Dedicated to improving the health and home lives of Randolph County’s families, Clemmie Mae Sternberg devoted herself to volunteer work, providing educational and medical services to those in need.
Clemmie Mae Harmon was born in New Palestine on October 23, 1900. She was the second child of James Perry Harmon and Sophie Breithaupt Harmon, farmers who lived and worked in rural Randolph County. Clemmie was a descendant of two immigrant groups who had significantly shaped the local landscape. Her great-grandfather, Michael Harmon, had brought his family from Tennessee to Randolph County in 1811, giving his surname to the first small settlement that was established on Shawneetown Trail near present-day Randolph County Lake. The area developed around the New Palestine Methodist Church, which was founded in 1835.
Her mother, Sophie Breithaupt, was part of a wave of immigrants who arrived in the area from Hanover in the middle of the nineteenth century, establishing large farms throughout the county. Sophie’s parents, Carl and Sophie, were both born in Hanover and emigrated to Randolph County in the 1850s and 1860s. There, they married and settled in New Palestine, where they began their own farm and raised a large family.
When she was born in 1900, Clemmie joined a small family that already included a brother, Fred. Two more siblings, James and Vera, would later complete the family unit. She spent her childhood in New Palestine. Her volunteer spirit was forged at an early age; she often told her family stories about helping her grandmother as a child. Life on a farm also required the care and help of good neighbors. Clemmie watched members of the older generation closely as they worked together, especially during the harvest season, when they would band together to bring in the crops and provide communal meals to those laboring in the fields.
By 1920, she had finished school and taken on a job, working as a telephone operator in Sparta. Shortly afterward, Clemmie married William G. Sternberg, another lifelong resident of Randolph County. They were wed by Rev. D.A. Tappmeyer in Sparta on March 5, 1921. Their marriage license gives her full name as “Clementine,” though she went by the name “Clemmie” exclusively throughout her life. Like Clemmie’s parents, William was a farmer by trade. The newlyweds settled on a dairy farm in Schuline, where they soon welcomed children of their own. By 1930, the family included Charles, Ruth, and Glen, all living with their parents on the family farm, which was equipped with a modern radio. Two years later, the family was complete with the birth of the couple’s fourth child, Bertha Mae.
Like many people of their generation, both Clemmie and William left school after the eighth grade. But education was important to Clemmie, and though she never had the benefit of secondary schooling herself, she worked throughout her life to continue learning and to extend educational benefits to others. Her children became farmers, business owners, administrators, and educators, and Clemmie and William worked hard to make college education a viable reality for them. When her youngest daughter, Bertha, was a student at the University of Illinois in the 1950s, Clemmie even became a director in the campus’s Mothers’ Association.
In the first half of the twentieth century, the university had established the University of Illinois Extension program, an outreach effort designed to provide continuing education opportunities to residents in every county in the state. The extension’s efforts focus on enhancing the lives of Illinoisans through programs centered on youth development, agriculture, community and economic development, and the home and family. Local 4-H clubs became some of the most popular extension resources in the state. In 1924, the university extension established the Illinois Home Bureau Federation, now known as the Illinois Association for Home and Community Education—or, more familiarly, simply as “Home Extension.”
Local Home Bureaus began in counties throughout the state. From the start, the organization shared a clear set of aims: “To have the home economically sound, mechanically convenient, physically healthful, morally wholesome, mentally stimulating, artistically satisfying, socially responsible, spiritually inspiring, and founded upon mutual affection and respect.” The extension project set out to provide continuing home education classes to women throughout the state. The groups gathered in the homes of its members, providing a comfortable and safe place for women to learn about topics like finances and nutrition. They also offered an important social outlet for women in rural areas who were sometimes isolated from their neighbors, reinforcing a sense of community and companionship.
When Randolph County was ready to establish its own Home Bureau at the end of World War II, Clemmie became one of its earliest leaders. She helped organize the local bureau, which launched in May 1945, and served on its board of directors. She also frequently hosted meetings at her own home. Clemmie’s younger daughter, Bertha, remembered, “Because of her work, about 25 groups throughout the county held monthly meetings with educational programs devoted to homemaking, family life, and personal growth.” The organization would make a major impact on Bertha as well; after graduating from college with a degree in home economics, she was hired as a home adviser for the Perry County Home Bureau.
