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‘You always walked away feeling a little bit more energized’

  • Winnie Stearns, left, with her sister Virginia, in Palm Beach. Fla., in this undated photograph. The identical twins were born in 1927, and both lived their final decades in the Upper Valley. (Family photograph)

  • Photographed on Sept. 11, 2008, twin sisters Virginia Soule, left, and Winifred Stearns, 81, grew up in Palm Beach, Fla., summered in Sunapee and lived in the Upper Valley in their later years. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman stopped to greet Winifred Stearns, of Hanover, as he was leaving a speech at Dartmouth's Hopkins Center in Hanover, N.H., on July 26, 2011. Stearns attended the speech and urged Huntsman to advertise his presidential campaign more. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Winifred Stearns of Hanover, N.H., uses a pair of binoculars to spot her grandson, Lucas Hussey, at practice in Hanover on Aug. 27, 2008. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/29/2019 10:17:55 PM
Modified: 9/29/2019 10:17:53 PM

HANOVER — In her time, and it was quite a time, Winnie Stearns was the best quote in the Upper Valley.

“You’ll be dead meat on a side street. You’re just not going to have the walk-in traffic,” she told one hair salon owner during debate in 2003 over Dartmouth College’s mixed-use South Block development, which threatened to change the character of a downtown street near Stearns’ Dorrance Place home.

“You used that word ‘choice’ about schools. I’d love to hear you say that about a woman’s body,” she told former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani as he campaigned for president in Lebanon in 2007.

And when she and her identical twin sister Virginia Anthony Soule had just turned 81 and were being interviewed by the Valley News, the sisters reveled in talking about their dating days 60 years ago.

“We had three years in Palm Beach, then two years before I got married in New York as single women, supporting ourselves, with just more men in our lives than you can believe. You look at these old faces and you can’t believe it,” said Stearns, who died on Aug. 3, 2019, four weeks shy of her 92nd birthday.

Quick, exuberant and louder as her hearing faded, Stearns was a hard-to-ignore presence after she and her husband John moved to Hanover in 1988. John Stearns, a retired lawyer and banker, was an active Dartmouth alumnus, and two of their children also had attended Dartmouth.

But it was Winnie who really threw herself into life around town. She was a regular at campaign events; went to court, without a lawyer, in an unsuccessful attempt to stop Dartmouth’s development plans; and became a superfan of Dartmouth football, attending most practices and becoming a surrogate grandmother to some of the players.

Dartmouth football coach Buddy Teevens, who returned to run the program about 15 years ago and lived two doors down from Stearns, said she was a “friendly spirit with a good heart,” who was sure to deliver both strong opinions and a big hug.

“She had volume with her voice, and knew the kids by name, and was just always so supportive and very proud of the team,” said Teevens, who with his wife Kirsten grew close to their older neighbors.

At one cold game, Stearns noted that the Dartmouth players didn’t have sideline coats, asked Teevens about it, and then did something.

“She said ‘why don’t you have jackets?’” he recalled. “She wrote a big check and bought jackets for the football team.”

Tim McManus, a 2011 Dartmouth graduate who was a roommate and football teammate of Stearns’ grandson Luke Hussey, said Stearns had a gregarious and “go-to quality” that made people feel comfortable.

“You always walked away feeling a little bit more energized,” said McManus, who is now an orthopedic surgery resident at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. “She was sharp, too. To have 120 people on the team — she knew people’s names.”

West Lebanon resident Jill Marquard got to know Stearns at the Dartmouth pool. She was an avid swimmer all her life and was a regular when the pool opened to the public at 10 a.m.

“She had a big smile, and usually she would give me a hug, and she was a fast swimmer, even into her 80s,” said the 54-year-old Marquard, a former assistant night editor at the Boston Globe who previously worked at the Valley News. “She always stood very upright, and her mind was quick, and she was fun to talk to.”

Kirsten Teevens said Stearns would take photographs of the football players, give them prints in recycled envelopes, and also give copies to the coach’s wife to mail to their parents.

(The frugality, or Yankee practicality, extended beyond recycled envelopes. In 2008, Stearns went to her basement, pulled out a sign from John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign, drew a line through a zero to make an eight, and put it on her lawn. She and her twin sister also would alternate phone calls to each other to share the cost.)

Kirsten Teevens recalled driving Stearns to visit her husband — John Stearns moved to an assisted living facility in Sunapee before he died in 2017 — and that she had a “great memory for the past,” including summers spent at an old farmhouse on Lake Sunapee her parents bought in 1931 and renamed Rockwall Farm.

