October 23, 2014

Medina
Partly cloudy
41°F

The Dash Between: Mae Sternecker, lovingly known as the ‘Purple Banana Lady’

The dates of birth and death that appear like bookends on a tombstone do not matter as much as the dash between those dates. Award-winning writer Alana Baranick has made her living writing about the dash between. She’s focusing on Medina and Lorain counties and those who have made our area the unique and interesting place it is. Look for her stories on the first Monday each month in The Gazette and visit www.medina-gazette.com to find additional photographs.
To suggest a story or make a comment, contact Baranick at abaranick@chroniclet.com or (440) 865-2518.
Today, Alana Baranick examines The Dash Between March 7, 1916, when Mae McKay Sternecker was born in Hartford, Conn., and Oct. 4, 2011, when the Purple Banana Lady died at age 95.

Mae Sternecker took her first steps toward becoming known as the Purple Banana Lady while wrapping Christmas gifts for shoppers at the Halle Brothers department store in downtown Cleveland in the 1960s.

An elderly co-worker, apparently recognizing Mae’s caring nature and Christian spirit, asked her to act as his wife’s guardian in the event of his death.

Mae McKay and her boyfriend, Les Sternecker, Cuyahoga River Valley, 1935. (FAMILY PHOTO)

Mae, who died Oct. 4 at age 95, “loved God with all her heart and loved her neighbors more than herself,” said friend Andrea Reedy. “She was compassionate and would help anyone who needed it.

She was a solid citizen and gave back to the community. She was a Christian mentor and role model for myself and many other young Christian women.”

After the man died, Mae drove to Cleveland each day to take care of his widow and her affairs. Later, the woman stayed with Mae and her husband, Lester, at their home in the Weymouth area of Medina Township until becoming a resident of the Samaritan Care nursing home.

After the woman’s death, Mae continued to make weekly visits to Samaritan Care as well as the Evergreen, Sophia Huntington Parker and Pythian Sisters homes for more than 20 years — always dressed in purple and handing out bananas.

“She had lovely old-fashioned hats with purple flowers for Sunday service and for holidays,” Reedy said. “She wore dresses most of her life, most of which she had sewn herself. She had purple scarves, tops, pants — even shoes. Sometimes she would add a splash of red just for fun.”

Mae made a conscious choice with bananas.

“She did think very carefully about that with (the residents’) allergies, gluten — things that make people sick,” said Mae’s daughter-in-law, Pat. “She figured a banana was safe. It was already wrapped. She didn’t have to get out the Saran Wrap.”

Mae gave up her weekly mission around 2002, when driving became a safety issue.

“She hated losing the independence one has when driving,” Reedy said, “but what she mourned the most was not being able to go share hugs with the folks in the nursing homes. She saw how lonely they were and was sad she could no longer bring them some of Christ’s love.”

As a result of her community service, Mae received the first Medina County YWCA Women of Distinction Lifetime Achievement Award.

She was born March 7, 1916, in Hartford, Conn., the eldest of Thomas and Elizabeth McKay’s three children. Her father had emigrated from Scotland. Her mother was born in Ireland.

Mae was a toddler when the McKays moved to Cleveland. Her father worked as a steamfitter for Tropical Paint Co., and the family became members of Highland Christian Church. Her parents raised Mae and her two siblings — Clifford and Ruth — on West 129th Street, south of Lorain Avenue.

Les and Mae Sternecker in Weymouth, 1996. (FAMILY PHOTO)

At age 6, Mae met Les Sternecker, who lived on West 130th Street and was 10 days older than she.

Mae and Les began dating in 1932 while attending the newly built John Marshall High School, from which they graduated in 1934.

Mae was working for Ohio Bell when she and Les were married on Aug. 28, 1937. Les worked for Industrial Rayon and played piano in dance bands. They began raising their two sons — Carl and Bill — in the same neighborhood where they had grown up.

“Our yard was almost always the playground for all the kids on the street,” said her son, Carl. “Several times Mom’s flowers suffered, but she was glad we were there in the yard.”

The Sterneckers bought a summer cottage on Chippewa Lake in 1951 and their Weymouth farm in 1957.

Both their sons became involved with Future Farmers of America. Carl had an egg delivery route.

“We drove back to the old neighborhood in Cleveland because that’s where we knew people,” Carl said. “The egg route paid for a lot of my college, and when I left for school in 1959, Mom took it over. She had very loyal customers and she loved seeing her old friends every week.”

Mae helped Bill raise sheep.

“I can hardly remember ever being at the farm without finding a big cardboard box in the kitchen with a tiny baby lamb in it being fed by Carl’s mom,” her daughter-in-law said.
Mae also loved gardening.

“She raised about an acre of garlic every year and sold it at Weymouth Day,” Reedy said. “She was always selling or giving away the extra food.”

The Sterneckers sold their land to the church before Les died in 2006. Their son, Bill, who became a popular Medina veterinarian, died in April. She spent her final months with Carl and Pat in Elk Mound, Wis.

Mae’s devotion to Jesus, her church and people who needed help — physical, mental or spiritual — helped frame her life, according to her family.

“Her life influenced a lot of other lives from our own family to intercity kids to missionaries to the wait staff at Denny’s,” her son said. “She prayed for extensive lists of people and loved to tell others about Jesus.”