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Henry Stern, longtime NYC Parks commissioner, dies at 83

The "dedicated public servant," lauded for his commitment to the city's green spaces, served under Ed Koch and then Rudy Giuliani.

Former NYC Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, right, talks

Former NYC Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, right, talks to Mayor Rudy Giuliani in Central Park in 1998. Stern died Thursday at 83. Photo Credit: NEWSDAY -SAVE/Ken Sawchuk

Henry Stern, the longtime New York City Parks commissioner known for his passionate love of green spaces, died Thursday. He was 83.

Stern was the second longest-serving Parks commissioner in city history, behind only "master builder" Robert Moses in total years.. Stern's first tenure, under Mayor Ed Koch, lasted from 1983 through 1990. Mayor Rudy Giuliani brought Stern back as commissioner for both of his terms, 1994 through 2002.

“He was unique, memorable, and most of all a dedicated public servant,” current NYC Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver said in a statement. “We are grateful for his passion for all things parks; his work brought our city’s green spaces back into the forefront of public consciousness. His legacy will live on eternally.”

Former Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, who counts Stern as a mentor, praised him in a series of tweets, calling him “one of the smartest, hardest-working, and most devoted public servants in #NYC history.”

His attention-grabbing stunts, such as holding a funeral for a tree, sometimes belied Stern’s serious understanding and love of nature.

“He loved being with people and people loved being with him,” Benepe told amNewYork. “He dramatically expanded the parks system and he created a culture of appreciating wild parks and nature that wasn’t there.”

Stern oversaw a sweeping rebirth of the city’s Parks system in the 1990s with dramatic renovations to green spaces, playgrounds and new facilities around the five boroughs. He encouraged public-private partnerships, following the lead of Gordon Davis, his predecessor, who helped create the Central Parks Conservancy.

He also was known for his quirky enthusiasm, which included giving people he deemed friends of parks nicknames known as “Noms de Parc'' — carefully documented in a binder — usually carried by an aide. He gave himself the  sobriquet of “Starquest.”

Stern often traveled with his beloved golden retriever, Boomer, and at one point counted how many people pet the fluffy pooch in an effort to set a world record.

Stern grew up in Inwood and graduated from the Bronx High School of Science, and City College. He was just 22 years old when he completed Harvard Law School. He held several positions in city government before being elected to the City Council in 1973 and 1977, representing Manhattan at large.

Parks officials credited him with founding many vital programs, including the Natural Resources Group, Historic House Trust and City Parks Foundation.

Stern’s blunt manner sometimes offended people, and he was also criticized for not having black and Latino employees in higher positions at the agency. A class-action lawsuit accusing the agency of racial bias was settled by the city in 2008 for $21 million.

After Stern’s tenure ended, he remained active in public life, starting New York Civic, a good-government group.

He is survived by his wife, Dr. Margaret Ewing, and two sons, Jared and Kenan. 

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