Roland Stern was born to be outside. His office was the green fields of his family farm; his conference room a timber clearing in the thick pine forests of north central Florida. He spent as much time sitting on his tractor as most people do their office chair.
“I have always said Roland would bleed sawdust,” said Lucinda Stern, his wife of 54 years. “He always worked in some form of forestry. Growing up, he worked with his dad at his sawmill. After graduating from high school, he went to UF’s forestry program in Lake City.”
Roland attended Forest Ranger School in Lake City and graduated in 1960. In 1985, he co-founded Great South Timber, Inc., where he worked until his retirement as president in 2015.
When Roland passed away in 2017, Lucinda and their family chose to recognize his legacy and passion for the outdoors while providing benefit to the next generation of foresters. Within a year, the Stern family decided to make a transformational gift that would have a significant impact on UF/IFAS: endowments to support the Austin Cary Forest Learning Center and scholarships for students.
UF/IFAS recognized Roland and the Stern family’s gift by naming the learning center at Austin Cary Forest in his honor. In addition, Lucinda was recognized as the 2018 UF/IFAS Champion.
“It is an exciting time to be getting an education in forestry,” Lucinda said recently. “I hope the undergraduate scholarships will make it possible for some young person to study forestry. I hope the graduate scholarships will make it possible for someone to launch out into some of the new fields of forestry.”
With only five short years in its history thus far, the Sterns’ gift has provided consistent support to UF’s forestry students and programs.
“The Stern Scholarship has had a big impact on the student recipients. That’s obvious,” said Scott Sager, an assistant director at the School of Forest, Fisheries, and Geomatics Sciences (FFGS). “What perhaps isn’t obvious is the impact it’s had on our efforts to engage potential recipients on the career opportunities with the school.”
Among those engagement efforts is targeted outreach to students from northeast Florida high schools.
“Having the scholarship available has pushed us to reach out more in these communities, make connections with the schools that serve those areas, and has opened doors in those communities that might not have been open if this scholarship wasn’t available,” Sager said.
A second major component to the Roland Stern Endowment is programmatic support.
“The Stern Endowment has allowed us to be more creative in expanding our programming at the Forest, especially outreach to the general public,” Sager said. “For instance, we have begun hosting the Flatwoods Fire and Nature Festival every two years—an opportunity to engage folks on the topic of prescribed fire, with the goal of improving their comfort with it.”
The Flatwoods Fire and Nature Festival event includes over 30 different collaborators, including public agencies at the federal, state and county level, as well as private land trusts and trade associations.
“Having the endowment available to pay up-front costs, as well as to cover gaps, allows us to move forward with enthusiasm and engage folks in this low-key and social opportunity to get to know and appreciate the Forest. The 2023 event had approximately 670 visitors and included three demonstration burns.”
In addition to the program support and scholarships, Sager said the Sterns’ gift also provides background support in long-term facility maintenance for the learning center.
“While it is a relatively new building,” Sager said of the learning center, which was constructed in 2014, “by 2020 there were several aspects that were beginning to show wear – most notably the deck, which had begun to warp and split. Having the Stern Endowment allowed us to pursue replacement of the entire structure with better-quality lumber and higher-quality stain, which should improve its longevity significantly.”
In 2017, Lucinda said she hoped this gift would open Austin Cary Forest’s educational opportunities to everyone who wants to experience the woods in an area preserved for future generations. As UF/IFAS continues to honor Roland’s name and legacy through academic and outreach programs in a field he loved, that hope has become reality.
When you enter the Austin Cary Forest and travel a mile and a half down a gravel driveway, you reach a serene wooden building bordered by Lake Mize and surrounded by the tall pines of north central Florida: The Roland T. Stern Learning Center. It serves as a reminder of Roland’s enthusiasm for the woods, his passion for the outdoors, and his legacy in Florida forestry. It is the perfect “office” for a man of the outdoors.
The “How it Happened” series showcases the transformational gifts made by donors to UF/IFAS during the University of Florida’s Go Greater Campaign. To learn more about creating your own impact through UF/IFAS programs with a charitable gift, please visit our website at give.ifas.ufl.edu or call the IFAS Advancement office at 352-392-1975.