears before continuing on their way.

No name existed to connect with the words, no reason to be found for why they are there.

Now, at least part of the secret has been revealed.

The city has put a name to the verse, giving credit to a humble local man who penned the poem out of fondness for his adopted community.

Philip J. Stern's name was added last month to the marker --- some 2-1/2 decades after it was first installed in the brick bullnose in Market Square.

The public recognition came at the prodding of friends and acquaintances over the years who simply believed it was the right thing to do.

To the 88-year-old Stern, the addition of his name was unnecessary, a bit eerie to see etched in stone, yet gratifying at the same time.

"I wasn't screaming, 'When's my name going to be on it," He said, "But now that it's been done, I like it."

Stern, a former New York City fine arts teacher in West Harlem, and his wife, Maria, a piano teacher, chose Newburyport some 30 years ago as the place to live out their retirement.

They became enamored of the city on their first visit here.

After spending three summers in Newburyport, they permanently relocated from New York to their mid-18th century home on Salem Street in 1969.

Sitting in the home's parlor last week, with his wife of 62 years, Stern is surrounded by paintings of former students and local artists and an eclectic collection of decorative pieces acquired on travels near and far.

Thumbing through a scrapbook and newspapers clippings, he recalled events that led to the Market Square inscription in 1975.

Stern learned of a city-wide contest to develop the wording for a new marker in the square, and decided to enter.

"It was a challenge I couldn't resist," he said. "It was like working on a crossword puzzle, I got hung up on it."

The rules were quite specific --- impart the historical importance of Market Square and the merchants who made it a thriving community during the 1700s. And rigid --- limit it to 150 characters (about 25 words) or less.

"I wanted something that would be good for the past, good for the present, and augur well for the future," he said, adding, "I was obliged to be direct."

His wife became a sounding board for his ideas and revisions. Handwritten worksheets containing phrases and words like liberty, freedom and fury cries filled several pieces of note paper before the final work was complete.

"He would read to me every night," said Maria Stern. "I would say, 'That's good. That's not good. I don't like that word."

In the end, Stern needed just 138 characters to convey his message.

He decided to focus on a revolutionary act in 1773 when citizens staged a tea-burning in Market Square to protest a newly imposed British tax.

The burning of tea as a protest, he figured, is something that all ages can understand.

But the man who grew up in a Hungarian neighborhood in the Bronx also wanted to interject his own feelings into the limited number of words --- he and his wife's love for the sea and the hospitality the city has provided them.

All of the elements, he said, went into the planning of the verse.

"It's more than just a message," he said. "It's a reflection of a lifestyle."

Stern's entry was selected from 58 submissions to fill the large circular marker. The words are set around an historic compass design based on actual compasses from the collection of the Historical Society of Old Newbury.

With his selection came a $100 savings bond, which he returned to the city for use in the beautification of Market Square.

He attended the July 1975 dedication that included then Gov. Michael Dukasis and Mayor Byron Matthews and coincided with the Bicentennial and Newburyport's annual Yankee Homecoming celebration.

"Newburyport opened up a new life for Maria and myself," said Stern this week, "and I wanted to use the inscription to say 'thank you' to Newburyport for opening my eyes to new things that I had never thought of."

History and knowledge are critical to the Sterns. Soon after their arrival in Newburyport, they began poring through books and accounts to learn more about their community, its history and the famous people who made it to their home.

"Even though people know they live in a city of significance," he said, "they themselves can't understand it until they peruse the volumes that have been written."

"Over the years, they have been approached to lend their energy and knowledge to various cultural and community groups in town.

He joined the Society for the Development of Arts and Humanities as it was forming and served for many hears. He also belongs to the Newburyport Art Association, and is a former member of the Newbury Arts Lottery (now Cultural) Council.

She was one of the first presidents of the Newburyport Music Society and still teaches piano.

Known for speaking out on issues they believe strongly in, they were both part of the Committee for an Open Waterfront from its start.

Today, Stern is fearful the city will grow to such a degree that it will lose the very thing that attracted him and his wife here years ago --- its historic charm.

He takes pride in seeing the city's past remaining such a visible part of its present, and he hopes, the future.

"You can be just an ordinary person here, but you're never ordinary. You're significant," he said. "I don't know if I've every walked around the city with visitors and not felt the same spirit they feel.

"It's still a place of great magical quality."

(This article replicated online with permission of the Newburyport Daily News, an Eagle Tribune Newspaper.)
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