Millie Stern believed in nursing, and she believed in education.
She was 95 when she died, and in her memorial service earlier this month, she was remembered both for the decades she spent as a nurse, and her decades of teaching others to do a job she considered a sacred trust.
And Stern, who lived most of those years in Absecon, would come to depend on quality nursing care in her life too. She lived since 2002 in Villa Raffaella, an assisted-living home in Pleasantville, said her granddaughter, Joy Olp, of Englewood, Colo.
Stern was born Mildred Grim in 1918 in northwest Pennsylvania, but her family moved to New Jersey when she was a girl. She graduated from high school in Atlantic City in 1936, then went on to the Atlantic City Hospital School of Nursing. But her first professional job was back in Pennsylvania, at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
She returned to Atlantic City for World War II, though, when some of the city’s best hotels went from welcoming regular guests to healing wounded soldiers. Stern was a nurse at England General Hospital, as it was called, a role that would earn her an official citation she kept until she died. The certificate, hand-signed by five members of the Atlantic City Commission, thanked her for “patriotic services rendered” to her city, and her country, in the war.
Then from being a nurse herself, Stern moved on to teaching others the job by founding the Atlantic City School of Practical Nursing. But she also stayed a student for years, going for an education degree at Rutgers in Camden, and studying at Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania, among others.
“She’d say, ‘Without education, you have nothing’ — that was something she passed along to me,” Olp remembered. “She’d say, ‘If you want to go farther, you have to learn.’”
Olp was the only grandchild of Millie and Myron Louis Stern — or Buddy, as everyone called him. Buddy, a Syracuse University graduate who loved fishing, was older than Millie by a dozen or so years, and they apparently met in a corner store he ran in Atlantic City.
“He saw her and was absolutely smitten with her ... until the day he left the Earth,” Olp said. That was in 1998, when Buddy was 92.
The couple had just one child, Marsha, but after Olp was born 46 years ago, Millie and Buddy raised her until she was 8. She declined to go into detail on why; she would say only that “my grandparents stepped up when nobody else would.”
But Millie’s life wasn’t all nursing and family. As a young woman, she had a brief stay in one of Atlantic City’s signature jobs — riding Steel Pier’s legendary diving horses.
“She said it stung when you hit the water, and ... you had to keep your eyes closed,” said Olp, who grew up on that story. “I just thought that was the neatest thing ever. I was always fascinated with horses, I loved them and I loved the water, and I grew up there on the bay” with her grandparents in Absecon.
Millie had more stories. There was the night she was called on for a top-secret nursing mission — to tend to an ailing Frank Sinatra in Atlantic City. She realized he’d just had a few drinks too many, but she stayed on the job through his bad bad night. And the star thanked her by treating Millie and Buddy to a top-shelf steak dinner.
And in her years studying at Temple, she met a student who would go on to be a headliner in Atlantic City and across the country — although he was just a Philadelphia kid named Bill Cosby in his college days.
Later in her career, Millie became a health teacher at Atlantic City High School. That’s the job she retired from, “But I know she held her nurse’s license into the 1990s,” her granddaughter said, and along with her teaching, and encouraging others to learn, she kept learning herself.
“Until her mind started to go, she would look up a new word every day of her life. The thirst for knowledge in this woman was just insatiable,” Olp said.
A few years after Buddy died, Millie came to accept that she couldn’t live on her own anymore. A friend brought her to Villa Raffaella, run by the Hospitaler Sisters of Mercy, and Millie liked what she saw, and felt. She ended up living there 11 years, through times of both clarity and dementia.
No one from the facility was available to answer a reporter’s questions about her, but people who know her say the old nurse was in the right place.
“She had helped so many,” her granddaughter said. “And in a way, she couldn’t have had better care. She adored the nuns there, and the sisters loved her.”
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