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Peter Sterling: Vintage Houstonian, Modern Crusader


psterlingNow 85 years old, Pete was already in his 40s when he moved to Houston with his family in the 70s. Over the course of the last 45 years, he has raised three kids, loved 12 grandchildren, survived prostate cancer, and become president of Houston’s only prostate cancer support group. HFM is honored to honor him this Father’s Day.

Interviewed by Sara G. Stephens

HFM: Well, Pete, it’s our Father’s Day issue, so Happy Father’s Day! Can you tell us a little about your kids and family?

PS: I’ve been married twice. My second marriage will be 40 years old in July. I have four kids, all with my first wife. I have 12 grandkids scattered all over the country. I am fortunate to have a son with his three kids here in town. The others live in Chicago, Princeton, and Washington, D.C.

All my kids schooled in Houston. They all went to college, got out, and got married to lovely spouses. They’ve produced kids along the way, who are between 21 and 31 years old, so it’s high time they got hitched. I’m very fortunate. I would give most of the credit to my then wife who was– and is–terrific and did a terrific job.

HFM: I’m sure you get some of the credit. What words would you use to describe yourself as a father?

PS: I think firm but fair would certainly be appropriate. Involved. That was an important element. I’m happy all the kids were athletic to a certain degree, so I racked up a lot of bleecher time along those decades. I encouraged them to do their best, and they did. I perceived my role, as well as that of their mother, as providing a decent, legitimate, moral compass for them as they grew into adults, and was lucky to have it all pan out. Implicitly or explicitly, they received enough guidance and counseling to have it all work out. I look at myself as being a very lucky guy.

HFM: What advice or life lessons do you have for young fathers today?

PS: Get involved and stay involved with the kids in terms of their lives and whatever they’re doing. Communication would be the other factor that’s critical. Stay in touch in terms of their interests and their daily routines. Also, by staying in touch, I mean by computer or by phone, or in person, have voice conversations. I think, between family members, this is a lost art. It’s important to listen to the other person and get a feel for what’s going on with them–both the content and the tone of what’s being said. Try to provide a little bit of guidance or representation as to what they can be and what should be expected of them as kids and as they grow up–an idea of where they should be heading.

HFM: Do you get a sense that parents today are less involved?

PS: I think that’s a fair assessment. From what I observe, as a member of my generation, child/parent relationships are, quite candidly, overindulgent. Most grandparents today would make that observation. Parents would seem to be overly permissive in terms of providing guidance and instruction that their kids should have.

HFM: What makes parenting easier or harder today than it was when you were growing up, and/or when you were raising your kids?

PS: Life was much simpler back in the old days. Kids get so many distractions or potential distractions, or so many activities they have access to, either on their own or with their parents’ incentives that, again, in the old times, when people had a more regular existence between school and home life. Nobody traveled as much. The kinds of things that were available to kids were fewer and farther between. A sense of affluence that’s come over the country, not in every place, but in many places, has distorted activities for both parents and their kids. This is not even to mention social media and what the computer age has brought on, which is a whole different scenario.

HFM: You moved to Houston from New York/New Jersey in the 70s. What prompted the move?

PS: I had a job opportunity with a local bank with whom we were doing business in New York City. They invited me to join the staff, so in 1971 I moved to Houston with my wife and four kids. They were all in high school and junior high at the time and entered the Spring Branch School system.

HFM: How did your kids handle the move?

PS: The kids were very comfortable where we were so my wife and I were concerned about bringing them down. But they were well adjusted and had their feet on the ground. Candidly, we thought it would be good for them in the long run if they were forced out of their comfort zone and had to exert themselves as human beings. We did not express this to them at the time. They would have resisted their first four to five years. But, in retrospect, we discussed bits and pieces over the years. It was a big plus to expose them to a new way of life, a new community. I think it was a positive thing in their lives. I think they would agree.

HFM: In the early 70s, Houston and New York were much more dissimilar than they are today. What struck you as the biggest difference between the two places back then?