Attending the monthly home extension meetings gave Clemmie an even clearer understanding of the needs of the women and families of Randolph County. She was inspired to extend her volunteerism, focusing on ways to support and improve the medical care in the area. She joined the Randolph County chapter of the American Cancer Society, becoming its public education chair. Through the society, she worked to provide more educational resources to local medical professionals. For example, in April 1951, she was a central figure in the chapter’s campaign to present all graduate nurses in the county with textbooks focused on cancer causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment. According to the Southern Illinoisan, she led the committee charged with distributing the books to the county’s nurses, determining the number of textbooks needed and working with local nurses to coordinate their placements.
Clemmie also became deeply involved with the efforts to establish a community hospital in Sparta. For years, Sparta had been home to a pair of small hospitals run by individual doctors. Dr. Nevin G. Stevenson had established a sanitarium (later called “Sparta Community Hospital”) at Market and Main around 1910. Thirty years later, Dr. J.C. Sutherland moved to Sparta from Virginia. He bought a large home, the Stamm House, on Broadway and established his own small 35-bed hospital, which he continued to run until the early 1950s. When he announced his retirement in 1950, a group of community members attempted to raise the money to purchase the building. Those efforts, led by Lester Walker and Vernon Bixby, fell short of the amount needed to buy the facility. Even so, the money raised was a significant sum, and Walker and Bixby told the local press that the total amount indicated “in unmistakable terms the public will to own and operate the hospital on a community basis.”
After Sutherland’s death in a car accident in 1952, his son sold the building to the city of Sparta. Clemmie was among the volunteers who went door-to-door to collect signatures for the establishment of the Sparta Hospital District. The district was approved by Judge Paul Nehrt, who appointed Clemmie to the new nine-member hospital board. The board hired an architect and accepted a bid to renovate the Sutherland building, which was made up of an older wing and a newer addition that dated to 1947. The Southern Illinoisan reported that the renovations were extensive: “a new hydraulic elevator and some built-in equipment” were installed, and there was significant “reconstruction of the hospital quarters.” These improvements included the gutting of the interior of the older portion of the building, “with a new concrete roof and concrete floors over steel joints, to make the structure fireproof.” They also equipped the renovated building with new machinery and lab equipment. All told, the renovated structure became “a hospital of 25 beds and about 12 bassinets,” with “an emergency room and a complete surgical department.”
The newly-remodeled Sparta Community Hospital accepted its first patients in June 1955. As a member of the board of directors, Clemmie was part of all important decisions about the hospital’s facility and staff. She was also involved with fundraising drives that aimed to provide the new building with upgraded equipment and paved the way for future expansion. She took part in the dedication ceremonies for the new hospital that June, including an open house and a special gathering of some of the more than 4,000 children who had been delivered by a local doctor, Dr. Boynton. Later, Boynton and his wife would make a generous donation to the hospital, allowing for the construction of a new wing. Throughout the years, several buildings have been added, renovated, and remodeled on the hospital campus, which still sits on the site of Sutherland’s original hospital today.
Clemmie’s dedication to the hospital extended beyond her duties on the board of directors. She joined the hospital’s Women’s Auxiliary group, which was organized in the summer of 1955 with the mission of helping the hospital staff. She was also instrumental in setting up Red Cross blood drives at the hospital and was especially active with the Bloodmobile effort. Even as she grew older, her drive to be force for good in her community did not wane. She served as a patroness of Sparta’s Delta Theta Tau sorority, and was an active member of the First United Methodist Church of Sparta, where she taught Sunday school classes. In her retirement years, she could be found at the senior centers in Sparta and Evansville. She was also an active member of the Retired Senior Volunteer program for almost two decades. Her family remembers her traveling to local nursing homes to read the newspaper to residents well into her 80s.
Clemmie and William celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary with a special dinner in Steeleville in March 1976. He passed away in November 1985. Clemmie lived for six more years, passing away on September 4, 1991, at the age of 90. During her lifetime, which spanned more than a century of major change and development in Randolph County, Clemmie was dedicated to leaving the world a better place for those who came after her. Her passion for education gave local women a chance to expand their own knowledge bases and develop a strong and dependable community, and her commitment to establishing state-of-the-art medical facilities in the area offered local patients access to greater advances in healthcare. Today, thirty years after her death, residents of Randolph County are still benefiting from the work she did to improve the lives of citizens at home and within the larger community.
Clemmie Mae Sternberg was inducted into The Randolph Society in 2021.