Profile: Allan Stern

His first try at college mostly fizzled but that was okay, because it landed him in Hawaii. He teaches safety, but he’s led a daredevil life … rocketing around on a Harley, skydiving, bungee jumping, scuba diving, traveling to remote corners of the world and flying not one, but two airplanes he’s built. His academic journey has been anything but orthodox. He earned three degrees then went to work as an auto mechanic. He never intended to be a teacher but he’s been on the Marshall faculty for the past 34 years. And oh yes, he’s a pretty good actor as well.

His life has been full of paradoxes, but Dr. Allan Stern doesn’t mind. He’s made lemonade out of lemons so many times he could open a concession stand. Growing up in Fullerton, Calif., with dreams of becoming a marine biologist, it surely never entered his mind that one day he would land at Marshall, deep in the hills of West Virginia, where’s he’s now the chair of the Division of Applied Science and Technology in the College of Information Technology and Engineering.

Although he’s veered off the academic path more than once, actually he started out traditionally by enrolling in his hometown Fullerton College to earn a degree. That didn’t work out well. So, hoping to bolster flagging grades and to pursue his long-held fantasy of becoming a marine biologist, he packed up and headed to the University of Hawaii, that sun-splashed land with its pristine beaches and legendary waves—and, unfortunately, calculus and organic chemistry, as it turned out. He hadn’t counted on that. “I didn’t realize that marine biologists had to take subjects like that,” he says wryly. “That blew me out of the water. There was no way that career goal was going to happen.”

So it was time to put a hastily formulated Plan B into action. Fortunately UH had an industrial education degree and since Stern has always been good with his hands, he changed course again and earned a B.Ed. degree. There was only one problem. He didn’t want to teach and that’s primarily what his degree prepared him to do. There were some big career decisions to be made, but whatever path he chose, he knew it was time to leave Hawaii. And then another one of those lucky flukes, which seemed to dot his life, happened.

Stern got his first motorcycle in Hawaii. (He’d always wanted one, but his father had forbidden them in his household.) He was soon tooling around the islands, particularly in Waikiki and Honolulu, observing life up close and exploring locales well off the beaten tourist routes. It was a heady time to be young, free and living in a place most people could only dream of visiting. But in riding a motorcycle, he had to share the road with others and the congested island traffic could be brutal, he quickly found out, making riding safely a real challenge. “The traffic was really bad, extremely congested and I realized people were trying to kill me,” he says candidly.

Fortunately a Miami University professor who had been to Hawaii on a sabbatical sent literature about their M.Ed. program at Miami, which mentioned they had a driver’s education program. Soon he was off to Oxford, Ohio, with some very grandiose plans. “I had dreams of being the number one motorcycle safety expert in the country, so I went from marine biology to motorcycle safety.”

He still didn’t want to teach, but once again his accumulating degrees continued to push him in that direction. Reluctantly, he took a teaching assignment in Blue Ash, Ohio. That didn’t go well; he was out of there at the end of the semester. “I just wasn’t ready to teach,” he says frankly . “I didn’t have a great experience while I was there. I was like, ‘Oh, if this is what teaching is going to be like, I don’t think so.’”

By that time he was getting adroit at reevaluating his options, so, with his M.Ed. in hand, he headed home to Fullerton. He’d always been an academic maverick, so he had no qualms whatsoever about sliding down the academic ladder a notch, enrolling in Fullerton College, the institution he had abandoned years ago, but this time to pursue an A.A. with a major in auto mechanics. With his mechanical curiosity and hands-on know-how, that actually wasn’t much of a stretch for him.

That’s how it came about that, with three degrees in hand, he became a garage mechanic, and a good one at that. But even there he hit some bumps in the road. “I went to work in the middle of a recession, so people weren’t repairing their cars and business was really slow. Fortunately I was living at home, or I would have starved.”

But life still had another twist for him just around the bend. Because of his unique background he was offered an assistantship at Texas A&M, where they were working with traffic and motorcycle safety at the time, and it proved to be a perfect fit for him. He stayed on to complete an Ed.D in Industrial Education with a specialization in safety. “We had a big driver’s ed program there, so it was basically traffic safety,” he says. And then, after graduating in August 1977, the man who had resisted teaching throughout his entire career, whose brief foray into it had been less than successful, and who had repeatedly changed course to avoid it, finally found his calling and found somewhat to his surprise that not only was he very, very good at it, but he actually liked it, after all!

