Marketing legend Louis Stern says Williston gave him a chance in life. He and his wife, Rhona, are now saying thank you in a personal way.
By the time Louis Stern ’53 met his future wife, Rhona, in the mid-1980s, he had already compiled an impressive list of academic and professional accomplishments. An esteemed professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s world-renowned Kellogg School of Management and the author of numerous books and articles, he had a B.A. in economics from Harvard, an M.B.A. from the Wharton Graduate Division at the University of Pennsylvania, and a Ph.D. from Northwestern. But still possessing the distinctive Boston accent of his Brookline, Massachusetts, childhood—a regional patois marked by a complicated relationship with the letter R—there was one test he says he simply could not pass.
“I couldn’t pronounce her name,” he recalls. “I tried desperately. I would always come up with something like Roner or some bastardized version.” Finally, Louis asked if he could call Rhona by the nickname Ronald; she said yes, and the two have now been married for 34 years.
“We’ve had an absolutely glorious life together,” says Louis, who as a business thought-leader was frequently invited to give talks around the world. Rhona, an artist specializing in abstract minimalist paintings, would accompany him “from Hong Kong, to Singapore, to Paris, to London, you name it.” Louis retired from teaching in 2001, but he remains the Kellogg School’s John D. Gray Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Marketing. Rhona continues to paint, and the couple now divide their time between Evanston, Illinois, and Tucson, Arizona.
“It has been a very rich life,” Louis says. “I often think to myself, little Louie from Brookline, Massachusetts. I had no idea what would happen to me in my career, but it was beyond my wildest expectations.”
What set him on that path, he says, was Williston, where he was sent by his parents, then in the midst of a difficult divorce. The school’s close-knit community, supportive teachers, and opportunities to explore new activities proved to be just what the Brookline eighth grader needed. “It gave me an environment in which I would succeed,” he explains. “I got a chance to be an editor on the yearbook, an editor on the newspaper, chairman of the honor committee, all of these things that I probably never would have come close to getting if I had been at Brookline High School.”
His masters, as the teachers were then called, had a particularly formative impact, he says. “The teachers just take an interest in you,” he recalls. “You became an important person to them. I felt like Headmaster Phil Stevens knew me and cared about me. The attention that I got was exceedingly important.”
In his own career as an educator, Louis had a similar impact. Among his numerous awards are many that reflect the appreciation of his students and peers: Outstanding Professor of the Year (voted by his Kellogg students), Alumni Choice Faculty Award, American Marketing Association/Irwin Distinguished Marketing Educator Award (one of his field’s highest honors), one of the 12 best teachers in U.S. business schools named by BusinessWeek, and the inaugural recipient of Kellogg’s Special Lifetime Achievement Award for Teaching Excellence in 1999. That same year, Louis’ family, friends, former students, and clients raised funds to name a classroom at the school in his honor.
In recognition of the importance of Williston in Louis’s life, the couple have made a generous monetary gift to the school, accompanied by a more personal contribution: Rhona Stern’s abstract painting, titled Isle Azure, which now hangs in Williston’s newest dormitory, the Emily McFadon Vincent House. For Rhona, knowing that her artwork is on display at Williston “really means something to me,” she says. “I’ve heard all the stories over many years about Louis and his experiences there. I feel very honored.”
After his retirement, Louis’ connection to Williston grew even stronger. In addition to his financial support over the years, he served on the Board of Trustees from 2005 through 2010, where he shared his marketing insights into how the school might better sell itself. “I spent quite a bit of time as a Trustee trying to get Williston to reach out in even more effective ways,” he recalls. “And I think that’s happened. They have made a lot of progress along those lines.” He also gave the school’s 2004 Commencement address, and in 2008 received the school’s Samuel and Emily Williston Award.
Today, at age 86, he still plays tennis—singles tennis, he notes —as well as golf, more for the social benefits than for any bragging rights. (He played football and baseball at Williston.) The couple have seven grandchildren, and he and Rhona also remain active in the Tucson community, supporting local nonprofits through Social Venture Partners, an investment group.
And Louis remains a thoughtful observer of educational trends and shifting human habits. Noting the rise of remote learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, he can’t resist offering what he calls a short lecture. “Remote learning is probably one of the things that is going to take hold because of all this,” he begins. “The fact that one can reach all sorts of people through a particular medium is magnificent. Maybe this whole episode will make a major impact on education.”
Not that he would want to be facing the challenges himself, he acknowledges. “I bailed out of teaching just as the internet was coming in,” he notes with a laugh. “I knew that I would have to retool completely. So I said to myself, I’m going to go out like Ted Williams. I think I’m batting pretty well, and I didn’t have the energy to transfer to that world.”
Spoken like a true Red Sox fan. But after 34 years together, even Rhona knew just what he was saying.