Charles Stander is a Michigan boy through and through, having grown up in Saginaw, and attending colleges in the state. He has retired from a career with the IRS, and now lives with his wife Terri in a “fixer upper” – which in this case is a stately, century old, home (nay, mansion) on Summit Avenue, where his family frequently hosts events for Mount Zion and others. This photo was taken while giving some of us a tour of the second floor, just after a Klezmer concert that they recently hosted.
Where were you born and raised?
I grew up in Saginaw, Michigan, in a single-family home in a neighborhood that was mostly General Motors families. When my father graduated from medical school at the University of Michigan, he was looking for a place to practice. And at that time, being Jewish, he thought that Saginaw would be a fairly open community, so he began his internship there. And that’s where he met my mother – she was a secretary at the hospital.
Was she Jewish?
Oh no! She was a strong Wisconsin Synod Lutheran!
What about your grandparents?
My father’s parents were immigrants from Latvia. They were in an arranged marriage, and first came to New York City. My grandmother was in the millinery business there, so she always had the nicest clothes. My wife and I did research in Latvia on the family history a few years ago – we arranged our own trip to Eastern Europe and Russia. Unfortunately we went during Easter, which it turns out is a four-day holiday there, so the official offices were closed. We did go to the Jewish community center in Riga and were able to do a bit of research, and we walked through the neighborhoods, and visited Jewish museums.
What did your grandfather do?
He became a master plumber and he did well enough to help support several others in the family go to college. He helped one of his nephews, Lionel Stander, who then left college to become an actor. He was in Hart to Hart and lots of other shows. But early in his career he was taken before the House Committee on Un-American Activities by Joe McCarthy.
(Editor’s note: looking online, Lionel Stander will be very recognizable to many of us, having received a Golden Globe for his work on TV.)
What about your immediate family growing up?
My father was born and raised in Chicago, but his family ended up moving to Detroit where my grandfather opened a plumbing business. My mother was a community activist, among other things. She was a thorn in a lot of people’s sides, including the Lutheran church.
My sister was a librarian and taught at the Prince Georges County Community College, but she passed away in 1988. And my brother Aaron Stander is a retired professor, after getting his degree from the University of Michigan. He is now a best-selling author and still living in Michigan.
Really? Is there a book of his that you’ve read recently?
Oh, that would probably be Murder in the Merlot
What was family life like growing up?
Well my father started his medical practice with an office in the house, but even then physicians had a hard time making it. There were seven other physicians within two blocks of our house that also had offices in their homes. But my mother’s father was an elder of the church, and he marketed my father within the church. By the time my father retired he probably had more patients from the St. Paul Wisconsin Synod Lutheran church than from any other congregation in the city.
I went to public school, but also Sunday school through confirmation at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, and we celebrated Christmas and Easter. But my mother was interested in all religions, especially Judaism, and she was the one that kept Judaism alive in our family. We would celebrate the holidays at home, and host Seders, inviting Jews from the community.
My father was a non-identifying Jew when it came to religious practice, but he was very loyal and generous when it came to the founding of Israel. There was an active Jewish population in Saginaw. The JCC and temple were combined in one building, and he was active in that and was president of the B’nai B’rith. There were many Jewish professionals and merchants in our lives, so it felt like a close community.
Can you describe your house growing up?
It was at 1411 Court Street in Saginaw. It’s not there anymore, but it had been a lumber baron’s house. There were seven chimneys in it, when my parents bought it, and a potbelly stove in each room. But they eventually put in forced air heat. And my father also owned an apartment building nearby, so that is where I learned a lot of my skills for doing renovations, by helping him at the house and apartment.
You attended public schools?
I went to grade school and junior high in Saginaw, but for high school I went to the Interlochen arts academy, which was about 136 miles from Saginaw, and I lived on site there. And that is where I started to make a much stronger Jewish connection.
How did you end up going there?
I was a bit of a mischief maker early on, so by junior high I thought it was time to start a new life and figured it out on my own. About two months before applying there, I stopped at an art store and bought some watercolors and a book about painting, and I created a portfolio of my watercolor paintings. My parents couldn’t figure out what was going on – why I suddenly started painting. And I picked up an application for Interlochen, and turned it in with my portfolio. The school told me that I had some talent and could attend, though they were probably just trying to fill their enrollment. But I came home one day and told my parents “you know, I put in an application to Interlochen, and they would like to speak to you.” My father was heartbroken because I was signed up for varsity football, but I ended up being able to go.