That’s why it wasn’t too big a leap when he came to Marshall in 1977. A minor in traffic safety was being offered through the College of Education. The program left COE in December 1999 and joined the division of Applied Science and Technology, part of the College of Information Technology and Engineering (CITE). Stern has served as the chair of Applied Science and Technology for the past eight years.

In 1986 he had the opportunity to spend a year working in Saudi Arabia as part of their Ministry of the Interior, helping with traffic safety. He worked with their Traffic Directorate. “It was kind of like a Police Department,” he explains. “The work was challenging.” The generally loquacious Stern actually has little to say about his stay in Saudi Arabia except to comment, “Let’s just say it was 180 degrees from what I was used to and I was glad to get back to this country.”

As the 1980s drew to a close, the traveling bug hit him big time. Fitting world travel in as time has permitted, to date he’s been to 50 countries, including countless islands, and he’ll be heading off later this month on an African safari. He has a particular fondness for cruises—so far he’s been on 16.

Back in the 1990s he grew restless with just tooling around on his Harley, jumping off bridges on a bungee cord and exploring coral reefs, so he decided to take flying lessons, getting his license in 1993. If he was going to keep flying, he figured he needed an airplane, so he decided to build one. He purchased a kit in early 2002 and spent five years building it, taking the first flight in 2007. And a few years later, when he decided to build a second one, he cut the time down to two years. He figures if he ever goes for a third one he can make it in a year or so.

And Stern casually demystifies flying your own plane. With his aircraft now housed at Tri-State Airport, “basically you just pull out of the hangar and go wherever you want,” he says nonchalantly. Sometimes he and a friend will hop aboard and make a breakfast run to Portsmouth. That can be pretty pricey however—airplane fuel runs $6 a gallon and the plane burns eight gallons an hour, but it’s fun, so it’s worth it to him. And to no one’s surprise, he’s done some skydiving. He did a free-fall tandem jump in Hawaii and took a couple of static jumps “just to see what it was like.” The grandfather of four, so far he hasn’t taken his plane to Little Rock, Ark., where his daughter, Angela, lives but he won’t rule that out as a future flight.

And just as he had no qualms at all taking flight in the sky, back on the ground the multi-faceted Stern delights in taking a flight of another kind, a flight of fancy on the theatrical stage. He’s an accomplished actor who’s been entertaining audiences with a local theater company that offers a mixture of improvisation and mayhem through Murder in Merriment, which stages audience-interactive mysteries at The Greenhouse in Teays Valley, Heritage Station in Huntington and other locations. The actors perform without a formal script, extemporaneously drawing the audience into their mischief. The roles are demanding because they require inventive versatility and lightning-quick improvisation skills, as the actors never know from show to show what characters they’ll be playing or even what story will be unfolding. “We never know who’s going to be killed off until we get there,” he says. And the stories and settings change from performance to performance. One night he might be the dastardly killer, the next, the hapless victim. He’s run the gamut from good guys to really, really bad guys and he’s played one character, Luca Rossi, so often he had business cards made up for him.

He’s done his share of scripted shows for other community theater groups as well. In fact, audiences can catch him this month in the First Stage Theater’s production of “Scrooge, the Musical” where he’ll be Jacob Marley, that bedraggled harbinger of foreboding. He’s actually played Scrooge in other productions, along with a long list of other colorful characters. He also was in the movie “We Are Marshall” as an extra and appeared in a few more locally produced movies. His acting also includes several television commercials. In fact, look for him in a current commercial for the Barnyard BBQ restaurant in Teays Valley.

His zest for life seems as limitless as the skies in which he flies and he delights in pushing boundaries to the edge. “I like to keep life interesting,” he says in an understatement. “I’ve got to be doing something. I don’t like to be bored.”


Photos: Dr. Allan Stern in two of his recent acting roles, on a trip to Egypt and in China.