Mervyn Hayden Sterne (1892-1973) was a financial advisor to Alabama businesses and governmental entities for more than five decades. Sterne is probably best known for his pioneering work in the financing of Alabama schools by promoting the three-mill property tax. To boost the state's economy, Sterne and his company bid on county and state road construction bonds to increase the price of these securities, thus allowing the governments to receive a fair price. Sterne's civic and charitable endeavors were always an essential part of his life, and friends remember him commenting on the necessity of paying "civic rent."
Sterne was born on August 2, 1892, in Anniston, Calhoun County, to Anselm Sterne and Henrietta Smith Sterne. Sterne moved to Birmingham, Jefferson County, in 1909 from Anniston to work as a stenographer. After a few years, he opened his own firm, M. H. Sterne & Company, which specialized in the buying and selling of securities. George B. Ward, a former mayor of Birmingham, worked with Sterne to form Ward, Sterne & Company. They were later joined by Rucker Agee and Edmund C. Leach, and the company became known as Ward, Sterne, Agee & Leach.
In 1917, after the outbreak of World War I, Sterne volunteered for the U.S. Army, serving as a lieutenant in the 55th Infantry in France. When he returned to the United States after the war, Sterne raised more than $400,000 to aid Europe's Jews. He married the former Dorah Heyman of Atlanta, Georgia, in 1921, with whom he would have one daughter.
In the late 1920s, Sterne undertook efforts to improve the financing of Alabama schools. Sterne and his company bid on county and state road construction bonds to increase the price of these securities to allow state and local governments to receive a fair price, to advance the state's economy, and to encourage others to do likewise. His support of the three-mill property tax was a major driving force in building schools in Alabama. His leadership in other major fundraising drives over the years benefited organizations such as the Holy Family Hospital and Jefferson County Community Chest.
In the 1930s, Sterne was a member of the first Department of Public Welfare Board of Jefferson County and the Alabama State Planning Commission. He strove to serve all of the citizens of Alabama by chairing the Citizens' Committee on Birmingham School Financial Problems, the Citizens' Committee on Jefferson County Financial Conditions, and Alabama Education Commission's finance committee. He was involved with and chaired the Community Chest Appeal, the first (1936) Red Cross War Fund Appeal in Jefferson County, and the Advisory Board of the Salvation Army. As an active member of Temple Emanu-El, he served as president of the Congregation from 1937 to 1940. He also chaired the Jefferson County Coordinating Council of Social Forces to survey the health, welfare, and recreational needs of the citizens.
In World War II, he re-entered the U.S. Army as a colonel with the General Staff Corps for which he received the Legion of Merit for his contribution to implementing effective personnel controls over some 1.5 million military and civilian personnel and prisoners. After the war, in 1947, Sterne organized a joint fund-raising drive for Birmingham-Southern College and Howard College (now Samford University) that brought in more than $1.5 million and in the same year was largely responsible for raising $400,000 for the Birmingham United Jewish Fund as its first chair.
In 1948, he was nominated for Birmingham Man of the Year. From 1950-1956, Sterne was active on the Interracial Committee that successfully desegregated the elevators in office buildings; the group was unsuccessful, however, in persuading the Birmingham City Commission to allow blacks to serve on the city's police force. During the same period, he was an organizer and long-time member of the board of the Junior Chamber of Commerce, president of the Birmingham Library Board, and vice chairman of the Birmingham Art Museum. Sterne served as chairman of the Committee on Public Credit of the Alabama Bankers Association, a member of the Birmingham Industrial Development Board, and a trustee of Birmingham-Southern College.
Sterne served on the boards of directors of a number of business enterprises, including Alabama By-Products Corporation, Ensley Company, Avondale Mills, Hayes International Corporation, and Alabama Chemical Products Company of Birmingham. These leadership roles led in 1968 to his being recognized as one of the South's leading investment bankers by the Alabama Securities Dealers and to his receiving other honors for his civic and charitable endeavors. He received honorary degrees from state public and private academic institutions, including a Doctor of Humanities from Howard College, a Doctor of Literature from Birmingham-Southern College, and a Doctor of Laws from the University of Alabama. Sterne was also named an honorary member of Omicron Delta Kappa, and B'nai B'rith Humanitarian of the Year in 1962.
At the time of his death in 1973, Sterne was still serving as the senior partner of Sterne, Agee & Leach, Inc. Mervyn H. Sterne died August 11, 1973, in Birmingham. Sterne was inducted into the Alabama Academy of Honor in that year and in 1975 into the Alabama Business Hall of Fame. The University of Alabama at Birmingham's new University College Library was dedicated to his memory in 1974.
J. Fred Olive III
University of Alabama at Birmingham
Published August 3, 2009
Last updated November 20, 2012