Were you any good at football?
No. I wasn’t that interested in football. Anybody could make the varsity team.
And you graduated from Interlochen in art?
Well, when I got there I realized it was a very intensive art program, but I noticed the orchestra playing and it seemed like they had a lot more fun. And I had played a little violin back in elementary school in junior high school, so by my junior year I took out my violin and started to practice five hours a day and was eventually accepted into the orchestra for my senior year. I even made it to the second last chair of the second violin section.
What about that portfolio you created, do you still have it?
No, when I was in college I basically gave it all away. There was a German professor in East Lansing who just loved it, and she took all my pictures and had them framed.
Was there a pivot point in your life, when you discovered, or rediscovered your Judaism?
It probably was at Interlochen. There were many Jews at Interlochen, and just hanging out with them had a positive effect. There were even some students there about the same time that are now members of Mount Zion. We also had to major in a language, and I chose Spanish, and got to spend a summer abroad, in Valencia Spain.
Where did you go after graduating from Interlochen?
Then I went to college at Michigan State in East Lansing, and ended up majoring in history and secondary education. While I was there I spent one semester studying in Israel, at the Jacob Hiatt Institute.
And after college?
After that I joined the Peace Corps. During junior high, one day back in 1960, my sister was driving me down Court Street, and as we were turning the corner on Michigan Avenue, there was a news program on the radio. John F. Kennedy was announcing the start of a program called the Peace Corps, where young Americans could show the true American spirit of democracy and idealism. And I thought, “yes, that’s for me!” And that stayed with me for the next several years.
I also remember very vividly the day they showed the first group of Peace Corps volunteers on TV. They were being sent to Nigeria and came to the White House where they were greeted by President Kennedy. And I actually once met one of those first volunteers. Terri and I host a party for Peace Corps alumni each year, in early December. If you know any alumni, let me know. As many as 200 people show up, and one of those first volunteers once came to our party.
How did you like Korea?
It was plain wonderful! In Korea everyone becomes your relative. And everyone is so friendly. At first I lived in a village called ChoongSong, which is in the province of KangWonDo, and from there I moved to the provincial capital Chun Cheong City. I served in Korea for 27 months, working in the health centers, doing tuberculosis follow-up and control programs.
And what did you do after Korea?
The teacher’s market was flooded when I came back home, so I went on for a Masters degree in accountancy at Central Michigan University, in Mount Pleasant.
And from there? I assume Terri was in the picture around this time.
No, Terri came along in 1982. After my Masters, in 1977 I moved to St. Paul to work for the Internal Revenue Service. At first, I rented for a year on the east side of St. Paul, and then I bought my first house, from the president of the Hell’s Outcasts – a three-story Victorian house at 693 York. It was a marvelous house but had been in bad shape, so I ended up having to restore it.
That’s been the story of my life – living in houses that were basically dumps that needed to be fixed up. My house growing up had seven potbellies, and my father was one of these people who will not hire anything out, so he had to do it all himself. Even with the apartment house next to us, he would do all the maintenance, and I would always be his assistant.
Where did you move after the place on York? Was it also a fixer upper?
Was it ever a fixer upper! That’s the understatement of the day! In 1992 we moved to 533 Portland. It had been on the market for 36 hours when we bought it. It had been built in 1883 by the architect Charles Mold, who was a friend of Cass Gilbert. He built it as a house for short term stays by executives of the Burlington Northern railroad company, but by the time we bought it, it had been divided into 13 separate living units. In fact, when we bought the house we were not able to even see the room that would become our bedroom, since there was a tenant living there who had the only key. When we moved in there were still tenants living in the house, who stayed for several more months until they could find new places to stay.
And how about your current house on Summit, how did that come to be?
