This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.
People who knew him agree that John von Sternberg would have been surprised by the outpouring of affection directed toward him since his death from Covid-19 on May 7 at 79.
He would have been baffled, they say, by how many cars, firetrucks and motorcycles joined in a procession through his town, Mountain Lakes, N.J., in his honor on May 14, a tribute that ended at the local fire station, where he had been a volunteer for 60 years.
He would have been startled to hear himself singled out by New Jersey’s governor, Philip D. Murphy, during one of the governor’s news briefings, where Mr. Murphy has made a point of giving biographical sketches of a sampling of New Jersey residents claimed by the virus.
Bob Becker, who brought Mr. von Sternberg aboard as a partner when he started out in the real estate business a half-century ago, called him “a quiet kind of leader.”
“I’m not even sure he knew he was leading,” Mr. Becker said in a phone interview.
John Francis von Sternberg Jr. was born on April 3, 1941, to John and Jean (Jackson) von Sternberg. The family moved to Mountain Lakes when he was young. At 18 he gave the fire department a try, and liked it, thanks to an indulgent chief.
“He’d say to me, ‘Oh, just take the firetrucks out and run them around town, get used to driving them,’” Mr. von Sternberg recalled a few years ago when he was a guest on Laker Profile Live!, a local podcast. “I’d think to myself, ‘This is pretty neat for an 18-year-old.’”
He spent his career in real estate in Mountain Lakes, an affluent town about 40 miles west of Manhattan. Mr. Becker said that for years Mr. von Sternberg had a distinction at the office: avoiding sit-down lunches with potential home buyers while out showing them houses.
“His whole thing was: ‘I’m here to show you as much as I can,’” Mr. Becker said. “‘Why waste an hour or an hour and a half?’ He would have these executives come in in their suits and he’d put them in the car and take them up to the hot-dog stand.”
Governor Murphy, in his remarks, noted a certain synergy between Mr. von Sternberg’s day job and his volunteer work at the fire department.
“Between helping residents find their homes and then protecting them as a firefighter,” the governor said, “he became nothing less than a Mountain Lakes icon.”
Mr. von Sternberg died in a hospital in Denville, N.J., his granddaughter Robyn Dickinson said. He is survived by his wife of 56 years, Joyce (Dodds) von Sternberg; a daughter, Carol Goldstein; two sisters, Anne von Sternberg and Dorothy Ettus; a brother, Julius; another granddaughter; and a great-grandson.
As for why there were motorcycles in the tribute procession, Mr. von Sternberg was a member of two motorcycle clubs, the Knights of Fire and Old Coots on Scoots.
The local Kiwanis Club in 1995 named Mr. von Sternberg its citizen of the year in recognition of his volunteer work. In the podcast, Mr. von Sternberg wanted people to know that being active in the community is its own reward.
“This has brought more to my life than I’ll ever give,” he said.