E. George Stern and the history of the Brooks Center in the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials
The Department of Sustainable Biomaterials is grateful to the Stern family for their continued support of the E. George and Marianne Stern and Jean Stern Fromberg Memorial Scholarship. This page contains pictures and memories from E. George Stern's colleagues and family about his life and work helping build our department.
"As many of you know, Professor E. George Stern is the reason we have the Brooks Forest Center. He retired from Virginia Tech in 1979 as Professor Emeritus but worked at Brooks until the day of his passing in 2001.
August 10th, 2023 would have been George’s 111 birthday!
He escaped from Nazi Germany in 1936 and earned his Ph.D. from Penn State. He came to VT in 1941 and was instrumental in starting our department. His interactions with the industry in Virginia included sawmills, pallet makers, lumber manufacturers, and builders. His work put us at the forefront of the industry and was the reason the Brooks Forest Products Center was built at VT.
George wrote the definitions for the Webster's Dictionary for the words “Nail” and “Screw”. We have the actual letters of correspondence between Webster’s and George!
The photos labeled "first job at VPI" in the collection below show George testing split-ring timber connectors that were brand new in the 1930s. Now they are in the building code and are commonly used in heavy timber construction. You can see the dial gages he was using to measure the deflection of the samples.
George once told me a story about a motorcycle accident, after which the doctors inserted two screws into his arm to heal. Around the year 2000, George sent a letter to the hospital in St. Louis where the surgery had been performed, offering his arm with the screws in it for medical researchers to investigate how screws work in the human body in the long term. The hospital politely declined the offer of his arm and said that they use screws all the time in surgery!"
-written by Joe Loferski
In 1941, Dr. E. George Stern, a refugee from Nazi Germany, came to Blacksburg, Virginia and started working as a Research Engineer for the Virginia Research Foundation at VPI (later to become part of the engineering department). He researched and developed ways to assemble and disassemble wooden structures quickly – basically studying various fasteners that could be used in wood construction. He wanted to help the military with their troop movements by providing easily assembled and disassembled wooden buildings.
William H. Sardo Jr., the president of the National Wooden Pallet Manufacturing Association, took notice of Dr. Stern’s work in the 1960s and thought that it could be very helpful to his Association’s industry members if they could apply Stern’s research to the fastening/construction of wooden pallets. At the same time Dr. Walter B. Wallin, with the USDA Forest Service, began collaborating with Dr. Stern and the NWPMA on wood pallet research as the Forest Service had recognized the growing volume of wood being used for the manufacturing of pallets.
By the 1970s, Virginia Tech, the Forest Service, and NWPCA (formerly NWPMA), had created a research initiative at VT to study the design and performance relationship of wood pallets. The NWPCA donated money to build a pallet and container research and testing laboratory at VT and to keep it running for years into the future. Additional funding was donated by dozens of pallet manufacturers and their clients, as well as by the US Forest Service and the State of Virginia, for the equipping and running of the lab. In 1976, the William H. Sardo Jr. Pallet and Container Research Lab, with 7,200 sq. ft. of testing, office, and conference space containing over half a million dollars of specialized equipment, was officially opened at a dedication ceremony.
"Even though George retired from Virginia Tech in 1979, he continued his active work and pursuit of truth for the wooden pallet industry that he loved and served so faithfully. While I was aware of many of his pallet industry achievements, I did not know that George held a patent for an improved metal plate for end-plating railroad ties.
George initiated the Stern Fastener and Pallet Research Laboratory and pioneered the wood sciences program at Virginia Tech. He standardized industry definitions of nails, staples, and pallets. He spent ten years developing national standards for railings and staircases for the Ornamental Iron Association and was in the process of internationalizing them.
It is difficult to list the many things that this prolific researcher accomplished. Many pallet people were not fortunate enough to know him, but our industry is much better off for his efforts. George was instrumental in establishing the William H. Sardo Jr. Pallet and Container Research Laboratory at Virginia Tech in 1976, where he served as director until his official retirement in 1979. Of all his accomplishments, George is probably best known for his extensive work with mechanical fasteners. He was one of the world’s foremost researchers with nails and staples. He was so prominent that he was sometimes affectionately called 'Mr. Nail.'"
-The excerpts in the below section are taken from the scholarship narrative provided by E. George Stern's family.
E. George Stern was invited to join the faculty at Virginia Tech in 1941, and he never left! George's major initial task was to assist Virginia’s woodworking industry to convert from peace-time to war-time production. Almost 40 years later, according to Virginia retirement regulations, he retired, but he continued his research, published technical bulletins (over 900), and participated in and led conferences in the United States and internationally.
George was a specialist in utilizing nails in the fastening of wood to wood - first for the truss rafter industry and subsequently for the pallet industry. He pioneered pallet design and construction. He standardized industry definitions of nails, staples, and pallets and developed national standards for railings and staircases. He also served as an expert witness in court cases regarding structural integrity. All of this culminated in his role as the visionary, driving force, and chief fundraiser for VT’s pallet & container laboratory, where he became its first director. George was also the driving force in securing the funding for the “Pallets Move the World” sculpture located out front of the Brooks Center.
The following quote from E. George Stern was shared with us by his family and outlines his philosophy on life:
"I am grateful to Virginia Tech for having given me the opportunity to live an exciting and gratifying life. It was up to me to determine how I could be of benefit in a turbulent, fast-moving world, and to be a 'little spoke in a big wheel' in this land of unlimited freedom and opportunity."
The Department of Sustainable Biomaterials is grateful to the Stern family for their continued support of our students through the E. George and Marianne Stern and Jean Stern Fromberg Memorial Scholarship. Every year the family supports SBIO students in memory of George, his wife Marianne, and their daughter, Jean.
George left an impact on the industry and everyone who knew him; he's been written about many times, and he's written even more than he's been written about!
Learn even more about the Brooks Forest Products Center by downloading this PDF. On it, you'll find more of the story of E. George Stern's center - its creation and growth over the last 50 years.