PS: We lived in the town of Westfield, New Jersey, a suburban community around 25 miles south of the city. This was largely middle class America. The town was affluent but didn’t have the demarcations between the haves and the have nots that was so obvious in Houston. That was a remarkable dissimilarity.

HFM: Houston’s been your home now for 45 years. What are the biggest changes you’ve witnessed in the city over this time?

PS: The obvious change has been the sheer population growth, encompassing traffic considerations, etc. People move here, then tell their family and friends to come down.

HFM: Do you have a favorite place to visit, eat or just relax?

PS: When I came down in the 70s, banks were providing cars and club memberships for new people. I was a beneficiary of both. I’ve been a member of the Houston Racquet Club since 1971, and it’s been great. The kids enjoyed the pool, and it’s been a refuge for me for years. Through my divorce and other life changes, I’ve always had my buddies with whom I played tennis. I’m an unusual breed. I would be hard pressed to be confined in any assisted living facility. Of course, ask me again in a year and that might all change. You may find me incarcerated in one.

HFM: So, 20 years ago, you joined an organization called Tex US TOO, a support group for individuals and families struggling with prostate cancer. Tell me more about the organization and why you joined.

PS: Tex US TOO was established in 1990. We were one of the first chapters of a national prostate cancer group called US TOO International, Inc. in Chicago. They promote themselves as the largest prostate support group in the country, and we go back 26 years with the group.

I had prostate cancer and had my prostate removed in 2005. I heard about Tex US TOO and joined immediately. The guys involved are all survivors of various kinds of of cancer, various kinds of treatments. They come to the meetings with their wives–we encourage that. They comet to hear from speakers from various sites in the medical center, like MD Anderson, to hear about new treatments. Some of us are in remission and contributing to the cause. Some are having trouble with their cancer and want to hear what’s going on in the prostate cancer world.

HFM: Today you are President of Tex US TOO. What are some of your goals in that role?

PS: It’s our mission to get the word out about prostate cancer. We encourage testing. We provide information about the cancer and treatments. We’re here to raise money and to let people know it’s a very serious disease. One in 7 of us men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer. Yet it gets nowhere near the PR that Komen does for breast cancer. That’s where the parent organization came up with its name, “US TOO,” to let the world know that we men have our own cancer issues.

HFM: Tex US TOO will be holding its annual Dads 5k run on June 18th.

PS: Yes. This our 17th year for the 5k. In total, we’ve had 13,000 participants and raised over $200,000 for prostate cancer programs and projects over the course of that time. That’s not as much as it could be, but for us it’s a meaningful amount and helps us to sustain our Houston group. We’re the only game in town when it comes to prostate cancer.

It’s held in front of the Wortham Theater, and goes out Memorial and back. It’s actually three different runs: a 5k, 3k, and 1k. You can run. You can walk. And you can register on our website (http://www.texustoo.org/) as either individuals or teams. The registration fee is between $10-$30.

Bring Dad as the featured attraction, and bring mom and the kids. Make it a family kind of deal. There will be face painting, drinks, and nutritious snacks. We have giveaways and raffles for items or gift cards that organizations contribute.

HFM: So the money for registrations is what helps Tex US TOO?

PS: Yes, but we are also looking for sponsors. Randalls has been the single most consistent sponsor. We’ve also had a number of energy companies sponsor along the way. We’ve lost several of them because of the energy collapse.

HFM: What’s the most important thing people need to understand about prostate cancer?

PS: We men are notoriously lax and lethargic about seeing a doctor about anything, and prostate cancer is particularly delicate for guys, in terms of testing and where it is. So we’re reluctant to go. Often, it takes the wife kicking her husband in the pants to tell him to go get tested. That’s why we buy very expensive ads in the Houston Chronicle, not only in the Sports section, to attract men, but also in the Zest section, to attract their wives and daughters.

People need to understand that prostate cancer will hit just about every man, and it’s very important to catch it in its early stages. We recommend testing at age 50 to establish a baseline, or at 45 if prostate cancer is genetically in the family. African American men are twice as likely as Anglos to get the disease. It’s one of our goals to do the marketing to tell men, “You gotta go out and get tested.” Prostate cancer is a killer.

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