“She wanted me to drive around the lake with her,” Kirsten Teevens said, recounting “what boyfriend lived in what house.”

“Her memory was unbelievable.”

Winifred Clarke Anthony, who arrived some 15 minutes behind her twin sister, who went by Gee, was born on Aug. 30, 1927, at a family home in Pennsylvania, but the twins and their siblings grew up in Palm Beach, Fla., where their family were charter members of the town, and society there.

They came from old money. A great-great-grandfather, Thomas Shields Clarke, ran riverboats near Pittsburgh before the Civil War.

And a grandfather, Louis Semple Clarke was a pioneer in the auto industry, helping invent spark plugs and auto-drive shafts, and founded the Autocar Truck Co. In his youth, Clarke, who was born in 1866, also took rare photographs of the exclusive South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, the Pennsylvania lake resort where his family were members. The failure of the club-owned South Fork dam caused the Johnstown Flood in 1889 that killed 2,209 people.

In their teens, Winnie and Gee attended The Westover School in Connecticut and went on to graduate from Middlebury College in 1949. Winnie worked as a bookkeeper, met her future husband at a party in New York in 1955, and after a whirlwind courtship, they were married in Palm Beach over Thanksgiving weekend that year.

The Stearnses raised their three children in New York City, but also lived outside Zurich, Switzerland, for two years in the early 1970s, when John Stearns worked there for American Express. Along with raising her children, Winnie Stearns loved riding horses and swimming at family homes at Sunapee and Fire Island, N.Y.

“She was very devoted and protective of her kids,” said Tony Stearns, her younger son, who lives in Alameda, Calif. “She would say, ‘I could kill someone for you kids anytime.’ She didn’t worry about the filters so much. She shot from the hip.”

Initially a Rockefeller Republican, Stearns became an enthusiastic fan of Sarah Palin and Donald Trump, both because they were mavericks and because, she wasn’t shy of saying, she got even richer as the stock market gained under Trump.

“Mom was a huge personality with very, very different political views from us, which was often hard. But she loved her family fiercely and always spoke her mind,” said her daughter Winky Hussey, who lives in Seattle. Hussey — who along with her grandmother, mother and daughter Clarkie is one of four women in the family named Winifred Clarke — credited Winnie with planting a fondness for traveling and road trips in her children.

Though John and Winnie Stearns settled into a handsome 1930s Craftsman-style home on Dorrance Place soon after their move to Hanover, they were not always golden years.

Their oldest child, Mike, died by suicide in 2002, and that put a strain on their marriage. But they regularly attended football practices and games, and were proud to have been married for almost 62 years.

Mike’s death also brought Gee back into Winnie’s life. The twins had been estranged for about 15 years in a dispute over their mother’s will and estate, but again grew close after the tragedy. Both were inveterate letter writers to the Valley News (Soule lived in Sunapee and was active in land preservation), and they would talk every day on the phone.

Being an identical twin, Stearns said in the 2008 interview with her sister, brought a special bond knowing the other had her back.

“Right or wrong, I mean if you got in a scrape … you knew she was going to back you up,” Stearns said. “And it gave you a sense of security that there was nothing you couldn’t take on.”

Her sister died in 2009, but Stearns remained active in Hanover, continuing to swim and root for Dartmouth football and sometimes stopping by the Valley News to chat.

Eventually, macular degeneration set in, ending her ability to read, drive and live independently, and she decided to stop eating and drinking in July in order to go into hospice care.

She had her last swim in Lake Sunapee just two weeks before she died, and proudly told a visitor on July 22 that she was now a great-grandmother — her granddaughter Clarkie had a baby boy named Ames.

She joked that she wanted to make it to 2020 to vote for Trump again (“Nobody else in my family is voting for him,” Stearns allowed) and also said, “I miss Gee. I think about her every day.”

The following day, Stearns called and left a voice message to say that she had been “murmuring” among some lillies her visitor had picked for her from along his driveway.

“I’m upright, my kids are still here, I’m in my 11th or 12th day without food and I’m not in pain, and I’m not hungry,” she said.

Then, in a low voice, another line that brought a smile — “I’m a robot.”

“Thanks, dearie, I loved the time,” she said. “Bye.”

John P. Gregg can be reached at jgregg@vnews.com or 603-727-3217.




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