We were walking to Walgreens one day and there was an open house there. My wife always had this fantasy of living on Summit Avenue, but she was concerned that I was getting too old to paint a house. But this was a brick house! By then it was in its second foreclosure, so we made an offer at a hundred thousand less than the asking price, and negotiated something close to that. A day or two after signing the purchase agreement we were walking by and saw a sign that the city had posted on the door – “unfit for habitation.” It had to do with the eaves and other things, so we eventually negotiated an additional $10,000 off the purchase price.
Our current house was built in 1905, by a cooper smith who had a shop on Selby Avenue. Later it was the home of a St. Paul mayor, Taylor, and by 1919 it was owned by a vice president of the Great Northern Railroad. He lived there until he died in 1939, in a bathroom of the house. And I think he might have broken the toilet tank when he died because when I took it down to work on it, I noticed that it had a manufacture date of 1939. Then his wife maintained the house until 1967. It’s important to note that during the depression, our house on Portland had been turned into multiple living units. But the house on Summit did not. She didn’t have to rent out rooms to make ends meet. And it was well constructed, including steel I-beams that let them build the front room extra large, and nearly fireproof since it was built from firebrick, the same as the brick at Saint Thomas More school.
So, let’s skip to Terri. When did you two meet?
When we met she was also a revenue agent at the IRS, and often worked the front line phones. I used to have quiche parties with women from work, because I was a vegetarian at the time, and they once invited her to come along.
Was she from Minnesota?
Her family had moved here from California when her father, Watson Fearing, took a job at 3M’s Riker labs. And she joined the family a few years later, in her 20s, driving her old Chevy here. And we were married at Mount Zion in 1982 by Rabbi Lerner. At first we had looked into another temple in town, but they were not at all welcoming. Then Terri’s mother had seen something in the Pioneer Press about Mount Zion so we came to check it out. And Rabbi Kadden met us and he was just so happy and delighted to see us.
And how about your family today?
We have a daughter, Hannah, who is married to John, and our son Jordan, who is working in California, and daughter Madeleine. And Hannah has three children, including a daughter and twin sons.
Can you tell me about your work at the IRS?
I was a revenue agent, and would go around auditing businesses.
Did you ever audit anybody famous?
Can you tell me who?
I can’t tell you. But yes, loads of famous people.
OK, before we wrap up, I’ve noticed a lot of interesting art around your house. Do you have any pieces that you particularly prize?
(thinking) It might be my Balinese artwork, paintings that I got when I was in the Peace Corps. At one point several of us volunteers had a month off, and visited Southeast Asia, and I had a great time in Bali.
How about favorite teachers?
That would probably be Thor Johnson, who was the high school orchestra director at Interlochen. He had a keen insight into so many things, including religion, as well as culture and music. When we would play the works of Sibelius, he would tell us about all the times he had met Sibelius, and little stories about him. And the same with Zoltan Kodaly and Pablo Casals.
You must have favorite heirlooms.
We have loads of them. I have several of my grandfather’s plumbing tools – some of his old wrenches, and his professional pipe cutter. But my favorite is probably our baby grand piano. It’s over 100 years old, and I got it when my parents passed away. And it has a long history. In 1919, two unmarried Jewish brothers in Saginaw closed their department store, and moved all of its inventory into their home on the east side. For decades my father took care of the brothers, but never billed them anything. He would walk into their house and both sides of the living room and dining room would be filled from floor to ceiling with their inventory.
By the time they passed away in 1956 it was all donated to the Temple, and the women had a rummage sale – to sell off all this inventory from 1919. Under all the stuff they found two Steinway pianos – a baby grand and a concert grand. The concert grand went to the Jewish community center, but the Temple decided to give the baby grand to my father, for having taken care of the brothers all those years. So in the mid-1950s he had it rebuilt, and now we have it in our living room.
There is another story about that piano, and the Israeli pianist David bar Ilan. One time he came to Saginaw to play with the Symphony orchestra, and since my mother was on the Board, he stayed with us. He practiced on the piano at our home, and he loved it so much that they he had it moved down to auditorium so he could play it for the concert. And that happened twice, he stayed with us twice, and had the piano moved both times.
Do you play the piano now? What do you think will happen to it?
No, I’m trying to learn on my own. Hopefully one of our grandchildren will learn how to play someday, and we can keep it in the family.
Maybe you should practice five hours a day. It seemed to worked before. Thanks for getting together.