Joel Stern ’75 was “Mad” About New York City

Joel Stern ’75 is the author of numerous books and kits on origami, and has created origami for television, commercials and movies. He also conducts origami workshops for museums, schools and libraries; designs pop-up books; and creates pop-up cards for family and friends. After earning a B.A. in English, Stern received an M.A. in Jewish literature from the Jewish Theological Seminary; he then relocated to Los Angeles and made a career as a business analyst and technical writer, while working part-time as a cantor and pursuing his passion for origami. Stern and his wife have three children and three grandchildren.


What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I was a fresh-off-the-plane kid from Omaha who had never been to New York. Still, having grown up on Mad Magazine and Woody Allen films, I felt I understood the “New York” sensibility — cynical, literate and colorful — and anticipated that I would enjoy living in such a different, yet somehow familiar, world. On my very first day I paid a visit to the Mad offices on Madison Avenue, and came away with a picture of Alfred E. Neuman inscribed to me by Antonio Prohías (creator of “Spy vs. Spy”). After scoring that picture on Day One, I felt that in New York anything was possible.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

I was happy that my suitemates in 1004 Carman, who hailed from Denver, Colo., and Darien, Conn., were just as eager to explore the wonders of New York as I was. Together we bought and shared a small refrigerator and hot plate, but neglected to buy a broom and dustpan, thus creating a challenge for the cleaning crew when we left for winter break. Our floor decided to buy a ping pong table, which unfortunately was positioned just outside our door. It took a while, but we managed to synchronize our sleep patterns to the rhythm of the late-night games.

What Core class or experience do you most remember, and why?

My Lit Hum professor Pellegrino A. D’Acierno’65, GSAS’73 was a brilliant and kind man who not only nurtured our intellects, but cared for us as people. Because he was a member of the Italian department, our classes were held at Casa Italiana, a wondrous setting in which to study literature. Professor D’Acierno’s other passion was film, particularly Fellini, and I remember being exposed to a flood of new and extraordinary ideas that still resonate in me to this day.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

I loved secreting myself within the stacks of Butler Library. The compact study areas at the end of the narrow, dark aisles offered a womb-like environment that was ideal for contemplation and study, and I enjoyed many productive hours there. By my senior year the public areas had been renovated with warm lights and nice, big leather chairs, but I still gravitated to the stacks for the solitude and sense of focus they provided.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

I’m happy to say that I took classes in many different areas, not just my major, and was challenged and stimulated by all of them. I also took advantage of the many activities offered on campus and throughout the city. If I were to choose one thing to do over, it would have been to go beyond satisfying the one-year athletics requirement by continuing tennis lessons in Riverside Park with superstar Butch Seewagen, who had defeated Jimmy Connors in 1972. He was an amazing coach!