For Donna and Hans Sternberg ’57, a serendipitous introduction to Princeton has led to a lifetime of giving back
Hans Sternberg ’57 applied to Princeton on a whim and has thanked his stars ever since for doing so. “At the time, you could send your SAT test results to three schools without an extra cost, so I sent mine to the University of Pennsylvania and Ohio State because my brother was there,” he said. “I didn’t have a preference for the third, so I sent them to Princeton since that was where the testing bureau was located.”
The year was 1953 and he was a senior at Baton Rouge University High School. “I told my English teacher that I’d been accepted to Wharton at UPenn and that was where I planned to go,” he said. “Then I told her I also got accepted to Princeton.”
The next thing Hans knew, the teacher had him in the school’s office, where the principal was talking to Hans’ father. Erich Sternberg was a Jewish immigrant who fled Nazi Germany to the U.S. in 1936. “My father didn’t speak English when he arrived here, so he would work all day and take English lessons at night,” Hans said. “They decided I needed to go to Princeton.”
“It’s a good thing your father listened to the principal,” Donna Sternberg said. “Princeton has played a significant and meaningful role in our lives over the years.” Donna accompanied Hans to his 25th Reunion and they’ve returned for almost every major reunion since. They met after being set up on a blind date in 1965 when she was a senior at the University of Texas, and they married in 1967.
The couple’s devotion to Old Nassau extends far beyond the formative experience Hans had on campus. For the past 40 years, the Sternbergs have sustained their Princeton relationship, first with Hans serving in the Princeton Alumni Association of Baton Rouge and Donna serving on the advisory council for the Center of International Studies, and then both being stalwart donors to Annual Giving and the Art Museum.
Their gratitude to Princeton spurred them to set up the Hans J. Sternberg ’57 and Donna W. Sternberg Scholarship Fund earlier this year. They are members of the 1746 Society as well, recently documenting a bequest that will benefit the University by adding to their entrepreneurship fund.
“We have a beautiful and unusual Arthur Dove oil painting that will eventually belong to Princeton,” Donna said. Dove, whose first one-person exhibit was in 1912, is widely considered one of the first American abstract painters; his use of stylized forms influenced painters like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. “This is one of his earliest works, so it’s invaluable when it comes to studying his evolution as an artist,” she added.
The couple’s interest in art can be traced back to Princeton. “Hans took a course on contemporary art appreciation to fill his schedule,” Donna said. “And it’s amazing the impact that course has had on our lives.” Besides inspiring their involvement in the Princeton University Art Museum, the course was an impetus for the couple to become avid collectors of modern art.
A Family Business
After graduating from Princeton with an economics degree, Hans spent two years in the Navy before returning to Baton Rouge to work in the family business, which at that point was a single department store. His father bought it in 1939 and over the next 50 years, the store would become the genesis of Goudchaux’s/Maison Blanche, which Hans says was once the largest family-owned department chain in the U.S. In 2009, Hans wrote a book about his family’s journey from immigrants to department store titans called “We Were Merchants.”
By the time his father died in 1965 and Hans took the helm of the family business, the chain was growing at a steady rate. “Fortunately, we were successful — we went from one department store to eventually 24 and grew the business that way,” Hans said. At its height, Goudchaux’s/Maison Blanche operated stores in Louisiana and Florida, employing more than 8,000 people.
Donna came to work at Goudchaux’s/Maison Blanche in 1967, shortly after their wedding. “I came from a retail background, so I wanted to be in the business and learn,” Donna said. “We both loved working there; it was a big part of the conversation around the dinner table.”
In 1992, an economic downturn led the Sternbergs to sell Goudchaux’s/Maison Blanche. Since then, the couple has run Starmount, a life insurance company, and currently owns a human resource firm named High Flyer. For the Sternbergs, running their businesses together has meant continually investing in their family. “Our parents always worked together, so it was always part of our family,” Donna said. “We had fun, especially after two of our kids entered the business.”
Princeton has been central to the family as well; three of Hans and Donna’s children and one grandchild have graduated from the University and two of their grandchildren are currently enrolled.
“Our connection to Princeton has been enormously rewarding because education is so important for us, our children and our grandchildren,” Donna said. “So, we need to give back and create opportunities for the future.”